Sunday, June 29, 2008

Heads Sold Separately

Ah, Paris, the infamous capital of long can-can lines featuring topless or naked babes.

But who needs the Moulin Rouge, the Lido, or the Crazy Horse when you’ve got these nude conga lines at the stand of Jacqui Petit at the Marche aux Puces at Vanves? And topless... in their own way.

This morning I'd browsed at about 25 antiques booths without seeing anything very eye-catching. Then I happened upon this display. It took my breath away. Witty, a bit macabre, and so artfully arranged.

“May I take a picture, monsieur?” I ventured with my most winning smile.

Alors, UNE photo?” he lobbed back at me. I thought he was going to refuse my request. “Pourquoi UNE photo seulement?” he laughed. “Take as many as you want! One journalist was here earlier this morning and took two hundred and forty pictures. He ran out of film.”

Jacqui introduced himself. “It says ‘Jacques’ on the card, but I am Jacqui!” he crowed.

Alors, euh, Jacqui, where do you get all these poupées?” I queried.

Ben, un peu partout. Here and there,” said J.

“And do you have your own petite guillotine?” I joked.

Ah, oui!" he laughed. “Ça, oui!”

“Well, I’m going to publish tout ça on my blog.” I said. It’s just too magnifique. I waved good-bye as I headed off for more discoveries. "Merci beaucoup, Jacqui!”

"Je vous en prie, bébé!"

Friday, June 27, 2008

From le train to le train-train quotidien

I couldn't bear to leave Rome abruptly. My entire being was infused with the scent and the rhythm of la dolce vita. I found a new pace in my week in Italy. A vibrant, soulful existence -- life at its peak under the brilliant sun and the cool lingering evenings. It comes from a special alchemy of joie de vivre, exuberant earth colors and the fluttery, passionate tenderness of the language.

Oh, Italian is such a lilting language, romance and flowers in every syllable. To me it sounds like an amorous bard fervently warbling French love poetry under water. The cadence of the vowels, the trilling softness of the consonants. There is only one Italian word I don't love: arrivederci.

Loath to depart, but recognizing the need to get back to supposed real life, I opted to return to Paris by train. It was a long trek, but a good choice. An excellent choice.

In the same way that I like to see Paris by bus, I savored sliding by the countryside, feeling Rome recede gracefully, on that first leg of the trip. So much better than the cold turkey of a quick flight. I pressed my face to the window and daydreamed as the fields and hills, the cities and towns whirred by. Firenze, Bologna, Fidenza, Piacenza, Codogno, Lodi. Some had names so long and quays so short that the the signs simply blurred as the train sped toward Milan.

On the second segment, the Trans-alpine from Milan to Geneva, suddenly, blessedly, I was able to communicate again. People around me were speaking French in addition to Italian. The scenery changed from undulating to dramatic. I realized as they appeared that I hadn't seen the Alps in a few decades. Though I needed sleep, I avoided the urge to snooze and glued my eyes to the window, aching over the majestic mountains and sparkling lakes. Lago Maggiore, Montreux, Lac Leman. The high Swiss pastures, so lush and green and remote, where you expect to see Heidi skipping down the path to Grandfather's hut.

I love Paris, but I clearly need to travel more!

The final leg, the TGV from Geneva to Paris, felt more like an old shoe. My cell phone began buzzing with text message advertisements from Orange. Everyone was French. Everyone's magazines and books were French. The countryside looked more familiar. Very... French.

After 13 hours of train travel, I was glad to arrive at the Gare de Lyon. I was really looking forward to ditching my heavy suitcase, which I had over-packed as usual. I headed to the taxi stand to be the 132nd weary traveler in line waiting for a cab. It was slow going, but the metro wasn't an option at that point of exhaustion. The line inched along. We muttered mild oaths, but conjured up the best patience we could.

I was heartened to see that the chef de station -- or whatever the official directing the taxi line is called -- always allowed parties with impairments to jump to the head of the line and get priority rather than shuffling through the cattle-line. First a tiny elderly lady, bending over her cane, hobbled over with her grandson. She clearly needed a taxi desperately, and looked as though she were about to keel over.

About 20 minutes later I was only about half way through the wait; and the line behind me stretched beyond the horizon. Two men approached the front of the line at a hesitating, measured pace. One man was wearing sunglasses and had his hand on the shoulder of his companion, who was guiding him. The chef de station, seeing that the man was apparently visually impaired, of course motioned the duo to the front of the line, and they eased cautiously and stiffly into the next taxi.

As the guy in sunglasses leaned over to get into the back seat of the taxi, I noticed a camera case swinging from his shoulder.

