Thursday, April 30, 2009

Attention Miss Manners

Calling someone "mal élevé" (badly raised) is a pretty serious insult here, indicating the importance that good manners and politeness have in French society. That being said, the transport authorities seem to be having a devil of a time getting people to behave. Posters, decals, and signs of all types have been popping up on the métro, buses, and RER (suburban) trains of late. Don't block the doors, validate your ticket, don't take the seats designated for the elderly and disabled and for heaven's sake, no more than two unfolded strollers per bus!

Keeping people from exiting keeps the train from being on time.

Preparing my exit eases my disembarkment.

From recent experience, I can honestly say that no one pays attention to any of this, perhaps no different from those folks on the subway in DC who bury their heads in their book when it seems they might be asked to give up their seat to an infirm older person or a hugely pregnant woman. Just today, I saw a woman brazenly take a seat on the bus for her bag, apparently to facilitate her ability to eat her lunch, while a blind man and a lady of 80 something jockeyed for seats in the rear.

Of all these posters, the one I liked best is the one I saw in London earlier this month:

Perhaps the Brits and the French are more alike than they'd ever care to admit.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Coco Smokes!

There was a bit of dustup over the new film about Coco Chanel while I was away on vacation. The film, which opened last week, tells the story of the legendary couturier's rise to fame and is being advertised all over town. Too bad the posters slated for buses and the subway showed the actress Audrey Tatou smoking. Under the Evin law, it's a big no no to show smoking in a favorable light. So down came the ads with the lit cigarette and up went the ones showing Tatou with her arms around her leading man.

But wait there's more...since the real Chanel was a serious smoker and in fact, was rarely photographed without a cigarette, a whole other debate has started as to whether the ads should be construed as glamorizing smoking or simply being true to a piece of French heritage. In the meantime, Le Figaro gives the film two hearts, the same rating as the new Zac Efron film. Ouch.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Biking, Barging, and Lots of Tulips

Back in February when we were trying to figure out what to do for the kids' spring break, it seemed like there was a tradeoff to be made: go south in search of the sun or head north to the Netherlands to see the tulips and deal with whatever Mother Nature might dish out. The tulips won out but in the end, we got both: a week in Holland that was all sunshine and warm temperatures, simply perfect.

Because our biking trip in Denmark last summer was such a hit, we decided to bike again. This time, we booked a weeklong vacation on a barge that started and ended in Amsterdam, and in between took us to Gouda, Rotterdam, Delft, The Hague, Leiden, and Haarlem. We biked Sunday through Friday with only one day off to visit the magnificent Keukenhof Gardens. It was the height of tulip season (which are bred not for the flowers but for the bulbs) and the fields were spectacular, vibrant with reds, pinks, and yellows, and redolent with the sweet smell of pink and purple hyacinths. We cycled mostly on bike paths, through forests and sand dunes, city streets and tiny villages, past windmills, farms, and canal houses with tidy gardens, stopping for a few sights along the way including the 17 windmills in Kinderdijk and the Mauritshuis, a jewel of an art museum, in The Hague. Every afternoon, we arrived at our destination to find the barge, our floating home away from home, waiting for us. Hot showers, a delicious dinner, and a walk through town followed. With school and work calling, we didn't have a lot of time to explore Amsterdam but managed visits to the houses of Anne Frank and Rembrandt. As much as we saw, there's still much to explore in the Netherlands and I'm hoping that at some point, we'll get a chance to go back.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Who's That Knocking at My Door?

Do you suppose Salazar Slytherin ever had a home in Paris? Enter at your own peril!

