Monday, October 27, 2008

Disney Succeeds in Quest for World Domination

If you're lucky, you may have missed the entire Disney High School Musical phenomenon. But not me. With kids smack in their target population, there's been no avoiding it. Yes, we own the first movie and the soundtracks from the first and the second. So there was no getting around going to see the third movie, the first in the series made for the big screen, and get this, released in Europe several days in advance of its U.S. premiere.

What I learned today is that the French have fallen for this hokey, romanticized view of high school life in America and done so hook, line, and sinker. Since the kids are all off for the Toussaint break, we went to the movies in the afternoon and let me tell you, it was packed. I don't think there was an empty seat in the house and the crowd was all ages, guys and girls alike. They awwed at the mushy parts and clapped when the villainess got her due, and gave a big round of applause at the end. You gotta hand it to Disney; they know how to create a following and how to keep on delivering. Now I'm just waiting for the next installment as the gang heads off to college, Gabriella gains the freshman 15, Troy dons beer goggles, and Sharpay goes all out to pledge the right sorority.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Seen in the Hood Redux

This one took me aback at first because the French just don't do bumper stickers. Only then did I pay attention to the message.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

News Update

I noticed this little item in yesterday's Le Figaro: (Okay, so I noticed the shorter version in Direct Matin but who's keeping track?)

Selon un sondage OpinionWay, effectué pour Le Figaro-LCI, 55% des Français sont favorables à l'interruption d'un match, lorsque la Marseillaise est sifflée par le public. Les sympathisants de Jean-Marie Le Pen y sont particulièrement favorables, avec 93% de réponses positives. 32% des Français y sont opposés et 13% sont sans opinion.

La réaction de Bernard Laporte, qui avait suscité une levée de bouclier parmi la classe politique, ne choque pas les Français. Le secrétaire d'Etat aux Sports avait proposé de ne plus jouer contre les équipes du Maghreb au Stade de France. Or 67% des personnes interrogées adhèrent à cette réaction, particulièrement les sympathisants de Nicolas Sarkozy (81%). 33% des sondés n'approuvent pas le secrétaire d'Etat.

Bottom line: My guess is that France won't be playing any games against Tunisia, Morocco and neighbors any time soon on its home turf. From a practical standpoint, this probably makes more sense than trying to clear a full stadium. But I'm pretty sure we haven't heard the last on this one.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Parisian Oasis

One of the things you notice when you first to get to Paris is that there's sort of a sameness about the architecture: block after block of the same Haussmanian stone buildings, six stories high with a big wooden door and wrought iron balconies. Save for the different varieties of geraniums in the window boxes and the details of the carvings over the doorways and under the lintels, it can all start to run together. But sometimes I pop up out of the metro and find myself in a completely different world. Yesterday, I took a walk in the area east of the Bastille, in and around the Faubourg St. Antoine. It's a neighborhood that's getting pretty popular with the yuppies (or as they say here, the bobos) and for good reason. Hidden behind some of those massive doors are little oases of green and calm. Many of these passages and courtyards used to be sites for workshops and factories. While there are still quite a few woodworkers in the area, the commercial spaces are now more likely to be offices for architects, designers, and other white collar types. And of course, the upper floors are becoming apartments, no doubt full of sleek and trendy furniture.

There are lots of words you could use to describe these little cours, but enchanting seems to fit best. The greenery alone set me into a semi-swoon, perhaps because I'm missing having my own private space outdoors. The name of this courtyard was magical in its own right: Cour d'Etoile D'Or (the court of the golden star). Cue up the mood music, maestro.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Can I Make a Suggestion?

This isn't a great photo but it's a great idea. Actually it's a box of ideas, otherwise known as a suggestion box. I spotted this one on a street corner in Garches, one of Paris's western suburbs, a quiet place that doesn't make the news often except for a mention recently as the location of the hospital where Gerard Depardieu's son died. The message on the side invites passersby to offer their ideas but makes no promise about the outcome.

I'm not sure why "proposer" gets more use in this context than "suggérer." Perhaps it is more polite. But suffice it to say, that the French appear to propose a lot more than they suggest, even though the Roberts Collins dictionary makes no distinction. Anyone with a better grasp of the French language, please weigh in.

