Thursday, July 31, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me

Today's my birthday, a date I share with J.K. Rowling and a host of D-list celebrities including Australian tennis player Evonne Goolagong, economist Milton Friedman and dare I say it, Liberace. Even though there were enough candles on my cake this morning to risk setting off the smoke detectors, I'm a big fan of birthday celebrations at any age. As a kid, having a summer birthday seemed like a bit of rip-off. There were never any cupcakes at school and sometimes it was hard to rustle up guests for a proper party. But as I look back, I consider the many different places where I celebrated -- with my grandparents in Wisconsin, at our favorite spot on Lake Champlain in Vermont, the year I had maple frosting on a cake purchased from a bakery on Cape Cod, and a memorable train trip from Copenhagen to Amsterdam on my sweet sixteen. (My dad bought me roses in the train station.) I will never forget the monthlong celebration of my birthday, sometime in the early 90s, that involved a lot of magic markers, thanks to my colleagues in DC. And now a birthday in Paris. How lucky I have been! Thanks to friends for the e-mails and cards and to my family for the gifts and the homemade carrot cake.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Purchasing Power

Well the rankings are out and it turns out that Paris isn't the most expensive place for expats to live. Not even close. Moscow comes out on top of Mercer's latest Worldwide Cost of Living survey and Paris, in 15th place, is lagging behind several other European cities including London, Copenhagen, Geneva, Zurich, and Milan. Kind of softens the blow of those 4.5 euro café crèmes. Thanks to the weakening dollar, New York is way down the list at number 22 and my adopted hometown, Washington, DC, is a veritable Filene's Basement at 107th. I'd go out and celebrate, only we're going to Denmark soon so I'd better save my nickels, oops I meant centimes, darn it, that's kroner.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Paris When It Sizzles

Just when I thought I had run out of things to write about (witness my last post about the key to our cave), Paris threw me another one.

It was hot today, in the high 80s with some intense sunshine. Now compared to a sultry Washington, DC summer with its unrelenting heat and humidity, this is a cakewalk. But then again, Paris is not really set up for the heat. Air conditioning is hit or miss and people just plain do not know how to dress for it. The refreshment vendors by the Eiffel Tower were doing big business on cold drinks at 3.50 euros a pop (over $5.50 for those American tourists) and the fountains at the Palais de Chaillot just across the river were chock full of people. Some had clearly made the trip to take the dip, including dozens of bathing suit clad kids. But others, including these two dudes pictured below, one smoking and the other talking on his cell phone, must have just been unable to resist the water. Frankly, I find the whole scene a little gross (I can only imagine the bacteria count!) but then heat has driven people to do worse. I think I'll just put my feet up and stay inside for the rest of the afternoon.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Key to the Castle

The security in our building is serious business. There is a digicode for the wooden door to the street, another digicode for the door into the building from the courtyard, and then a couple of high-tech keys for both the front and rear doors. You're supposed to double lock the front door when you come in and out because otherwise one of Paris's notorious cat thieving gangs can supposedly pop the lock in 9 seconds flat and clear out your place in not much longer than that.

But the key I like best is the one pictured here, a throwback to the technology in place when the building was erected at the turn of the century. It's about six inches long and packs a heft. I like to think of it as the key to our castle while in truth, it's just the key to the cave, a romantic term for the dirt floor storage space in the basement, that's divided by crude wooden doors (each with its own stenciled number) into multiple units. It's not creepy enough to be a dungeon. If anything, it reminds me of the place where those American GIs used to hang out on Hogan's Heroes. Still, you can't carry the key without imagining a more elegant past when the walls were lined with dusty crates of fine vintages.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The front page of today's issue of Libération, what was once the serious lefty newspaper in France, and now resolutely center left. The crowd pictured, though, is the one that gathered in Berlin. Sadly for us, Obama's visit to Paris will be all too brief, since he has a dinner date with Gordon Brown in London. There's speculation that the presumed Democratic nominee doesn't want to make too much of a scene here, risking the wrath of all those France hating, freedom fries eating voters back home. God bless America. We're just holding our breath until November.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