Friday, April 24, 2009

History Leaves Its Mark

A while back, I shared with you a photo of the Hôtel de Sens, noting a cannonball embedded there since the mid 19th century and today I've got another one for you, albeit from a different era. If you look closely at this entrance to the Palais de Justice on the Quai des Orfèvres on Ile de la Cité, you will notice quite a few pockmarks on the facade. These are among the few remnants still visible in Paris from the violence that occurred during the liberation of Paris from the Nazis in August 1944. The physical fighting lasted only a few days but there were losses of some 1,500 people, both members of the resistance and civilians, plus an additional 70 or so members of the Free French Armored Division. And that's not counting the large group of captured members of the resistance executed by the Germans in the waterfall in the Bois de Boulogne. Yet another sad reminder that even when the good guys win, war is never without significant costs.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jet Trails

X marks the spot. Someone with a better camera could have gotten a knock out picture of this scene. Take my snapshot or leave it.

The view up the Seine wasn't half bad either. Must have been a busy day at the airport.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fit for a King

Sèvres porcelain made its debut in the mid 18th century and eventually became synomymous with high quality, thanks to the patronage of Louis XV. It was the tradition for the French royal family to order a new service each year something that eventually got Marie Antoinette into a heap of trouble.

The Sèvres workshops are still in business just across the Seine from the city of Paris and while you can't watch the masters at work except under special arrangements, you can visit the adjacent Musee nationale de ceramique. Hop on line 9, ride to the end of the line to the west, cross the Pont de Sèvres, and boom you're there. Even if you're not an afficianado, it's hard not to be impressed by this stuff. There are massive urns and tiny tea sets as well as ceramics from many other countries and periods. After you visit this place, you'll never look at your coffee cup in the same way ever again. And it might just inspire you to do stop saving your grandmother's china for special occasions and instead dine like a king at every possible opportunity.

Monday, April 20, 2009

St. Genevieve

St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, stands watch over the city here from her perch above the Pont de la Tournelle. Legend has it that she was a lowly peasant woman. Truth is she was from a wealthy family in what is now the suburb of Nanterre. In any case, she is best loved for bringing grain to starving Parisians when the city was blockaded by the Huns in the 5th century. What is now known as the Pantheon was originally built as a church in her name by Louis XV. The revolution broke out before the church could be dedicated and her relics were publicly burnt in 1793 in one of many actions taken by revolutionaries against the Catholic Church. Although separation of church and state are now absolute in France, saint's days are widely observed. St. Genevieve's day is January 3rd.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Zen and the Art of Smoking

I did a double take when I was walking down the street a while back and passed this little tray perched on a window sill. What the heck? I stopped and took a closer look.

What a gracious gesture to offer an ash tray to smokers rather than posting a note berating them for leaving butts on the sidewalk. More zen than French? If I were a smoker, I'd light up and contemplate that one.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Primary Colors

Something about this scene pleased me. My inner control freak wanted to change the orientation of the blue scooter to match those of the yellow and red ones. My smarter socialized self said, "hands off."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

London Town

With so much of Europe to see, I've been telling myself that Great Britain was a low priority. I've been there twice before and I know that I can get there easily again from the U.S. But with my husband gone on a long work trip and the kids idling at home on spring break, I decided to eat my words and book a short hop across the Channel. On the Eurostar, it's just over 2 hours from Paris on the train (city center to city center). In three days, we barely skimmed the surface -- Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Harrods, a show, St. Paul's, the London Eye, Victoria and Albert, and a Harry Potter walking tour with obligatory photos of Platform 9 and 3/4. The gardens were spectacular with the greenest grass I've seen in a long time (and no signs saying "keep off") and an incredible display of flowers -- cherries, tulip magnolias, camellias, and tulips. We enjoyed tea and scones with clotted cream and jam in the Orangery of Kensington Palace and some great Indian food in the somewhat grubby neighborhood near Euston Station.

And the best way to get used to high prices in London? Spend a year and half in Paris so your price points completely shift and then wait for the pound to fall precipitously against all major currencies. The last time we went to England in 2001, the pound was about $2.00. Today, it's around $1.46 and all the museums are free. I hope I can get back there soon.

Lots of great signs in London but this was one of my favorites.

