Saturday, December 29, 2012

A New Year's Eve a la Francaise

Rewind to a few decades ago.  A young-ish Polly-Vous, ever the francophile, had been invited to attend a coveted New Year's Eve reception for le Reveillon du Jour de l'An at the French Consulate in Boston, at 10 p.m.  Complete with an engraved carton d'invitation.  Ready to impress her new-ish Beau with that prized invitation, she invited him first for dinner at her Beacon Hill apartment.   Her roommates were away, and she was eager to demonstrate her nascent culinary skills for a divine and romantic repast.

She set to work for an entire day on her favorite recipes from her favorite French cookbook, the Tante Marie.  The Tante Marie was and is the French counterpart to the Joy of Cooking or Fanny Farmer's.  Unadorned, classic French cooking.

The Beau arrived at 7 p.m., and they had kirs and salted nuts.  Then, mussels for a first course. Polly had carefully debearded and scrubbed the mussels; then chopped shallots and sauteed them lightly in butter in a deep pan, added the mussels and a cup of Entre-Deux-Mers. When those wine-steamed blue-shell bivalves opened, Polly and her Beau devoured them, and mopped up the dripping, savory sauce with chunks of crusty baguette.

Already this was heaven.

Add to the scenario candlelight on silver candelabrae and a crisply ironed damask tablecloth and napkins, and Puccini soaring in the background.  Fire in the fireplace and quaint lights of Charles Street twinkling outside the window.  Magic, right?

Next, Polly prepared a filet of sole au gratin, with the slightest whisper of bread crumbs and butter, baked then lightly broiled.  Creamed spinach and parsleyed steamed potatoes.  A Sancerre to accompany.

For the pièce de résistance, she had whipped up choux à la crème -- because Tante Marie had taught her how easy it was to prepare.

By 10 p.m. mademoiselle Polly and her Beau were (to be stated undaintily) completely stuffed to the gills.  But they were rapturously happy, holding hands in the flickering silver candlelight.  With a slight moan and a forced heave-ho to get to their feet from the dinner table, Polly and Beau donned their overcoats and set out in the New England frosty air to conquer the six blocks to the French Consulate on Commonwealth Avenue.  Ready to hob-nob with the elite francophile crowd for an elegant glass of champagne and a festive midnight bisou.  Polly was confident that this would let her Beau appreciate her many, many merits, on oh-so-many, many levels.

The couple was greeted at the door by Abdel, the consul's major domo, and welcomed by Monsieur and Madame le Consul in the glittering and elegant Back Bay mansion that was home to the consulate.  Polly introduced the handsome Beau to Monsieur and Madame, and she politely shrugged off her overcoat to Abdel, to emerge in her shimmering dress.  She was ready to subtly demonstrate that, although an Americaine from Boston, she had the sophistication and social wherewithal (tra-la!) to know how to be a gracious guest at a diplomatic party a la francaise.

And then Polly saw it.



The most impressive array of the best and most exquisite French cuisine, spread out among many tables, as far as one could see.  Foie gras, glistening chilled oysters, smoked salmon, caviar, hams, roasts, cheeses, blinis, fruits, tarts, pastries, chocolates.

(Egad!!  This invitation had been for dinner?  At 10 p.m.?  Who knew?)

With a graceful flourish of the hand, Monsieur le Consul beckoned Polly and her Beau to dine at the buffet.


Polly exhibited a wan, green-ish smile and, in an effort to not appear not worldly, carried a small empty plate across the stands of sumptuous offerings.  Handsome Beau heroically speared a slice of ham, which he then ignored for the duration of the evening.  They wandered under the crystal chandeliers of the salons, smiling and chatting with various VIPs Polly recognized, hoping to avoid the scrutiny of the multitudes of knowing invitees who had been starving themselves for 24 hours in anticipation of this astounding French culinary and social event.

And overstuffed as they were on Polly's beginner Tante Marie home cooking, neither of them could bear to eat one morsel of the exquisite French gastronomic feast.

This, my friends, is torture.

To top it off, when midnight tolled, Polly found herself not next to her Beau, but instead, elbow-to-elbow with her arch-nemesis, and was forced to give a saccharine, champagne-laced, Bonne- Annee cheek-kiss to that dowdy, powdery, simpering old lady.  Indignation meets indigestion.

A New Year's to beat all New Year's.  Unforgettable.

But always a great tale to tell!

And so, dear friends, here's wishing all of you a brilliant and shining 2013, with many French delights and memories to savor.

image via

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Let an unnamed Luxury Brand pay YOU!

Image via wikipedia
Attention all Paris denizens! An unnamed Luxury Vbrand wants your opinions and is willing to pay for them.

If you are in Paris between January 2nd and 11th and would like to express your opinions on an unnamed luxury brand Louis Vuitton, the marketing group Miratech is conducting a series of focus groups in which you can participate and get rewarded.

Contact the representative if you are interested.  Apparently for a one-hour interview/survey, located in the 10th arrondissement,  you will receive 80 euros' worth of gift cards redeemable at stores such a Decathlon, FNAC, Printemps, etc.

Of course from my point of view, the 80 euros is just frosting on the cake.  The bonus would be that I was actually in Paris at the time.  

Drat.  Next time.

Miratech's phone number is

Post updated per Miratech's request.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Christmas letter from Beirut, 1959

Mini-me and mini-Christmas tree 1959
Christmas time is here.  And I found among family mementos a Christmas newsletter written by my mother in December 1959/January 1960, when our family had moved to Beirut, Lebanon, for a glorious year.   I post it not to detail the minutiae of our family life, but as an archive of life in that era, certainly the early era of the Christmas newsletter.  And also?  Where I first learned French.

Younger readers may scratch their heads at the notion of a mimeo stencil required to make multiple copies of a missive.  These days even photocopying a newsletter -- or a newsletter itself --  seems so outdated, n'est-ce pas?  (And these photos were certainly not a part of the original newsletter.)

