Sunday, November 30, 2008


We spent Thanksgiving in Stockholm, Sweden, a lovely city not known for turkey dinners, football, or parades with giant cartoon character balloons. As expected, it was cold and got dark early (around 3:30!) but the city had a warm spirit and candles set in many shop and apartment windows for the Christmas season gave it a special sparkle. Set on a bunch of islands between the Baltic Sea and a fresh water lake, the city is relatively compact with a handful of brick and copper-topped towers gracing the skyline. We toured the Royal Palace (modeled after Versailles) and the Vasa Museum, home to a fully reconstructed 17th century merchant ship which sunk in the city's harbor on its maiden voyage. At Skansen, an open air museum on Swedish life and folkways, we saw glass blowers, reindeer, and the world's largest cigar. We satisfied our need for Swedish meatballs but did not indulge in the French hot dog which seemed to be for sale everywhere.

Without a doubt, the highlight of our trip was the day we spent with Christer and Cecilia, a Swedish couple who made a special trek to Stockholm to see us. Over 25 years ago, Christer was an exchange student and spent the school year at my in-laws' house and his picture is still hanging on the wall there. The two of them had a whole afternoon of activities mapped out for us complete with snacks -- thermoses of glögg (hot mulled wine) and a tin of pepparkakor, a gingery Christmas cookie which we enjoyed on a short ferry ride. They took us to dinner at a medieval pub featuring still more glögg and a true groaning board of Swedish specialties which we chased down with beer and snaps (aquavit). Each toast with snaps was accompanied by a song and a great cry of "skål!" It was a day well worth giving up turkey and the trimmings.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Reading (in French!)

I just finished reading the book pictured here for my French class and I'd have to give it four stars. It's a sweet novel, full of love for the French language specifically, but with reverence for words and writers that goes beyond borders. The story concerns a little girl, Jeanne, and her brother, Thomas, who are shipwrecked on a tropical island where things are a bit fantastic in all senses of the word. It reminded me a bit of The Phantom Tollbooth by Jules Feifer in that there is a story simple enough for children but lots of nuances for adults, particularly those who are literary minded. The vocabulary was a bit tough going for me (more far-reaching than the newspaper, for example) but the rest was well within my grasp.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Food for Thought

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

ee cummings

Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends, family, and other readers.

Note: ee cummings visited Paris for the first time in 1917, just before heading off to the Western Front with the Norton-Harjes ambulance corps. He lived in Paris for most of the period between 1921 and 1923 and made several return visits in the '20s and '30s.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

An Afternoon at Le Cordon Bleu

Just for a moment yesterday, I imagined myself as a student at Le Cordon Bleu. Then I saw the otherwise jovial chef almost lose it when one of his assistants inadvertently threw out the jus for the roast chicken he'd been working on for the two hours previous. In that moment, I decided that I was just where I needed to be: sitting comfortably in a desk watching a demonstration of incredible cooking with no illusions that I would ever be able to pull off such a meal.

The Cordon Bleu cooking school certainly knows where the money is: putting on cooking demonstrations for well-heeled tourists and expatriates eager to get an inside glimpse of the métier of a French chef. For two hours, my friends and I scribbled notes as the chef prepared a holiday meal. The first course was a terrine of vegetables and foie gras, served with a delicate salad of herbs and vinaigrette. For the main course, it was a roasted chicken with boudin blanc (white sausage) and a chestnut garnish. And the dessert was a buche, the traditional Yule log, but rather than chocolate, this one was flavored with mango and raspberry. He kept half a dozen pans going at once, tossing off saucepans and utensils to an assistant to wash, and used a blender, mixer, and food processor with abandon. The instructions were enigmatic: the dacquoise for the buche was done when it was soft but hard, the amount of boudin blanc to incorporate depends upon what else you have on the menu, add enough water to rinse out the pan. But the results were delicious.

Pressé de foie gras aux légumes fondants

Poulet de Bresse rôti, petits boudin blancs et marrons au jus

Bûche à la mangue et à la framboise

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The View from Here

What do you think of when you think of life in Paris? The Eiffel Tower? A sidewalk café? Strolling along the banks of the Seine? The decidely un-picture postcard-worthy photo above tells the real story. I spent more than eight hours over the past three days on subways and trains in order to drop off and pick up children from various activities. Tomorrow, I'm staying put.

Friday, November 21, 2008

10 Things Never to Do in Paris

Run out to the corner store for milk between noon and 2 pm. It's a sure bet that there will be 20 people in line with their lunch.

Say "yes" to the ladies in long skirts by the Eiffel Tower when they ask "do you speak English".