Ah, Paris. Home again.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

La Dolce Vita

Buon giorno! Taking a break in Rome. A delight to have non-stop azure blue skies. I'll never complain about blazing sunshine ever again. Ever.

I can relate to this carriage driver. Afternoon sieste here is de rigueur.

Like Paris, Rome also celebrated a Fete de la Musique on June 21. Italian guys in kilts, the Roman Pipe Band.

Crowds at the Spanish steps listening to a marching band, which wasn't marching but tiered on the steps.

Tuscan rooftop vista.

A doorway in Tuscany on yesterday's day trip.

My Roman motto. Heck, it's my life motto. Carpe diem. Seize the day.
Ciao for now!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Le Look: Le Book

I arrive, late as usual, at Marie's luminous apartment in the 16th, for our regular working meeting. Opening the door, she instantly apologizes after we trade our bisous. "Je suis desolée, I didn't sleep well last night, " she explains. "I look awful."

I examine the scenario. Marie has not a milligram of makeup on her lightly-tanned face. Her hair is pulled back in a pony-tail. "Tu me vois 'nature'," she laughs.

"This isn't fair," I am thinking. She looks fabulous. On a good day, when I've made a huge effort to pull together my face-hair-clothes French Look before our meetings, I still fail miserably in measuring up to Marie on a supposedly bad morning after a sleepless night. She's thrown on a Claudie Pierlot sweater, boot-cut jeans, high heels from Calypso, a silver charm bracelet, a beautiful ring. Elegant, svelte, understated chic.

Maybe I should give up all hope. Me? I'm wearing the usual American-in-Paris mish-mash, pulled together in a panic-induced half hour before I meet with the Queen of Chic. Jeans, heels, Gap deep-V top, skinny cardigan, hand-made necklace from a vente privée. But it still is ... too pedestrian. It's been like this every week for over a year since we've been collaborating on our book.

I've improved mon Look since the early days, most of the time, and now at least I know the major no-nos to avoid. But I despair a bit. The French transformation of Polly isn't an overnight phenomenon. If she's been coaching me all along as we write, and I am still so not with-it yet, how can we ever explain it in our book? Another how-do-you-do-it question for me to ask.

Our work pace is heating up now because a French literary agent might be interested in pitching our book to his roster of publishers. Oh, for a contract! This book project, where I ask Marie how anyone can learn the elements of being as Parisienne-chic as she is -- is it an impossible dream? She answers every question, no matter how absurd sounding... or personal. We write simultaneously as we discuss, she in French and I in English.

"Just now, when you spoke on the phone twice," I insist, "you used two very different voices for different conversations."

"I did?" she asks, surprised.

"Yes, both were for business, but with one person you were insistent, with another your voice was high-pitched and flowery." We drill down on the reasons for this. There is so much ineffable about being a Parisienne, why and how they are the world-famous chic charmers that they are. So many pieces to the puzzle. I want to know it all. Can I ever learn how? Can I ever learn how to adopt the charming aspects and appeals of a Parisienne while still retaining the positive elements of my easygoing American self, and articulate it to readers?

We've finished the summary and the introduction, have the chapters mapped out, and now are cranking through chapter-writing. It's hard work, this book, but it's also a lot of fun. Our Parisienne-scouting field trips are a riot. And it shows in the manuscript. I can hear our laughter of discovery in each paragraph. She is amazed that I ask about the smallest French feminine details which she takes for granted. I am impressed by how much her French elegance and chic is simply second nature to her. Each writing session is another step at bridging the gap.

Marie doesn't know that I've been taking notes on what she's wearing at each meeting. I check my observations from last week. It was the exact same outfit, just a floral print blouse, untucked, instead of today's sweater. Her staples. What looks good.

On the other hand, I sure hope she hasn't been keeping a log of my pathetic daily attire. I have, but I'm not spilling those beans. Not yet.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

So the years spin by

Long ago

Two decades ago today, I went to the hospital in the morning, and in the afternoon I had a sweet new nine-pound baby boy in my arms.

Later in the day my first-born, Miss Bee, came to meet her little brother. Up to then, Bee was my Tiny One: she had always seemed so cuddly and small when I held her, my adorable little 22-month-old towhead.

Someone must have added growth pills to Bee's PB&J at lunch that day, because when she came toddling in the hospital room and climbed on my bed to snuggle and to bestow her first sisterly kiss upon Harry, she suddenly seemed to be the lumbering size of a teenager by comparison. Gargantuan.

How time flies warpedly, I thought at the time. How quickly they grow before your eyes and you don't notice the increments. "The days are long and the years are short," advised Harry's godmother. It was true. Before I knew it Harry himself was toddling in his yellow Hanna Andersson overalls (in the photo above) just as his sister had the day he was born.

