Saturday, May 30, 2009

Like the first robin in the spring....

Despite the number of Parisians still wearing wool coats, leather boots, gloves, and scarves, I'm convinced that the warm weather is here to stay. Most of the spring flowers are gone and in their place are roses and tropeziennes, the sandals pictured here, in every color in the rainbow plus silver and gold. They seem to be the perfect accessory to a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt (which in French are "un jeans" and "un t-shirt.") Originally produced by just two shoemakers in St. Tropez, they have gone in and out of style over the years, making a big comeback last season. Wear them and feel like a glamour girl just like the others who wore them before including Colette, Marlene Dietrich, Romy Schneider, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and of course, Carla Bruni.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Stepping Back in Time

Almost two years into our three year tour, I'm already feeling a little bit panicky about how much more of Europe we'll be able to fit in during our time here. So much to see and so little time! How can you possibly choose? One good place to look for direction is UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. It includes nearly 900 places around the world considered to be of cultural or natural significance from well known landmarks like the Taj Mahal to the more obscure (at least to me) Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in St. Louis, Illinois. Of course, I'll have to save those for another time; for now, I'm trying to focus on Europe.

I took some of my own advice last week when we took a day trip to Provins, a medieval village about an hour's train ride from Paris. It made the UNESCO list since it was the center of trading fairs that once connected northern Europe with the kingdoms in the Mediterranean. In time, commerce passed Provins by but the town remains for current day explorers. We had perfect weather for strolling among the half timbered houses, climbing the tower that had once served as part of the king's keep and later a prison, scaling the ramparts, watching an equestrian show, and of course, eating ice cream. Provins is also known for its roses but it was a little early for them. They should be in full flower by the time of the annual festival, the second weekend in June.

In France, UNESCO's list is as follows (I've checked off the places I've visited):

aChartres Cathedral
aMont-Saint-Michel and its Bay
aPalace and Park of Versailles
aPrehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley
Vézelay, Church and Hill
Amiens Cathedral
aArles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments
Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay
aPalace and Park of Fontainebleau
Roman Theatre and its Surroundings and the "Triumphal Arch" of Orange
Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans
Abbey Church of Saint-Savin sur Gartempe
Gulf of Porto: Calanche of Piana, Gulf of Girolata, Scandola Reserve
Place Stanislas, Place de la Carrière and Place d'Alliance in Nancy
Pont du Gard (Roman Aqueduct)
aStrasbourg – Grande île
Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Former Abbey of Saint-Remi and Palace of Tau, Reims
aParis, Banks of the Seine
Bourges Cathedral
aHistoric Centre of Avignon: Papal Palace, Episcopal Ensemble and Avignon Bridge
Canal du Midi
Historic Fortified City of Carcassonne
Pyrénées - Mont Perdu
Historic Site of Lyons
Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France
Belfries of Belgium and France
Jurisdiction of Saint-Emilion
aThe Loire Valley between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes
aProvins, Town of Medieval Fairs
Le Havre, the City Rebuilt by Auguste Perret
Bordeaux, Port of the Moon
Fortifications of Vauban
Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Remnants of History

The Bastille is one of Paris's most well known landmarks, the only problem being that it no longer exists. Yes, that's right, folks. Get off the Métro at the Bastille stop and look around. Opera? Check. Canal? Check. But massive prison fortress. No dice. What didn't get stormed on that fateful July day got carted off, smashed to rubble or repurposed for use in other buildings around town. And that impressive monument in the middle of the place? It was erected to commemorate the revolution that took place in 1830, not the better known revolution of 1789.