When a family with five children ages 5 through 12 picks up and moves half way around the world, I would say that it calls for a newsletter. A chronicle of expat life.  Then I wonder:  is this subtly what gave me the urge to re-live an expat experience?  And to write about it?  

I love the 1960's social norm of not writing about misfortunes (oops --  neglected to mention little Polly's two weeks in the hospital in Rome with pneumonia!?) Oh how times have changed!   Here's the letter.

Dear Friends,

What started out being a Christmas letter has ended up being a belated New Year’s message, and for this we apologize. Actually, we did mimeo a Christmas letter, but yours were the 15 or 20 envelopes we put aside because we wanted to write messages on the letters. In our own inimitable way, before we realized it, the letters were consumed and we didn’t even have a copy to make another stencil. So be it! Enough of apologia. You will get the more up-to-date news anyway.
Dad and Polly on board

The past five months have been the “pinch yourself to make sure it’s true” type. This has been a marvelous experience for us all and certainly one that we’ll never forget. Starting with the boarding of the “Bergensfjord” on August 8th right through Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan we have been wide-eyed and incredulous, all the more so because we never dreamed this could happen to us. We only wish we could bottle all this and bring it home to share with you………..beautiful Scandinavia with its lovely countryside, handsome people, sumptuous meals, and abundance of flowers everywhere; Bavaria with Oberammergau….. the Passion Play anticipation shown on the bearded faces of the townsmen, the delicate woodcarvings, fairy tales painted in bold colors on the houses, and the magnificent rolling countryside; Austria with its unforgettable Tyrols right outside our window, folk dancing, The Achensee 3000 ft. up where we swam in 65 degree water, Peter in his leiderhosen and our girls in Tyrolean dresses………..; Italy, after a glorious trip over the Brenner Pass, with its host of churches, monuments, and fountains… plus the usual tourist attractions…. Not to mention “Chaiou, chaiou Bambino” played nightly outside our pensione windows….. sailing out to see the Straits of Messina go by. Greece was almost the high spot… a cloudless warm day with the Acropolis silhouetted against a deep blue sky…it was all we had anticipated and more…the Olympic Stadium, the King’s palace eve to seeing the changing of the guard….we hated to leave. A brief visit to Alexandria with the inevitable “Gullah-gullah” man on the dock to greet us… the museum, the catacombs, bazaars… and back to the ship.

And here we are in Beirut. Having just put down our roots, we will be loath to leave here in June, and hope to be able to return someday. This is a fascinating city and country…. A real meeting of Eastern and Western cultures. You can walk down any street and in one quick glance take in men in tarbushes and baggy pants…. Goat-herders with their flocks, a Cadillac or Chevrolet, veiled women… men with pushcarts of brioches or vegetables… women in mink stoles… and boys and girls alike dressed in their smocks with big white collars, on their way to school. The Lebanese people are kind, generous to a fault, volatile, argumentative, and the biggest bargainers in the world! The city with its souks (markets), mosques, flea-market, luxurious hotels, poverty, and beggars is one great conglomeration.  Beirut International Airport is the third largest in the world (next to New York and Frankfurt) and it is an exciting excursion to go out there and watch the big jets taking off for spots all over the world. The countryside here is incredibly beautiful! From our balcony we look out over the Mediterranean right across the street, and by turning our heads to the right we can see lovely snow-capped mountains. We haven’t yet been able to be really nonchalant about all this… and will miss it terribly.

Even our “routine” life isn’t routine here. Having to speak French to “Information” to get a telephone number; speaking spotty Arabic with our wonderful maid, Hania; eating new foods; getting the “bukra” attitude toward life (“bukra” means tomorrow!); and living in a wonderful apartment on the sea…. Now does this sound routine? The more mundane things include the children loving the American Community School; L enjoying his teaching and research; A tutoring 4 hours a day; the usual Brownies and Boy Scouts, etc., but life will never be the same again!
Skiing in Lebanon, 1960

We have crossed the mountains into Syria for a wonderful trip to Damascus where we saw so many things we have all read about since we were children… the “Street called Strait”…the window where St. Paul escaped… the Omayed Mosque… and many others. We came home laden with lovely silk [illegible] . We plan another trip In the spring.
Shawl made of Damascus silk, seen in photo at bottom

L has had a fascinating trip to Jordan. He saw Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and Amman, staying in the latter for 4 days with a Christian Arab family which made his trip. He even had an audience with King Hussein and has pictures to prove it! We plan to take the children to Jerusalem at Easter when it is a bit warmer.

We still have much of Lebanon to see. So far we have been to Byblos and to Baalbek, plus many lesser places close by, but are very anxious to get to Tripoli, Sidon, and Tyre. L also plans a trip to Ankarra, Turkey in the very near future. We have the traveling bug but good!

Our best trip so far, though, started on December 19th when we boarded a Viscount for a flight to Cairo. Exactly 1 hour and 15 min. later we landed at the Cairo Airport! We had an unbelievably good time there and could have easily stayed another week. Cairo was very reasonable… we seven stayed at a nice pension hotel for the equivalent of $11 a day, room and board, and the food was excellent and excellently served by a team of Sudanese in their red tarbushes and long white gallebeyas with the red cummerbunds. It was quite an experience. Of course, we had the customary camel rides at the Pyramids of Giza, saw the Sphinx, the Tomb of the Bulls at Sakarrah, the second Sphinx at Memphis, all of the lovely mosques, the Egyptian museum with all the contents of King Tut’s tomb, the Mousky bazaars, a boat trip around Gezirah Island in the Nile, and two visits with Egyptian friends in their homes which was great fun. The children were determined to get home for Christmas so we arrived back in Beirut on Christmas Eve and even had a big Christmas dinner for 14 the next day!
Expat night club life in Beirut, 1960

You can see that we are enjoying ourselves to the fullest. We have made many friends, both Lebanese and American, and it will be hard to leave them, too. We have even done quite a bit of night-clubbing which is most unusual for us… plus seeing an excellent “belly-dancer” just the other night who was a real artist.

