Sunday, December 15, 2013

Season's Greetings

from a postcard I bought
Souhaits de Bonheur.  Happy wishes of the season.  Which is of course, what I wish to all of you.

But take a look at this image. Is it me, or do I depict an existential lack of happiness in the assembled crowd?  What a bunch of sad-sacks! Not exactly resounding with happy wishes.

So, what do you think about the underlying message here?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

This dog takes the phrase "leche-vitrine" to a new level

It's the holidays! Time for some shopping, or at least a little window-shopping, n'est-ce pas?

This Manhattan pooch must have some French blood, as he demonstrates, literally, comment faire du lèche-vitrine.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Le Crocodile in Paris

Paris vitrines (store windows) never fail to delight and inspire.
More often than not, they make me stop in my tracks. And snap photos if my camera is handy.

A few weeks ago I spotted this one, featuring crocodile or alligator leather goods, complete with deceased mascot.
Wow. Would such a window display ever exist in the US?, I wondered.

I was so awestruck I was at a loss for a caption for this photo.

But it clearly needs one, so I welcome your suggestions.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

How do you say "Boo!" in French?

Like this:
Pasteur statue, place de Breteuil. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Bonjour Black

Seen on the streets of New York.  Is black the new black?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

That first magical summer in France, 40 years ago?

Forty years.

Forty years ago today, I boarded an Air France flight at Orly to return from France to the U.S.  It had been a magical summer. My first time ever in France. A life-changer.

That June I had graduated from high school and had gone on a three-week whirlwind tour of Romania with my school glee club.  In anticipation of the flight's stopover in Paris, earlier that spring I had begged my parents to see if they knew anyone in France with whom I might spend some or all of the summer.

Hooray!  As it turned out, there was a family.  Friends of friends had lived in Paris working for Time-Life; eight years before, in 1965 when they were leaving Paris, they had brought along a lovely young Parisian, Marie-Noelle, to Connecticut as an au pair so that their children could keep up their French.

Fast forward to 1973: Marie-Noelle was now in her late 20s, in Paris, married with a baby of her own.  Her extended family (grandmother, parents, and sisters and their families) spent the summer on Ile de Ré.  They would be delighted to have me as an au pair for the summer.

Back then, a fille au pair was not hired help, not a euphemism for a nanny.    Au pair meant on a par.  (In fact, I was never paid a cent.  In retrospect, I should have paid them.)  From the beginning I was treated as a younger sister or cousin, completely part of the family, who earned my keep by lending a hand with the children and household duties, mostly with the assistance of Mamita, the grandmother.

For eight weeks I was immersed, submerged in French family vacation life.  Upon my arrival, they asked if I would rather speak in English or French.  "En francais!" I blurted rather vehemently.  Oh-so-politely, not another word of English was spoken to me all summer.  (Except most evenings when Marie-Noelle's husband Jacques would re-re-fill my wineglass at dinner, joking, "Just a leeeetle drop, Pollee?")

It was a summer of transformation.  Twelve years of classroom French, filled with Moliere and Sartre and verb conjugations, rapidly transformed into must-use everyday French.  Who the heck knew what a biberon was?  Une couche?  I thought une couche was a layer. Baby bottle and diaper.  Got it. But in short order the learning curve became so fast I didn't have time to translate:  I just had to figure it out.

Example:  I knew the word for floor was le plancher.  But when someone said "Tu peux mettre cela par terre," I had to do some quick mental leaps to figure out that it meant "Put that down (on the ground)."  Finally the mental leaps were arriving at such locomotive speed that I put away my mental French-English dictionary and just went with it.  And French food and cooking lingo deserve their own chapter...

I had to keep up daily with spoken French on all levels:  toddler and pre-school age; vivacious sophisticated Parisian 20-somethings with their large entourage, with full-on colloquialisms, at dinner or dancing at island nightclubs or sailing; kind and worldly grandparents whose English far surpassed my faltering French; and the clear-speaking but cryptic Loma, the ancient, tiny, widowed great-grandmother swaddled in black. To me, it seemed Loma parsed out wisdom in 19th-century French haiku.

But it was far more than just a language-learning experience.  For 8 weeks, every minute, every hour was an awakening.  This life is what I was meant to know, I thought.  This is where I belong. French beach picnics -- feasts, not just sandwiches! -- boat outings, everyday summer dinners, daily shopping, meal preparation, everything about French lifestyle was both eye-opening and instantly right. The pace of life and the focus. I found my true sense of self.

I was eighteen.

Reality check:  1973:  no cell phones, no internet, no TV on the summer island; and a long-distance call was prohibitively expensive, ergo was for emergencies only.  Thus my only communication with American family and friends for eight weeks was via postcard or aerogramme.  Bless my mother, who saved all my letters home.  By mid-summer my English syntax was down the drain, and the vocab was slipping:  "We go every day to the plage with the children,"  I wrote.  I wasn't putting on airs, I was losing myself in French and France.

