Tuesday, November 30, 2010

No Wonder There Was a Revolution

We all know the great chateaux of France:  Versailles, Fontainebleau, Chambord, Vaux le Vicomte, Chantilly, etcetera.   But it's truly astonishing how many grand houses dot the countryside within an hour's drive from central Paris alone.

Just another big "country house" behind a big gate

Personally, I'm thinking I'm pretty lucky not to be saddled with all that yard work.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sweet Potato Follies

My quest to put on a proper American Thanksgiving for our Belgian friends Saturday evening had me close to questioning my sanity.  No, it wasn't trying to find the cranberries (I had a bag frozen left over from last year -- and yes, they do keep a year -- plus supplements from Picard).  And it wasn't even looking for pureed pumpkin.  Pumpkin pie is not one of my favorites and I've scotched it from our Turkey Day menu.  No, it was the pursuit of sweet potatoes that had me pulling out my hair.

I'd bought sweet potatoes at our neighborhood supermarket last year but they'd cost a bloody fortune.  This time, I told myself, I do it the right way.  I got on the Métro with my big shopping bag and headed for the Barbès market near Gare du Nord.  It's a neighborhood a bit rough around the edges but I'd figured somewhere in that polyglot of North Africans, South Indians, and others, I'd probably get lucky. 

From first apppearances, it went well.  I found a cheerful fellow who sold me a big sack of sweet potatoes, plus celery, onions, parsley for my stuffing, four big white baking potatoes, and few oranges for the cranberry sauce, and it all set me back less than 10 euros.  My bag was stuffed and it was time to head home.  Of course, there was the little matter of pushing through the crowds back into the Métro station but it all worked out okay.

That is, until I got home, and roasted up one test potato.  Uh oh.  When I split open the potato to scoop out the insides, it wasn't orange and it sure wasn't moist.  It was white and crumbly with a starchy taste only mildly resembling my Thanksgiving favorite.  It may have been a sweet potato but it sure wasn't the right kind.

I figured I'd put those aside for home consumption and find replacements elsewhere.  The next day, other errands took me in the direction of the Marché d'Aligre in the 12th.  I found a fellow selling what looked like sweet potatoes.  I asked him what color they were under the skin and when he said, "pink."  I thought, "sold."  And then started the dance that I really dislike about the open air market -- dealing with vendors who won't let you touch their wares and who have different ideas than your own.   He asked me how many guests and then started piling the potatoes high in the sack.  When I protested and said it was too much, he got all huffy.  Then he wanted to sell me 2 kilos of clementines.  When I said, I'd take one, he got huffier still.  I paid and made my get away.

The next day, I took the potatoes out of the sack to roast them.  There were already rotten bits -- I cut away as much as one-quarter of what I'd bought.  And then an hour later, when I took them out of the oven, it was pretty clear that about half of what I'd cooked was bad.  It wasn't orange; it was black and nasty.   I was grossed out, angry, and not surprisingly a little deflated.

Saturday morning was my last chance.  I did what I should have done in the first place.  I went to the little corner market where the prices are high but there they were:  a big box of healthy looking sweet potatoes (pink under the skin) marked "Origine: Israël."  Even better, on my way to the market, what did I find but a five euro bill on the sidewalk.  It didn't fully cover the costs of my sweet potato misadventures but it sure took out the sting.

All's well that ends well.  The last bunch roasted up beautifully.  Scooped from their skins, mashed and mixed with a bit of lime juice, they were a hit with our guests.  Lesson learned?  Always check under the hood before buying.  Never ever  buy from vendors who won't let you pick your own produce.  And despite the perception that the best produce comes from the open air market, sometimes a supermarket is just the ticket.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


It wasn't my day yesterday.  I had to do battle with my bank, experienced my second sweet potato failure of the week, and got caught in a wet sleet without a hat or umbrella.  But then I rounded the corner and saw this.

It is hard to stay mad at Paris for very long.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Harry Potter et Les Reliques de la Mort - Partie 1

So shoot me.  I may be a grownup but I've got two kids who've read all the Harry Potter books, most of them several times.  I've read the books myself and seen all the movies too so there was no way we were going to miss the latest film.  As much as I enjoy immersing myself in all things Parisian, I do love that I can see a film like this in English.  My friend Rita, who lives in Marseille, was not so lucky.  The closest VO (version originale) opportunities for her were in Lyon, Grenoble, and Toulouse.  That being the case, she settled for the dubbed version.