All this description has been most inadequate but we hope we have conveyed some of our feeling and impression about this wonderful year. Our only regret is that all of you couldn’t have enjoyed it with us. We will most likely be unbearable to live with when we get back with our many slides and stories! Until then, we send you belated wishes for a very Happy New Year.  Inchallah! (God willing!)

Polly, Peter, Meg, Suzie, Johnny, L and A

. . . .

This post dedicated, with love, to the memory of my mother. (November 1923 - February 2012).  She's the beauty in the foreground of the nightclub photo.

p.s. And I was so glad to be able to re-visit my childhood memories a few years ago.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Hidden Gardens of Paris

One of the most amazing secrets about Paris was imparted to me in the first week after I moved there.  At a dinner party, a well-known French author/photographer of luscious French coffee-table books told me, "All courtyards in Paris are legal to enter if the courtyard door opens. It's the law."  I was still bashful about the notion, but somewhat emboldened to give it a try.

Because, of course, some of the most fabulous intimate outdoor sights in Paris are hidden from view from the casual passerby, and require some knowledge and audacity in order to see them.

Mostly we spend our days in Paris walking down the cold stone sidewalks and simply wondering about the greenery on the other side of the wall.

I spent three happy years in Paris on my daily walks trying my best to discover all those hidden spots that serendipity tossed in my path.

But who needs serendipity when you have a copy of Hidden Gardens of Paris?  The hidden gardens included in this great guide range from not-so-hidden (Luxembourg Gardens) to tucked-away treasures, and I can only say that I am never going to meander around Paris again, EVER, without this gem of a book in my arsenal.

Author Susan Cahill artfully organizes the gardens geographically around Paris, and includes places and restaurants to visit nearby.  "Aha!"  you might say, "She didn't include one of my favorites!"  And, yes, it's true, because Paris has so many wonderful hidden green spaces, how could any 220-page tome include them all?  (Picpus Cemetery is one of my favorites, for example.)  But you will not be disappointed - there are ample new places to discover.  This book will simply give you more reasons to keep discovering Paris.

Hidden Gardens of Paris includes so many cultural and local references, it really is a must-have for any trip to Paris if, like me, your vision of Paris includes exploring on foot, outdoors.

French Films with English Subtitles

As an ardent francophile, I've loved French movies since I can remember.  So I finally learned enough French to catch up and be able to understand French movies in French.

Alas, the same is not true for many English-speaking francophiles around the world whose French isn't quite up to the task of understanding a French film without subtitles.

Double-alas:  too many wonderful French films that don't reach the mass-distribution market abroad are missed by these francophiles because the films are rarely released with subtitles in English.  Even worse, they are not available in France to the non-francophone population.  Honestly?  I don't get it.  Why not share the culture even if others don't get the language?  Really, think of the scores of Amurican movies that are subtitled in French for French audiences each year.  Why not subtitle French movies for American/all-other-anglophone-audiences?  It might help to bridge the cultural gap!

Yet these French films, which convey the sauce and substance of daily French existence, and the comedy/tragedy therein, are virtually unavailable to those who do not speak the language.

With one exception, at least this week.

Enter In French With English Subtitles, a New York-based group that for the past several years has been offering a French film festival featuring some of the sweet and wonderful French films that don't hit the mass-market distribution cinemas in the U.S.

Tonight is opening night of the In French With English Subtitles festival.  Because I'm a procrastinator I've been crazy busy at work the festival is such a hit, I didn't get to score a ticket for tonight's opening Gala with Gad Elmaleh.

But there are lots more for New York-based audiences to view this weekend.  Some for the first time in the U.S.  And with four screenings each day on Saturday and Sunday, there are many great films to see.  I can't wait.

Get your tickets while they last!

All screenings are at the Florence Gould Hall of the French Institute Alliance Francaise, although the festival is not a part of FIAF programming (i.e. no reduction for FIAF members).

55 East 59th Street
Between Park and Madison Avenues
New York, NY 10022

Monday, November 26, 2012

An Award for Books about France!

If you've read this blog with much frequency (and of course you have!) you'll know of my unending love of books written about France -- or the discovery of some aspect of France -- by Americans.

Over the last two centuries, many great (and some not so great) works have been written for the anglophone world to explain or showcase France in a way that helps them appreciate or understand France a wee bit or a lot more than they did before.  I have kept a personal library of them, made a habit of collecting and reading them.  To see the vast numbers of books that I have written about in my casual way, check here, or simply click on the category "literature" in the column to the right.

This year I was dreaming and scheming about the fact that this literary genre -- whether fiction, non-fiction, or coffee-table book -- should be awarded a prize in the great tradition of literary prizes.  I came up with a well-laid-out plan. Alas, I did nothing with it but mention it briefly to a CEO of a New York-based French non-profit.  Busy with the day job.  I figured, I'll get around to it.  But great minds, apparently, think alike.

So imagine my delight last month when, at a NYC gathering for my beloved American Library in Paris, I heard the announcement from Director Charles Trueheart that ALP is now sponsoring the American Library in Paris Book Award.  The award will be given each year to  "...the best book of the year in English about France or the French-American encounter."

It is, quite simply, thrilling to have the genre recognized and awarded and by such an august organization and writers' council.

A vos plumes, everyone.  A vos plumes!

Monday, November 12, 2012

From London to Paris Photo?