But wait! There's more. More than 100 years after that first Bastille Day, excavators working on the Métro unearthed remains of one of the prison's massive towers. Urban renewal being what it was in the late 19th century, there was no place for a monument in the newly designed Place de la Bastille. But rather than ignore history, some clever soul decided to preserve the remains, moving them a few blocks south towards the Seine in what is now the Square Henri-Galli,near the Sully Morland métro stop. It doesn't look like much now but oh how the world would be different if that tower were still standing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


It's strawberry season! You can get Spanish or Moroccan strawberries year round here but you have to wait for the spring for those from France. The season begins with the appearance of gariguettes which are small but bursting with flavor. Then there are the mara de bois which are bigger and redder and awfully darn good. And for those who really want to go hog wild, there are the different strawberries from different regions, like fraises de Plougastel from Brittany. Those folks are hard core; they even have their own strawberry museum. Me? I'm not picky as long as I don't go looking for some in the kitchen and find nothing but an empty box.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Paris Je T'Aime

The other night I watched Paris Je T'Aime again. Okay, I skipped over the segment where Elijah Wood gets bitten by a vampire but I watched the other 17 segments in their entirety including the weird one set in a Porte de Choisy beauty salon catering to an Asian clientele. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, let me back up. Paris Je T'Aime is a collection of 18 short films by world class directors and featuring world class talent. Each one is set in a different section of Paris and attempts to capture a slice of life in that location. They are funny, sweet, tender, heart wrenching, and sometimes a bit bizarre. There are archetypes and stereotypes and true originals plus the glorious views of Parisian rooftops including, naturally, the Eiffel Tower.

The first time I saw the film was in spring 2007, just after we'd learned that we'd be moving to Paris that August. It was a rush then and I still enjoy it now, even though I'm not yet able to watch it with the subtitles turned off. And though the pronounciation of the American woman who narrates the last scene is simply excruciating, I was always get teared up by her heartfelt sentiments. I don't own many movies but I'm happy to have this one on my shelf.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Life's Too Short to Eat Bad Food

You don't have to be a foodie to know that Michelin is the be-all, end-all when it comes to rating the best food in the world and certainly in France. But since you might have to take out a loan to have a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant, it's nice to know that there's another place to consult for restaurant recommmendations: Pudlo Paris, a guide that covers the territory, arrondissement by arrondissement, from top tables right down to neighborhood cafes and tea salons. An acquaintance who was leaving Paris just as I arrived left me her copy (all in French) and it's been my bible ever since.

You can't walk down the street in Paris without passing three or four eating spots but who wants to blow the budget (or even your lunch money) on a meal that's just, well, as they say, "meh." With Pudlo, you get suggestions for special occasion spots plus (relatively) cheap eats gems, cleverly marked with a piggybank, and even perish the thought, restaurants serving cuisine of other countries. While there are those who swear by Zagat's, I'd rather trust the expertise of someone who really knows food, in this case, Gilles Pudlowski, food critic for Le Point.

The Pudlo guide came out in English for the first time last year but be careful, the translation is of the 2007-2008 edition. The risk: turnover in the restaurant biz at the lower end is such that, if you don't call ahead, you may find that the spot you're headed for is out of business. So dust off your French (you really only need a few key words anyway), and stick with the more recent version for the locals. In no time, you'll be saying "miam, miam"* too.

*yum yum

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sounds of Summer

The weather's warmed up quite a bit this week and it's time again to open up the windows and let the air flow through our apartment. We don't have any screens but fortunately bugs don't seem to be a problem. But the sounds of the street? That's another story. Even though we live off the beaten path, those dudes on motor scooters love to go full blast down our block, giving their bikes a few extra revs for good measure. Plus there's the horn honking when someone parks in front of an entrance making it impossible for others to enter or exit. And then there's the trumpet and saxophone players with their boom box accompaniment that come out in the evening to serenade the folks nursing beers at the cafe down on the corner. The first time we heard the music, the kids opened up all the windows, eager to know where it was coming from. Now the thrill is gone and it's just one bad rendition of "Hello Dolly" and "When the Saints Go Marching In" after another. Last night, though, we got a special treat: an inebriated soul singing the "Marseillaise." It's not charming but you've got to admit that it's local color.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Looking for General de Gaulle

I've mentioned before the number of buildings in Paris graced with historical markers. The one pictured here can be found in sites across France connected to Charles de Gaulle, the moral equivalent of "George Washington slept here." An additional plaque on this building on Boulevard Raspail, for example, notes that de Gaulle lived there from 1932 to 1937.

