Tuesday, September 30, 2008

C'est Chic

OPI, the nail polish people, has come out with a new set of colors for the fall/winter 2008 season, La Collection de France. For the most part, the new polishes are dark and sultry, just right for evoking the mysterious sex appeal Americans associate with all things French. But the names! There's Louvre Me, Louvre Me Not, Yes I Can Can, and Eiffel for this Color. I can just picture the sleep deprived, coffee buzzed copy writers falling off their chairs and howling with laughter as they toss out the names: Tickle My France-Y, I'm Fondue of You, and You Don't Know Jacques. Then again, maybe nothing says chic like having your nails painted with Baguette Me Not.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Sunday in the Park

Here in Paris, it's pretty much always la fête de something or another, sort of like in the U.S. when everyday is national you name it day. This past weekend, the city celebrated la Fête des Jardins with all kinds of festivities in municipal parks and gardens. We took advantage of the warm sunshine to check out Parc de Bercy, a spot once part of the Bois de Vincennes, but reincarnated during the mid 1990s when this part of the 12th arrondissement was redeveloped. It is modern in design as befits the landscape of the quartier but still lovely with plenty of flowers giving it their all now that summer is officially over. Park personnel were busy with demonstrations for home gardeners and flower arrangers, even offering samples of wine made from the park's small vineyard and instructions about how to make your own from grapes cultivated on an apartment balcony. (Having taken a few sips, I can honestly say that private vintners have nothing to worry about it.) Heading home, we crossed the Seine on the beautiful footbridge named for Simone de Beauvoir and counted ourselves lucky, once again, to be able to drink up Paris's pleasures at such a leisurely pace.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Keeping it Zipped

I've been writing this post in my head for some time, trying to figure out how to spin what I have to say in a way that feels light, breezy, and suitably G-rated. But sometimes there's just no beating around the bush. So, I ask, what is it with the men in Paris that so many feel perfectly comfortable whipping it out and peeing in public? I'm not just talking about panhandlers here. This seems to be generally accepted behavior. Two examples? The well-dressed gentleman of a certain age who was taking care of business just around the corner from the George V, one of Paris's ritziest hotels, and the little boy, pants around his ankles attending to nature's call outside our neighborhood bakery, while his mother, in line inside, gave him a big thumbs up through the window. Oh la la. Oy vey. Please.

Now it's true that toilets in Paris are not always easy to access. You really can't use those in cafés unless you're a paying customer or in museums until you've passed through the ticket line. Free toilet kiosks exist but these are few and far between. But still, since the women seem to be holding it, in a backwards version of potty parity, it seems only fair that men exercise the same self restraint.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Phone Home

Over the weekend I kept hearing the sound of a telephone call being placed, the beeps reminding me of when I first had dial up service to the Internet. I couldn't figure out where it was coming from...was it my cell? my husband's Blackberry? the computer? our neighbors? And then finally it dawned on me, it was the elevator!

As Parisian elevators go, ours is pretty typical. It's not as charming as some since it lacks the wrought iron gates and wood paneling you find in many Haussmanian buildings. Just big enough for three people who don't mind close quarters, it does the job and has never once gotten stuck between floors. Still, it does have a button to push in case you're in distress and a speaker where presumably you can talk to someone somewhere who will send out the troops. My confidence has sagged now though, knowing that the elevator has been placing calls for four days and so far, no one has picked up. So just who is the elevator calling? ET? Wall-E? Speed Rabbit Pizza? It's a mystery for sure.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Billboard du Jour

RTL stands for Radio Télévision Luxembourg, a network of radio stations. They've saturated the billboards of Paris with a variety of ads, including this building-sized image of Barack Obama. A friend told me about a carpenter who came to her house recently. Naturally, upon finding out that she was American, he proceeded to give her an earful about his views on the presidential election. The takeaway message: the election is too important globally to be left to Americans alone. Therefore, others (particularly Europeans) deserve the right to vote. 43 days to go and still time for an October surprise.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Journées du Patrimoine

The weather couldn't have been better this weekend for les Journées du Patrimoine, the one time each year when many historic sites, including embassies, government buildings, and churches, are open for public visits and tours. I really wanted to see where the French senate meets in the Palais du Luxembourg, but I used up all my political capital with my family last year when we stood in line for 3 and a half hours for a glimpse at the interiors of the Palais de l'Elysée, where Nicholas Sarkozy does his thing. This time, we headed out early and breezed into the Hôtel de Marigny, once a private mansion, now the spot where visiting heads of state get to stay while on official visits. Last fall, Qaddafi pitched his tent on the back lawn. On Saturday, the garden looked no worse for the wear and both the private apartments and the official reception rooms were spit and polished, the tables in both the small and grand dining rooms set with Baccarat crystal and Sèvres porcelain. Just up the block, we stood in line for less than 30 minutes to sneak a peak at the offices of the Ministry of the Interior at the Hôtel Beauvau, perhaps less fussy in its decor but still pretty impressive with Empire style furnishings. The minister's desk had the look of being cleaned up at the last moment, with stacks of paper and reports shoved on a side table. The interior ministry's buildings were taken over by the Gestapo during the Occupation and we saw a cell where members of the French resistance were kept during interrogations. Its walls were covered with drawings and handwritten messages, left by prisoners unsure of their fate. Some were messages of love to family and sweethearts. Others urged colleagues to be courageous. Vive la France indeed.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Movie Cliché Come to Life

