Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Is This the Party to Whom I am Speaking?

I learned a new phrase in class this week: "ce n'est pas logique." (It doesn't make sense.) Had I only known! It should be the tag line for Orange, otherwise known as France Telecom.

Let me back up a bit. Perhaps a week after we moved into our permanent apartment just after Labor Day, we arranged with Orange to subscribe to their triple play package: Internet service, cable TV, and phone service at one reasonable monthly price (particularly reasonable because the phone service includes unlimited calls to most of western Europe, the U.S., and Canada). Little did we know that the fun was just starting.

We got a nice welcome letter from Orange telling us to plug a phone into the wall and test it everyday until it worked. Three weeks went by; everyday I picked up the phone and dialed. All we could get was a little lady telling us (by recording) that we didn't have permission to use the line.

So then, it turns out that there's really no point in plugging the phone into the wall, it's actually supposed to be plugged into the router (which gets plugged into the wall). We set up the router but again had to wait. Finally on the magic day, the Internet service kicked in and the phone worked fine.

Well, the only hitch is that the phone only rings for 20 seconds before it flips over to a recorded message. I tried to change the length of the interval but 20 seconds is the longest option. The logical thing to do would be to turn off the automated message and just use an answering machine. But you actually have to call Orange to do this (and pay 34 centimes a minute for the privilege) plus, I'm told, you risk interrupting your Internet service for an indeterminate amount of time by doing so. Ce n'est pas logique! So if you happen to call, one of us will generally fly across the apartment (and it's a big apartment) to try to catch the call within the 20 second window. Oh yeah, and the only other problem I have is that my cell phone changes its ringtone everytime I charge it. But then I guess I should blame Motorola rather than Orange for that one.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Show Me the Money

Guess where we bank in France? Yep, that's right: Societe Generale, the bank that has reportedly lost over $7 billion at the hands of a single employee conducting fictitious trades. Our debit cards are still working, and at least we don't own any stock which at this point is worth less than half than its value a week ago. Guess that greed is a universal phenomenon.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Les Craneurs

You never know what you'll find when you round a corner in Paris. I saw these little grotesques made up of bits of bone on display in a gallery window on the Left Bank and somehow couldn't get them out of my head. The artist, Sabrina Gruss, calls these guys "les craneurs" which translates as "show offs."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

1 ≠ 1

A reminder today at the open air market about the subtle nuances of living in another country. Even when you don't have perfect command of the language, you figure that a smile, a nod, and a little point and grunt will get you roughly what you need. I kept forgetting, however, that when the French want to signify that they want one of something (say 1 tomato), they hold up their thumb. If you want 2, add your index finger. Hold up your index finger and you're likely to get 2 too. No doubt, it's more logical to start with the thumb and add fingers than to start with the index finger, go all the way to the pinkie and then back to the thumb, but try to teach this old dog new tricks!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I couldn't believe my eyes but there he was, straight out of central casting, an older gentleman perched just inside the mètro entrance at Place de la Concorde playing La Vie en Rose on the accordion. I looked around for someone with whom to share the moment, half expecting to see Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. So it got to me thinking: how true are those stereotypical American images of France? After five months here, I have learned that the French are more standoffish and formal than rude (even when you are torturing their language), and that while some Parisians are impeccably turned out, not everyone is a style maven. Plenty wear jeans and some even wear sneakers! But it turns out that the French really do:

  • wear berets (okay, not all of them. But on any day when the temperature's below sixty, you're more than likely to see a few.)

  • wear scarves. I suppose that some are Hermès or some other such designer but I'm really talking about the thick wool variety wrapped around the neck of every man, woman, and child at the slightest hint of cold. The little bitty kids wear them too, something you don't usually see in the U.S. except when they're bundled up for an afternoon of sledding.

  • smoke (a lot).

  • say "voila" and "ooh la la." Actually, it's more like "oh la la" and said with a kind of clucking, resigned head-shaking demeanor of "oh my goodness...what a shame" than the wink-wink suggestion know what.

  • carry baguettes under their arms. A trip to the boulangerie is a daily ritual and how else can you carry one or two loaves of bread, each two feet in length?

  • dress their little girls like dolls with chin length hair caught up in a bow, Mary Janes, and a proper wool winter coats (no ski jackets for these kids.)

Vive la France!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Parisian Digs

Our home in DC is one in a sea of red brick colonials and so too our home here is one in a sea of Haussmannian apartment buildings. In 1852, Baron Haussmann was commissioned by Napoleon III to modernize Paris, an effort that included development of a new sewer system and creation of the wide tree-lined boulevards, monumental public buildings and parks for which Paris is so well known and loved. (The fact that some 20,000 buildings and 40,000 people were displaced in the process is a mere footnote to the progress.) He also established uniform building heights and thus the Haussmannian building was born. The ground floor was to be reserved for shops and offices. The first floor (with a slightly lower ceiling than the floors above) was to accommodate the shopkeeper and his family. The second floor was the best of the lot with a balcony sweeping along the front. The third, fourth, and fifth floors were somewhat less grand but decidely nicer than the sixth floor attics, reserved naturally for the servants for all those living so splendidly below.