M --, a dear friend in New York, called this evening as she was heading to JFK to go home to London, to see her mum.  M is a superb photographer, and does know Paris a bit.  She had hopes to see Paris Photo next weekend but wasn't sure of how to make it work at the last minute.  "Polly, darling, can you help me?" asked M.  "Just the logistics on getting to Paris Photo from the Eurostar.  Last time I went it was in the Carrousel du Louvre."  Not sure of internet or time availability in the next few days, she needed Polly-Vous Francais to the rescue, and to email her all the information.



This is my idea of the best possible way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  

So here is what I wrote.

Dearest M --

Here is the information (more than you need!)

DATES: 15th -18th NOVEMBER 2012
Location: Le Grand Palais
Avenue Winston Churchill
75008 Paris
Thursday 15 Nov. - Sunday 18 Nov. From noon till 8pm.
Full price : 28 €

If you take the 8:30 am Eurostar from St. Pancras, you'll arrive in Paris at around 11:45.  Eurostar arrives at Gare du Nord.  Take a taxi  from the taxi stand outside to the Grand Palais, about 20 minutes.  Have the driver drop you off at the entrance to the Grand Palais on avenue Winston Churchill.  Cost?  Not sure, maybe 15 euros?  20? Note: Not all Paris taxis have credit-card machines (like NYC), and even if they do, will not accept payment by credit card (carte bancaire) for less than 15 euros.  And the machines are with the drivers, I think, not mounted in the back seat like in NYC.  So best to have cash, in any case,
Or, in a pinch,  if the taxi line is too long or no taxis seem available (which is sometimes the case!) or you're just feeling adventurous, you can take the # 42 bus, which goes directly to the Grand Palais.  To get to the bus stop, from inside:

  • Follow the Gare du Nord station exit signs for “Est” onto rue de Dunkerque, then go left onto rue du Faubourg St Denis. 
  • Walk about 200 meters to the bus stop.  You'll want the # 42 bus heading toward ("direction") “Hopital Europeen Georges Pompidou." You can buy the ticket on board the bus (1,7 euro) with exact change (as long as you say “Bonjour, monsieur” to the bus driver first!!) or buy in the train station at a place that says "tickets RATP."   
  • Take the bus (about 18-20 minutes) and get off at the stop “Champs Elysees-Clemenceau".  The Grand Palais is to your left as you look up the Champs-Elysees.

I am a big fan of the Paris bus system, as long one takes it in the right direction.  "Direction" always means where it's going, not where it's coming from.)

If you want to have lunch when you arrive, a great cafe is LeMinipalais, which is located in the Grand Palais itself.  It opened a few years ago and is quite good - fabulous decor and setting, and delicious food.  I don't know how crowded it will be during Paris Photo.

Otherwise, if you take a slightly later Eurostar, of course you can always lunch on the train.  Is the Eurostar train food good?

By the way, there are some great local restaurants near the Gare du Nord, but they are cheek-by-jowl with others that are too touristy and lackluster; so I think better not to waste time figuring those out.

If you finish at Paris Photo and have some time left over before you head back to London, across the street at the charming and glorious  Petit Palais there are also some photography exhibits, and entrance is free for the permanent collection, and very reasonable for special exhibits.  Discounts for those who are 60+,  but you are so young... I'm not asking!

And of course my beloved Pont Alexandre III is right there.  You must take at least a quick stroll, and take some photos.

Have a safe trip!  I hope all is well with your mother!
Let me know how it goes.



Did I forget anything?  any other recommendations for M?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Remembering Veterans' Day

@Musee de la legion d'honneur
Veterans' Day.  Armistice Day.  In French, le onze novembre.  A day to remember all soldiers who have fought to protect their countries.  But the significance of the historic date November 11, 1918,  is one that should be retained.

Please pause and take a look at the images of  these soldiers who fought in World War I, known in France as the War of 1914-18 (La Guerre de quatorze-dix-huit, or  La Grande guerre).

There are virtually no veterans now remaining from the Grande guerre.  But I remember hearing a story or two when I was on my junior year abroad.

@Musee de la Legion d'honneur
In France, on November 11, 1918, across the country church bells were rung at 11 a.m. -- the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month -- in honor of the 18 million who died  and the millions who were wounded during that four-year war   France as a country would never be the same.

These images come from the Musee de la Legion d'honneur (Museum of the Legion of Honor) which, if you are in Paris, is an important place to visit.  Right next door to the Musee d'Orsay.  Entrance is free.

@Musee de la Legion d'honneur

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The French W: did you say "dooblah-vay?"

The other day my laptop keyboard was getting cranky, and inexplicably stopped producing the letter "W" unless I bore down with my ring finger's brute force.  This situation, while annoying (I prefer to ignore that left-hand finger) and a bit embarrassing at first (sending "no" when you mean "now," or "itty" when you mean "witty," can get you in some hot ater!), it also got me thinking about missing letters, and especially the letter "W."

It naturally conjured up the decades-old incident about the departing Clinton White House staff removing the letter "W" from keyboards in anticipation of Dubya and the gang moving in.  That anecdote got blown out of proportion, then of course had a full-fledged government commission report.  The initial response in the link above is my preferred kind of playful poisson-d'avril kind of fun.

But ultimately, all of my thought-roads lead to French. Bien sur!  So as I pondered my own missing "W," I mused, "Well, it wouldn't really matter if I were writing in French, because there are precious few French words that begin with the letter 'W'."


And of course in French the letter is double vé....double-V, not double-U.

And yes, in fact, so there are so few W-words in French that they can all be listed on one page.  Here they are. Check 'em out: there are some standards and some doozies!

Week-end, wharf, wagon, web 2.0., whisky. Some are the usual suspects, but none are very French-sounding, eh?  Except for wisigoth, and methinks even that is an alternate spelling.

And words that simply contain the letter "W" are few and far between.  Hmm: sandwich.  Can you think of others?

One thing I can vouch for: when playing French Scrabble, you definitely don't want to draw the "W" tile,  except that it's worth a gajillion points.