I wonder what the residents of Garches have been proposing anyway. More frequent trains to Paris? Market day on Wednesday instead of Thursday? Lower fees for parking? Guess I'll never know.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

And So It Begins

A gray day in Paris, the first I'm sure in a long string between now and May. The sun didn't bother getting up this morning until 8:20 and it doesn't look like it will be showing its face at all. A light drizzle is falling and the temperatures are in the 50s. Time to pull out the umbrellas and boots, make soup, and hole up inside with a good book.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

At Home with Marie Antoinette

It was a beautiful fall day today, warm in the sun, cool in the shade, and the leaves just beginning to turn, the perfect day for a family outing to Versailles. The kids and I saw the chateau last fall so we walked past all the crowds and through the gardens to Marie Antoinette's domaine: twenty five minutes and a world away from the stiffness and awesome formality of the Hall of Mirrors and the Royal Apartments. She made the Petit Trianon, the little chateau built for a favorite of her grandfather-in-law, King Louis XV, all her own, redid the grounds with formal French and bucolic English gardens and decorated them with the requisite follies, including a temple of love. There is a music pavilion decorated with cherubs that overlooks a pond and a fake grotto, and her very own 200 seat theater, gussied up in blue and gold.

Marie Antoinette probably never said "let them eat cake" but she did have the poor public relations sense to amuse herself by building her own little village where she and her favorite courtiers could play peasants. It all sounds perfectly ridiculous until you see the place for yourself. Who wouldn't want to play being shepherds and dairy maids in such a charming little village, where surely the servants still did all the real work? Guess it was fun while it lasted.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Weighty Matters

As an American, there are some times when you just have to hang your head in shame at the stands that our leaders take and the issues that consume them. Sometimes it's big things (like the war in Iraq) and other times it's the excessive amount of attention that gets paid to issues like flag burning. The latest controversy burning here in France, however, makes me realize that we're not alone in the world in our fixation on symbols. Earlier this week, there was a friendly soccer match at the Stade de France between France and Tunisia, friendly in the sense, I believe, that it did not count in the standings for the World Cup qualification or anything else. There was a big Tunisian crowd in the stands, many of them now living in France, and many of these folks chose to hiss and boo when the French players were announced as well as during the playing of the Marseillaise, the French national anthem. President Sarkozy blew a gasket, as he is wont to do, announcing that if this happens again, the match will be cancelled. Now his minister of sports is making the rounds of the talk shows and newspapers to get the message out. The underlying issue of the alienation of immigrant youth remains untouched to say nothing of what will happen when 50,000 spectators are suddenly told to leave the stadium. But then it's not the first time that Sarkozy has spoken first and thought later. I'm sure we haven't heard the last of this one.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Check it Out

On a quiet little side street in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, there's a place that's become as much a part of our life in Paris as a trip to the neighborhood boulangerie. At first glance, the American Library in Paris is a little musty, dim, and worn around the edges. And at first, the annual subscription fee of 155 euros also seemed a bit over the top. But, having just renewed our membership for another year, I can honestly say it's worth every centime, particularly for a family of voracious readers like ours. I've been able to indulge a reading habit that had grown rusty in the years when I was juggling work and a growing family. The travel section and the cookbook aisle have kept me from spending a small fortune. And the children's librarian really knows how to talk with kids about books. In her jeans and Converse sneakers, she looks nothing like Miss Betts, the gray-haired lady in spectacles who presided over the children's room at the Atlanta Public Library's Highland branch where I got my first library card, but she has the same warmth and sparkle. Plus, when she couldn't locate a book my nine year old was looking for, she wrote down the title and author and within a matter of weeks, the book had been purchased and was ready to be checked out.