And for those of you more interested in the VF, here's the trailer and the chance for you to practice saying: "Airy Pot-air."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Le Grande Thanksgiving

If I started counting this morning all the things for which I am thankful, I probably wouldn't be done even by the time my family (most of whom are in the Central Time Zone) finishes their Thanksgiving meals.  So rather than bore you with all that, I'm going to provide you with a simple link to Art Buchwald's classic article, "Le Grande Thanksgiving."

American humorist Art Buchwald headed to Paris with a one-way ticket in 1948 and stayed there until the early 1960s.  In 1952, he wrote an article explaining the Thanksgiving holiday to the French.  It ran in the Washington Post every year until his death just a few years ago.  He is said to have considered this to be his favorite column and that's saying a lot for a man as profilic as he was.

So today, wherever you are, American or not, turkey eater or not, take some time to read the article, have a few laughs, and say a little thanks for the blessings in your life.

"Le Grande Thanksgiving" by Art Buchwald

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gift Shopping

I know it's not December yet but as an expat with transatlantic shipping to think about, I've been doing a bit of browsing to see what's on offer that might make suitable presents for the folks back home.  The only problem is that I seem to be having a hard time focusing on the people on my list.  Instead it seems that everywhere I go, I find a dozen things I want to buy for me.  In particular, I keep circling around the fun home and garden items by Derrière la Porte (DLP).  I mean, don't you think I need a whole new set of canisters like this?

And given that we'll soon be heading back to Washington, DC where, by law, drug stores and grocery stores must charge for plastic sacks, don't you think it would be wise to invest in several of these?

And don't you think this would be just the thing for the kitchen table?

You don't have to be in Paris to find these cuties.  Just Google the brand name and you'll find a number of on-line retailers in far flung places around the world selling them.  DLP's own Web site is brand new and showcases all the latest.  Regrettably, like many French sites, it uses Flash making it super stylish but not so user friendly.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Street Numbers

No sooner than I get my fill of taking large numbers of photos of one thing (wrought iron), I find that I'm on to another.  This time it's street numbers.  Unlike wrought iron, which is everywhere in Paris and apparently in as many forms as there are fish in the sea, when it comes to numbers, you have to look a lot harder for the differences.  So to start, you've got your classic:

And then starts the fun.  First, add a few curlicues and stone frills to your basic number:

But why stop there?

And my personal favorite?  Something for the vertically challenged amongst us (including me.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Chateau d'Ecouen

After sharing my disappointment with the Medicis exhibit at the Musée Maillol, it's only fair that I bring to your attention something positive on the museum front.  As luck would have it, I not only have something upbeat to say but it's also about works from the same period.

Now the Chateau d'Ecouen is not exactly convenient -- it's located a good 20 kilometers north of Paris.  By road, it's not a particularly pretty drive.  And while you can get there by train from Gare du Nord, the station is a bit of a hike from the center of town.  But if you're up for adventure, go for it.  The building was the home of Anne de Montmorency, a man close to both France's great Renaissance king, Francois I and his son Henri II.  But this is not just a chateau; it's also the site of the Musée National de la Renaissance.  For an entry fee of just 5 euros, you get to see a castle almost entirely from the Renaissance era and a collection of tapestries, paintings, ceramics, furniture, and curiousities par excellence.  For every one precious object found at the Maillol exhibit, there are at least a dozen of the same type at Ecouen plus there's practically nobody there.  Seriously.  The galleries are large and well-lit and a plus for visitors at this time of year -- well heated too.  If you are up to pay a bit more, there are guided visits every Saturday and Sunday on specific themes.  If the guide is anything like the one I had, it is well worth the few extra euros and so much more engaging than an audioguide.

It was far too gray, gloomy, and chilly this week for a tour of the park but it looked pretty grand.  And if you have a car and the time, the Abbey of Royaumont is just a stone's throw away and well worth a visit itself. 