And for those of you who have been following my inventory of potato chip flavors, we found prawn cocktail, steak and onion, smoky bacon, cheese and onion, chili and chocolate, and (yes, this is no joke) Cajun squirrel.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lawns Awake!

It's official. Today may be tax day in the U.S. but according to this sign, it's the day when one can once again sit on the lawn in this Parisian park. Time for a sandwich, a book, and some shades.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Measure for Measure

Among the enduring innovations of the French revolution was the adoption of the metric system of measurement. Others such as adoption of a new calendar with 10 day weeks barely lasted for 10 years. Interestingly, the last state use of the guillotine was 1981, just before France abolished the death penalty altogether.

While the U.S. remains firmly entrenched in the dark ages in its adherence to conventional measures (out of sheer stubborness as far as I can tell), the rest of the world got with the program. Situated under the colonnade on rue Vaugirard opposite the French Senate and the Luxembourg Gardens, this is one of 16 standard meters that were posted around Paris between February 1796 and December 1797 to educate the public about the new system. Of those, only two remain. Moreover, the one pictured here is the only one that can still be found in the site where it was originally placed.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Passy Cemetery

Okay, so another cemetery post. If you're thinking I'm a bit obsessed with death, you're dead wrong. There's just lots of interesting art and history to be found in these spaces.

The Passy cemetery hides behind the high wall that borders Place du Trocadero to the southwest. It's not very big and like all cemeteries I've visited in France (with the exception of the American military cemetery in Normandy), there's precious little greenery. Instead what you find are gravestones, monuments, and masoleums side by each along gravel paths. For a small place, there's a lot packed in here.

First, there's Manet.

Then there's Debussy.

Some weird 19th century art, romantic and a bit grotesque

Incredible stainless glass and mosaics for the Guerlain family (I assume of cosmetics fame).

A little Art Deco

Crazy modern stuff with a view of the Tour Eiffel

And then, the kind of scene that just makes your heart ache a bit.

Rest in peace.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


Seen this afternoon on rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais where many of the shops are closed in observance of Passover. But then the proprietors of this pizza shop are certainly not catering to the locals with their offering of the Obama with ham and pineapple chutney. Personally, I think I'd go for the Twiggy.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

To Your Health

Some of you who know me from back when may be wondering why I haven't written anything about the French health system. The plain truth of the matter is that we have had very few encounters with it during our time here -- not one case of "le gastro" -- the crazy stomach flu that strikes the French each winter, no strep throats, not even any lingering colds, nada. Knock on wood.

Atul Gawande wrote a nice piece in The New Yorker way back in January giving President Obama some ideas about health reform. In it he reports that the French went from an all cash system with virtually no insurance in the years immediately following World War II to a system funded by payroll taxes that today covers all French residents. He also notes that the French are more satisfied with their system than residents of any other major Western nation, and compared with Americans, they live longer, have lower infant mortality, more physicians, and lower costs. Back in 2000, the World Health Organization rated it the best system in the world. The U.S. clocked in at #37.

I could write a book about everything that's wrong with the non-system that is American health care. But too many people have already done that. Plus I've got a file drawer full of articles and white papers on the topic for anyone who's a real glutton for punishment.

Of course every system has its snags and with bureaucracy being virtually a national religion in France, I'm sure there are those who will point out the flaws in the French system. Be that as it may, a system funded by payroll taxes with basic public coverage for all plus private supplementary coverage and fee for service physician payment to private docs doesn't sound too much like a stretch for health reformers back home. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that the stars and politics align to make it all happen.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Paris in the Spring

Spring is my all-time favorite season. But spring in Paris has a distinctly different feel than a Washington spring. A lot of the vegetation is the same but while a Washington spring unfolds slowly, first forsythia, then daffodils, then tulip magnolias, followed by the cherries, dogwoods and azaleas, spring in Paris seems to have popped over night. Suddenly the trees are leafed out and everything is in bloom, all at the same time. I've got new geraniums in my window boxes and the mint and parsley I planted last year is making a comeback. I'm enjoying it while it lasts.

