Tuesday, April 22, 2008

High Tech, Not High Touch

I had one of those experiences this week that expressed the French service economy in a nutshell. Dry cleaning costs a fortune here and so the only recourse for those items that absolutely must be dry cleaned is the franchise 5àSec where the prices are moderately bearable but the customer service is...well, let's just say it leaves a lot to be desired. I spent a good 15 minutes waiting in line to drop off my items while the one clerk moved at the pace of molasses. The good news is that you pay in advance and pickup is fully automated. Actually it's quite cool. The receipt has a bar code on it which you wave in front of a reader. This sends the rack of clean items into motion. When your items finally come around, a waist high glass door opens up and your items come off the rack and onto a hook for your retrieval. Now that's putting technology to work.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

An Afternoon at Père-Lachaise

This afternoon the whole family went out for a walking tour at Père Lachaise, a huge cemetery owned by the city of Paris that is said to be the most visited cemetery in the world. Since it dates from the 19th century (and thus is practically new by French standards), the interest is because the place is chockful of celebrities. It was too crowded to get pictures of the tombs of Edith Piaf or Jim Morrison but here are a few of the other highlights.

Balzac. (Still haven't read anything by him yet.)

Delacroix. We also saw the tombs of two other great French painters of the 19th century, Gericault and David.

Gertrude Stein (Alice B. Toklas is buried in the same spot; her name is carved on the back of the same stone.)

Oscar Wilde. Those little blotchy marks are lipstick kisses.

This is just one monument from an entire section devoted to victims of the Nazis, including those sent to concentration camps and those fighting for the French resistance.

And then there are some average Joes, excuse me Raouls, buried here as well.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Heaven in a Pita

Yesterday, I set out to do my Passover shopping and headed straight for the Marais. While this quarter has become young, hip, and gay, it continues to be the heart of the Jewish community in Paris. It's where I found Chanukah candles (but alas no gelt) and today I scored matzo meal, concord grape wine, and a lamb shank for the seder plate. I figured that, while I was in the neighborhood, I might as well treat myself to lunch at L'As du Falafel (follow the link to read the New York Times review) on the rue de Rosiers. It's totally worth the ten minutes spent waiting in line for the biggest handful of deliciousness that 5 euros can buy. The warm pita is stuffed with layers of treats: pickled red cabbage, salted cucumber, glistening sauteed eggplant, crunchy fried chickpea patties, some oozing hummus, and dusting of harissa. I hear there is a place to eat inside but this is definitely street food. Since Jewish law is ambivalent on whether or not there is a heaven, all I can say is "yum."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

Not sure what Gertrude Stein meant when she wrote that but given that she spent most of her life in Paris, I figured it was appropriate. The sun is out this morning and though there's still quite a nip in the air, I'm determined to enjoy it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Be Prepared

I spend a lot of my time on public transportation and pathetic though it may be, it's one of my primary windows onto popular culture. The Métro is where I pick up Direct Matin, a daily newspaper sort of like the Washington Post Express, and where I peruse the ads for movies, vacations, and grocery store specials that line the passageways between lines. I check out what books other riders are reading, and sometimes I eavesdrop just to see if I can understand what's being said. Turns out, it's tough to learn a foreign language from listening to either one side of a cellphone conversation or a bunch of giggling teenage girls.

The métro is also its only little commercial engine with newstands, coffee shops, photobooths, the occasional souvenir shop, and vending machines dispensing sodas, snacks, and condoms. (For 2 euros, you can get a Coke, a two-pack of Twix, or 4 condoms.) I've never actually seen someone sidle up to the condom distributor, but then I don't tend to ride the train at what I imagine are the opportunity hours of 10pm to 2 am. Nothing to be ashamed about, though, right? Just good public health practice.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

French Beauty Secrets

I love this ad for Marionnaud, a chain of cosmetic stores. It says, "To stay in shape, I run one time each week to Marionnaud." I got a particular chuckle out of it because in my neighborhood, there are two Marionnaud stores scarcely a block apart. I always wondered how French women stayed so slim.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Creative Parking

Maybe it's Parisian or maybe it's just an urban thing. In any case, Parisian drivers sometimes have to get creative in pursuit of parking. The parking situation is bad, so bad that the kids' piano teacher was over a half hour late last week, all spent circling the quartier looking for a spot. (Wisely, this week she came by subway.) I didn't have to search far to get these snapshots. All were taken within about a three- block radius on the same sunny afternoon.