The weather in Paris for the past few days has been uncharacteristically beautiful - sunny, clear blue skies, and temps hovering around 80F. Too hot for most Parisians who don't seem to have the knack for dressing for warm weather (What's the deal with the knee high leather boots and the trenchcoats? For heaven's sake, it's late July!!) At any rate, it seemed like a good time for a day trip so the kids and I hopped a train out of Gare du Nord for the half hour ride to Chantilly. The town's main gift to the world is crème Chantilly, otherwise known as sweetened whipped cream, said to have been created by François Vatel, maître d'hôtel at the Château de Chantilly some four hundred years ago. Who really knows though? We didn't indulge in any wicked treats and instead enjoyed exploring the relatively small chateau with its impressive art collection and some pretty snazzy, at least by 18th century standards, stables which house a horse museum. The latter was a big hit and although the dressage demonstration was entirely in French, the points got across. A picnic on the grounds, a visit to the kangaroo enclosure (one step towards recreation of the former menagerie), and a walk around the grounds, and then we were back on the train, home in time for dinner.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Just back from 5 days in Barcelona where my husband had business so the kids and I tagged along. The sun was a welcome sight and I don't mind the heat either, especially since we had air conditioning during our sleeping hours. We saw many different faces of the city over our stay, from the somewhat rough and around the edges district of El Raval where we stayed (home to a large Muslim South Asian contingent) to the more stately Eixample neighborhood. Gaudi's work dominated our touring including his famous Casa Milà apartment building, the Parc Güell (where I was entranced by the mosaic benches) and his final obsession, La Sagrada Familia, a cathedral still under construction. There was a cloudy morning at the beach and an afternoon at the aquarium, and a climb up Montjuic to see the magic fountains and the Olympic facilities. Plus we enjoyed a couple of really tasty meals; the fruit from the Boqueria market just off La Rambla was unbelievable as well and it was nice to be able to buy juicy sweet watermelon by the wedge. We did our share of people watching too, including more tattoed and Goth folks than I've seen in awhile.

There also seemed to be quite a few interesting things hanging off the balconies including:

And for all those waiting for some really nice presents from us, this:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Footloose and Fancy Free

There's a retrospective of the work of American photographer Richard Avedon on exhibit at the Jeu de Paume and it's not to be missed. The exhibit includes work from several periods in Avedon's career, including his images of working class folks in the American West and portraits of political and economic movers and shakers of the 1970s, done for Rolling Stone. I was most captivated though by the fashion photographs he took in Paris in the years immediately following the Second World War. I know next to nothing about fashion; what captivated me was the incredible use of lighting and setting to show off the geometry and shape of each model's gown. My favorite of all, which regrettably was not available as a postcard for purchase, is this shot of Suzy Parker and Robin Tattersall roller skating joyfully through Place de la Concorde. I love the way their bodies mirror each other and fill up the space except for the image of the Hôtel de Crillon and Hôtel de la Marine on the bottom edge. And just how did he get that shot anyway?

Incidentally, if anyone knows what happened to the fountains and statuary in the place during the war years, I'd be interested to learn more. They're curiously absent here.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bastille Day

This morning we headed down to the Champs-Élysées to get a glimpse of the Bastille Day parade. This isn't like the Fourth of July; there aren't any high school marching bands, baton twirlers, floats, or dancers. Instead what you get is a giant show of military might. The reviewing stand was set up on the Place de la Concorde and we were at the opposite end so mostly what we saw was the staging of the heavy equipment: tanks, jeeps, and the like. We did catch a glimpse of Sarkozy, standing on a jeep with the head of the armed forces, just behind the band of trumpeters on horseback in their ceremonial uniforms. And it was impossible to miss the flyover. We worked our way back home in time to see the rest of the parade on TV. UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon was on hand for the festivities and UN forces in blue helmets were the first on the parade route. The grand finale and apparently a first for the 14th of July was the performance of seven parachutists carrying the flags of France, the EU and the UN who landed right in front of the VIPs. Nice work and some very cool aerial shots of Paris.

We're thinking about heading out again this evening to see if we can catch a glimpse of the fireworks without getting crushed by the crowds.

Tanks and jeeps staged in front of the Arc de Triomphe. In addition to the French flag, you can also see the flag of the European Union since Sarkozy is president of the EU for the next six months.

Heavy artillery on the Champs-Élysées

Here they come!

There they go.

Photo credit goes to my husband whose pictures turned out way better than mine.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Gallery of Smart Cars

The August issue of Consumer Reports doesn't mince words about the Smart Car's debut in the U.S., some ten years after its European launch. "A car like this should be fun and zippy," the reviewers note. "Sadly the Smart is neither. The ride is horrendous, and broken urban pavement, this car's natural habitat, pummels the occupants mercilessly. The transmission shifts in an uncomfortable way...handling is not very responsive...[and it has a] slow, noisy engine."

Ouch. At least the car looks fun and zippy. Here's a few spotted around Paris in the past couple of weeks.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

In the Hood

I spent all yesterday playing so today's the day to take care of chores: laundry, dusting, vacuuming, and such. Yet I'd rather blog than clean out the bathtub.

We live in a tony section of town, on a one-way, one-block street that's mostly apartments and doctors' offices. There are only a handful of businesses so generally it's pretty quiet and there's not a lot of street life. My husband is now on handshaking terms with the barber at the top of the block who cuts his hair every six weeks. Several months back, the barber posted a notice announcing his retirement and thanking his clients for their business. The shop went dark for a few weeks and after a while it seemed that another coiffeur would be taking over. One morning though, the barber was back and it was business as usual. Since my husband speaks little French and the barber no English, it's not exactly clear what happened only that it had something to do with money.