Now here we are, two decades later. As of today, I am no longer the mother of a teenager. Today Harry is twenty. How can that be?

To Harry: believe it or not, I remember turning twenty myself and thinking "Aagh, this is the end of the world as I know it." And it is, in a way, kiddo, but you deal with it. And it's not all bad.

Far away

From my perspective, the only better place in the world than Paris is wherever your sweetheart is. And today my Sweet Heart, my baby boy-ee is on the other side of the Atlantic celebrating this milestone without me.

I have lots of photos of both kids in my apartment to keep me company.

I have his self-portrait, painted his senior year in high school, as an award-winning souvenir hanging on my apartment wall in Paris. (Such talent!)

We can Skype and e-mail and all that. But it ain't the same. Transatlantic momma aches to be with her youngest as he crosses the threshold to his third decade.

Happy Birthday, Harry!

French Kissing in Action

Bisou. Les bises. Bisous. Bisooks!

Who, when, where, how, how many?

This charming animated video is a cultural primer -- apparently intended for German students -- that demystifies some of the codes for French cheek-kissing. It never does address the issue of which side you start la bise with. An easy way to remember: it's like shaking hands. You offer your right cheek first.

And the doggie scene adds a little levity.

At the end, the narrator recommends that someone make a map of how many kisses to give in France. Someone did!

H/T to Jay for the bloggable info.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


The magic e-mail arrives in my in-box late one Sunday evening. This is the e-mail all blogger-writers dream of.

"Bonjour Polly-Vous Francais,

I’m writing on behalf of American publisher, Spiegel & Grau. After reading your blog

My head spins, my eyes blur, my heart jumps. They want me! They want to publish my book! I instantly poise my fingers on the keyboard to Skype my famous published-author sister to ask advice about book-contract negotiations.

Then I finish reading the paragraph.

...I thought you might be interested in one of our new books called Petite Anglaise by Catherine Sanderson. It’s the true story of a British woman (and passionate Francophile) who fulfills her lifelong dream by moving to Paris. Once there she falls in love with the city and a French man, in time has a child, and starts a blog where she brings her unfiltered thoughts Parisian living to the forefront..."

My head hurts, my heart thuds, my eyes blur more.

Oh. Of course, I'd be more than delighted to review Petite's book. I simply love Petite Anglaise. I wish Catherine all the best in love, life, fame and everything else that can be derived from living as an expat in Paris, and writing about it.

I was out of town at the time of Petite's fun Paris book launch, and thus was unable to attend. So I haven't yet had a chance to devour the contents of the paper version of Petite's Paris life. I look forward to receiving the review copy. Really, I do!

But does this charming publishing-house assistant not understand the color blogger-envy green?

Ambulance Drivers on Strike

I've seen numerous manifestations in the two years I've been in Paris, but something about today's manif by ambulance drivers was different.

I often have a disconnect between what is announced on the news and what I see happening in front of me. I don't immediately associate one with the other. Arriving in front of St. Francois Xavier, when I saw the ambulances blocking the boulevard des Invalides, my first reaction was that there must have been a major accident, and the EMTs were there to save an injured group.

Then I saw the sign, "Ambulanciers en colère." (Angry Ambulance Drivers)

I recalled the manif I had read about in the news, the ambulance drivers who are upset about the price of fuel and its effect on their livelihood. Here it was, right on my regular beat. Although breaking news events like this happen often in Paris, each time I am taken aback by stumbling across the epicenter of the day's news story.

Content to proceed on foot, as there was obviously going to be no #92 bus, I crossed the place Vauban in front of the Hotel des Invalides.

It was a massive roadblock of about 500 ambulances from every département of France. The vehicles were largely unoccupied, but all had put their sirens on automatic. A cacophony of the two siren types blared through the neighborhood. The dissonant dee-DAAH, dee-DAAH of some, the staccato deedle-dee, deedle-dee, deedle-dee of others. In the middle of it all, it began to sound like a symphony of plaintive bagpipes.

Most manifs have lots of people marching, waving banners, and human voices shouting.

This was powerful imagery in its absence of people. From my vantage point there were only empty ambulances, wailing. A flashing blue reminder where we would all be if the ambulances lacked drivers.

Avenue de Ségur was completely shut down, leading up to the Ministry of Health where the ambulance drivers were focusing their demonstration.

I hope that there weren't too many medical emergencies in France today.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Sundays with Richard and Polly -- on Friday

When Richard and I realized that all Sundays in June were too busy for Sundays with Richard and Polly, we had to relent and switch the date to a Friday. Rescheduling our Paris duo adventure on a weekday did open up possible venues in terms of commercial settings, since Paris stores, for the most part, are not open on Sundays.

