Saturday, January 31, 2009

So That's What Blue Sky Looks Like

After a couple of weeks of nothing but gray skies, it's awfully nice to look outside and see the sun shining and blue skies.

Surprisingly, there were no patrons here.

Even the seagulls were sunning themselves.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Romance for Those Sans Budget

Valentine's Day is just two weeks away so now's the time to plan. If you're stuck, consider this offer from the Ritz on Place Vendome:

Love is in the Air - Valentine's Package

02/01/2009 - 02/28/2009

Each couple who stay at the Ritz to celebrate their love will be showered with attention during the entire month of February.

- Upon arrival, all guests will be offered a half-bottle of Ritz rosé Champagne and a box of chocolates specially created by the Ritz’s Pastry Chef.

- The Ritz will discreetly place a superb “passion” rose in the room.

- As a souvenir of this special occasion and to celebrate Ritzy nights all year long, each couple will receive two personalized pillowcases embroidered with their initials.

Package includes American breakfast.

One night in a deluxe room, 895 euros.
One night in a deluxe suite, 2,325 euros.
Being considered the best valentine ever: priceless.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Backstage at La Comédie Française

The big news in France today is the general strike affecting pretty much everything: transportation, banks, schools, post office, you name it. I hear even the clerks at the big box supermarket Auchan are joining in on the fun. But since I'm lucky enough not to have to go anywhere and my kids are in private school, I'm hoping that it's just a blip on the radar screen.

So while all the other Paris bloggers may be sharing their tales of woe, let me instead tell you about something else entirely. Yesterday, I had the incredible luck to go on a backstage tour at the venerable Comédie Française, the theater company that's been putting on shows since 1680 and working out of its current quarters from just after the French Revolution. Beth Thompson, an American woman, is the relatively new head of the hair and makeup department, the first woman to hold this position, and she was kind enough to provide a view behind the scenes to a number of other Americans. Although the company does its share of the French classics -- Molière and Rostand to name a few -- they also present contemporary works so the demands on the hair stylists and wigmakers are varied and considerable. The recent production, Hommage à Molière, had a cast of over 50, each requiring a handmade and hand styled wig. Ms. Thompson showed us some of the 5,000 wigs she has on hand and described for us the artistic process from production design through the day-to-day details of getting the cast ready for action.

She also took us to see the repassage (ironing) department where several ladies were hard at work, readying garments for the next performance. Who knew that ironing could be so fascinating? I'd never given a moment's thought to those stiff collars from the 17th century but now I'll never look at one the same way again. The collars are laundered and starched after each performance. Then the folds must be put back in, uniformly, using hand tools that are heated in an oven. Each collar can take several hours to finish.

Difficult and tedious? Perhaps, but the woman who was demonstrating the technique was swelling with pride. A modern production is quick work for the repassage ladies. If the actors wear t-shirts or even a dress shirt, these can be laundered and folded or ready with a few quick strokes of a standard steam iron. But, she added, the ironing team likes the traditional plays best because it gives them the satisfaction of practicing their special craft.

Tickets to see the specially laundered collars and carefully designed hairdos in their proper theatrical context are available on-line at the company's Web site. Seats for Cyrano de Bergerac are pretty much gone but there's plenty more to see.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bon Anniversaire Wolfgang

It's Mozart's birthday today and though he was Austrian, not French, he's got both a street named after him here and this nice plaque placed in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Beauvais on rue François Miron in the Marais. It commemorates his first sojourn in Paris (for a period of five months) at the age of seven as the guest of the Bavarian ambassador.

The building's history is a bit spicier; it was a gift of Anne of Austria, queen of France, to one of her ladies in waiting, Catherine Bellier, who apparently introduced the young Louis XIV to the ways of the world (if you get my drift). Mme. Bellier was not much of a looker but she seems to have gotten the Sun King off to a good start. Antonia Fraser's terrific book, Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King, has all the details on his relationship with his mother, wife, and multiple mistresses. On a cold day, it would go nicely with the Mozart flute quartets and a cup of schokolade mit schlag.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Weirdest Thing I Saw Today

I'd have to say that it was a tossup between this:

The French in the right hand corner was half torn off. Whatever the joke or the political statement was, it was lost on me.