There's no chance that we'll exhaust the library's offerings during our time here, and the number of books on my "to read" list keeps growing. Just added: anything by new Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio which I noticed on display (in English translation) when I was in the checkout line last weekend. I just have to finish the books already piled up on my nightstand plus four or five back issues of The New Yorker before I can take that on.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Sometime last week we got a notice indicating that the elevator in our building (which by the way is no longer phoning home) would be out of service for one month beginning this past Monday so it could be retrofitted in accordance with some law passed back in 2002. Given that we're on the third floor, it didn't seem too bad, not nearly as bad say as if we were the family with two kids under 4 who live on the 6th. On Friday, a bunch of boxes of cables and other parts were delivered and over the weekend, we all steeled ourselves for the inconvenience.

But as of today, nothing has the elevator that is. Seems somebody forgot to notify us of another little item: the fact that the door codes that allow us to get into the building were going to be changed TODAY. I found this out the hard way, coming back from the gym after noon with just enough time for a quick shower and bite of lunch before heading off to my French class. I punched in the door code. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. I went to see the gardienne. Not home. I buzzed my upstairs neighbor. Not home. I buzzed the doctor's office on the ground floor. No answer. I buzzed the lawyer on the 1st floor who mercifully let me in and whose assistant endured my explanation, thanks, and excuses in fractured French. Then there was a flurry of phone calls since the kids would be coming home ahead of me and without the code, would not be able to let themselves in. In the end, it all turned out okay except for the lingering sense of frustration and annoyance. But hey, c'est la vie, n'est ce pas?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Seen in the Hood

We've been having incredibly beautiful weather these past few days in Paris, warmer even than many days in August. Curiously, the French call it "l’été indien." (Yes that's right, Indian summer. How appropriate for Columbus Day.) Everyone has been out soaking up the last rays of sun we may see until heaven knows when. This little guy was out getting some sun himself.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Silk Purse from a Sow's Ear

Okay so the global economy is headed straight into the toilet and there's not much we can do but sit on the sidelines and watch our pensions and the kids' college savings accounts swirl downward into the abyss. But there is one small bit of good news for American expats: the dollar is the strongest that it's been in over a year, clocking in at the close of business Friday at $1.35 per euro. (It was as bad as $1.60 last winter.) I've had my share of economics courses but lately, it seems the more I read, the less I understand. In the meantime, our daily bread is that much cheaper. Guess I'll take what I can get.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Personal Space

The French definitely have a different sense of personal space. Or maybe it's that they don't have one at all. This morning when I got to the gym, the locker room was completely empty. I picked a random locker, sat down on one of a dozen smallish benches and started changing, throwing stuff in my locker, and retrieving my water bottle, towel, and iPod which I placed on the bench beside me. Another woman walked in and made a beeline for the locker right next to mine, and started putting her own gear on the same bench. Well there wasn't much room (and remember there was no one else there and every other bench was available) she sniffed and said something to the effect that I needed to move over. I mustered the only response possible: I said "oui" and got the heck out of there.

Then there was the sunny morning in July when I was standing in a line outside a photography exhibit. Two older ladies queued up behind me and, within seconds, apparently decided that they would get in the fastest if they stood so close to me that they were literally breathing down my neck. Then came the best part. They started complaining to each other about how hot it was. Well, dang it, I wanted to say, of course you are hot. If you would just back off, you would discover that the ambient temperature is about 25 degrees cooler over there than when your front is touching my back. But of course, with all the burden of ugly Americans everywhere hanging over me, I just stood there and waited patiently. Like all good Parisians do.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Keeping It Clean

After all my grousing about Parisian tolerance for public filth, it's a nice change of pace to see the new public service campaign launched by the RATP, the authority in charge of Paris's buses and subway system. Actually, as far as subways go, I'd say it's not that bad. Certainly the stations are cleaner than those in Madrid, where piles of rejected newspapers were knee deep in some places during our visit last winter, and the grafitti is mild compared to that in New York. Still when you've got millions of people coming and going each day, and you give away free newspapers, and you let them eat, a certain amount of grubbiness is just inevitable.

The theme of the campaign is " La propreté, on a tous un rôle à jouer" which means everyone has a role to play in cleanliness. The end game is to get riders to take simple actions like using the trashcans, not leaving newspapers lying about, and speaking with an RATP agent if they see a problem. Well that makes perfect sense except for the fact that the station agents don't even blink when kids jump the turnstiles in front of them. Do we really expect that they'll do anything about litter? Go figure.