When in doubt, get perpendicular.

Perhaps to be applauded for not blocking the crosswalk?

Although in the States, this is strictly a no-no, I don't know about Paris. This may in fact be legal.

Who says that you have to park near the curb anyway?

Just when I thought everything was fair game, I saw this fellow getting ticketed for parking on the sidewalk. His protests fell on deaf ears.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Gee Whiz Facts

My first job out of college was working for a congresswoman who loved nothing better than to sprinkle her speeches with a couple of what she called, "gee whiz" facts, so much so that writing her speeches often required little more than stringing together a few gotcha statistics.

Now these many years later, I'm finding the concept particularly helpful since my reading skills in French don't go much beyond the 5th grade level. As the nuances of opinion pieces or discussions of political strategy are pretty well over my head, I tend to confine my reading to straight reportage. Here are a couple of interesting facts, culled from the giveaway daily newspapers, that may make you too say "gee whiz."

  • The average age at which the French begin smoking is 13.5 years for girls, 13.3 years for boys.

  • Fully half of all French births are out of wedlock. (I was surprised to find that almost four in ten U.S. births are also out of wedlock.)

  • France is the number one tourist travel destination worldwide but the number of Americans coming to Paris was down 5.5 percent last year and 14 percent in January. (Think the shrinking dollar maybe has something to do with it?)

  • According to the Guiness Book of World Records 2008,the French have the world's highest average consumption of fat with Italians, Hungarians, and the Greeks not far behind. On average, each French person eats 6 ounces of fat a day. (And they still live longer than Americans.)
  • Monday, April 7, 2008

    Never a Dull Moment

    I overheard another American today who said, "living in Paris is a little bit like being on The Amazing Race. There's always some crazy obstacle to overcome." Today's obstacle (or perhaps the word "debacle" is more apropos) was the Olympic torch relay. I'm sure the organizers had in mind a triumphant run up the Champs Élysées and a couple of money shots with the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. No can do. Although 3,000 police officers were on duty, those demonstrating on behalf of Tibet got the upper hand. The torch travelled several bits on a bus and finally the last leg of the relay was abandoned. Traffic was a mess and the school buses coming from the western suburbs rearranged their routes to drop off kids at the city's outer limit. (If you want to know more, check out the blogs of other Americans in Paris: Polly Vous Francais and Misplaced in the Midwest.) I heard rumblings about a general strike on the 16th of April. Let's see what they can dish out for the next episode.

    Sunday, April 6, 2008

    30 Minutes a Day

    Well I finally did it. I joined a gym. The first few months we were here, I was walking so much (including those darn steps to and from the 3rd floor apartment) that setting aside time for exercise seemed unnecessary. Then winter hit and while I was still making those trips up and down several times a day, I substituted a lot of subway and bus rides (plus some days of cocooning) for those hour to two hour-long walks across the city. It was time to put some real heart pumping exercise back into my routine. I got out my dictionary, figured out how to say "I want to join" and now it's done.

    The gym seems familiar in many ways including the American made cardio and weight machines, the class names (Body Pump and Body Sculpt to name just two),the thump of techno, and the big boys hanging out with the free weights. In other ways, it's a different world. First of all, I've got to work on my metric conversions for the weights. Plus, I seem to be the only woman there wearing shorts. (At least, I'm not dressed like the 70ish lady I saw yesterday in full-on Jane Fonda style aerobic wear and legwarmers plus four to six heavy gold pendants and a poufy white hairdo. Even she wasn't as wacky as the 80ish woman who was there last week in a brown cotton tunic, fishnet stockings, oxfords, and black leather gloves.) Seems that for French men of a certain age, a hearty "bonjour" isn't good enough. There must be handshakes all around. Unfortunately, while there are a few spinning bikes, there are no spinning classes.