Or this:

An ad for Nicorette gum posted on an ashtray outside a local restaurant.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Blue Bloods

A while back, I was dropping off one of my kids at a friend's and when I went to push the buzzer, I noticed that one of the other residents of the building was "Comtesse de" well, I forget what she was the countess of, but a countess nevertheless. I asked the mom of my child's friend about it, she said, oh yes, the comtesse lives right above her, a lovely lady widowed a while back, and her grown son, le comte, lives on the floor below. They have a chateau or two somewhere in the provinces as well.

So what's the deal here? France got rid of the monarchy a couple of times, once with Louis XVI lost his head (the anniversary of his death was just a couple days ago by the way) and again after his brothers, restored to power after Napoleon, gave it up, and then again when Louis Phillipe couldn't sustain his rule, abdicating in 1848. Revolutions abolished the hereditary claims to royal status and the made up claims under the two empires. And yet, in this land of egalité, there are still those clinging to the trappings of nobility.

Thus the beginning of my investigation. I've asked a number of French friends about this and pretty much got a round of shoulder shrugs. The official weight of the titles was abolished long ago. Some of today's nobility are the descendants of the nobles of yesteryear; others have just adopted them for their own reasons. As my friend in Marseille wrote to me, "Best to leave them with their delusions."

Postscript: For more information, go to the blog Ask a Frenchman .

Thursday, January 22, 2009

In Which We Shift from the Sublime to the Inane

Somehow imperceptibly, sometime between last spring and the end of summer, my expat status shifted from newcomer to experienced. And so started the questions: where do I buy x? what do I do about y? Doctors, dentists, electric plugs, piano lessons, buses, vacuum cleaner bags, you name it, I've heard it and am willing to dispense phone numbers and advice. Amazingly, there's one particular question that pretty much everyone asks: where are the bread crumbs in the grocery store?

The first time I heard this question, I didn't know what to say. I hadn't even noticed that there was a bread crumb deficit in Parisian grocery stories. Because who needs to buy them when you have the beginnings of the world's best bread crumbs sitting on your kitchen counter already -- yesterday's baguette. Fresh bread is one of the great wonders of living here but you must eat it promptly. Wait more than a day and you can use a loaf to fight off a household intruder. Think you can preserve it? Think again. Wrap it in plastic and it becomes tough and chewy. So, go ahead and splurge, for less than a euro, you can have a fresh loaf. And take that old one -- throw it in the food processor or blender, bash it with a rolling pin or a wine bottle, hell, even put it in a plastic bag and step on it -- and cross bread crumbs off the list.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vocabulary Lesson

prêter serment: to take an oath
investiture: inauguration
discours: speech
foule: crowd
robe et manteau jaune pâle rebrodé: what Michelle Obama was wearing
fiere d'être américaine: proud to be an American

Monday, January 19, 2009

Spinning Wheel

Twice a year, once in the summer and again around the holidays, a large Ferris wheel makes an appearance on Place de la Concorde, smack in the middle of Paris. It's a little incongruous, set next to the gilded gates to the Tuileries and opposite the ornate statues and fountains in the Place. Yesterday was the last day of the season and we decided to take advantage of it. The weather was a bit of everything -- windy, wet, clearing and darkening all at once -- but the cabins were fully enclosed and protected from the elements, and the views, save for the raindrops on the glass, were still incredible. Fortunately there was no line; regrettably the ride was over in a flash.

Hôtel de Crillon, one of Paris's fanciest hotels, with the tricoleur flying

Crazy clouds swirl around Sacre Coeur and the Opera

Soggy Tuileries Gardens with the Louvre and I.M. Pei's pyramid in the background

That's one big wheel.