We agreed to meet on the rooftop terrace of Le Printemps. It's a worthwhile place to go -- a free panorama of the city on the ninth floor of the department store. And there is a cafeteria-style restaurant with so-so food. (I recommend it more for teatime rather than lunchtime. Can't go wrong with tea.)

But pun-lover that I am, I do adore the name: Déli-Cieux, crossing the English word deli with the French word cieux (skies) to equal the French word délicieux, or delicious. So clever.

As we wandered around the rooftop, there was no shortage of photo-ops. Monuments, magnificent vistas, the regular scenario. But there is an addtional benefit to this vantage point. At just-above-rooftop level, you witness a Paris unattainable from either the street level or the top-of-the-Eiffel level. The attics and roofs of Paris, up close.

First, the mannequin across the street mooning us.

Next, the realization that not all chambres de bonne are rented out to impoverished students. These were stockpiled with boxes and papers.

But, more resounding for me, Paris.

So much Paris.

I look at these rooftops, these chimneys. And unexpectedly, a strong emotion -- I can only call it Paris love -- wells up from deep inside. Just look at this city. All the mass of humankind, the multitude of lives: their stories, loves, heartaches, and daily doldrums or joys, in all these buildings, under all these roofs, as far as the eye can see. It's the same pining feeling I get on a plane when slowly gliding in for an airport landing, and I peer out the window at all the houses below so vivid and visible, and wonder, "What is happening in that house right now? And that one? And that one?"

So much humanity, looking out over the rooftops of Paris.

Read Richard's view of the rooftop afternoon here.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Le quatorzieme

Sipping our second kirs at La Terrasse one evening, my friend Pamela asked, kind of out of the blue, "Do you believe in reincarnation?"

Tongue loosened under the influence of crème de cassis, I blurted, "Except for the winter in 8th grade when I was convinced I was reincarnated from Mary Queen of Scots' Yorkshire terrier, I've always thought reincarnation was hoaky hocus-pocus. Until I moved to Paris. Now when I wander around certain areas of the 14th arrondissement, I have an odd but comforting feeling that I've lived there before, that I know its intimate stories. Paris has history everywhere, but the 14th just speaks to me."
Pamela nodded approvingly.

So now that cat is out of the bag. But I'm not going to go all nutso about reincarnation and try to trace my spiritual genealogy from a previous life. If anything, this affinity for the 14e arrondissement simply offers an excuse to return repeatedly and to feel the pulse of life in the quartier today.

Consequently, my habitual one-hour morning walk-to-anywhere stretched in to a three-hour ramble today, all in the 14th.

Mid-walk, I spied this house on the Impasse Louvat that looked as though it could have been in Provence.

Just around the corner, at the Mairie du XIVe arrondissement, I encountered a heartwarming scenario. Anxious young brides- and grooms-to-be waited in clusters with their families and témoins on the plaza outside. The brides weren't in gowns, but short dressy dresses or suits. Grooms in coat and tie. I seemed to see a bunch of corsages. The mayor was going to have about eight wedding ceremonies to perform.

Was I imagining it, or was the air scented with roses? There were no petals on the ground. Adding to the romance, light accordion notes floated gently through the breeze. But no accordionist in sight.

I recognized the tune, though. "Easy Come, Easy Go."

At 11:00 the doors opened and the bridal groups headed eagerly up the stairs to the entrance. Ah, young love. It is so touching. I moved on, and wandered to the park Ferdinand Brunot next door, where I found the source of the perfect wedding ambiance.

Lots and lots of roses perfuming the air.

And an accordéoniste who'd been supplying the background music to the wedding scene. I asked the fellow if he'd allow me to take a close-up of his hands playing the accordion, knowing that some folks are skittish about having their photo taken.

He nodded and grinned and said something close to "Byenny" which was close enough assent for me.

I'll try to let you hear the 2 seconds of video that my digital camera was able to capture. (Mes apologies: the video is sideways.)

I showed him the picture that I took and he mimed "how about a head-to-toe shot?"

So I obliged.

Monsieur l'accordéoniste clearly was in the market for glory and remuneration, so I gave him a euro. I declined to up the ante when he held up two fingers. But he was fine with that. He didn't speak French, but was getting chummier and laughing and patting my shoulder and somewhere in there I think he asked for my hand in marriage.

Daddy Doll Under the Bed

I rarely exit the American Library in Paris without a few more books under my arm. Not borrowed books, but bargain books from the 1€ for-sale shelves. Last week I picked up a copy of Erma Bombeck's collected columns. I realized, as I re-read her work, that in some ways her writing was a precursor to blogging.