Do errands on the way home from the gym. Sorry, you have to go home, shower and change before you hit the bank, the dry cleaner, and elsewhere.

Fail to say "s'il vous plait" or "bonjour."

Plan to go shopping (for anything) on a Sunday afternoon. Unless it's right before Christmas, you're out of luck. Food shops are open in the morning but those doors slam shut around 2 pm. Or worse yet, go shopping at one of the few stores that has an exceptional Sunday opening. You'll find everyone else in Paris there.

Get off the bus by the front door.

Leave home without a city map. (Yes, even the locals carry them.)

Exit the supermarket when you've decided not to make a purchase through any lane except the one explicitly designated for this purpose.

Take a photo of anyone hawking Eiffel Tower trinkets. (It's pretty clear that they don't have vendor permits and my guess is that most of them are not in France legally to start with.)

Speak above a whisper while dining.

On the other hand, do feel free to: jump the turnstile in the subway, ride a Velib bike on the sidewalk, park your car in front of a garage entrance, push your way to the front of the line, and cast disapproving looks at people who bump into you without begging your pardon.

Did I leave anything out?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Not All Change is Good

Life in the Euro zone means handling a lot of change. You got your 1 and 2 euro coins. And then there's the small change: 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, and 1 centimes. On September 1st, a new 5 euro coin came out. There must not be that many in circulation, because I never saw one until today when I received one after a transaction at the post office. As you can see, it's shiny and silver and looks a little bit like a carnival token.

Who knew though that trying to get rid of that sucker would nearly cause an international incident? The cashier at our corner market took one look at it and asked me what it was. I tried to reassure her that it was real French money and even got the backing of the fellow behind me in the line. But she was spooked and went off to consult the manager. And of course, the line at the register started growing and the grumbling from the other customers started. After what seemed like ages, she came back smiling and rang up my one purchase, a two-liter bottle of milk. And of course, she made absolutely sure I knew that it wasn't her fault. (Trust me, that's a classic.) For the amount of trouble it caused, I'll stick with the 5 euro bills.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name?

More contradictions from the land where they're rife. Like many women of my generation, I didn't take my husband's name when we got married. It wasn't a big issue or a moment for me to take a political stand. He said that names are personal so do what you want and I was comfortable just keeping the name I had had for almost thirty years. Despite my very traditional and proper grandmother's concerns about the confusion this would create for our children, that never came to pass. In fact, it seemed that at least half of the kids at school had parents with different last names. I made it a policy never to get testy when teachers called me by my kids' last name but always introduced myself to them and corresponded with them using my own name.

Fast forward to our arrival in France, a country that seems at first glance decidely less traditional about such matters. Almost half (48 percent) of all births are to women who are not married to their partners. And even Ségolène Royal, who ran for president in the last go round, was never married to the father of her four children. (Imagine that happening in the U.S.!)

But apparently, my name on my passport doesn't carry much weight. Because my legal status in France is tied to my husband's employment, my carte de sejour (the official document that allows me to be here) was issued in his name (my first name, his last name). To add insult to injury, two other organizations we've joined have also been at a loss of how to deal with a couple with two last names. Our accounts there are now under a hyphenated name. (To make matters worse, I think the hyphenation is his name first for one of them, my name first for the other.) But what are you gonna do? I still have that other little issue of everyone thinking I'm either Spanish or Portugese to deal with as well but that's a story for another day.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Making a List, Checking It Twice

Yes, I know it's not even Thanksgiving yet but we're heading back to the States in December for a visit and I'm trying to get organized now so I won't feel too crazy later. I've been on the lookout for small gifts to take to friends and family back home. Plus I'm also thinking about what I should buy there that's quintessentially American to bring back for hostess and teacher gifts for folks here in France. Suggestions from either camp? What's the perfect gift from Paris? And what are the French and expats living in France dying to have from the U.S.? We're talking reasonable here, no cases of champagne or couture, folks. Let's hear what you think.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sleek Goes to Paris

Sleek is a stuffed dog from Connecticut who recently arrived in Paris for a short stay as part of an elementary school project to learn more about people and places beyond the Nutmeg State. He went on a whirlwind sightseeing trip last weekend and curiously saw no major tourist attractions. But he did get a good helping of la vie Parisienne.

Getting ready to take a spin on a Velib. This was the only available bike that we could find after checking three different stands.

Marketing. No, they don't grow pineapples or bananas in France but let's not get technical.

Taking a break for some chocolat chaud.

A bench with two sides. You can wait for a ride or watch the action on the sidewalk.

There are something like 2.5 million motorcycles in France and only about twice that number in the U.S.