    Well, I better get going before all the ellipticals are claimed. Although come to think of it, today's the Paris Marathon. Does cheering for real athletes count as exercise?

    Friday, April 4, 2008

    Had a Bad Day?

    The next time you have a bad day, just remember that it's all relative. Pity the poor engineer of this train who found out something was amiss with the brakes just a bit too late. This incredible photo was taken at Paris' Gare Montparnasse in 1895. According to Wikipedia, just five people on the train were injured and the sole fatality was an unfortunate woman on the street who was hit by falling masonry. The building was torn down years ago to make way for the Tour Montparnasse, the only skyscraper blotting the Paris skyline. (They say that the best of view of Paris is from its observation deck, mostly because when you're up there, you can't see the Tour itself.) A modern train station still operates on the site.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008

    Never on a Sunday?

    One of the big headlines in today's paper was the 450,000 euro fine imposed on Ikea (everyone's favorite furniture store) for being open without permission three Sundays last November. While we've been lucky enough to not have had a reason to go to Ikea, I have to admit that I've been a bit stumped about Sunday openings and closings myself. The market on our corner is locked tight as is the bakery just down the block. But the nearby market street with its cheese shop, fishmonger, butcher, bakery, and greengrocer is usually humming until around 1 in the afternoon. Restaurants appear to be open or closed willy nilly. (Actually a lot of restaurants are closed on Saturdays too.) Other stores are almost always closed on Sunday although some of the big retailers will occasionally have an "overture exceptionnellement." (This just means an opening out of the ordinary but it sounds so special in French.)

    So the news about the fines sent me to the Web where I did my best to piece together just what the heck is going on. Like most things in France, the history is long. A 1906 law prohibits Sunday openings by nonfood retailers to preserve a time for rest, family, and presumably prayer. Over time, exceptions have been made at the discretion of local governments, for example, to allow shops to open five Sundays a year, or in the case of shops dedicated to sports, home improvement or in some tourist areas, to open many Sundays. President Sarkozy proposed sweeping changes in these rules as part of his platform of economic reforms, in part to boost the economy and in part just to give some relief to working families who must now compact all their errands into Saturday. But small business owners are worried about getting creamed by large chains and the unions want to preserve the sacred day of rest. So the reforms have been back burnered. Rest assured that we haven't heard the last of this.

    Tuesday, April 1, 2008

    Homesick? Not.

    Every now and then, folks ask if I'm homesick. The truth is there's nowhere I'd rather be right now than here. Still there are some things that I'm missing and like most expats, they tend to cluster around friends, family, and food. Since we live in an apartment building that's probably 100 years old, we're also lacking a few modern niceties at home. So, leaving off the names of those near and dear, here's the short list:
    • a garbage disposal
    • tasty salsa. You can buy salsa here (in the foreign food aisle) but it's dreadful! The French like flavorful but they don't do spicy hot. You can get good Moroccan or Thai here but no Mexican.
    • the Washington Post with my morning coffee. Reading it online just isn't the same.
    • bagels
    • our programmable thermostat
    • gallon jugs of milk

    I don't miss:

    • television. We do have a television with a gazillion channels, all in French except for CNN and the BBC News. Theoretically, one can learn from French from watching the news or even dubbed American sitcoms but I can't bear to watch enough to test this theory.
    • having a car. Okay, every now and then, I see a Toyota Prius (usually a taxicab) and I get that wistful, we used to own that feeling. But then I consider whether I could handle the French approach to driving (it's always priority to those on the right, even if it means stopping when you're in a traffic circle) or whether I would ever find a parking space, and it's pretty clear that we made the right choice by selling our cars.
    • living my life by the clock. Since I'm not working and the kids are only doing the bare minimum of afterschool activities, I'm no longer running from the office to pickup to practice and so on. For the moment at least, life is blissfully uncomplicated.
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