But don't take my word for it.  Go to the museum's Web site and take a look around.  Everything you need to know about the musee can be found right here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Paris provides a big canvas for grafitti artists and there's all manner of it to be found in pretty much every neighborhood.  Here's a sampling of what I've seen on my recent wanderings about town.

Anyone care to interpret?

Friday, November 19, 2010

No. 1 Parisian Detective Agency

This sign had me at hello.  But was I in the San Francisco of The Maltese Falcon or in Paris?  It took me a minute but it all came back.  I was on rue du Louvre, the same street where Aimée Leduc, heroine of mystery writer Cara Black's Paris-based thrillers, has her office.  Duluc/Leduc?  Coincidence?  I think not.

If you haven't picked up one of Black's books, I'd definitely recommend them.  They are fun, fast reads with lots of references to all kinds of  famous and out-of-the-way places in Paris, plus plenty of car explosions, lock picking, and general detective novel shenanigans.  The first one I read was Murder in Belleville (because it was in a stack of books gifted to me by someone leaving Paris) but I think it's probably better to start at the beginning of the Leduc saga with Murder in the Marais.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Honey, We're Not in Beijing Anymore

The Paris streetscape is so uniform (dare I say sometimes monotonous?) that a sight like this one is a real shocker.  This building, at 48 rue de Courcelles in the 8th arrondissement not far from Parc Monceau, has the bones of a typical Parisian hotel particulier underneath all that red and chinoiserie.  The owner was Chiang Tsai Loo, a Chinese art dealer who knew how to make a buck.  He turned a trip to France into a lifelong adventure of selling the treasures of the Far East to major industrialists of the West   And of course, he needed the right kind of place to conduct his business.  With the help of architect Fernand Bloch, he turned this building into an amalgamation of traditional Chinese architecture with a more fanciful style, which while perhaps not historically accurate, apparently appealed to the mindset of the potential client.

Mr. Loo died in 1957 and left a large collection of jade art works to the Musee Guimet; the building still bears the name of his company and you can still go there if you're in the market for Asian art.   Plus if you've been thinking about a spot for your Chinese New Year party, I understand that you can rent rooms for private functions.  No clue what the interiors look like; to be frank, the exterior looks better from a distance than close up.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

Nat King Cole made the line famous but I'm pretty sure the tradition predates him.  I've never seen chestnuts roasting on street corners in the U.S. (maybe they do it in New York?) but here it's a definite sign of fall.  The sight's a little prosaic -- a grocery cart, an old metal container to hold the coals, and what looks like the top of an oil drum for a stove and almost always a fellow of South Asian background doing the honors of continually turning the nuts so they roast perfectly on all sides.  I had to wait a bit to catch this photo as Monsieur here spent a good five minutes folding a newspaper into the right shape for use as a cooking utensil.

The French are pretty crazy about chestnuts.  Me, I think the smell is lovely but the texture turns me off.  (Now the creme de marron that goes into chocolate cake...that's another story.)  So it works out perfectly.  I get to enjoy it without ever shelling out so much as a euro for a paper cone of roasted nuts.  Sweet.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

French Gastronomy: Worthy of UNESCO Recognition?

There's a UNESCO meeting going on in Nairobi this week that French chefs and politicos are sweating:  whether or not French gastronomy should be added to the organization's list of intangible world treasures -- endangered languages, oral traditions, crafts, dance and music, and rituals -- worthy of protection.  If it makes the  list (and apparently the odds are strong), it will be the first gastronomic tradition to be so recognized.  Its competitors include the Mediterranean diet  (being championed jointly by Spain, Italy, Greece, and Morocco) and the maize-based traditions of  Mexico.  

When I first heard about this campaign, which has been both longstanding and high profile garnering strong and vocal support from President Sarkozy and many Michelin-starred heavyweights, I couldn't help rolling my eyes.  Sure at its best, French cuisine has the reputation for excellence and finesse.  And yes, I know, that for many years, perhaps centuries, it has been held up as the model, a bar which other cuisines could never seem to surmount.  But how can you compare an aligot and a risotto? bouillebaise and menudo? quenelles and dumplings?  That I really don't get.  And are these traditions so threatened by the pace of change and globalization that recognition by UNESCO will change how the French eat or how the rest of the world sees them?