Special thank yous to Diana, Lauren, and Carolyn from My Sydney Paris Life for sharing their shots of DC's cherry blossoms with me.

The city of Paris did a nice job with this bed of primroses and tulips along Avenue Foch, the finish line of Sunday's Paris marathon.

The Jardin des Plantes is thick with poppies, which I always think of as a summer flower.

Faux Amis

Faux amis (false friends) are those French words that you think you know because they seem so much like a word you know in English only it turns out you haven't got a clue. (Seriously, even after 20 months in Paris, this is still my default state of mind.) Like "actuellement" which seems like it should mean "actually" when in reality, it means "at the present time."

So let me explain that you don't go to a droguerie to buy drugs. (In fact, "drogue" is typically used for things like heroin or cocaine. "Medicament" is the term to use if you're looking for pain relief or cough syrup. And you buy that stuff at the "pharmacie.") Nope, a droguerie is kind of a cross between a hardware store and a kitchen store --- a sometimes eclectic mix of stuff for the house and garden ranging from pots and pans and cleaning supplies to gardening gear to light electrical gear.

Now that that's all cleared up, don't forget that "collège" means "middle school" and "monnaie" simply means "change," not "money." Got that?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Bienvenue Barack

Paris still waits for its turn to see President Obama. He received a hero's welcome yesterday in Strasbourg although the anti-militarist demonstrators were out in force. France's return to NATO has been controversial but what's done is done. President de Gaulle may be rolling in his grave but nothing stands in the way of President Sarkozy's desire to be a player on the world stage.

Friday, April 3, 2009


I carry my little point-and-shoot camera wherever I go and as a result, I have a lot of stray photos of items that spoke to me at the moment but have no stories attached. These bands of decoration are from the bottom of a turret on rue Hautefeuille in the Latin Quarter, a building that has no particular historical or artistic significance. Still, think of the time some stone mason spent in a century long ago to add these beautiful details. Old and new street signs are juxtaposed below.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Memento Mori

The subterranean world of Paris comes to life when you read Les Miserables or attend a showing of Phantom of the Opera. But while you can dream of escaping Inspector Javert, taking a boat ride on an underground lake, or having clandestine meetings with other members of the Resistance, in reality, there are just two venues deep below ground available to visitors these days: a tour of the sewers or a visit to the Catacombs. I've done both and for my money, the Catacombs is the surefire winner. Okay, so if you have a problem with bones, this may not be the place for you. Long story short, at the end of the 18th century, the municipal authorities in Paris had to come to grips with a serious problem: the city was running out of cemetery space. Not only that, the overflow of, shall we say, organic matter, was posing a threat to public health -- to say nothing of what must have been an unbelievable stench.

The solution: transfer the remains from dozens of cemeteries to the limestone quarries no longer in use below the city's streets. The result: a labryinth of artfully arranged bones belonging to 5 or 6 million Parisians who died between the Middle Ages and the early 19th century. It was a tourist attraction in its time and remains so today. Skip it if you're squeamish, don't like the dark, or have limited mobility (since access is by two deep, winding staircases.) Any 10 year old boy will think it's way cool and for that matter, I did too.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Meditation on Fish

I'm so excited -- yesterday in my e-mail, I found a message from a small American publishing house inquiring about turning my blog into a book. It's too early to tell whether this will really happen, just how many hoops there are to jump through, but nonetheless, I've been walking around ten feet above the ground.

April Fool! No, who am I kidding? That's about as good an April Fool's joke as I'm going to come up with today. The French have their own tradition of jokes and pranks on April 1st, the main one being to tape a paper fish on someone's back without them knowing. Ha ha's almost as funny as (and certainly less mean spirited than) a "kick me" sign.
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