And that is how I really learned French. I lost my American self in the French world.

I think I never fully returned.

Oh, I physically returned to America on that Air France flight 40 years ago.  I had flown from La Rochelle airport to Le Bourget (I think).  I know I took a connecting bus to Orly.   Gilles, my handsome summer-unrequited-crush who had spent many July and August weekends as a guest with the family, was waiting for my bus as it pulled in to the bus lane at Orly (he worked for Air France, as had his uncle, Antoine de St. Exupery). Belmondo-esque, he stood at the entrance, one leg perched on the barrier, leaning and smoking a Gauloise. My heart fluttered.

I attempted to haul my embarrassing, oversized, orange, too-American Tourister suitcase from the luggage compartment of the coach.

"Laches," he asserted gently, grabbing the handle.

Lâche raced through my brain, seeking quick processing.  Lâche, poltron, couard, peureux went the brain scan in a nanosecond from senior-year Advanced French language class when we had to memorize synonyms.  Why was he calling me a coward? My heart pounded.

"Laches," chided Gilles, tugging more firmly.  I finally released the handle to him (which was what he was in fact saying: "Let go"), banking on the body language, still unsure why I was a coward. Did he think I was grasping so tightly because I was embarrassed at the weight of my suitcase?

He bought me an Orangina, got me checked in with his svelte, perfectly perfumed young French colleagues at the desk, and finagled as much VIP treatment as a junior Air France worker could finagle.  After some final chit-chat, address exchanges and "Oh yes, we'll keep in touch" banalities, he accompanied me to the gate.  A total gentleman, truly and genuinely so.

It didn't register -- actually at that point, I couldn't really fathom what it meant -- that I was leaving France and returning to the States.  A seven-hour flight was not enough time to adjust, linguistically, emotionally, or culturally.

I had become a different person.  I was still Polly, but who was she?

Three days later I was sitting in a freshman "French class" in college in Connecticut: nothing French about it, at all, really.


related posts:


the French R

A la plage

Monday, August 05, 2013

Fermeture Annuelle: photos

We all know by now, don't we, that Paris more or less shuts down in August.  Some of us revel in the peacefulness of a quiet Paris.  Others are challenged by the many, many boutique and local-shopkeeper closings.  Still others are away at vacation retreats and don't notice the difference.

But it is a rite of summer.  It is Paris.

A few years ago I commissioned some enterprising photographers to capture the signs posted in Paris shop windows announcing their summer closings. Even the convents post a "Fermeture Annuelle sign!

Here are a few of those signs. (Gentle reminder:  all copyright Polly-Vous Francais) 

Bonnes vacances!

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, signed Malkovich


Tonight was opening night of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, directed by John Malkovich, part of the Lincoln Center Festival.
Actors warming up on stage before the play begins

I was all wound up in anticipation of this production, for many reasons.  I had studied the epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos as a French major in college, and later actually acted in a community theater production of Christopher Hampton's play wherein I played (ulp) the Marquise de Merteuil (aka Glenn Close).

None of my past experiences -- reading for literature, watching the film, acting in the play -- prepared me for this tour de force.  This is Liaisons Dangereuses as it was meant to be experienced.


It was totally brilliant, which is a relief when expectations and ticket prices run high.

In the Director's Notes in the Playbill, John Malkovich says:  "Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a story for the ages.  It is here restored to its original language, and I think today's theatergoers will readily grasp it, even if they don't speak French. It is clear and clean and mean and fast.  It hurts as life invariably does.  It is snotty and decadent and sexy.  It is infantile, tragic, and amusing."

It is indeed all of the above.  The play is highly charged and erotic, and had many in the audience squirming in their seats.  (Some oldsters left at intermission.)  It is witty and superbly staged.  The acting is superlative (with the exception of a vaguely disappointing Mme de Rosemonde, who was just okay).

Highly recommended!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Post Cards from Paris: a Thought and a Kiss

Vintage post cards of Paris (or anywhere, for that matter) are delightful, and are easy and unique souvenirs to bring home.

This is a sweet one -- Une pensée de Paris, a play on words since pensée means both pansy and thought.  Say it with flowers:   Thinking of you from Paris.  With the requisite monuments, of course.

The correspondence on the reverse side of this post card was tame, a perfunctory "Tous mes remerciements, Joanne."  The card was addressed to Monsieur et Madame Giraud, 40 rue de la Station, Ermont, which is just north of Paris.  I did a little research:  here is rue de la Station at about that time.  Probably late 1800s.

It's innocent enough, tiptoeing into someone else's thank-you note.