In honor of Fathers' Day, in remembrance of all dads, I offer Erma Bombeck's "Daddy Doll Under the Bed."

When I was a little kid, a father was like the light in the refrigerator. Every house had one, but no one really knew what either of them did once the door was shut.

My dad left the house every morning and always seemed glad to see everyone at night.

He opened the jar of pickles when no one else could.

He was the only one in the house who wasn't afraid to go in the basement by himself.

He cut himself shaving, but no one kissed it or got excited about it. It was understood whenever it rained, he got the car and brought it around to the door. When anyone was sick, he went out to get the prescription filled.

He kept busy enough. He set mousetraps. He cut back the roses so the thorns wouldn't clip you when you came to the front door. He oiled my skates, and they went faster. When I got my bike, he ran alongside me for at least a thousand miles until I got the hang of it.

He signed all my report cards. He put me to bed early. He took a lot of pictures, but was never in them. He tightened up mother's sagging clothesline every week or so.

I was afraid of everyone else's father, but not my own. Once I made him tea. It was only sugar water, but he sat on a small chair and said it was delicious. He looked very uncomfortable.

Once I went fishing with him in a rowboat. I threw huge rocks in the water, and he threatened to throw me overboard. I wasn't sure he wouldn't, so I looked him in the eye. I finally decided he was bluffing and threw in one more. He was a bad poker player.

Whenever I played house, the mother doll had a lot to do. I never knew what to do with the daddy doll, so I had him say "I'm going off to work now" and threw him under the bed.

When I was nine years old, my father didn't get up one morning to go to work. He went to the hospital and died the next day.

There were a lot of people in the house who brought all kinds of good food and cakes. We never had so much company before.

I went to my room and felt under the bed for the father doll. When I found him, I dusted him off and put him on my bed.

He never did anything. I didn't know his leaving would hurt so much.

I still don't know why.

By Erma Bombeck, June 21, 1981

Friday, June 13, 2008

rue Victor Galland

To me, no matter where I live, whether in France or in the US, I find that it replenishes the soul to get out of the neighborhood from time to time. Explore unknown territory. Take a different route, both physically and mentally.

My peregrinations have lately been drawing me to the 14e and 15e arrondissements, on the edges of Paris intramuros.

When I discovered rue Victor Galland, I felt as though the sharp edges of Paris had vanished. Something joyful and willfully carefree about the painted houses struck a chord.

"I'd like to know these people," I thought.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pigeon Stories

1. A Pigeon Apology

I have to apologize. I hereby humbly beg forgiveness from all you pleasant pigeons in the world. I recently stated that I hate pigeons. It was a cruel and unkind remark.

I do not hate all pigeons. In fact, I despise and wish to perform avicide on only one species of pigeon: rock pigeons, the flying rats, the scourge of cities, known in France as les bisets. (Way too nice a name for those nasty beasts.)

How have I reached this revelation, this distinction? A little bird told me.

Actually, a pair of rather large birds who have been frequenting my apartment clued me in. Two charming pigeons, if that's not an oxymoron. These lovey-doves are not the charcoal-grey flying vermin type, but in fact are wood pigeons, les pigeons ramiers. If you click here you can learn more about them, and especially, you can hear their roucoulement, which is my morning gentle wake-up call from their perch on the building's chimney. It pipes straight into my bedroom fireplace.

The first morning a few months ago when one sat on my ledge, I shooed it away without looking. Damn pigeons! I was muttering. I regretted my meanness as I saw it fly away with its partner, who had been down in the courtyard searching for greenery. They were -- dare I say? -- wholesome-looking.

Monday morning it was back, eyeing my new morning glories. (Warning: here's where the story starts sounding like I'm turning into one of those kooky pigeon ladies. I'm not, I promise. Read on.) The pigeon flapped up to the ledge outside the living room window. Being my new ornithologically-aware self, instead of chasing it away I said "Oh, hi," kind of casually to the beauty, and we had a brief eyeball-to-eyeball sideways staring contest. S/he was plump and more like a partridge than one of those disgusting urban winged poop-machines. Finally the partner flew up from the courtyard and the duo flapped away with a distinctive whirring sound.

This is where it gets strange. On the kitchen side of my apartment is an air well protected by bird netting. After the morning pause with my Columba palumbus pal, I'd gone back to my writing. About twenty minutes later I heard the same whirring sound from the opposite side of the building. There was the same wood pigeon, trying to wedge through the net to get to my apartment. And I swear to god, the pigeon was staring at me from the neighboring roof, imploring.