One of the barber's clients is an older gentleman who lives in the building next door. He's probably in his mid 80s, always nattily attired in a coat and tie (although his overcoat is so stained it really should go in the trash). He carries a silver handled cane and stooped nearly into a right angle, he makes his way up the street several times a day for a coffee, beer, or dinner at one of the neighborhood cafes.

We also have a few street people who congregate near the corner store, usually eating, drinking, and smoking. My neighbor dubbed one of the younger guys, "Mr. Talks a Lot" since he was always carrying on a loud, animated conversation with no one in particular. Drinking beer all day long has its side effects, though, and my kids changed his name to "Mr. Pees a Lot" since he had the unfortunate habit of coming into our building's courtyard to relieve himself. He was gone for awhile, reappearing this week looking wan and sick and uncharacteristically quiet. Yesterday afternoon, he happened to be coming into the courtyard as I was going out. The gardienne who cares for our building was there as well. She had the hose out,cleaning up the stink he had left earlier in the day, and let loose a sling of invective, only some of which I caught. He turned and shambled off. There's no trace of him today except a pile of beer cans in the gutter.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Your Trash is not My Treasure

Okay so enough already with waxing poetic about the lovely gardens and streets of Paris. Lately, things have deteriorated to the point of becoming semi-disgusting. The powers that be in the city have been arguing about whether or not to privatize trash collection and in response, the trash collectors and street sweepers have acted predictably by going on strike every couple of days. The situation is not helped by your average Parisian who, rather than drop his or her water bottle, newspaper, and empty food wrappers in the trash receptacle conveniently located on every corner, would rather throw these items in the gutter. Some of my neighbors open their mailboxes and throw the unwanted flyers directly on the ground in our courtyard. All I can say is "aarrgh."

At the moment, trash collection is messed up in 12 of the 20 arrondissements (districts) that make up the city of Paris. Collection has been privatized definitively in just two arrondissements with the decision to privatize the others apparently now tabled for future discussion and presumably future disruptions in service. Okay, so maybe things aren't as bad as they must be in Naples where the trash has been piling up for months. But please, can't we get this sorted out before hot weather hits and things really begin to stink?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sunday Outing

Today's plan was to ride our bikes out to Versailles for a visit to the hamlet where Marie Antoinette and her courtiers used to pretend they were farmers and milkmaids. We got as far as Marnes La Coquette, a picture postcard of a village just west of St. Cloud, before a flat tire put an end to those grand ambitions. But we still had a nice ride and picnic. The adventure took us through the Bois de Boulogne, past the Hippodrome de Longchamp(where all of humanity under the age of 25 was camping out after a giant three-day rock concert, and across the Seine by footbridge. From there, it was just a hop, skip, and one big hill where we had to walk our bikes into the Parc de Saint-Cloud. Situated southwest of the city, the terrace has a grand view of Paris and we could see all the way to Sacre Coeur. The chateau, once a favorite of Marie Antoinette and the site where both Napoleon and his nephew Napoleon III were proclaimed emperor, burned to the ground during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The gardens remain, as well as lots of places to picnic, jog, and bike. The tire has been mended and we have extra tubes packed in the bike bag for another day.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Fourth

Happy Independence Day! Just another work day here in Paris and no fireworks until Bastille Day which is the 14th. But celebrate we did with a feast of American summertime classics -- hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans -- on the lawn of the residence of the U.S ambassador to France. For dessert, there were brownies and lemon bars and two of those giant American flag cakes, decorated with strawberries and blueberries although maybe not Cool Whip. There wasn't much French being spoken, and with the kids racing and chasing on the lawn, it felt very much like home. And it was one of those moments that reinforced the simple truth that spending a year in France, learning the language and drinking in the culture, the history, and the landscape, doesn't make one remotely French. So there was nothing to feel guilty about today, even biting into that burger with a Wonder bread bun and a slice of American cheese, just a simple celebration of who I am, American to the core.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Foolish Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

I'm not sure that Ralph Waldo Emerson ever visited France. But if he had, he wouldn't have had to deal with any of that pesky consistency that he railed against. Just when you think you've got things figured out, you realize that's an illusion. Take these machines selling subway and bus tickets above. Yes, they stand side by side and sell the exact same wares. But, there is one important difference. The one on the left does not take bills, only coins and credit cards.

Next up, traffic signals for pedestrians. These two photos were taken but a few blocks apart.

Why the attitude of Mr. Don't Walk on the lower sign? Perhaps it's confidence. On other hand, maybe he's just ticked off that he didn't have enough loose change to buy a carnet of subway tickets.
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