Quintessence of Paris: looking over the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, up the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe with the skyscrapers of La Defense in the distance.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

La Crise du Fromage

In a parting shot for the Bush Administration, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative tripled the tariff on imported Roquefort cheese last Friday. This action was in retaliation for the European Union's decision not to allow importation of American beef treated with hormones. The timeline is a little sketchy to me -- the EU ban was first put in place in 1989 and subsequently struck down by the World Trade Organization in 1998 as being inconsistent with WTO rules requiring that such bans be supported by scientific findings. Later in 2003, the WTO agreed with the EU that the science did support the ban. At any rate, it's not really clear to me why the change in duties now.

Reactions from the French -- government, cheese producers, and common citizens alike -- were predictably outraged. The stiff duties pretty much bring an end to the profitability of importing Roquefort to the U.S. But since the U.S. market only accounts for 2 percent of Roquefort sales worldwide, the outrage seems to be mostly symbolic and just another nail in George Bush's coffin. As for American lovers of the bleu -- you'll just have to settle for Maytag, Saga Blue, or Stilton.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obamamania Continues

We're getting reports from friends in DC and others en route about the charged atmosphere. Although it's not the same from thousands of miles away, this ad from the newspaper, Libération, details the special coverage from now through Wednesday. Today, American writers tell stories about Obama. Monday, everything you want to know about the inauguration. Tuesday, the workshops of the president. Wednesday, the first day of the Obama era. I'll keep my eyes peeled for anything of interest.

(Note: no coverage on Sunday because the major newspapers do not publish on Sunday; le Journal du Dimanche which fills in that day is just a measly few sections compared with the epic Sunday editions of the New York Times or the Washington Post).

Friday, January 16, 2009

Day Tripping

If you're going to go to Auvers sur Oise, January is probably not the best time to do so. But then, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Auvers sur Oise is a lovely little town some 40 minutes north of Paris by train and best known as the final resting place of Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo. Although Van Gogh only lived there for a few troubled months at the end of his life, the town has figured out how to make his stay there into a nice little industry and I say that with all due respect because they've done a good job of it. You can pick up a brochure at the tourist office for a walking tour around town. Along the route, panels are posted with reproductions of the work of Van Gogh and several other prominent painters who sojourned there including native son Charles-François Daubigny, Corot, and Cezanne. The panels are situated at each painting's vantage point so you can compare the views then and now.

You can also visit the inn where Van Gogh stayed, the home of his doctor immortalized in one of his portraits, the small church perched on top of the hill and the cemetery where Van Gogh and his brother were buried. Plus there's a museum dedicated to Daubigny, another to absinthe, a chateau with its own collection of impressionist paintings, and several restaurants with garden seating for good weather. Regrettably, all these were closed earlier this week when I passed through so if you wish to make the trip, I suggest you call ahead.

This picture would be more attractive if those trailers were gone but it's nice to see that work is underway to preserve this old church.

Rest in peace, brothers.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Save for the birds and I suppose rats (though I've never seen one in the flesh), there's not much wildlife in Paris. There aren't even any squirrels here. But last month, when I was off on a hike in the forest of Taverny north of Paris, I was lucky enough to catch a quick glimpse of three wild boars (sangliers, in French) crossing the path some 100 yards in front of us. It was misty and they move fast so there was no time to capture the moment on film.

Yesterday, on a hike with the same group not too far from there, we came across a sanglier again, although this one was penned in, sharing space with a scruffy looking pony and a couple of chickens. Frankly, I think it's better to be separated by a fence from a creature sporting tusks and weighing perhaps 200 pounds. The pig definitely could have taken that pony.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Funny Face

It's hard to resist Gene Kelly as a former GI trying to make a go of it as an artist in An American in Paris. Plus the movie's pretty much one big Valentine from Hollywood to the City of Light. But although I'm a complete sucker for old time movie musicals, I always cringe a bit when I watch that big production number ballet at the end, the one supposedly set in the Place de la Concorde. Far better, and in fact, filmed on location rather than a Hollywood backlot, is the photo shoot scene from Stanley Donen's Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. You can skip the rest of the movie; the story is silly, Astaire did better work elsewhere, and there's a reason why Audrey Hepburn's singing was overdubbed in her next musical, My Fair Lady.