Still, I'm a glutton for billboards and there are some good ones associated with the campaign. What's more, there's a poetry component (how French is that?!) to convey the messages in a suitably humorous and sophisticated tone. And really what could be more compelling than telling the story from the perspective of an abandoned newspaper or a rejected piece of chewing gum?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

I Want Candy

"Mom, I'm candy broke." In case you're not familiar with this expression, I wasn't until a few days ago when my younger child came to me, waving the yellow basket that is usually brimming with lollipops, gum, sweet tarts, and the odd fun sized candy bar, now sadly empty. Don't blame me for filling my kids with sugar. Back home, the kids were able to keep their candy baskets full year-round what with Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, and the annual Palisades Fourth of July parade (the one where they throw candy to spectators) supplemented by the occasional birthday party goodie bag. But obviously there's no Halloween or Fourth of July here and as the kids have gotten older, the birthday parties are few and far between.

Now it's true that there's no shortage of fantastic chocolate in Paris, and there are even three or four chocolatiers, some of them world reknowned, just minutes from our place. But that's serious candy that costs serious money, not the kind of treat to stick in a lunch bag.

Which brings us to the subject of the available candy for kids. In a word, as the candy-broke child says, "gross." Okay, you can get peanut M&Ms and Twix at our corner market (for a hefty price) but most of the treats for kids come in colors definitely not found in nature with a heavy preponderance of licorice. If you like the taste of chemicals or don't mind paying the orthodontist extra for prying the sticky stuff off the braces, this could be your own little piece of heaven. Okay, so it's no worse than Nerds, Skittles and some of the other American junk my kids like but I've never shelled out hard cash for that stuff. Looks like I might have to to start doling out allowance in M&Ms.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Moving Day

If you happen to see anything like this while wandering about Paris, there's only one explanation: it's moving day for somebody. When I saw this lift last week, I realized I hadn't blogged about the technology of a Paris move because our own move took place before I started this blog. And so it happened that one year ago this week, a semi came down our street laden with all our household goods shipped from Washington. After quite a few weeks living with just some borrowed basics (4 forks, 4 spoons, 4 plates, you get the picture), it was quite a thrill to finally have the things that make a house a home: kitchen gadgets, linens, artwork, books, and our very own beds. The amazing thing about the whole process (well other than having someone else do all the packing and heavy lifting, a first for us) was watching the crew unload the boxes out of the truck and onto a lift like the one pictured here, sending it up four flights and handing it in through the window. While I couldn't bring myself to look when they put our piano on the lift, I find myself riveted whenever I wander by someone else's move in progress. I've heard some horror stories, including one in which an impatient driver got so annoyed at the equipment blocking the street that he barreled his car straight through the street, hitting the lift and sending its load flying. Fair warning.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

In Loving Memory

This post is for my father-in-law Doc who passed away ten years ago last summer. To be honest, I didn't know him that well but he was a good man, a loving father and husband, a caring health professional, and an upstanding citizen, always ready with a joke and a yarn. I hope he would have enjoyed this one.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Celebrity Sighting

Well, it's Fashion Week in Paris and I pretty much missed out on all the action. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that half of my wardrobe comes from Lands End and the other half from Eddie Bauer. At any rate, I did have my first celebrity sighting this afternoon when I spotted Natalie Portman, of Star Wars, Cold Mountain, and Garden State fame, walking her Yorkie around Place de la Concorde. There were some serious fashionista types in crazy heels coming out of the Hôtel de Crillon but Ms. Portman was just minding her own business, wearing jeans and sneakers. No entourage, no sunglasses, and no handbag the size of the Titanic. I also saw French actress Miou-Miou shooting a movie in the Marais last week but since someone else had to point her out to me, I can't really claim sharp eyes for that one.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Love/Hate Relationship

Steven Erlanger had a fascinating article in Tuesday's International Herald Tribune about how the French view Sarah Palin and their thoughts on American politics in general. I am posting this with some trepidation because my last Palin post generated some scathing comments, not all fit for consumption by my kids or my 87 year old mother-in-law who read this blog. So if you follow the link, please play nice.
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