Staying current with world events.

Oh la la! That was some big dog.

Next stop: La Poste. His next port of call will be Hong Kong.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Being a Tourist in Modern Times

I go by the Eiffel Tower about once a week, sometimes more, and there are two things I always see.

These guys.

And these guys.

I feel safe in Paris. Safer certainly than I did in DC in those couple months after September 11th when we had the aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon to deal with, plus anthrax on Capitol Hill and in our neighborhood post office, and then later on, a sniper who terrorized the DC metro area for weeks. But I still get a little freaked out when I see these soldiers with their weaponry. You rarely see them anywhere else except the Eiffel Tower and the intercity train stations.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Black and White and Shades of Gray

So my last couple of posts have been a bit on the fluffy side. Today's is a lot more serious, something I've been chewing on since before the presidential election and now current events have propelled the discussion even further along. The political pundits worldwide have been musing on the significance of Obama's win and specifically what does it mean for how Americans specifically (and Western nations in general) think about and deal with the thorny issue of race. Is this truly the end of an era, the final step of business left unfinished since the Civil War? On the one hand, the image captured on TV of Jesse Jackson with tears running down his face as he listened to Obama's acceptance speech signals that yes, this really was a big deal. On the other hand, it's going to take a lot more than having a black president to undo ingrained racist attitudes and practices that have led to disparities in education, employment, and opportunity for so many people of color.

Equality is a powerful word in both French and American societies, a value we both hold strongly. Yet as an American in Paris, I'm learning that the discussion of race plays out very differently here. As I understand it, the French value is that everyone should be treated the same. Integration into French society is the goal. Becoming a citizen requires command of the French language, for example. And with this focus on equality, France has rejected affirmative action and other policies that would rectify disparities. The country doesn't even collect data on race in its census.

Of course the reality is that the French haven't resolved what should be done about the considerable inequality that exists among the races. The riots in Paris's northern suburbs last year and the year before are just one expression of the simmering resentment.

There were some very interesting polling data in the French press before the election. With over 80 percent of the French hoping for an Obama victory, the pollsters asked people if they, personally, would one day vote in a presidential election for a black candidate, a candidate of Asian origin, or a candidate whose background was North African. Fully 80 percent said yes that they would vote for a black candidate but the numbers were smaller for other minorities (72 percent for Asian and 58 percent for North African). On the issue of whether they thought such candidates had a chance of winning, the numbers were still smaller. (If you want to look at the article I'm referencing, it ran in Le Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, November 2nd.)

Fast forward a week. This past Sunday, Le Journal du Dimanche published a manifesto on bringing about equality among the races in France. Authored by Yazid Sabeg, a successful industrialist and son of Algerian immigrants, and inspired by the American elections, the title of the manifesto is "Oui, nous pouvons!" (Yes, we can!) It calls for specific actions to make the promise of equality real, including term limits as means of increasing representation of minorities in elected office and other public policies to combat the social consequences of discrimination. Signatories of the manifesto include political figures on the left and right; Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has also added her support for the effort.

It's too early to tell where this will go. It's surprising enough that French attitudes about the U.S. have sufficiently reversed to now make us a model for their consideration. Who could have imagined that just a few short months ago? I'm not naive enough to think that the U.S. has moved onto being a postracial society. But while we've got a lot of work to do in our own house, it's good to know that we're inspiring others to roll up their sleeves and get to work too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Exercises in Listening Comprehension

My French skills are still up and down. I'm doing better with managing the small conversations of daily life and reading the newspaper but I still have a really hard time with the TV and the telephone where the pace is faster than my ability to process what I'm hearing. But I keep trying. Most mornings, I turn on the radio when I'm getting dressed to see if I can follow the news. One item last week caught my attention. Did I really just hear the newscaster say that rescue workers had to come to the aid of a man on the TGV (the high speed train) who got his hand stuck in the toilet? No way. That can't be right. They must be using some colloquialism that's beyond me. (Although what kind of saying would that be?)

But yes, it turns out that I understood that perfectly. This dude accidentally dropped his cell phone into the toilet and when he reached in after it, the powerful flushing action sucked in his whole arm. The train stopped for two hours while rescue workers extricated him. Well sort of. According to this report from the BBC, "'He came out on a stretcher, with his hand still jammed in the toilet bowl, which they had to saw clean off,' said Benoit Gigou, a witness to the man's plight." I may conquer the French language yet.