Our building probably dates from the turn of the century and sports a tiny elevator up the middle of the staircase. A doctor and a lawyer occupy the ground floor and first floor. Higher up, we don't have the full balcony but french doors on the street open out onto iron grilles that are balcony height. Two elegant fireplaces grace our living and dining room with gilt edged mirrors above, and there are fancy plaster moldings throughout. That's just some random building in the picture above, but you get the drift. Come up and see us some time.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Fashion Sense

Folks keep asking me how the kids' French is coming along. Well, they're making progress for sure but with only 40 minutes of instruction a day, fluency is a long way off. But, it seems, there are other aspects of la vie Parisienne that are sinking in.

The other day, my eight year old asked, "Mom, do you know the real name of 'channel'?" (Or at least that's how I heard it.)

Me: ""

Newly fashion conscious child: "It's Coco Channel."

I had no idea that couture was part of the third grade curriculum. Too bad most of her wardrobe comes from Lands End.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Caution: Marketers at Work

It all started when I read somewhere that Bruges was the Venice of the north. In due course, I read that Colmar, in France's Alsace region, is the Venice of France. (I'm sure this all has to do with canals.) Next thing you know, I'm hearing these crazy PR claims everywhere. Turns out that Bucharest is the Paris of eastern Europe, Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East, and San Francisco is the Paris of the west. Buenos Aires is being touted as the Paris of the south, although Asheville, North Carolina also makes that claim, perhaps among those with more limited definitions of southern. I didn't realize it but Lisbon is "one of the most enjoyable cities in Europe." (How's that for hedging?) And did you know that Ljubljana is "the new Prague." (Prague when? Do you even know where Ljubljana is?) Alert readers from Missouri may agree with my husband that Tipton is the Paris of central Missouri, perhaps because of its proximity to Versailles. I've also heard that Boonville is the Monaco of Cooper County. But don't ask me. I'm still trying to figure out if Utica or Rochester is the Venice of upstate New York.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Street Signs

Paris street signs are not always easy to see, as they're posted on the side of buildings, but they're usually wonderfully informative. Not sure where Rue Monge got its name? It's right there on the sign, noting that Monge was a mathematician and one of the founders of the Ecole Polytechnique. Not sure when Descartes lived? The street sign notes that he was born in 1596 and died in 1650. Some signs are more enigmatic.

Rue des Mauvais Garcons (Street of the Bad Boys), in the Marais, has had that name since the 15th century but no one can tell you why. (Too bad I don't have a companion picture of the rue des Bon Enfants in the 1st arrondissement!)

Literally, the street of the cat who fishes. This street is perpendicular to one of the quais that runs along the Seine and probably tooks its name from a tavern but no one really knows anything about that darn cat.

Oh and while I'm on the topic of street signs, here's a tip for tourists. There's really no concept of a city block in Paris. If you have to ask directions, you'll be told to walk to the next street or walk past two streets. In addition, the numbers on one side of the street don't necessarily correspond with those on the other. There are, in fact, even and odd sides, but one number may be in the 80s while the other will be in the 90s.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Smoking Ban Update

Almost two weeks and counting, and France's ban on smoking in restaurants appears to be intact. What a joy to eat out and not come home smelling like a cigarette oneself! Of course, the French are still smoking in outdoor spaces which includes sidewalk cafés and the sidewalk itself. The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, an unabashed environmentalist, has voiced concern about the potential increase in cigarette butts being tossed on the ground. The solution: distribute thousands of cendriers de poche (pocket ashtrays). I have not seen anyone using one of these, however. Now if they could just come up with a pocket trash can for subway and bus tickets that litter that ground (to say nothing of the dog poop) we'd be in great shape.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Other Americans in Paris

I hear tell that McDonald's has started selling lattes in an effort to beat Starbucks at its own game. I don't know if this is just a U.S. gambit but both of these chains are ubiquitous in Paris. There is a Starbucks just around the corner from us and McDonald's (or McDo -- pronounced with a long o -- as it is called here)is only a few steps further down the street. The French may curse globalization but both of these joints are busy at all hours and trust me, it's not the Americans who are keeping them in business. (Maybe it's the free wifi?) The two chains seem to have different strategies. The menu at McDo looks pretty familiar complete with le Big and Tasty and le Big Mac. (Can you sing “deux steaks hachés, une sauce inimitable, deux lits de salade, au cheddar fondu…”?) And while Starbucks is plying the same coffee drinks as it does in the States, the snacks are French. Actually it is about the only place around where you can get a coffee to go, and it's also pretty much the only place that sells a cup of coffee that's not doll-sized. Honestly though, I'm saving my centimes for the local fare. There'll be more than enough time for the quarter pounders and tall coffee lattes when we return home.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Presidential Protocol