Just enjoy. (Fast forward to 2:10 where the real fun begins.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

This Just In

One thing about the cold weather here is that it really exposes cigarette smokers for the addicts they are. Nothing personal, folks, but if you're sitting outside on a terrace when it's below zero, something's wrong. But there is some good news to report. New research released by an international tobacco enterprise has found that cigarette sales dropped to an all-time low in 2008, dropping 2.3 percent. Some 54.4 billion smokes were sold in France in 2008, compared with almost 85 billion in 1998. This same report, however, points out that the statistics can be a bit misleading since this accounts for only cigarettes sold, not consumed. It seems that cigarettes are a popular tourist purchase; one in four cigarettes smoked in France last year was bought abroad, mainly in Spain, Luxembourg and Belgium.

Roselyne Bachelot, minister of health, isn't resting on her laurels in response to this news. She announced earlier this week that she'd like to put graphic images of organs affected by smoking on cigarette packages by the end of year, in part because the current warnings, (which include "smoking kills") haven't had much impact. Predictably the tobacconists' confederation is crying harrassment. Stay tuned for developments; what could be a nicer addition to my blog than a full color photograph of a diseased lung?

P.S. Happy birthday to my favorite ex-smoker.

Friday, January 9, 2009

News "Coverage"

I've never been a big fan of TV news. It's so much more efficient to read the newspaper or even listen to the radio and plus it's usually just plain boring. And though I've heard that watching the news in French would be a big plus for my language skills, I can't seem to get into the habit. The only time I end up watching the news is when I go to the gym where it's hard to ignore the monitors above the cardio machines. Watching is the operative word because there isn't any sound coming out of those monitors. Since I can't lip read French, the only thing that's really made an impression is that 1) the French must love off road car rallies because the coverage is extensive and 2) the sports anchors are, shall we say, much more casually attired than those in the U.S. Just so you don't think I'm exaggerating, get a load of this photo of Infosport anchor, Christine Carnaud:

And again, somewhat more conservatively dressed:

In contrast, two female anchors from ESPN's SportsCenter, lest you think it unfair to compare Carnaud with say, Katie Couric or Barbara Walters. (Note: I don't have a clue as to their names but I'm sure they're all fine journalists.)

I can't find anything on-line about Carnaud except for lots of other provocative photos and the fact that she was a model before becoming a news personality. I can assure you, however, that she's not the only one reading the news in outfits that are off the shoulder, down to there, or secured with just a string. Maybe if I were a guy, watching the news wouldn't be so boring after all.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Baby It's Cold Outside

Probably the most frequent question I was asked during our trip to the U.S. was "what's the weather like in Paris right now?" My response was "grey, damp, and hovering around 40 degrees." Well, that was pretty typical for last winter but the last few days have been anything but. The snow here was the headliner; the real news is the cold. And I'm talking seriously cold. When I got up this morning, it was just 10 degrees (Fahrenheit, that is). Yesterday, I don't think it got above 20 or 22 and the outlook for the next week is more of the same. Fortunately, there's no more precipitation in the forecast and so the only thing to do is layer up and deal with it.

I've got a bone to pick though with Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris and champion of all things green...more bikes, recycling, eco friendly bulbs for the Christmas lighting displays around town and that sort of thing. He seems to have left one detail off his green agenda: energy efficiency. There doesn't seem to be anything resembling a storm window here with the result being that the geraniums are staying in good shape from the heat leaking out (see my post from earlier this week) and we're shivering inside from the cold air whistling in through every crevice. Undoubtedly it would cost a fortune to retrofit these old buildings and perhaps this is a matter for national, rather than local, policy. By the time I figure it out, my guess is that the temps will be back to the 40s and a nice gray drizzle will be falling.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Snow Day Redux

As predicted, yesterday's snow day never amounted to much. But it was pretty while it lasted. Here are a few bonus shots, several of them snapped from the cozy confines of a bus. And despite the fact that my kids put spoons in the freezer, forks under their pillows, wore their pajamas inside out, and placed their stuffed animals on the window sill, there's no snow or ice delay today.