At any rate, I was under the impression that the text (see translation below) was from one of de Gaulle's radio addresses made from London to rally the French in the dark first hours of the German occupation. But curiously, although de Gaulle did make several well known addresses in June 1940 that have a similar message and spirit, the text here isn't from any of those. The best I can determine is that these plaques are copies of posters that appeared in London about that same time. Why this text was used for the historical marker is not at all clear. But still, it's a sobering reminder of what France lost for a while and thanks to both the Resistance and the allies, was eventually able to reclaim.

To all Frenchmen

France has lost a battle !
But France has not lost the war !

A makeshift government may have capitulated, giving way to panic, forgetting honour, delivering their country into bondage. Yet nothing is lost !
Nothing is lost, because this war is a world war. In the free universe, immense forces have not yet swung into operation. Some day these forces will crush the enemy. On that day, France must be present at the victory. She will then regain her liberty and her greatness. Such is my goal, my only goal !
That is why I urge all Frenchmen, wherever they may be, to unite with me in action, in sacrifice and in hope.

Our country is in mortal danger.
Let us all fight to save her.

Long live France !

Thanks to the site,, for this translation.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Month of Holidays

Today's yet another public holiday in France. This time it's the celebration of the Ascension. Just to put it in context, the whole country also took off work on May 1 (Labor Day) and May 8 (VE Day), and we still have June 1 (Pentecost) ahead of us. Tomorrow's not a holiday but since it's sandwiched between one and the weekend, it's called le pont (the bridge) and lots of people take it off as well. That makes for only one full work week in May. Kind of a nice warm up to summer.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Potential Blogging Topics for the Week

  1. Bizarro weather; time to put away winter clothes or not?
  2. Child #1 finally released from braces; unfortunately child #2 just got own braces
  3. Writing French vs. speaking French
  4. Ideas for new blog series following success of "25 things I love about"
  5. Enjoying Paris while avoiding organ meats: is this possible?
  6. French notion that olive oil makes you fat (as opposed to butter?)
  7. I really shouldn’t be blogging since I haven’t…… (fill in the blank, the list is long)
  8. 3 year old child terrorizes peacock at Parc Bagatelle while mother looks on

On the other hand, today is the last day to take advantage of the UGC movie chain's offer: every theater, every film, every showing -- just 3 euros. Let me get back to you.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Fontainebleau and Barbizon

The weather this week has been the pits but that didn't stop me from making a day trip southeast of town to visit the chateau at Fontainebleau and the village of Barbizon. I'd been by the chateau before (but only in the garden)and while I knew it was big, I wasn't really prepared for how grand it was inside, in some ways even more impressive than Versailles. The design is a bit higgledy-piggledy since work on it began in the 11th century and continued into the 19th. In two hours, it was a crash course in French history: from Francois I, who brought the artistry of the Italian Renaissance to France right off to Napoleon who bid farewell to his army from the chateau's grand staircase before heading up to exile in Elba. And America's own General "Black Jack" Pershing made it the headquarters of the U.S. forces during World War I. Despite a relatively recent renovation, a few of the rooms were in a state of crumbling disrepair, making it crystal clear the tremendous effort and artistry it takes to keep such a place in top form.

Barbizon, a few minutes down the road, was on a completely different scale. The little village was quiet and charming midweek (although I can imagine it's pretty crowded on the weekend) and you can visit the atelier of Millet, a painter most famous for The Gleaners, and the Auberge Ganne, the boarding house where many of the Barbizon painters lived. Turned into a museum by the local government, the auberge has a modest collection of the work of Barbizon painters, mostly brooding landscapes with a few teeny tiny human figures emphasizing man's insignificance relative to nature. More interesting to me were a number of sketches and paintings on the walls in the sleeping quarters, found relatively recently under years of accumulated coats of paint.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

For Lack of a "C".....

I'll be blunt. Typos make me crazy. I have walked past this cafe a dozen times or more and every time, I have an overwhelming need to do something about the blatant spelling of "sandwiches." But I guess you need more than a red pen to fix this one.