Monday, November 10, 2008

On the Trail of the Insanely Delicious

David Lebovitz once worked as a pastry chef at Alice Water's famous Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, and now lives in Paris where, among many other things, he writes a blog that's both hysterical and informative: Living the Sweet Life in Paris. He has lots of culinary and gustatory advice on where to shop and eat in this beautiful city. Because face it, Paris is a big place and while there's tons of great food to be had here, there's also tons of just ordinary stuff as well and at Parisian prices, who wants to settle for that? So I've been taking his advice to heart, especially his post: Ten Insanely Delicious Things You Shouldn't Miss in Paris. So far, I've only managed to check four items off the list. But after my latest experience, I'm psyched to keep going.

So let us discuss number 5 on his list: Henri Le Roux's CBS Caramels, for sale at L'Etoile d'Or on the rue Fontaine, not far from the Pigalle metro. I need to disclaim first that I'm really not a chocolate person. I mean it's fine and all that but given the choice between a chocolate cake and a lemon tart, I always go with the tart. Chocolate or caramel? No contest. So when I happened into Denise Acabo's shop last week with a friend who was busy buying the dark stuff, I was wracking my brains for what I should purchase so I didn't look like a complete ingrate. Fortunately, when I saw the bagged caramels, I remembered David Lebovitz's list.

What can I say? These caramels are a revelation. They melt in your mouth with buttery sweetness that's unlike anything I've ever tasted. The bag I bought had several different flavors, including chocolate and pomme tatin, but the original was the hands down winner. And that little shop is apparently the only place in Paris where they're sold. I'll be back.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Warm and Cozy

What was that? Any stray thought can pass for a post? This falls in that category. Nothing monumental or particularly thoughtful...just a little slice of my Parisian life.

When I was a kid, the best seat in the house was on top of the radiator in the kitchen. The radiator was about 2 feet high and it had a metal cover so it made a perfect bench. Plus it was positioned right in the center of the action, just under the telephone. The only trick was to get there first before anybody else called dibs. (Not that my siblings and I fought over the phone; to do so, we would have had to wrestle it away from our mom.)

Our apartment here in Paris is heated by radiators and now that autumn has arrived, the heat is on in the building and I'm getting that cozy feeling again. Only, you can't sit on these French radiators since for the most part, they are skinny and mounted flat against the wall. They come in many sizes; the one in the lobby is easily eight feet high. The smaller ones though are hard to beat. The one in the kitchen is perfectly positioned to give you a toasty back and the ones in the bathroom...well, let's just say, there's no better finale to a good shower than a preheated towel. It makes getting up on a dark morning a little bit easier.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Surviving Parisian Traffic

I don't drive in Paris. In fact, I haven't driven a car at all since we left the States nearly 15 months ago. We don't own a car here and whenever we rent one, my husband takes the wheel and I ride shotgun with the map. Call us old school; we never pay extra for a GPS.

All this is to say, I can only write about surviving Parisian traffic as a pedestrian. Remember when your mother told you to look both ways before you cross the street or count to 10 after the light turns green? It's sound advice here too because you never know who's going to come barrelling around the corner at top speed with their horn blaring. Even so, Parisian pedestrians are accomplished jaywalkers. They are well matched by Parisian drivers who feel no compunction cursing, gesturing, and honking at people who find themselves in the crosswalk against the light. Most of these angry drivers are elderly women, apparently denied the opportunity to get to their next bridge game or their country house stat. Maybe they left the kettle on? All I know is that they're seriously pissed.

Traffic circles are another story entirely and one of the reasons that I'd be scared to ever get behind the wheel in Paris. Having spent many years at driving in DC, I'm pretty good at negotiating roundabouts; you just have to remember to yield to the traffic in the circle. But here, the priority is always to the driver on the right, even if they're the one entering the circle. Traffic in circular places often comes to a complete halt to yield to drivers barrelling in from the right. As a pedestrian, you can ignore most of this (and just pray that your bus or cab driver knows what he's doing) but it took me awhile to get used to the pattern of cars leaving circles and entering the radiating arms. Hang on because I have to draw a mental picture to explain.

Okay, so imagine a circle with four radiating streets and each street has a crosswalk. In DC, either pedestrians just brave it or there are traffic lights that stop cars in the circle so walkers have a few seconds to safely get across the street. But here, the traffic stops after it exits the circle, just in front of the crosswalk. I'm still not always confident that oncoming traffic is going to stop, those cars and buses with their tail ends still in the circle. Add to that the fact that no one slows down gradually; they all seem to go full speed and jam on the brakes at the light.

And then there are the traffic patterns you only learn over time. Motorcycles and bicycles aren't supposed to use the sidewalks but sometimes they do. Delivery trucks routinely block narrow streets. Buses sometimes get stuck trying to negotiate a tight turn. And imagine my shock when I saw a car coming the wrong way down our one-way street one day. What I didn't realize is that the last 50 yards are actually two-way, in order to provide access to another little one-way one-block street. Appearances can be deceptive too; at night, our quiet little street becomes a drag racing strip for people leaving the bistro at the top of the block.