2. The Pigeon Man

Last week I was strolling down my street with my friend Maria. A stooping old guy in a faded brown suit was forging down the sidewalk in our direction. Out of nowhere, out of everywhere, hundreds of ratty pigeons began swarming toward him. The sky was blackened with pigeons swooping down from every rooftop in the neighborhood, heading right for him. And us.

Folks, I only had to see The Birds once in my life, when I was ten, and most of that I watched between my fingers. That was enough. I have zero desire to play the role of Tippi Hedren. This pigeon-shrouded event was a totally creepy city moment. The Pigeon Man must appear every day at the same spot to feed them, because all those flying stinkpots knew exactly who he was, and they wanted to be first in line for the soup kitchen. Bread line. Whatever.

I couldn't duck away from him -- and them -- fast enough.

3. Homing Alone

When I was in my twenties I shared an apartment with three roommates in the top floors of a two-family house high on a hill outside Boston. One warm summer weekend I was Home Alone, which was eery after dark, but normally I would blare rock music and leave the lights on all night and watch Happy Movies on TV. And I was fine.

Until I heard a noise on the third floor.

Oh. My. God. My heart pounded. Edgar Allan Poe knew nothing about noises a heart could make compared to mine. I froze.

By the way, this was so long ago that it was even before cordless phones, much less cell phones. Reaching the wall phone in the kitchen to call for help would have meant moving from the sofa, no easy task when paralyzed with fear. Eventually, over the din of my cardiac timpani, I heard more clatter from upstairs. Cosmetics bottles knocking to the floor. Then, the unmistakable sound of wings flapping.

Oh, silly me, it was just a bird. Jeezus-H.-Christ. A Bird. At that point I would have preferred a burglar. My Tippi Hedren aversion kicked into overdrive with the adrenaline. What if the bird found its way downstairs? I knew I had to get it out of the apartment. Scared to have its claws caught in my flowing tresses, terrified to have it scratch at my eyes, disgusted at the thought of it pooping all over me, I got prepared for battle. One roommate's long galvanized rain slicker. Another roommate's ski goggles. My bouffant shower cap. Work gloves from the tool box. (It's such a pretty mental image of me, eh?) I inched up the stairs and flipped on the lights in the upstairs bedroom.

The damned terrified pigeon flew straight at me.

In my entire life, I have emitted only one bona fide, over-the-top blood curdling scream.

Over a pigeon.

Which is why, friends, I will never become one of those kooky pigeon ladies.

4. The Pigeon Stalker

Despite that history, here in Paris I was neverthless getting all tenderhearted about the wood pigeons who bill and coo on top of my chimney and visit my window ledge. They are the dignified, rarer breed. They are handsome. They are urbanely charming. They are imploring.

They are stalking me.

Do they think I am their mother?

They were back this morning. One of them was peeping into my apartment, watching me type. "We know whoo yooo are, we know where you live..." they are cooing suspiciously as they stare. No problem, for the most part, if the window is closed.

But then s/he decided to move in and snuggled into my lavender. Twice. The accomplice/lover looked on from the ledge below.

After scaring them away with my camera flash, I got out the pencil sharpener. There are now four pointy No.2 pencils poking up in the middle of the planter. I didn't mind a lower-ledge visit or two, but this is getting a little close for comfort.

Now I'm getting jittery Tippi-you-know-who syndrome again. What if I leave the window open for fresh air and the unthinkable happens?

I don't have a rain slicker or ski goggles in Paris.

Vendredi Treize

Tomorrow is Friday the thirteenth. Sounds prettier in French, of course. To my American ears, Vendredi Treize sounds as if it could be the name of a French movie starlet. Or a new perfume. Or both. "I always wear a dab of Vendredi Treize."

Vendredi treize isn't necessarily a portent of bad luck. Some folks think it's just the opposite, the way saying "merde" or "merde puissance 13" is actually for good luck, like "break a leg." Claude Lelouch named his three-masted yacht Vendredi 13. And there is a publishing company, Editions vendredi treize. Stumbling on their site was certainly a bit of luck for me.

It turns out that Editions vendredi treize publishes Urban Guides to Paris, including Balades en Bus, showing the best ways to see the sights of city on the RATP buses, my hands-down favorite pastime if not on foot.

Hmm. I had thought I was going to write that guide. Oh well. I guess I'll get out my Navigo and go go go.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

To Have and to Hail

Today I am one happy, happy, happy, happy woman.

Cynics may scoff at how pathetically easy it is to make me happy. Romantics might say, "You have Paris, isn't that enough?"

Yes, in other ways, on other days, I might be a high-maintenance gal. And having Paris at my doorstep is certainly a blessing that brings endless joy.