Potted plants shiver in the wind.

A deserted park along the Champs Élysées.

The last of the Christmas decorations at the Rond Point of the Élysées.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Snow Day

As I write this, it's still dark in Paris, the sun not slated to make an appearance until almost nine. And for the second time this week, a light snow is falling. I failed to take a picture on Friday of the snow that had settled on the geraniums in our window boxes, an image that didn't register at first as all that unusual until I recalled that back in Washington, you bought geraniums in the spring and then pulled them out in late fall while putting the garden to bed. Here our building leaches so much heat that the flowers seem to thrive despite the ambient temperature; our recent absence of 10 days seemed to make no difference to them. But after a couple of days where the temps have scarcely reached above freezing, I thought it best to cover them up. So no picture of snow dusted geraniums.

I don't know if there is such a concept as a snow day in Paris. My kids don't go back to school until tomorrow so we've no need to glue ourselves to the tube to find out about closings. My bet is that this light dusting will turn to drizzle soon enough. In the meantime, we're enjoying the view and our favorite snow day song.

P.S. The view from here some two hours later; it's still just a dusting.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Market Day

I have written a lot about food shopping here but not on the quintessential French experience of shopping en plein air. I don't do a lot of buying in Paris's open air markets. At first, I found the whole experience a bit overwhelming because you do have to actually talk to the vendors (something that's not necessary in the supermarket much beyond "bonjour") and due to the myriad decisions to make. (Which vendor? The one with the long line or the better prices? Which fruits and vegetables? The ones I know or the ones I really should try for the first time?) Plus the closest market of any size is one of the most expensive in town. I've been to others that are less pricey but there's always the calculus of how much money you save when you spend twice as much time shlepping across town.

But we're having a little get-together to ring in the New Year tomorrow and I figured that buying paté and cheese at the market would be a good bet, particularly since a number of the shops in the neighborhood are closed until Tuesday. It's super cold out but the market was buzzing, the vendors all triple and guadruple layered in long johns, scarves, and gloves, and the colors and smells enticing (especially the stand selling Lebanese specialties). The trip certainly lightened my wallet. (Note to self: even when you're having 10 guests, just ask for a slice of paté, rather than a big slice). But it all looks pretty yummy (except for the rabbit with the fur still on and the Christmas turkey sporting its tail feathers; maybe next year.)

This isn't a farmers' market. But the fruits and vegetables are always labelled as to their country of origin.

Lots of holiday flowers and greens still available, including bamboo spray painted gold and cotton.

Decisions, decisions at the cheese vendor. We picked Comte, reblochon, and a round of goat cheese so ripe that it was dripping.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

You Can Go Home Again (Sort Of)

We're just back from a 10 day trip to the U.S., our first trip there since arriving in Paris in August 2007. In the run up to the trip, I was wondering what would feel different...would it be the big cars, the fact that everyone would be speaking English, the character of our neighborhood? But as it turns out, going back home was pretty much like putting on an old shoe. Sure there were a few changes here and there, but overall, it just felt comfortable and familiar and like we could slide back into our old life without missing a beat. Between a week in Washington and three days in Missouri, we saw a lot of friends and family, ate way too much of the foods we miss, and let the kids overdose on American TV. The salted butter caramels, soaps, scarves, and Eiffel Tower keychains were a big hit with those who received them, and we stocked up on gift wrap, printer ink, and Trader Joe's black bean dip, among other things. DC was still thick with Obama bumper stickers and yard signs and all abuzz about the upcoming inauguration and just how the town will manage with up to 4 million visitors. And I only wish I had had my camera with me when we went by the Vice President's residence and saw the truck marked "Mid Atlantic Shredding."

We drove past our house in DC, the one where we lived for 8 years before coming to Paris. It was ours but not. On the flight back, the kids said they were eager to get home. Where was that, I asked? Paris, they replied. It was a great trip but clearly we're not ready to go back to the country we will always call home just yet.
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