Saturday, March 29, 2008

Time Shift

Last week, when the U.S. went to daylight savings time, everything went amok for me. I'd finally internalized the six hour time difference, only to realize that now it was only five hours. (Of course this is nothing compared to when my husband used to go to the Antarctic and we had to calculate the eighteen hour time difference!) Happily tonight, France springs forward too so we'll all be realigned, well at least until the fall.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Will the Real Carla Bruni Please Stand Up?

France's new first lady posing for the Spanish men's magazine DT, wearing nothing but her wedding ring (and those fab boots), in an issue that was published on-line in January. Much buzz in the press this week as a full frontal nude of her, taken in her modeling days, was up for auction at Christie's.

Being greeted this week on a state visit to Great Britain by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla. The visit is being proclaimed a huge success, particularly in promoting Sarkozy as a statesman, after weeks of being ridiculed in the French press as President Bling-Bling.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

La Pluie Encore (Rain Again)

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur?

Attendez donc l'après-midi pour vous prendre pour Verlaine. Jusque-là, le soleil fera un effort pour rendre cette journée moins mélancolique en dépit d'un thermomètre au bord de la dépression. Attention toutefois aux précipitations de la soirée, elles pourraient se transformer en neige qui tient au sol.

Only in France? The above weather forecast from Le Parisien (translated into English below with some help from Google tools) begins with a few lines from Paul Verlaine, a 19th century French poet, known for his dissolute lifestyle but ethereal imagery. Whatever it takes to get through another rainy day.


It cries in my heart
As it rains on the city
What is this languor
That penetrates my heart?

Expect therefore the afternoon to take you to Verlaine. Until then, the sun will make an effort to make this day less melancholy despite a thermometer on the brink of depression. Attention, however, evening precipitation could turn into snow that sticks to the ground.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Joyeuses Pâques

It's Pâques today in France, better known as Easter in the English speaking world. Since I'm not a churchgoer, I can't comment on the differences in how the holiday is observed from a religious perspective. But to suffice it to say, Pâques seems to involve a lot of eggs, bunnies, and chocolates. The windows of the chocolatiers are a sight to see.

Now here's something interesting. If you have a hard time explaining to your kids about the Easter bunny, pity the French parents who must explain to theirs that the eggs and chocolates are brought by a giant bell, la cloche de Rome. This seems to me even more difficult to explain than how Santa gets up and down all those chimneys in one night. At least he has arms and legs. (But then I guess that's why they call it a leap of faith.) Well, the long and short of it is that on Good Friday, all the church bells in France miraculously fly to Rome carrying with them all the misery and grief of those who mourn Jesus' crucifixion. The bells make a return trip on Easter morning to celebrate the resurrection and bringing the chocolate and eggs with them. In keeping with the tradition, French church bells do not ring from Good Friday to Easter morning.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Your Daily Dose of Calcium

In the category of "who knew?" comes this little item. The water in Paris is full of calcium. I don't know if that helps combat osteoporosis. It does have the unfortunate impact, however, of gunking up your washing machine, dishwasher, and leaving a gross filmy residue on the sink, tub, and faucets. To combat it, you need an impressive array of anti-calcium products: little tablets for the washing machine, extra additives in the dishwasher powder, and a special bottle of anti-calcaire liquid with which to attack the kitchen and bathroom cleaning. (Not to worry if you are coming to visit. We'll have things spiffed up for your arrival and won't make you take on the tub ring when you leave). Some marketing genius is bottling this water and selling it to women for its health benefits, which I assume are the same whether the water comes out of the tap or you pay extra for it. Now that's making silk out of a sow's ear!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Keep Off the Grass

There's still a damp chill in the air here and not a lot of sun but the cherries, forsythia, and daffodils are in bloom. With spring just around the corner (at least by the calendar, if not by the weather), many of the public lawns in Paris are set to return to public use. What, you ask? Yes, the French know that the secret to a really good looking piece of grass is keeping the people off of it. These little signs began popping up in late fall (translated as "lawn in repose" or less politely, "keep your grubby feet off the grass") and most are set to expire in the coming weeks when we will once again be allowed to loll and picnic with abandon.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Not-So-Almighty Dollar

The last month we've been watching the U.S. dollar, not particularly strong six months ago, go into what seems like a free fall against the euro. When the euro became legal tender in 1992, it was trading at about 86 cents to the euro. Last spring, the euro was up to around $1.30 and by fall, it was hovering between $1.40 and $1.46. On Friday, it closed at $1.57. This morning in early trading, it's gone to $1.59. When the pundits said it would go to $1.60, no one believed it. And yet now we're pretty much there.

All things considered, it's probably not the best time to be an American in Paris. In the great heyday of American expats, Hemingway and his pals were buying francs at 35 to the dollar compared to about 6 or 7 francs to the dollar at the time of the switchover to the euro. But what are you going to do? Sigh. Just pour me another glass of good French wine.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

La Politesse

Upon hearing that we'd be coming to France, a friend gave us French or Foe?, a little gem of a book by Polly Platt on understanding the many differences, some subtle, others not, between French and American cultures. It was a great way to begin our initiation into French manners. Even with the most rudimentary language skills, it helps to know that there are few little golden nuggets that will grease the wheels of your interactions with the French. So, for example, it was good to know right from the start that whenever you enter a shop, approach the counter in the bakery, or even come to the head of the line in the supermarket, you must always greet the person serving you with "Bonjour madame" or "Bonjour monsieur," never just "Bonjour." Only then the transaction can begin. If you have a problem or a question, you must always apologize first, saying "Pardonnez-moi de vous deranger..." (Forgive me for bothering you...") Then when you leave, you must be sure to say at least "au revoir madame" if not also, "bon journee" (good day) or "bon soiree" (good evening) as appropriate and even "bon weekend." I'm still not sure that I feel quite like a "madame" myself; I hope at least I'm not labelled as an ingrate.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