Friday, May 15, 2009

On Beauty

One of the things I appreciate most about France is the loving attention to detail you find in everyday things. It's the cake in the bakery window, piled high with glazed fruit and elaborate spun sugar swirls, that's a miniature work of art. Or the small window box, an oasis of color in an otherwise monotonously white limestone facade. In the villages outside of Paris, it's these tiny pieces of hardware that hold wooden shutters open, fashioned not just to be utilitarian but also to lend a touch of beauty to a humble setting. Those shutters may need a good sanding and a fresh coat of paint, but in the meantime, this little lady is doing her job with dignity and grace.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Upside Down, Dancing on the Ceiling

I just couldn't resist taking a picture of this piece of wall art in the Marais. Since his feet are already peeling off the side of the building, I imagine he'll slide into a crumpled heap onto the sidewalk at any moment. For the moment though, it's a portrait of sheer joy.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Visiting Paris with Kids

I've heard from a number of readers lately asking for suggestions for visiting Paris with kids. And while I'm happy to do my best to answer your specific questions individually, I thought it best to devote a post to some of those that are more generic.

The number one question everyone has, "what should we do?" is unfortunately one that's nearly impossible to answer. The very French answer, "it depends" applies here because kids differ so much in their interests. Some kids will want to climb the towers at Notre Dame. Others will pronounce it boring. While travel is a great way to expand kids' horizons, you will be most successful if you pick sights and activities that build on existing interests.

Hotels: I haven't stayed in a hotel in Paris since 1987 so I don't have any specific suggestions to share. Frankly, though, if you're staying for more than 3 days, your best bet is to stay in an apartment where you will get more room per euro (for example, separate living and sleeping areas so you don't have to go to bed when your kids do) plus a kitchen for making coffee in the morning, keeping snacks refrigerated, and even making a simple meal (or something from Picard!) if you can't handle another dinner out. We've had good luck in other cities with but there are lots of agencies that rent apartments too. You won't get daily maid service or a concierge to give you recommendations and sometimes the decor is a little funky, but to me, the advantages are many. And what's going to make you feel more Parisian than running out to the boulangerie in the morning and bringing back fresh croissants?

Restaurants: We don't eat out a lot as a family here, much less than we did in DC because restaurants are expensive. (See sticker shock below.) But when you're on a vacation, you are going to eat out. There are chain type restaurants here that are family friendly in the American sense (Bistrot Romain, Chez Clement, Hippopotamus) but you don't have to go to these places to find something the kids will eat. Most casual cafes and brasseries will offer poulet roti (roasted chicken), saucisson (sausage), croque monsieurs(a good bet for those who live on grilled cheese), or omelets with a heap of fries. Plus all such restaurants post their menus outside so you can take a look before making a commitment.

You can certainly get hamburgers here but they don't taste like American ones and be aware that they come pretty bloody. Pizzas are served as individual portions but most places don't mind if kids share. A creperie is also a good bet for kids, although your kids might get freaked out if there's a runny egg on top. Just say, "sans oeuf, s'il vous plait" and generally they will oblige. I don't think that high chairs are widely available but then again, since my kids are way past high chair age, I may be wrong.

Get the kids involved in the planning: Dragging your kids from must see to must see is a recipe for disaster. Far better to skip the Louvre if they really aren't into art and instead go to Musee des Arts and Metiers where there are tons of cool vehicles and machines from days gone by. Your kids will feel empowered if they make some of the choices and a kid who's feeling a bit in control tends to be a happy kid. My kids, for example, like to be navigators on the subway. My favorite guide book is Open Road's Paris with Kids by Valerie Gwinner because it has all kinds of creative suggestions to spark kids' imaginations.

Go at a kid pace: A vacation that is a relentless succession of museums and churches is a downer for everyone. Remember that your kids need time to play on vacation just like at home. Take a picnic to the Champs de Mars and let them run around while you sit on a bench. Stop at a playground in a pocket park for a half hour in the sandbox and slides. Rent a toy boat in the Luxembourg Gardens. Get an ice cream to lick while you wander a quaint neighborhood. Count Smart cars or Velibs.