An older French lady asked me yesterday whether I was for Obama and Clinton. I paused for a bit thinking how many Americans would have thought to ask her last spring whether she was for Nicholas Sarkozy or Segolene Royal. The French media is covering the U.S. presidential primaries extensively; the French tabloids are much consumed with the romantic fortunes of their own president. In case you haven't been following this, let me back up by explaining that President Sarkozy announced his divorce from his second wife back in October (perfectly timed for the day of the first transit strike) and has lately been seen out and about with former fashion model Carla Bruni, even taking her on vacation to Egypt where they (gasp!) shared a hotel room. Media speculation about the marriage date is at a fever pitch with conflicting statements from Bruni's mother and the president himself. (Bruni, for her part, was once quoted as saying "monogamy bores me desperately." So go figure.) You would think that this wouldn't bother the French; Mitterand apparently had a "second family" who travelled with him at state expense. But Sarko's confidence ratings dropped 7 percent in December. Turns out that he crossed the bright line between having an affair and flaunting it. For damage control, he's proclaiming that he just wants to be honest with the public. So will they tie the knot? Will his ratings rebound? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Best Evidence of Past and Present Lives Colliding

This little item popped up on my Google home page this afternoon and as a career health policy wonk, I could not resist posting it. We've not had any encounters with the French health care system to date (except for the orthodontist and I'll save that for another day).

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - France, Japan and Australia rated best and the United States worst in new rankings focusing on preventable deaths due to treatable conditions in 19 leading industrialized nations, researchers said on Tuesday.

If the U.S. health care system performed as well as those of those top three countries, there would be 101,000 fewer deaths in the United States per year, according to researchers writing in the journal Health Affairs.

Researchers Ellen Nolte and Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine tracked deaths that they deemed could have been prevented by access to timely and effective health care, and ranked nations on how they did.They called such deaths an important way to gauge the performance of a country's health care system.

The research was backed by the Commonwealth Fund, a private New York-based health policy foundation.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Commuting by Scooter

I was dropping off kids at the bus this morning when I was hit with a blogposting inspiration. The sight? A woman and three kids, each on his or her own scooter, moving swiftly into the crosswalk, across a busy Parisian street, and down the sidewalk. Scooters (and I'm talking the foot propelled razor scooter variety) are very big here in Paris and not just with the kids. It's not uncommon to see a businessman scooting along in a wool overcoat or a lady in heels hopping on for a ride, and there are plenty of kids scootering solo to and from school. No one bothers with extra padding or helmets (for that matter, no one wears bike helmets either although trust me, they should!) but I've yet to see any major wipeouts. Now that I think of it, there was one fellow back in DC whom I used to see going to and from the metro with a scooter. Maybe he got his inspiration in Paris too.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

La Galette Des Rois

Foiled again. I made a New Year's resolution to get a handle on my appetite for sweets only to find les galette des rois (king's cake) being offered in every shop in the neighborhood. The French celebrate the first Sunday in January with this unbelievably rich cake which, at least in Paris, is all almond paste, sugar, and butter. A little trinket called a feve is cooked inside and whomever finds the feve gets to wear the crown. Theoretically, I could have resisted such a purchase. As it turned out, our younger child went to a cooking class and came home with an entire galette plus instructions that she had to sit under the table while the cake was being cut and call out who would get each slice. I got the feve but she took all the glory. Back to my diet tomorrow.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Vacation Report

Just back from a weeklong family vacation to Spain -- Madrid, Sevilla, and Granada, to be more precise. I'd never had a particular yen to go to Spain before (and I honestly can't say why) but the price of the flights was right and I figured we might have a shot at a little more warmth and sun than staying in Paris or heading north. We definitely got the sun (probably an hour and half more daylight plus clear blue skies) and the warmth (a good 10 degrees F warmer than Paris) and had an all-around memorable trip. Highlights included the parks and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, the Alcazar and cathedral in Sevilla, and in Granada, the view of the Alhambra at sunset with the snow-topped Sierra Nevada mountains beyond. Plus we enjoyed many hours wandering the streets in all three cities. We ate well too, feasting on Spanish specialties plus Thai and Middle Eastern food, all of which were priced at about half what one would pay in Paris.

I must note that it hadn't been for Torquemada, the Jews might have had to leave Spain anyway because ham (jamón) appears to be a national obsession, served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Hams with the cloven hoof still attached were for sale everywhere; my two favorite shop names were the Museo del Jamón and Paraíso (paradise) de Jamón, both in Madrid. My potato chip survey uncovered Lay's jamón jamón chips. (So good you have to say it twice, I guess.) Squid is the other national dish but apparently there's no money in calamari chips.
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