In order to confirm the status of the letter W in French, I plan to wander the streets of Nouveau York and ask random French people (apparently about 50% of the current NYC population, estimated from language overheard on street corners) their opinions of the lettre double vé and I'll report back.  I don't expect a huge response.  But you never know.


Thinking of absent letters,  I recently stopped by the library at the fabulous FIAF,  and to my thrifty delight, I found, in their used-book-for-a-buck sale cart, an uncracked edition of La Disparition by Georges Perec.

If you are not familiar with this work (or any of the oeuvre of Perec), it is a 305-page French novel written without using the letter "E."

I'm in havn.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

TV5 Monde to the rescue...

Here on the island of Manhattan we are gearing up and battening down in anticipation of the arrival of Hurricane Sandy.  Who knows what the storm will bring -- will it be Frankenstorm, the epic storm for the history books?  Will it be just a lot of water from all angles? Will we lose power?

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I am delighting in a little gift-bag goodie I received two weeks ago at the annual meeting of the Federation of Alliances Francaises in the U.S.  A number of corporate sponsors had interesting (or frivolous) logo-stamped tchochkes.

But none were more timely or more potentially helpful right now than TV5 Monde's gift of a solar-powered phone charger.  It's warming up by the window.

I adore watching French TV in the US via TV5, and this is another reason to love the company.

Merci, TV5!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Lafayette: the Lost Hero... et moi: the Lost Heroine

I'm often asked "What did you do when you lived in Paris?"

Ouf.  The answer is, to opt for an oft-used phrase, "It's complicated."

I did some free-lance consulting, editing and copy-editing, and of course I created and fed this blog, my third child.

But one of the most fun, intriguing, and personally fulfilling volunteer gigs I had in Paris was to be a part of the Lafayette 250th anniversary celebration a few years ago.  Bright lights!  Big city!  Cameras rolling!

It turned out that a big part of the Lafayette anniversary woop-de-doo was of serious interest to acclaimed American filmmaker Oren Jacoby.  How he and I initially connected is too long a story to be of interest (it has to do with librarians, historians, and archivists, so don't fall asleep).  But ultimately, I ended up as an enthusiastic, starry-eyed participant in Oren's great documentary about the Marquis de Lafayette and his involvement in the American Revolution:  Lafayette, the Lost Hero.


There is always the but, right?  And biz being biz, after all those hours, I ended up on the cutting-room floor, so to speak. (Actually, I'm in the outtakes on the DVD, which you can purchase, or if you simply need to believe me.)

Such is life. But, seriously, I wouldn't have traded the learning-curve experience for anything. For example, for one memorable day, camera crews were rolling all day in my apartment in the 7e arrondissement (which I dubbed Studio 54, for the address.)

Bright lights at 54 rue Vaneau
Of course, there's zero stress in having your apartment filmed for posterity...

In Paris, I was filmed tootling around the Marché de Saxe on my bike, climbing the stairs at the French Senate (the Palais du Luxembourg) and at a gala at the Palais de Vincennes, interviewing the director of the Musée Carnavalet in  private tour of the museum's galleries, just to name a few segments.  My then-college-aged kids agreed to be filmed as I lectured them about the "Declaration des Droits de l'Homme" in the Concorde metro station. I counted among my Lafayette co-stars such journalistic luminaries as Michael Oreskes and Jim Gaines, plus the mayors of Lafayette cities in the US.

On the other side of the pond, too, I was there.  Back on home turf to see my son Harry, I plodded around the Bunker Hill monument in Boston in the rain, cameras running  as I chatted about Lafayette history.  In Charleston (while on a visit to Miss Bee in college), I learned a lot about South Carolina history as we focused on Lafayette's arrival there in  1777.   All for my hero, Lafayette.

And a plus:  I learned a lot of film lingo. Such as "sticks," and "wrap." You know, how cool am I?  Heady stuff.

Here I am with the great guys of the crew, South of Broad in Charleston.

Sometimes I felt like Snow White! 
But how do I put any of this on my resume?

I guess I don't.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Trick or Treat, Parisian Style?

Are you tired of the same old same old to hand out to trick-or-treaters on Hallowe'en?

Do those pound-and-a-half bags of mini Snickers, Mounds or Mr. Goodbars make you yawn (or stress from the conviction that you will. not. open. that. bag.)?

Are you a francophile who yearns to convey a sense of French culture and refinement to all those goblins and princesses and Where's Waldos who ring the doorbell?

Oui, oui, you say?  Here is your dream come true.

Voila! Eiffel Tower gummy candies.  You can order them here.

And yes, indeed,I have taste-tested them for you.  I received them in a goodie bag recently at a French conference.  Okay, all right, I finished off the whole packet once I got home.  

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

O Bescherelle, My Bescherelle!

I just commented to a friend on Facebook, "I used to sleep with my Bescherelle under my pillow the night before French exams."

And -- whoosh! -- a Proustian slew of ancient memories rushed in.  Le Bescherelle, my saint, my foe, my best friend, my nemesis, for so many years of studying French.  The slim, ever-solid volume in familiar red, slightly rounded at the corners from years of use and abuse.  In it:  the art of conjugating over 8,000 French verbs.  The Bescherelle:  it bolstered me, intimidated me, confused me, reassured me as I tried to master the intricacies of the subjonctif, the passé simple, the plus-que-parfait.

And that was what I called it -- mon Bescherelle.  Yes, it turns out that "Bescherelle" is considered a common word in French, just like Kleenex or Band-Aid in English.   Do we have an equivalent for a such grammar and language bible in English?  Maybe "my Strunk and White?"

I still have my original Bescherelle, somewhere deep in storage. (With all my books; long story.) I think it was a required purchase in 10th or 11th grade.  Long after donating my French-literature survey and other textbooks to rummage sales, my beloved/despised Bescherelle remains as much a part of my permanent library as my Webster's 7th Collegiate or my Petit Robert.