Be prepared for sticker shock: Unless you live in New York, London, or Tokyo, you're going to find Paris expensive. You can save money by picnicking at lunch (you can pick up lunch fixings at a boulangerie or grocery store) or by eating your main meal of the day at lunch (which tends to be cheaper than dinner) and then having your picnic for dinner. Buy your metro tickets in a carnet (booklet) of 10 rather than one at a time. Having a coffee in a cafe may set you back 4 euros but strolling the banks of the Seine or sitting on a park bench in the Tuileries costs nothing. Skip the elevator that goes to the top of the Eiffel Tower and instead buy the cheaper ticket that lets you walk up to the second level; trust me, that's plenty high enough. Many museums are free for under 18s and museums run by the city of Paris are free for everyone.

Strollers: Paris has not quite made the leap into handicapped accessibility so if you're pushing a stroller, beware. There are steps everywhere, especially in the metro. Parisians are very big on front packs and back packs to tote their babies for this reason.

And finally something that's not Paris-centric but nonetheless important....

Make them carry their own stuff: Why is that the mom always has to carry everything? I got my kids small bags with a cross shoulder strap and now when we travel, they carry their own bottle of water, a small snack, sunglasses or a hat, and all the brochures and maps they pick up along the way. This doesn't work for the little ones but anyone over 5 is old enough to do this. I also think anyone old enough to tell time should wear his or her own watch, if nothing else to avoid the continual requests of "what time is it?"

Enjoy your trip!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Steak Frites

We had a family birthday to celebrate this week and we did so by going out for steak frites. There are a number of places around Paris that do this well and my guess is that it's better to stick with the one in your quartier than to run around town looking for the ultimate.

In some ways, it is the quintessential Parisian meal and some ways it's the polar opposite. First of all, for dinner, you must show up at or before 7 (crazy early by French standards) or risk having to wait an hour and a half for the second sitting. When we walked up before the doors opened this time, there was a long line which, instead of wrapping around the building and heading down the sidewalk, went straight out from the door into the street. Yes, people were standing in the middle of the intersection in anticipation, and that should tell you something about the food.

Once you're in, it's all business -- eat and get out, no lingering -- but oh the meal. It's simple and straightforward: a small salad drenched in dressing and sprinkled with nuts, sliced steak served in a mustardy sauce, and piles of hot matchstick french fries. Your only choices are the wine and dessert, that is, if you still have room after the server comes around for the second time to dish out more steak and fries. I always plan to say "no thanks" to the seconds but who am I kidding? It's all I can do not to lick the plate clean. Maybe next time I'll be more abstemious. But then again, maybe not.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Spring Cleaning

I've been looking through the collection of photos filed under "stray stuff" on my computer and found that there are a couple of images there that I keep coming back to, even though I really don't have much to say about them. Some times, you just like a picture for its own sake. So I'm moving these dust bunnies out from under the bed. Let me know what you think.

You don't see as many of these Citroën 2CV models as once was the case. They still scream, "FRANCE!" to me. This one was perched on the quai for a photo shoot of some kind.

My apologies if it's your family pictured here. I snapped this one on the Champs de Mars where they were gawking at the Eiffel Tower while enjoying a picnic lunch. It still takes my breath away too.

I'd never think of getting on a bike without at least putting on a comfortable pair of pants but that must not occur to the French. Sure the racers wear cycling togs, but if you're riding along the banks of the Seine as part of your commute, office wear is de rigeuer. Wearing a helmet is just a dead giveaway that you're American or Canadian.