Guess I'll stick to the metro.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Where Did the Time Go?

Hard to believe but it's been a year and nearly 190 posts since I started this blog. Initially I just thought it would be an efficient way to keep folks back home posted on our adventures. But when the password protected feature on Blogger turned out to be a heap of trouble, I opened it up to anyone who cared to read it and come they have, from places around the globe! It's been a ton of fun for me too. I've always enjoyed the challenge of finding just the right turn of phrase and it's great to have an outlet for the sheer pleasure of writing. What I didn't expect a year ago, however, was that the constant search for content (what on earth am I going to write about today??!!) has been rewarding as well. It's given me a chance to reflect and the impetus to be a more active and engaged observer of Paris as I experience it.

I enjoy comments from readers, both those whom I know personally and those whom I've only encountered here. And if you've been lurking (yes, you!), make yourself known. Keep 'em coming and I'll do the same.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Amen Brother

Yes we can (finally exhale). Now the heavy lifting begans.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Enough Already

After the longest presidential election season in living memory, I'm exhausted. Granted, I haven't had to endure the relentless commercials that folks in Florida, Ohio and other swing states have probably been experiencing and I haven't worked get out the vote like many of my friends back home but I've been obsessing enough as it is. The French newspapers called it for Obama a long time ago but they continue to cover the race with unbelievable intensity; Libération is even planning a special commemorative issue for Wednesday. And yet, although I've had my fill of sound bites, conflicting polls, and moments of sheer eye rolling stupidity from campaign mouthpieces and ordinary citizens alike, I'm still nervous about the outcome. I'm simply not ready to wake up and find out that the guy I didn't vote for is going to be leading the free world for the next four years.

After cursing and shaking my head at French bureaucracy over the past 14 months, I got a reminder this week about the often bumbling bureaucracy I left behind: the government of the District of Columbia. I applied for my absentee ballot months ago and actually received and voted in DC's September primary for local offices. Even so the general election ballots did not arrive until last week when we were out of town. Fortunately, DC law requires only that ballots be postmarked (as opposed to received) by Election Day. So last night I opened up the envelope, took out my No. 2 pencil, and marked my choices. Since DC will probably go 90 percent for Obama, it probably doesn't make a bit of difference in the outcome of the presidential election that I voted one way or the other. But it still feels good to have exercised my civic duty. Now if I can just make it through the next 36 hours. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

South by Southwest

You gotta hand it to the French. They really know how to take time off. This week (and some of next week), the French schools are all closed to celebrate Toussaint. You're supposed to go out and spruce up your ancestors' graves on November 1. And judging from the chrysanthemum plants for sale everywhere, some people do take this seriously. But for everyone else, it's just another excuse to get out of town.

Although my kids go to an international school, they get similar breaks so we headed southwest to the regions of Dordogne, Limousin, and Lot. The weather didn't exactly cooperate (it actually snowed on Thursday morning), but we still managed to make the best of it. The Dordogne region is quite beautiful, lots of small farms, manors with turrets in tawny colored stone, and rivers cutting curves into sheer rock cliffs. The regional specialty is foie gras and everyone and their brother seems to be selling it.

We visited the caves of Lascaux to see the famous wall paintings made by cavemen some 35,000 years ago. (Did you know that the name "Cro Magnon" comes from the French village of the same name?) Actually, you have to visit a faux cave because too many visitors were wreaking havoc on the real thing. But I have to say they did an amazing job of recreating the feeling of a cavern and the artist who reproduced the drawings apparently did so using the same techniques as the original artists. I expected a few drawings on the wall; instead you find hundreds of vividly colored animals painted on the walls and ceilings in various poses and the renderings are remarkable.

The other highlight of our trip was a visit to Oradour sur Glane, a small village close to Limoges that was wiped out by the Nazis on a June day in 1944. There was no particular reason to do so but the SS was determined to demonstrate what they would do to anyone helping the resistance. Over 600 residents, about half of them women and children, were rounded up and massacred, and the village torched. After the war, a decision was made not to rebuild and to leave the shell of the town standing as a reminder to future generations. It was a sobering sight.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

With Love from the City of Paris

Ah of romance. But wait a minute, that's not the setting sun, streaking the sky with rays of gold. Just a gentle reminder from the city of Paris that protection is for lovers. (Supplies now available for purchase at your local pharmacy or subway station.)
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