Interestingly, the latest dossier for French gastronomy focuses not on what's on the plate but everything around it:  the art of planning the menu, setting the table, pairing the wines, and of course, the endless conversations about food before, during, and after.  I'm guessing that this concept was a political maneuver, an effort to move past two previous failures for the UNESCO decisionmakers to fish or cut bait.  And while all those things are critically important to the French and the French way of life, it seems to me, well, a bit watered down and lacking a certain bite.

If France gets the thumbs down, I suppose it's back to the drawing board.  But if it wins, what does it all mean anyway?

To learn more, read Agence France Presse's English language account.

Update:  C'est fait!  France 24 has all the details on the UNESCO decision to put French gastronomy on the list.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Café Society

Parisians have tremendous fortitude for dining and drinking outside, a penchant that has only increased with restrictions imposed in 2008 on smoking inside restaurants.  Most cafes are equipped with plastic walls to keep the wind and weather at bay as well as heat lamps to create the semblance of warmth.  Even so, if you're planning on sitting on the terrasse at this time of year, you won't be shedding your scarf and coat.  As for the gloves, that's up to you.

I saw this woman sitting by herself on the terrasse of a café that in warm weather is always jam packed.  Is she lonely or merely contemplative?  Waiting for a friend or definitively on her own?  You can write whatever story you choose.  But contrast her with the folks on the interior who are warm and snug, engaged in conversation over lunch.  And if you look closely, you might even see me as a reflection in the window, taking a photo from my seat on the bus.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Save Your Nickels

I don't have what it takes to be an art critic.  It's not just that I don't have the background; it's also that I don't think I'd ever have the confidence to tell the rest of the world that someone's work was bad or undeserving when the range of artistic preferences is so broad.  That being said, I will tell you right now that if you've been thinking about going to see the exhibit, Trésor des Médicis, at the Musee Maillol, DON'T.  It's a hot ticket at the moment with lines out the door and around the block to prove it.  But trust me.  While the items on display -- paintings, manuscripts, decorative objects, prints and drawings, furniture -- are as truly magnificent as their former owners, this may be one of the worst curated and worst organized exhibitions I've seen in a long time.  The rooms are tiny, the traffic flow poorly designed, the supporting text not well linked to the works of art on display.  And with tickets priced at 11 euros (more if you buy in advance through FNAC), that adds up to a real disappointment.  And fair warning to those who've been thinking about checking out the museum for the first time, just a handful of works by the sculptor Maillol from the museum's permanent collection are on display and only tucked into corridors.  Consider yourself warned and for that matter lucky:  there are over 200 other museums and galleries in Paris beckoning.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Complementary Colors

The pictures I take in the métro rarely succeed due to poor lighting, too many people, or trains moving in and out.  But for once, I seemed to have hit the mark.  And even though I don't care much for long shelf-life milk, I am enjoying Monoprix's most recent ad campaign which introduces its new packaging for 2,000 everyday products.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Liar, Liar

Thanks everyone for playing "Two Truths and a Lie."  I enjoyed reading how each of the commenters reasoned it out even though most of you got it wrong.  I am happy to report that my French has improved enough that I can actually have a conversation on important issues of the day even though I make many mistakes along the way.  I have lots of career experience and a graduate degree in health policy, making me a bit more motivated than some to sort it all out.  And despite the fact that last night I savored the chocolates my husband brought home from his most recent trip to Brussels, chocolate could disappear from my life tomorrow and there wouldn't be any serious repercussions.

Many of the French assume I am Portugese or perhaps Spanish but there's not a drop of either in me.  My ancestors were all Ashkenazi Jews who left Germany, Poland, Russia, and Belarus to come to the U.S. 

So there you have it.  Thanks for playing.  Thanks for the lovely comments.  And thanks to all of you, even those who didn't share their thoughts, for reading.  It's been (and will continue to be) my pleasure.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Vehicles of Paris: Part 25

On a day when there wasn't much to cheer about in Paris, what did I spy but this:

A little pre-Christmas cheer sure to delight the 2CV lovers among you.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Top Hats

I have no idea what the market for top hats is like in Paris.  Are there people who really wear these and if so, where to?  But that's beside the point.  Even though I'm certainly not in the market myself, this display in the window of the Manuel Canovas shop on rue de l'Abbaye in the 6th was irresistible eye candy.  For the rest of you, you'd better act now if you want to put one of these babies under your tree on Christmas morning.  (Actually, I'm not even sure whether these were for sale or just a showcase for the amazing fabrics this shop has on offer.) 