It was a beautiful sunny day in Paris and that was reason enough to document it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Swine Flu à la Française

As of yesterday, five cases of flu caused by the H1N1 virus had been confirmed in France. The French government, like others worldwide, has begun an aggressive public education campaign in newspapers, on the radio and on TV to give people practical information about how they can stop the spread of the virus and what to do if they experience symptoms. Some may find this over the top considering the small number of detected cases. But as a former (and I expect future) public health professional, I think it's a good idea to remind people not to panic, and instead to wash their hands, use tissues when they cough and sneeze (and throw them out), and to seek attention if they become sick. Hand washing alone is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself from any type of cold or flu virus, and ever since my first kid was born, the first thing I do when I walk in the house is to wash my hands. I'm hopeful that the current epidemic will be contained and also hopeful that the public will stay attentive to the advice and counsel of health authorities. Let's not panic, people.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Happy Birthday Johannes

Sing a lullaby today or listen to one of Brahms' wonderful works for piano or orchestra. I don't know why there's a street named after him in Paris, only that it is perpendicular to Allée Vivaldi, kind of like those subdivisions in the U.S. where the developers ran out of ideas and named all the streets after cars or flowers. Or in the worst case, a Jewish neighborhood outside Atlanta where all the street names are Christmas related. At any rate, the only mention I can find on-line of a connection between Brahms and Paris is his rejoicing over the German defeat of the French in 1870. But apparently now, all is forgiven.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Whoa...What's That?!

Just my luck that I didn't have my camera with me yesterday when I was venturing into a part of the 14th arrondissement completely new to me, when there before my eyes was a giant sculpture the likes of which I'd never seen before. But then again, just my luck, the Internet is an amazing thing and I found both a great picture and an interesting explanation on the French version of Wikipedia. The building pictured is a school that bears the same name as the street: La Tombe Issoire.

Some years ago, the school, in cooperation with local authorities, undertook a project involving all the children to learn about Issoire, a terrible giant from the folklore of medieval times who menaced pilgrims traveling from Paris to Saint Jacques de Compostelle (San Juan di Compostella) in Spain. William of Orange finally killed the giant but his body was too big to carry back to Paris, which at the time of course did not include the outer reaches of the 14th. Instead he brought back only his head, entombing his body in what it now the neighborhood adjoining Parc Montsouris. Truth or fiction? You be the judge. What is undeniable is that the sculpture by Corinne Beoust was installed in 2007. To learn more, check out this site. Or click on the picture to get a closer look.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Thanks but No Thanks

There's been a lot of buzz lately in the press and the blogosphere about Merci, a new boutique in the 3rd arrondissement that is the brainchild of Marie-France Cohen, founder of Bonpoint, that temple to gorgeous children's clothing and dare I say it, complete excess. Housed in a rehabbed factory, Merci is serving up clothes, perfume and home furnishings donated by known designers with all profits going to charity. Frankly, the whole thing left me cold except for this adorable car poised in the front courtyard. Are there really people who will spend 40 euros on a candle that smells like tomato leaves or dish out 100 for a metal and wood school chair suitable for a four year old? Cohen may know her clientele but personally, I'd say that if you want to spend money and still feel good about yourself, write a few more checks to charity and be done with it.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

How 'Bout Them Peppers?

Believe it or not, these sorry looking peppers were for sale outside one of the many tiny alimentations (corner groceries) that you find walking the neighborhoods of Paris. My sister, who is visiting, couldn't believe I would take a picture of them and kept on walking up the street while I snapped this shot. As for myself, I was simply hoping against hope that the owner wouldn't come out and give me a piece of his mind, or worse yet, make me buy one.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Real or Memorex?

I was walking with my kids in the 7th arrondissement a couple of weeks ago when I happened upon this scene. The park is the Square des Missions Étrangères on rue de Bac just two steps from Le Bon Marche and only one step from an ice cream shop, Le Bac à Glaces, recommended by David Lebovitz, a man who really knows his frozen desserts. At that moment, the blooms were such that the difference between the real trees and those on the wall were almost indistinguishable. The focal point of the park is a bust of French writer Chateaubriand who once lived across the street. For my money, the wall paintings certainly trumped the statuary.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Happy May Day

It's the first of May and the weather is perfect. The stores, schools, and offices are all closed. Like many other countries, France honors the labor union movement today and multiple manifestations are on tap. But it's also traditional to offer lilies of the valley (muguet de bois) today and in fact, it's the one day (I'm told) that anyone can sell them on the street without a permit. You can bet I'll be buying me some!
Related Posts with Thumbnails