And Bescherelle is now also very 21st century, I'm glad to see.  Check out for immediate on-line answers on conjugation of French verbs, and much more.

P.S. My newly-discovered secret French-geek spelling fun activity on is to do the middle-school level dictées.  My scores are pas mal.  And it's free!

Merci, Bescherelle!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Garage sale find: Moulin des loups plate

Driving down a back road in Rhode Island last weekend, I spotted a neon-green poster, hand printed, which announced:  HUGE barn sale! 

What could I do but swerve and follow?

After finding the place, I wound my way to the back of the house to the ersatz barn/shed.  Blessedly, the sale had no contemporary knick-knacks: no legos or Candyland games, no outgrown plastic tricycles.   Just an authentic assortment of dusty treasures hauled out of the barn and spread out on planks and sagging wooden tables.  A vintage bicycle, with flat tires and rusted gears; several Flexible Flyer sleds, perfectly aged; old tools with a respectable patina of rust;  a collection of odometers from 1950's vehicles.  That sort of barn sale.  Heaven.
On the middle table, under a pile of tin items, I found this plate, caked in dirt.

"How much?" I asked the owner.

"What is that, Italian?" he asked.

"Nah, actually, I think it's French," I replied, with a forced (but hopefully convincing) note of disappointment in my bargaining voice.

"Okay, well how about a buck?"

I shrugged.  "Okay."

I poked around among the sundry ancient items some more before shelling over my dollah for this lovely bit of French faience.

I knew it wasn't a priceless gem, but somehow the design, as an old-fashioned French bit of tableware, appealed to me.  And the colors were so autumnal.

As with all random purchases like this, I get to wondering how it found its way from the Hamage Moulins des Loups Nord factory in France, where is was created, to this little hamlet near Newport, Rhode Island.  And where was the rest of the set?

Couldn't you write a novel just about the journey? 

I could.

Some day.

Friday, October 19, 2012

French Chic Book Giveaway

Weee-o!  (Or in French, ouais!) 

This is my first ever book giveaway!  In the past I have been supplied with books to read and review upon occasion; but this time the generous folks at Simon & Schuster have sent me an extra book to offer to readers of Polly-Vous Francais? in a Book Giveaway!

Drum-roll, please.

And this is not just any book.  It is Lessons from Madame Chic:  20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris by Jennifer L. Scott.

Okay, well, damn, I thought when I first heard about this book.  Or "Sniff!" as I wrote to the lovely  Simon & Schuster publicist who offered me the advance review copy, "This was the book I was going to write," I whined.  "Oh well, she who hesitates... blah blah."  So I swallowed my pride (and that half-written manuscript) and eagerly agreed to read the book and offer a book giveaway on ye blog.

Mardon me, Padame, but how the h** does one do a book giveaway?

Keep reading.

Of course one googles the phrase "Book Giveaway" and then picks from the best of the ideas and marches onward.

And so I present:  the Polly-Vous Francais first-ever book giveaway!

Are you still awake?  Would you like a free book?

If you'd like to learn how to be chic like the French women in this book, and get a free book which gives you all the details, simply leave a non-spam, non-anonymous comment below.  And while you're at it you can "like" our Facebook page!   I will print out all the names and cut their email addresses in little strips of paper and then place all the names in a beret before November 6 (the release date of the next edition) and then I will ask a random friend to extract the names from the beret.  Then the winner, selected at random, will be contacted.  Said winner will have to have enough confidence that I am not an axe-murderer to give me her (or his?) mailing address, and then I will send that winner a pristine copy of the wonderful Lessons from Madame Chic.  And I'll actually pay the postage.   And I actually promise to put it in the mail, unlike most of the other letters on my desk which have been languishing in the "to be mailed" pile for lo these many months.

But don't stop reading yet. You need the preliminary review!   Lessons from Madame Chic arrived in this afternoon's mail.  And I can't put it down.  It is a fabulous look at French savoir vivre.  Jennifer Scott never attempts to generalize or make stereotypes, but simply offers one view of chic French life as she observed from a year living in Paris with Madame and Monsieur Chic in the 16e arrondissement.  She balances it with great observations about Madame Bohemienne in the 11e.  No broad-brush "the French are this or that" statements, but simple and astute observations from her year in Paris.

I like that.

I think perhaps some cultural/social evolution has happened since the author first spent her junior year in France (most chic French women now wear jeans?), but this book is nevertheless a great resource, with helpful tips on how to incorporate French chic and practicality into your everyday life.  In every realm from fashion to food to family living to feeding your brain, with chapters such as "Exercise is Part of Living, Not a Chore." You'll be glad you read it. And I think you'll keep it on hand as a reference book.

So, my friends, submit comments below (and "like" us on Facebook for a plus) to qualify to win a free copy of Lessons from Madame Chic!  Comments (or new Facebook "likes") must happen before November 5.

The winner will be informed by November 6.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Announcing David McCullough's Next Book: Americans in Paris, 20th Century

Breaking news!  This weekend, historian and author David McCullough announced  -- for the first time to the public -- the subject of of his next book:  Americans in Paris from the early 1900's to 1930.  The theme, though, will be fascinatingly different from all other tomes on those all-too-famous Yanks in the City of Light.  His will be a study how the nascent technology of aviation influenced their lives and vice versa.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Federation of Alliances Francaises in Providence, where he was receiving the coveted Prix Charbonnier for his most recent work on Americans in Paris, The Greater Journey, Mr. McCullough unveiled his latest project.  Realizing, in Paris during a 4-day taping for 60 Minutes, that writing about Paris was in his heart, he knew his next book also had to be about  Americans in Paris in the 20th century.  "But," he said, "I was faced with the problem of 'How can I make it different from so much that has been written?  I cannot go down the same old path about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, etc. etc.'   I knew it could be done and I knew that there were so many more people than those clichés that they had become, alas.  But what would make it work?  And inform?  What was the perspective or lens through which I could look at this period that would be different?  And then, one day, came one of those moments where suddenly it hit me.  And, honestly, it just lifted me out of my chair.  And that is: aviation.  The advent of flight.  The advent of the airplane.  The most emblematic development of the 20th century."