This morning I was walking in a quiet part of the 17th arrondissement when I heard music playing. I was a bit too far from Parc Monceau for it to be a merry go round (come to think of it, is there even a merry go round there?) but since I had the time, I started following the sounds. I turned one corner and then two, and there, voila, was a man with a organ grinder on wheels. As you can see, he had neither a monkey nor a trail of children following him but he did have a smile bigger than you usually see in these parts. I put a few coins in his basket and asked if I could take his photo. "Je vous en prie, madame," he answered.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Space Invaders

These little mosaics can be found all over Paris, the work of a street artist known only as the Invader, who has been at work since the mid 1990s. There are over 300 of them around town, mostly mounted, as in photo above, next to street signs which are a good 12 feet off the ground. Apparently, he assembles them in advance and then stealthily scouts locations based on some calculus of cultural or conceptual significance. I'm not sure I really appreciate all that but it's still fun to be on the lookout for these critters when you're out and about. If you want to cheat, a map pinpointing the locations of each mosaic can be found here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Adventures in Grocery Shopping

The fact that there are about 10 new families at the kids' school bus stop and I'm trying to do my best to be welcoming has gotten me into deep trouble. The problem is that while I'm light years ahead of where I was a year ago in terms of navigating daily life in Paris, I'm still pretty much swimming upstream. All cocky over my success in figuring out grocery delivery, I decided today to try the latest in grocery technology, le Scan Express. It's a little handheld scanner thingie that I thought was just supposed to help you total up your bill as you shop -- you know, scan the cereal, dump it in your cart, scan the milk, ditto, and then check the total to see if you are approaching the magic number that allows you to get free delivery.

Well kind of. Like all things in France, it's more complicated than that. But of course! First, you have to sign up to have access to the scanner, even if you've already signed up for delivery and this involves showing multiple pieces of identification, filling out a form, and then telling the registration guy everything you just wrote on the form. Then you have to wave your card at the kiosk to unlock the scanner from the display. This is followed by the recitation of the rules. Don't scan bottles of water, mumble mumble mumble. Okay, I didn't get that but I don't buy water anyway. Don't scan frozen foods. For fruits and vegetables, just scan the sign above the display. Wait...did he just say if I push the purple button, the whole store blows up?! No, I guess not. And then the final threat -- you don't scan it, we won't deliver it. "C'est compliqué," I whimper. "No, madame. Pas de tout." Well, alright if you say so.

Okay, so I shopped and did the scanning thing and it totaled everything up beautifully so I'm just a few centimes over the minimum. So I roll up to the delivery checkout and come to find that not only do you not have to bag your own groceries, you don't even have to unload the cart onto the belt. Just pay and walk away. Yeah, I can do this.

Monday, September 15, 2008

English Spoken Here

You can spend a lot of time in Paris without hearing much English spoken but I defy you to go more than two or three blocks without seeing a T shirt with an English language message. Some of these are American brands that have gone global like Gap, Hollister, and Abercrombie & Fitch. Others are clever fakes like those that say NYPD, FBI, or the Franklin & Marshall hoodies and tees. (It took me awhile to figure out that there was no way that a small Pennsylvania liberal arts college could have so many exchange students.) And others I've seen simply defy logic. There was the navy blue shirt worn by the 50ish French dude that said "Department of Idaho." Another fellow, an Italian tourist I think, whom I saw on the metro, was wearing a shirt with a yellow school bus on it and the words, "US Schoolbus Sport and Activities Junior Department." The one that really took the cake was the young black man whose shirt read:

Squad Leaders Search for Hard Things
Support System
Search for United East Coast Rockaz

Got that?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Fast Food Redux

I've never actually seen a KFC in Paris but their ads seem to be everywhere. The French follow the NBA, mostly because of their countryman Tony Parker, although I'm not so sure how many will want to smash their hunger with this fried chicken wrap. The fast food alternative this month, however, is McDonald's campaign of four different burgers: American Style, Australian Spirit, Canadian Wild, and British Touch. As they say, pick your poison.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Americans in Paris

There's no call to be homesick if you're an American in Paris. In addition to the 50,000 or so other Americans currently living here, the city is rife with reminders of others from days past.

For starters, there's the street names:

Then you got your statuary...Washington, Jefferson, Franklin in various poses with and without the Marquise de Lafayette.