It's a Dog's Life

These two furry fellows aren't very French but they're pretty darn cute. Murphy and Henry are expats like us, Americans from Fairfield County, Connecticut. We see them most mornings at the bus stop and they seem to be adjusting to la vie Parisienne just fine. And it's a pretty good life here for a dog. They're welcome in many restaurants and shops, and while they're technically not supposed to ride on the subway, you see them there all the time. Plus it's not unusual for shopkeepers to leave a bowl of water just outside the door for them. I have not actually seen a dog in a museum or in line for the elevator at the Eiffel Tower but you never know.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

It's Raining, It's Pouring

It's not officially spring yet but it is definitely the rainy season. It's rained every day for the last I don't know how long and more rain is in the forecast. It's been a mix of drizzle and downpours and general dampness with the occasional burst of sun, just for a moment or two though. Well, it got me to wondering what I should be expecting in total rainfall for the month of March. Come to find out that the Paris average for March is 6.2 inches compared to just 3.17 inches for Washington, DC! No wonder this Gustave Caillebotte painting, appropriately titled Paris Street, Rainy Day, looked so right when I visited the Musee Marmottan last week.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Say Cheese!

We are indeed in the land of cheese. There are almost as many French cheeses as there are days in the year, leading Charles de Gaulle to once say, "How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?" Turns out that cheeses have seasons just like produce, however, so not all are available at any one time.

But I'm pretty sure that de Gaulle's count did not include one delicacy that appears to be available in every corner store (although most assuredly not in any respectable fromagerie): burger cheese. Okay, so it's tempered with emmental, the blandest typical cheese around, but this works just fine in place of your Kraft singles. It's even wrapped by the slice. My kids assure me that it makes a most excellent American-style grilled cheese, not to be confused with a croque monsieur which sports most of its cheese on the outside. Too bad there's no real cheddar to be found.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Clothes Shopping

Paris is a mecca for absolutely gorgeous children's clothes. If I had a little girl under four, I would be in big trouble. I'm not sure though that I understand these shop windows. My younger child pronounced them "freaky."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Tips for Tourists

I was walking along one of the wide boulevards near the Arc de Triomphe yesterday afternoon and in this upscale neighborhood, I saw a fellow in front of me try the gold ring scam four times, each time without success. Paris is quite safe but the one thing you have to be alert for are pickpockets and con artists. In the gold ring scam, a person appears to pick up a gold ring off the ground as you walk by and asks, "is this yours?" The next step is to ask you to buy it or perhaps simply to distract you while your wallet is lifted. So if you come to Paris (or for that matter any big city in Europe), stay alert and don't let these guys or the gypsy ladies asking "do you speak English?" get the better of you. If you are a man, put your wallet in your front pocket and better yet, put a rubber band around it so it won't slide out of your pocket easily. If you carry a purse, carry a shoulder bag across your body and be sure it's the kind that zips fully closed. And if you must carry a backpack, use it for water, snacks, guide books, or maps, not valuables. Other than that, enjoy your stay!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Smoking Kills

"Among adult smokers, only about two in ten say that health warning messages they have seen on cigarette packages have been very effective in getting them to smoke less around others over the past year than they used to and in informing them about the health effects of cigarette smoking....Among youth smokers, about two in ten say that these health warning messages have been very effective in getting them to smoke less around others over the past year than they used to and getting them to smoke less this year than last year."

Source: Health Canada

'Nuff said.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Seen in the Neighborhood

These images of Pope John Paul II have been on display in a small gallery around the corner from us for several weeks although most of the time, they were arranged in a simple straight line. By the time I got around to taking this photo, they had been repositioned as above. Are those high fives or are they blessing each other?

On a more serious note, I learned from the gallery Web site that these are the work of Polish artist Peter Fuss, better known in his own country for controversial posters and billboards. You learn something new everyday!

Saturday, March 1, 2008


The kids had no school this week and thanks to one of the many low-cost European airlines, we were able to make a short getaway to Venice. Our goal was to get there in the off season since the place is said to be a mob scene in spring and summer and can get quite fragrant when the temperature rises. Well, even in late February, there are still plenty of tourists in Venice and places selling Murano glass, pizza, gelato, and Carnevale masks by the dozen. Since the city has been in commercial decline since its 17th century heyday, tourism is the major enterprise. That being said, it was pretty remarkable to find ourselves in the place we've seen so often in pictures. The weather was cool and gray but we stayed warm exploring the different quarters, the churches, museums, and canals. The city is clean but has an air of decay; the stucco (even on many of the grand palazzi)needs patching and the shutters need scraping and painting and everything is a bit dampish. Still, there's something enchanting about the city with its tiny passageways that masquerade as streets, the sound of Vivaldi wafting out of a Renaissance era church, and the streetlights reflecting in the water at night. It's peaceful too as there are no cars or motorcycles, just the sound of churchbells, kids playing soccer in the cobblestoned squares, and the occasional motorboat passing by.

I enjoyed the instructions left by the landlord in the apartment where we stayed:

The Venetian silence emphasizes every annoying noise. If you try to adapt yourself to this atmosfere, you will tune yourself with the spirit of Venice and you will fell in harmony with it.

Kind of a nice way to say keep quiet.
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