But today, my friends, I am supremely happy. The price of this serendipitous elation was exactly twenty-nine euros.

I am the proud owner of my very own genuine Parisian Taxi rooftop sign.

I was riding the #94 bus to a meeting on boulevard Malesherbes when I spotted the small store. "Toutes Fournitures pour Taxis" said the shop sign. I bolted off the bus at the next stop and headed back down the street. Entering, I timidly asked the owner if I was allowed to purchase a rooftop sign if I wasn't a chauffeur de taxi.

"Mais bien sur!" he chortled. "You just can't buy the lighting system that goes with it."

The shop, Imagis Plus, is primarily where all taxi drivers go to get the auxiliary equipment for their taxis. Lights, signs, lots of street atlases, floor mats, and sundry manuals and roadside emergency kits.

The avuncular shop owner was the funniest and friendliest I've met in a long time, and he regaled me with lots of great customer stories.

I'm so excited about my heavy-duty plastic Taxi Parisien sign. I might make it into a lamp (there are already holes on the sides). Or maybe I'll wire it to the rear fender of my bike.

The shop owner didn't have a bag, so I carried the sign in my hand as I walked to the bus stop.

Cost of the sign: 29 euros.
Smile on the bus driver's face when I placed it on his dashboard: priceless.

Imagis Plus
60 boulevard Malesherbes
75008 Paris
01 43 87 63 73

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Ceci est juste un cadeau

Yesterday, spotted on rue Mazarin in the 6e.

The sign taped to the back fender of the creation

It says "Ceci est juste un cadeau. C'est du grand art. Bravo."

Monday, June 09, 2008

Saying 'hello' is optional?

When I made my first forays into apartment living in France, I used to have grocery store anxiety. Would I do all the right things, remember the steps to the French cash-register dance? Say "Bonjour, madame," then scurry to the end of the caisse to start filling my grocery bags. Wait to pay the cashier until I was mostly through loading the bags. (Otherwise, as soon as I'd paid up, the caissière would begin processing the next customer's items.) Then no matter what, saying "Au revoir, madame," and perhaps, "Bonne journée."

Now I've got the choreography figured out at Shopi or Monoprix or Carrefour. Then I return to the US, where the pas de deux is different. Last month when I was in the States I automatically started loading my groceries into the bags at the Piggly Wiggly, and the cashier looked insulted, as if I were implying she didn't know how to do her job. I quickly thrust my hands to my side and to avoid the misunderstanding. She filled the sacks -- didn't ask "paper or plastic," but did ask if I wanted a helper to take the bags to my car. Talk about culture shock.

We sometimes forget how much these day-to-day transactions are very much the fabric of daily life, wherever we are.

Here in France, a blogger has been chronicling her life at the cash register at a grand surface, a huge supermarket. Caissière No Futur is a blog in French by a former supermarket cashier, 28-year-old Anna Sam. Seven years ago she began working as a cassière to help support herself and pay for her studies. After a few years on the job, she began chronicling the life behind the cash register on her blog. I find it to be gripping sociological drama. She also encourages submissions of supermarket anecdotes from both cashiers' and customers' views in addition to publishing her own observations. Anna has become somewhat of a media celebrity, appearing on French television, and her book Les Tribulations d'une caissière was just released this week.

Intrigued about a fellow blogger in France, I contacted Anna to ask if I might write a little article for anglophone readers. I ventured, apologetically, that some of her seemingly "rude customers" might sometimes be well-intentioned Americans in France, who unwittingly neglect to say "Bonjour" and "Au revoir" at the cash register because it's not always done in US supermarkets.

"In the US, saying 'hello' is optional?" she wrote back, incredulous.

I wish I could translate her blog for everyone-- there are so many great stories, some wonderful eye-openers. I look forward to reading the book.
And I wonder if she has an American counterpart, who blogs about life at the Stop & Shop, or Winn-Dixie, or Kroger, or Wal-Mart.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


If you are vaguely lost while wandering through uncharted territory, there's nothing like a light house to help you get your bearings.

Even in Paris, it seems.

I embarked on an afternoon walk, sans map of Paris, determined to get lost. (No challenge for me in that department.) I love getting "lost" in Paris. The adventure of chucking the known and the safe forces you to open your eyes, gets you out of your routine. I did an excellent job of it. Totally clueless as to my GPS or other location.

And then, out of nowhere: Ahoy, there, mateys! Somewhere in the 15e arrondissement I spotted the lighthouse and the shipwreck, its tricolore waved by the sailor-stiff at the bow. The graffiti hinted reassuringly that I was indeed still on dry land. Sort of.