Here is a brief glimpse of him reading the first page of his new book, describing Edith Wharton in Paris as she witnessed the first airplane to ever fly over Paris,on Monday, October 18,1909.

The video is truncated, alas.  I had to focus on the talk.  Page one had me completely spellbound.  Afterwards, Mr. McCullough said to me, "Well, Polly, if your face was an indication, I guess it will be a hit."

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Classic French Corkscrew

The season of the vendange, the autumn grape harvest, is winding down in France.
Which reminds me.  Have you ever seen one of these?

Whenever visiting friends asked, "What totally-unique souvenir shall I take home from France?" I marched them right down to BHV.  To the beloved basement, warehouse of All Things French.  To stock up on these French corkscrews for their friends and family.

One reason?  This is literally a piece of France:  wood from old French vines transformed into a corkscrew, called a tire-bouchon cep de vigne:  literally vine-wood pull-cork.

Another reason:  each corkscrew is unique, for obvious reasons.  Created by artisans. 

One aspect of the appeal of the tire-bouchon cep de vigne is difficult to explain until you have one in your hands:  the heft of the thing feels right, and the curve of the vine in your hand makes you feel like opening a bottle of wine is a bit of a ceremony.

Which, of course is as it should be.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Charm of Paris

Today I did something I've never done before.  I bought a charm for a charm bracelet.  Not just any charm, but a silver miniature Eiffel Tower.

I found it in a bowlful of charms for sale at an Upper East Side rummage sale, and it was perfect inspiration for a project that has long been on the back burner: to transform my childhood charm bracelet, and update it into a necklace.

When I was 12 or 13, my father gave me this sweet silver charm bracelet.

A horseshoe, for good luck, with my birthstone, a garnet, which has long been missing.  The great state of Tennessee, where I spent my early childhood.  A cruise ship, for the transatlantic trip our family took when I was five, ultimately arriving in Beirut to spend a year in Lebanon, where I learned my first French.  An airplane (don't you love the propellers?!) for all the shuttling back and forth between parents that made me an ace traveler at an early age.

This bracelet has been relegated to my keep-forever jewelry box, but never worn in many, many decades.  I don't really wear much silver jewelry, and noisy tinkling bracelets on my arm are so distracting.

BUT.  I've seen a few charm-bracelet necklaces with mixed gold and sterling charms and found them to be  ... charming!

So next all I need to do is to find a gold (fill?) chain like this at an appropriate length, and then add  meaningful charms as I find them.  I've already decided not to use any charms with enameled color, but to stick with gold and silver.

And now I have my Paris charm -- the Eiffel Tower.  Yes, a cliche, but so much more delicate than the Arc de Triomphe. Right?

What do you think?  Any advice?  I don't even know how to remove and add the charms.  I am a total novice in the jewelry-making hobby.

I need help for charm school!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dreams of Owning a Tiny House in France

I am not alone, I think, in having the dream of someday owning a house in France. A small "pile of stones" that I can call my own.  Ah, yes, with a deux-chevaux parked outside, and morning baguettes from the local boulangerie.

a bergerie
Part one:  the history

My first infatuation with the notion of living in a small stone house in France came when I spent the summer between high school and college on Île de Ré.  The main house of the compound was a larger residence, but within the walls of "Les Bergeries" were many small stone outbuildings, which each of the grown siblings had adapted for individual families' summer living.  I was hooked.

A year or two later, I experienced the life of a young Frenchman's "second home" in Brittany, complete with the 2 CV. Primitive, but certainly doable.  And cheap!

Since then,  I have come so close -- SO close! -- more times than you can imagine,  to owning a small place in France.  First was the house in Theneuil, during a summer spent in the Touraine in the early 1990s.  I was within a hair's breadth of purchasing the crumbling small rectory next to this church, complete with outbuildings and gorgeous stone courtyard.  After lengthy discussions with the mayor of the village, I was not certain of the fate of  the property's ancient stone wall, possibly to be torn down for a road widening. I sadly, ultimately, backed down from making an offer.  The price at the time was 70,000 FF, about $14,000 at the time. Awful end of story:  I bought a used Saab instead.  To this day, of course, this missed opportunity will always be referred to as my "Saab story."

The Maison de Poupee in St Enogat
In 2006, I fell in love with another tiny house, in Dinard.  I was staying with my dear friends Isa and Jacques; and since I was always the early riser in the house, I would go on my habitual hour-long morning walks through the town just after dawn, and return with baguettes and croissants for the family breakfast.  One morning on my perambulations, I wandered through the area of Dinard called St. Enogat.  That particular day, a woman leaned out of her second floor window and remarked cheerily, "Vous etes matinale!"  ("You're up early!").  I waved and smiled and continued on my way. Shortly thereafter, I stumbled across a small side street with the charming name of Passage du Beausoleil. Ah. If I could ever find a place to live on a street like this, it would be perfect, I thought.  And 20 paces later, behold:  a For Sale sign on a perfect little house.  This time I meant business.  I was living in Paris and was looking for a permanent residence in France to own and call home.  I called the agent.  I viewed the maisonette.  I took Isa and Jacques to visit and offer their opinion.  I made an offer. Signed the papers.

I became known among the local friends as "the woman who went out for baguettes and came home with a house."  My kind of fame!