FDR has his own subway stop although sometimes I overhear American tourists calling it Teddy Roosevelt. (C'mon people, think about it.) Originally, this stop was named Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées.

And while you won't find a "George Washington slept here" marker in Paris (because Washington never got further from home than the West Indies), there are the moral equivalents.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


It's a constant struggle for me to improve my French. I take four hours of instruction a week (although I haven't had a class since the end of July and the new term still hasn't started) and I try to get out there every day and practice. Recently, I decided I should also go back to downloading the DailyFrenchPod podcast just to give myself a little extra listening work. The lesson is less than 10 minutes and it's usually drawn from current news, so it can be quite amusing and not nearly so tedious as those fake dialogues in the textbooks. The podcasts are a lot easier for me now than they were a year and a half ago, maybe too easy, but still a good way to increase my vocabulary.

The other day though I burst out laughing upon hearing this snippet, reproduced in its entirety below.

Google a lancé un navigateur internet open source pour concurrencer Internet Explorer et Firefox. Le navigateur est conçu pour être rapide et pour supporter la prochaine génération d'application Web basé sur les graphisme et le multimedia.

It's 36 little words and 15 of them are in English or close enough that you don't need to know any French to understand them. Perhaps I should just consider it an exercise in pronounciation. Pretty soon, I'll be able to say "Feerfox," "Anne-ternet" and "Meecrosoft" without hesitation.

Up Up and Away

Spotted in Belleville in the 20th arrondissement, not too far from where that iconic French film, The Red Balloon, was made. My walk through Belleville took me through a noisy open air market, a bustling street lined with Asian restaurants and food shops, some of the quietest little lanes I've seen in Paris, and a sweet community garden brimming with vegetables, herbs, and flowers. And then there's the view of Paris from the Parc de Belleville -- in a word, fantastique. This wall was one of several beautifully rendered murals my friend and I encountered on our walk. You can learn more about it here.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The More Things Change....

I noticed this commemorative plaque on a school when I was wandering about the 3rd arrondissement last week. It asks us to remember the thousands of Jewish youth who were rounded up by the Germans during World War II and sent to death camps, 500 of whom lived in the area where this plaque was placed. Sadly, three Jewish teens were attacked Saturday in the 19th arrondissement, a confrontation that appears to have been anti-Semitic in nature, although the police are still hedging. This comes on the heels of another attack in the same neighborhood last June that left a 17 year old badly beaten. The perpetrators in both cases were neighborhood residents, putting pressure on local leaders, including Paris mayor Betrand Delanoë, to find a way to protect the Jewish community and reduce what some see as growing intergroup tension. Sigh.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

France During the Occupation

Somehow without thinking about it, I seem to have gotten myself into a rut defined by the Nazis. First it was reading Nancy Huston's novel, The Mark of an Angel, in which one of the characters, a German emigre to France, deals with toxic memories of her childhood during the war. Then, at the suggestion of a friend, I picked up The Book Thief not realizing that it too was set in Germany during 1930s and 40s. I also went with a friend to the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme to see an exhibit about the systematic looting of art owned by Jews by Hitler's minions. It was an interesting and sobering exhibition although it left me with a lot of unanswered questions. So off to the library I went to pick up The Lost Museum by Hector Feliciano that is filling in the gaps. Tens of thousands of works of art were stolen from collectors and dealers, some to fill new museums in Germany, others to satisfy the personal whims of Hitler and Goering. The work to return these pieces continues even today although sadly some pieces were never recovered; others remain in museums because the families who had owned them were victims of the final solution. All sobering memories of very dark days in which the actions of the French were not always honorable. The exhibit runs through the end of October.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Veep Stakes

The French media have been obsessing over the U.S. presidential election for months. And while this morning the headlines are focused on Sarkozy's trip to Syria and the growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the nomination of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential candidate is right up there. (And I take it that she gave a rock'em sock'em speech at the Republican convention in Minnesota last night.) So just what do the French make of this?

Well, after spending a lot of time perusing Le Monde, Le Figaro, Liberation, and bunch of blogs (this after spending way too much time reading the Washington Post and the New York Times), my only conclusion is that they don't know what to think. Europeans in general have been so excited about the prospect of Obama becoming president that they seemed to have forgotten that he hasn't yet been elected. The tone overall is one of shock and not so much over Palin's qualifications and any skeletons she might have in her closet. The sense of incredulity is more around the paradox that although George Bush has lost the confidence of the American people, his political base still has power both within the Republican party and in the nation at large. To Americans like myself who are beyond ready for a change, this is scary but not really shocking. It's definitely going to be an interesting couple of months.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Paris is a veritable ocean. Take as many soundings in it as you will, you will never know its depth. Scour it and describe it with the greatest care you can, no matter how many or how eager its explorers may be, there will always be some unknown cavern, some flowers and pearls and monsters, something unheard of, something forgotten by the literary divers.

From Père Goriot by Honoré Balzac
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