It is another matter entirely to stumble upon an ancient post card containing a woman's bold and feverish declaration of love, which, I fear, may be unrequited. Reading a love letter meant for private eyes feels intrusive ... and yet it causes insatiable curiosity.

Un Baiser -- A Kiss.  The photo may be the woman herself. (To me it looks like a studio portrait turned into a carte postale.) What do you think?

The reverse:  no address.  I'm not sure how the post card was delivered, because it was stamped and metered on the photo side.  It was written probably about 1903.

The message?  I got so sad reading this.  (Translation at the bottom.)   The age old story.

Bien cher et tendre,
L’accueil que vous ferez à ma lettre me cause une inquiétude pénible. J’ai longtemps combattu avant de vous faire l’aveu de ma tendresse. J’ai vingt fois déchiré des lettres commencées enfin mon chéri mon cœur la emporte sur toutes mes craintes. C’est sans doute avoir de l’audace de vous faire un semblable aveu mais il est sincère et je n’exagère pas ma situation, si je vous dis que lorsque je vous ai vue[sic] la première fois j’ai senti un transport qui m’était inconnu. Je ne vous propose pas mon chéri de partager une affection passagère qui n’a rien de sincère ni de durable. Je désire m’unir a vous par les liens du mariage et tous mes vœux sont que.. liens nous unissent a jamais. J’espère que vous daignez répondre à mes sentiments. J’attends votre décision, je l’attends avec impatience et […] quelle ne soit pas désespérant. Je vous en supplie soyez sincère et franc n’ayez aucun détour, car voilà déjà de longs jours que je vous connais, vous avez du remarquer tout le bonheur que j’éprouve lorsque je suis près de vous. Je vous aime de toutes les forces de mon âme. O vous si charmant et si doux, auriez- vous la cruauté de repousser l’amour le plus vrai et le plus sincère. Si vous ne pouvez pas me donner des sentiments aussi affectueux que ceux que je me sens pour vous, laissez-moi au moins l’espérance un mot de grâce sinon, chéri dites-moi que je puis vous chérir et vous aimer. Veuillez agréer cher bien aime avec mon profond respect l’assurance de mon amitié et de mon dévouement. Votre amie qui vous aime. 28.16

Quickly translated:

"My tender darling,
Thinking about your potential reaction to this letter causes me painful worry.  I have been so anguished about expressing my feelings to you.  I have begun and then torn up letters to you twenty times, because, dear heart, therein lie my fears.  It is certainly bold to make such a pronouncement to you, but it is sincere and I am not exaggerating my current situation if I tell you that when I saw you the first time I felt transported in a way I'd never felt before.  I am not asking you to share with me a fleeting affection, which is neither sincere nor long-lasting.  I want to be united with you by the bonds of marriage and my only wishes are that we be united forever.  I hope that you will return the feelings.  I await your decision, I wait for it with impatience and [hope] that it will not be disappointing.  I beg of you, be sincere and honest, don't beat around the bush, because I have already known you for so many long days, and surely you must have noticed the joy that I experience when I am near you.  I love you with all the force of my soul.  O you so charming and so kind, would you be so cruel as to reject a love so sincere and so real?  If you cannot love me in the same way that I love you, please give me at least a kind word, dear one please tell me that at least I can love you and cherish you.

Please accept dear one with my profound respect the assurance of my friendship and my devotion.  Your friend who loves you."

Parting thoughts:

1.  What do you think the response was, if any?

2.  I am amazed that even love letters are closed with "Veuillez agreer....l'assurance de etc etc."  That formula is really, really ingrained in the culture!

3.  Was 28.16 a code name?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A lorgnette from Paris

My most chic acquisition during my Paris visit was a lorgnette.
Wandering the stalls of the Marche aux Puces at Vanves, I was enthralled at all the offerings but tiring of needing to take my reading glasses out of my purse every time I wanted to inspect an item. (I still refuse to put them on a chain around my neck.  I just can't.)

And then lo and behold, just what I didn't know I was looking for:  this vintage lorgnette! 10 euros is my kind of price.

I hadn't really ever seen anyone use a lorgnette in real life.  Perhaps in the comedy archives of my youth:  Marx Brothers' movies, or Saturday morning cartoons?

Surely I could create a new fashion statement for Boomers like me who have had it with peering through the glasses perched on the mid-bridge of the nose.

Besides, the totally cool part:  this lorgnette is compact.  It folds. I spent the rest of the morning inspecting objets through my new specs.

I suppose putting this on a pretty chain or lanyard wouldn't kill me.
Related post:  Men Seldom Make Passes.  I guess I do have a thing for folding eyeglasses.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A few iconic views of Paris

Most of this recent visit to Paris, I just wasn't interested in taking photos.  It seemed too clicheed, too... I don't know what to call it.  Everybody and their brother are taking photos of everything there is to see in Paris.  What could I document that wasn't already documented by a hundred thousand instagrams, Facebook photos, and more?