The view from the little house in St. Enogat
Well, a long story made short:  the owner died, the unhappy and unwilling tenant flaunted a scary machete in the kitchen.  The sale never took place. Expensive lesson learned:  purchasing real estate in France is not even vaguely similar to purchasing real estate in the U.S.  Even if you speak French fluently.  Even if you have friends in the neighborhood.

And yet the dream lives on.  Whenever I tootle around the back-roads of France I always experience real estate envy.

Part two:  real estate envy.

Sshhh.  Some of my friends call it real estate porn.  It is just as addictive, so, well, yeah.  Dreaming of that sexy place that isn't yours, well, not yours now, but maybe someday, or in your dreams, or.. . well, okay kind of that.  If you have that kind of real estate fixation in the U.S., for example, you know what sites you go to for your fix. If you have French real estate yearning, for a small pile of stones in the luscious French countryside, you know where to go, right?

Oh, you don't ?

Well, let me tell you:  you go to Explorimmo.  That's the simple part. Then you need to know some French and some French geography.  You need to pick a region that you are interested in.  And if you want a tiny house, enter an amount such as 100 m2 in the square meters part. Well, it's complicated.  But, trust me,  it's pure French real-estate gratification, right on the screen.  Does it for me every time!

Part three: driving around.

There is nothing I would rather spend my leisure hours doing than exploring the routes départementales, the windy back roads, in France, and then from there even the smaller back roads.   Sheer bliss.  Because if you use GPS and always get where you're going, you can often miss some of the most fabulous buildings around.  Driving around Provence, I spotted this wonderful place in a horse paddock in a field in a town not far from Salon de Provence.

This is my new object of desire, the tiny house that I would love to live in in France.

I want to live in this house, or I want to replicate it exactly.  No more, no less.  My dream.

End of story. Mine, at least.  Where would you like to live your small-house fantasy in France?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Darling, je vous aime beaucoup

"Darling, je vous aime beaucoup" was a song which I associate with one of my favorite crooners ever, Nat King Cole.

I'd always assumed it was written for Nat in the 50's, but it turns out it was written for a cabaret singer named Hildegarde in the 30s.

Then, 50 years ago, Dean Martin, looking rather silly,  donned a beret and chomped a cigarette holder and produced this album, "French Style," which included "Darling" and a variety of other French-ish tunes.

My question is: why?  Was America's francophilia at such a fever pitch in the early 60's that any popular singer could cash in just by making a French album?

I've often pondered over the influence of francophilia in American culture and its ebbs and flows over the course of the decades.  From Dean to Soeur Sourire the Beatles' "Michelle, Ma Belle," to Morticia and Gomez to Freedom Fries to French Women Don't Get Fat.  It's a socio-cultural roller coaster ride.  I'm in it for the long haul.

How about you?

image via wikipedia

Thursday, September 20, 2012

French Vanity Fair

This is big news.

Condé Nast has announced that it will launch a French version of Vanity Fair.  Michel Denisot, of Le Grand Journal, will be editorial director.

90% of the content will be original to France.

A vos plumes!

image via wikipedia

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Je suis amoureux

I am in love. With Je suis amoureux, a sweet short film that is so adorable and so French. A perfect Paris love story.  Two minutes and fifteen seconds. I think you'll love it too.

I'M IN LOVE (Je suis amoureux) from DRÔLE DE TRIP on Vimeo.

Merci to PerfectlyParis for the tip!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What to do with 2 days in Paris?

A dear friend from high school emailed me a few days ago:

We're arriving in Paris Friday for a very short visit before our bike trip in Normandy starts.
Should we do the boat on the Seine at night??
Any other “must do’s” you can think of or restaurant we should go to?
Only have 3 nights and 2 days really!

And when a question like that comes in over the transom, and I don't have lots of time to think or research, I know that my speedy answer is coming straight from the heart. Here is what my fingers replied hastily:

So exciting!! It's apparently really hot in Paris right now, so a boat ride on the Bateaux Mouches might be nice, if you can be on the upper deck and it's open.

Two days? All I can recommend is walking walking walking around everywhere. Go from Place Vendome (that's where you're staying, right?) to the Opera to the Madeleine to the place de la Concorde, then (if you can bear it) up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe.

Then -- perhaps the next day, go to the Trocadero for an unforgettable view of the Eiffel Tower, then go down to the Seine and go "left" along the quais, admiring the houseboats etc., then cross the Pont Alexandre III. Okay, actually stop here and go to the restaurant at le Grand Palais called Le Minipalais. Then cross over the Seine, head toward the Invalides, wander through there and then go to the Musee Rodin. Great shady garden to cool off in.

If you only have a few days, do NOT try to actually go into places like the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. You'll spend too much time in line.

If the weather were cold, I'd recommend Angelina on rue de Rivoli for a hot chocolate!

If you want something fun, try a car ride in a classic Deux Chevaux through Paris through Quatres Roues sous un parapluie.

The Palais Royal is another of my favorite spots. And Cafe Marly next to the Louvre is a great spot to stop for lunch or dinner.

Of course, the classic Cafe de Flore or Les Deux Magots in the 6e are great even just to stop by for a coffee or glass of wine. Great people watching, which is what Paris is all about.

Have fun and send photos!!!
xxoo Polly

ps. Avoid Montmartre Place du Tertre, avoid  Chatelet les Halles, and do not pay any attention to beggars or to anyone who asks "Do you speak English?" They are gypsies and/or pickpockets.

pps: In all establishments, stores, restaurants, boutiques, buses, taxis, whatever, always begin with "Bonjour, Monsieur," or "Bonjour, Madame." Then move to English if necessary. But you'll always get better service. And "Merci, monsieur/madame, au revoir," at the end. It will make a world of difference in your visit!!!

I'm sure there are favorites that I have forgotten.  I neglected shopping spots and the Hotel de Ville.  What have I left out?  What do you think? What would YOU have suggested? How would you recommend condensing Paris into 2 days?
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