I'm having too much fun reading your responses to my blogiversary game to give you the answers just yet.  If you haven't yet played, time's running out.

Monday, November 8, 2010


Is there a garbage strike going on in Paris at the moment or not?  It's tough to say.  On the one hand, the bins on my block haven't been picked up since Thursday and the piles of refuse are growing and spilling out onto the sidewalk.   Frankly, it's a good thing the weather has turned a bit nippy or those bins from the restaurant on the corner would be pretty ripe by now. 

On the other hand, the street sweepers are still at work; the mess I was complaining about last week has been tidied up and carried away.  And my usual habit of Googling for the answer hasn't lead to any firm conclusions.  I do know that some sanitation workers are protesting retirement reforms by blocking the treatment center in Ivry sur Seine but fewer than 10 percent of all workers are involved.   Given what I've read about the situation last month in Marseille and ongoing disputes in Naples, I guess we have it pretty good.  Still, I'm going to be a much happier camper when things are back to normal.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Three and Counting

Today marks three years since I started blogging about my adventures in Paris and beyond.   I've been thinking that I really should do something monumental for the occasion -- like writing the greatest love letter ever to the city of Paris, or launching a super fun and creative contest, or giving away tons of swag to readers.  But I'm short on both inspiration and time at the moment, plus no one gives me any swag to pass along anyway.

Instead, today we're playing  "Two Truths and a Lie."  It's simple really.  There are three statements about me below; two of them are true.  One is a lie.  But which is which?  I'm not telling, well not at least until I've had a chance to see what your guesses might be.

  1. I am capable of explaining, in French, the differences between the U.S. and French health care systems.
  2. I could easily live without chocolate.
  3. I'm of Portugese ancestry.
Thanks for reading.  Back on Monday with another report from just another American in Paris.

Friday, November 5, 2010


If you park your car on the street in Paris, chances are that you are going to end up with at least one (if not three or four) advertisements each day stuck under your windshield wiper.  I don't know if this strategy actually results in more people signing up for yoga classes, buying oriental rugs, or getting their cars washed.  I suppose it must; otherwise, why would the advertisers continue to shell out money for it?

Busy self important Parisians being who they are, most of these flyers end up not tucked into agendas, briefcases, or purses, or even in the trash can but in the gutter.  Why people can't walk to the corner and throw them in the city's bin, or even toss them onto the passenger seat for later disposal, I can't fathom.  I think it has something to do with the fact that street sweepers (both human and machine) exist for a reason and no self respecting person would wish to deprive them of the satisfaction of exercising their livelihood.  Do I sound sarcastic?  Well, yes.  It's just that most streets don't get swept everyday so the rest of us have to endure the sight of these ads in the gutter, mixed with cigarette butts and heaven knows what else, in a primordial soup of yuckiness.

So, of the many bones I have to pick with France Telecom, here's another one.  Yesterday morning, virtually every parked car in the quartier was graced with not one but sometimes two to three of these sticker advertisements for Orange's latest cell phone gimmick.

And because these were actually stickers with some kind of adhesive on the back, just what else happened?  A gutter full of sticker backs.   Thanks, Orange.  Hope you sell a gazillion more cell phones.  And maybe with a little of that dough, you can come clean up this mess.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Falling Leaves

There was scarcely a soul yesterday on the walk between La Ferté-Alais and Mennency, southeast of Paris.  And that suited me just fine.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Variations on a Theme

Some time last summer, I became mildly obsessed with taking pictures of wrought iron balconies.  My interest has since tempered but I'm left with a folder stuffed to the gills with variations on a theme.  These are actually surprisingly difficult to shoot from street level.

And you thought all Paris balconies were the same? Mais non!  Personally, I'm partial to the Art Deco ones.  What's your favorite?

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