So I revisited Paris mostly with my eyes, ears, and heart. I absorbed Paris in my pores.  Wow, did it feel good.

My cautionary tale:

The summer I was 19 I returned to France to revisit the wonderful friends I had made the previous summer, which had been my first and tremendously pivotal experience in France.  That subsequent summer, I borrowed my mother's Zeiss Ikon 36 mm camera and took 6 rolls of film, to document all of the magic that I had lived the year before.  Returning home, I had the film processed -- only to discover that the camera's shutter had stuck after the second frame,  and I had zero pictures.  Zero.

On that awful day, I vowed never to live a moment through the lens of a camera... NEVER.  I understood that the moment lived is far more important than the documentation of it ... to me.

How could I have envisioned 2013, when not a moment goes undocumented and immediately shared with friends?  Sometimes I want to just chuck the camera (and everyone else's) and then some times I'm so grateful for those fleeting moments captured by camera.  It's a toss-up.

That said, I did take a few photos of recurring sights of Paris that I simply had to document for posterity. All from the vicinity of my rental apartment on the Esplanade des Invalides.  When you walk out the door and this is what you see every day, you simply have to take a quick snapshot, eventually.  Too breathtaking!

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Aperitifs and nibblies

One thing I always appreciate about ordering an aperitif at a cafe in France:  no drinking on an empty stomach!     Invariably, one is served a dish of olives or peanuts, or if you're even luckier, some other zakouskis of the chef.

Here, lovely standard fare with a glass of Sancerre at le Bar du Central, rue St. Dominique, in the 7e.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

French cafe furniture for all!

When the raindrops stop and there is time for meandering around Paris, life just doesn't get any better.  On boulevard Beaumarchais, I was heading over to a jewellery vente privee (trunk show) when I saw a store filled with French café chairs. Floor to ceiling, literally.

The art, as always in Paris, is to stop in your tracks, head in the door, and check it out.

So, of course I went in.  Of course I had to find out all about it.

I know many people who have longed to have French café-style chairs and tables on a patio, and I agree.  Not that I would want to re-create an entire Café de Flore chez moi (though that is possible), but just would enjoy adding a bit of panache, a little je ne sais quoi to a typical outdoor gathering space.

Well, Grock France is the place that supplies the furniture and furnishings to the cafés and restaurants of France.  The real deal!  There were chairs in every imaginable café style, color and chair weave.  Plus tables, menu holders, the whole shebang.  The genuine article.

I hope they deliver worldwide.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Do You Love Paris Street Signs?

Tell me.

Do you really love Paris street signs and French metal signs in general?

If you are like me and adore all of them -- not just the classic plaques émaillées with the street names, but also the house numbers, the Pietons signs, the Sens Interdit signs, well.  Have I got a treat for you.

On rue des Tournelles today I came across the Gallery Art Jingle and an exhibit of a fabulous artist, Fernando Costa, now know just as Costa.  If you haven't heard of him already (he is quite famous, at least in France), his medium is reclaimed metal, mostly signage.

All inspirational and on top of that, just perfect for any francophile.

To top it off, it turns out that he is also designing this year's Art Car for the 90th anniversary of the renowned Le Mans race, and the car will be unveiled tonight!

If all this creative art is too hi-falutin' for you, and if  you just want some street-sign memorabilia to take back home... well, let me see.  You can always, ummm, buy this men's shirt, seen shortly thereafter on rue de Turenne.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Menu translation du jour

Lunch today at l'Entracte de l'Opera, a pleasant and bustling café and brasserie. As I was finishing my delicious poulet fermier, a kindly older British couple was seated near me at a corner table.

Getting straight away to business, they ordered, in high-school French, a bouteille de rosé.  The waiter departed to fetch their wine, and they began to scan the food part of the menu.  They looked quizzically at the specialty of the day:  Souris d'agneau.

"Un souris? What's a souris? Isn't that a smile? A smile of lamb? Whatever could that be?"

"Just ask the waiter, dear."

The waiter returned with their rosé, ceremoniously had monsieur taste the wine.  Then retrieving his pad, "Vous avez décidé?"

The gent looked up through his glasses and asked, "C'est quoi un souris, s'il vous plait?"

"Euuhh, une souris, c'est un petit animal," replied the waited, scrambling his fingers across the tabletop to illustrate a little mouse running.  He searched for a translation.  "Euuh, a moose?"

"A mouse???"  They looked at each other with the-French-are-serving-WHAT? startled expressions.

Never able to mind my  own business, I intervened.

Une souris is indeed a mouse,  une souris d'agneau is a lamb shank.

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