I had stumbled upon the Criée du Phare, a seafood emporium which apparently boasts the largest retail selection of fish in Paris, at the most tempting prices.

Being after lunchtime on Sunday, it was empty inside. So the congenial fishmongers gave me the royal treatment. "Bonjour, belle dame!" greeted a smiling scruffy guy with an impressive beard. One after another, and sometimes together with their buddies, they proudly described the seafood they were selling. "We have the best selection! The largest choice! You should see this place on Saturdays -- the crowds are incredible!" They were so earnest and convivial, and the fish smelled so sweet. A worker hosed down the ice every few minutes to keep it chilled and fresh.

"Just look at these live shrimp," said my bearded friend as he placed two beasts on the back of his hand. I reached out to touch them. "Watch out! They pinch!" he joked. He wasn't kidding.

"I've never seen a live shrimp like that before," I admitted. "Are they from France?"

The boys got a tad mournful.

"Ah, non, shrimps can still be found in France, in the Loire and maybe elsewhere, but no one is allowed to fish them," they chimed in. "These shrimp are from Turkey. Even les grenouilles -- ah, don't we all love les cuisses de grenouille -- come from elsewhere, around Armenia."

Wait. So French Frogs don't even come from here any more?

Now I do need to get my bearings. In any case, I'll be back to La Criée soon.

La Criée du Phare
69 rue de Castagnary
01 45 31 15 00

Open seven days a week, mostly in the morning when fish are fresh. Call for other hours.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Weather Lady Forgets to take the Temperature

Le Grand Journal on Canal + is a great prime-time TV show, one of my favorites. A blend of entertainment and political interview and commentary. I usually like all of the regular panel. The ever-popular Louise Bourgoin, "Miss Meteo" is gorgeous, sexy and witty; her gags are sometimes fun, almost always wacky.

Until yesterday, when she made an utterly tasteless comment.

As often happens on the show, the cast gives thumbnail reviews of selected books that they then distribute to the guests. Last night, after her usual twenty-second lightning-speed weather forecast, Louise was giving a report, suggesting books that might be appropriate to give to various famous people. The premise of her gag was basing her recommendations simply on the book's title, claiming she didn't have time to read. In general, the tone was sarcastic but funny. I don't remember the other titles, but the angle was along the lines of: "Walking Tall, our gift to Nicolas Sarkozy. " Nyuk nyuk.

Then she said, "And this book, Du Plomb dans la tete [Lead in the Head] we offer to John Kennedy."

There was an audible gasp -- perhaps from Michel Denisot or Ariane Massenet. Perhaps it was from me. How rude and tasteless. How juvenile and inane. She tried to segue into the next title, but listeners were stunned.

Louise, I usually love ya, but you blew it. The mercury just went way, way down in my Louise-o-Meter. Being cocky and flip is one thing -- making a bad joke about an assassinated President is another.

Anyway, rumor has it that she's leaving her position at Le Grand Journal to work full time in the movies, and Canal + is looking for a replacement. Maybe that's why she didn't have to worry about getting fired for such crass commentary. Or maybe as an aspiring starlet was she trying to make more of a name for herself by attempting to copycat Sharon Stone? At least Sharon Stone's thoughtless 'karma' remark offending a whole nation was off the cuff.

(The video clip above is not of last night's show. Canal+ is only posting excerpts and has none of Louise's appearance on line.)

Die-hard Bourgoin fans (especially the testosterone-infused variety) can look forward to seeing Louise in a steamy movie this summer called La Fille de Monaco, about a beautiful Miss Meteo who leaves her job to become an actress...

Why we love Paris

Embarking on the second week in June and the weather lingers grey and cold, it's good to remember why we love Paris.

First off, when your name is Polly, you simply have to stop by this street.

Then there are other reasons, like indulging in this charming and inexpensive African restaurant that just opened in my neighborhood in the 7e arrondissement. With a quiet terrace in the back. Lilting music, excellent, simple cuisine. The warmest greeting of any restaurant in Paris. Add the house Ginger Drink and it's simply exotic. It'll warm you up until the nice spring weather returns. Especially if you add rum.

Déjà vu all over again. Has anyone else watching the French Open had the same impression? Something about the Roland Garros logo, which we've been seeing non-stop for the past few weeks, seems so familiar. Oh, right! That ubiquitous Starbucks logo...

My favorite way to see the sites of Paris by boat. I think I'll get the annual pass for €55. Heaven, when the sun is out.

The second annual PPP: Parcours Parisien de la Photographie June 10 - 30. So many vernissages... so little time.

And, finally, I love the Eiffel Tower, too, but...this?

Friday, June 06, 2008

10 Blue Doors

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