Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 5

A fleet of sushi delivery motorcycles. Paris is thick with sushi joints. I don't care for the stuff myself (try as I have to like it) so regretfully, I can't provide any tips on the best spots.

Monday, June 29, 2009


The laundry's done, the refrigerator's restocked, and we're all ready for our next group of house guests who arrive this afternoon. But while I'm taking care of business in Paris, my mind is still miles away in Greece where we spent the last week hiking, sea kayaking, and eating plenty of fresh tomatoes and feta cheese.

Our trip started with a day in Athens for the obligatory visits to the Acropolis and Agora. As predicted, Athens was busy, dusty, and hot. Still, it's hard not to be impressed by the sweep of history, even if it's not easy to wrap your brain around events that transpired thousands of years ago.

But the real treat was Crete. Thanks to the team at The Northwest Passage, we had the adventure of a lifetime, experiencing the beauty of the Cretan landscape up close and personal. We kayaked on six days along the south coast of Crete and hiked three, including a five-hour breathtaking descent into the Samaria Gorge. The kids sat in the front seats of our two double kayaks and worked hard, especially the day when we started with an hour hike along the cliffs and followed by 20 miles paddling in the Libyan Sea. (That one kicked my tail.) My husband took the prize for effort, making the two-hour open sea crossing from Agia Galini to Matala on the last day.

For souvenirs, we brought home a few postcards, some strange tan lines, odd bruises from getting in and out of kayaks, and lots of happy memories of breakfasts of crusty bread and yogurt laced with Greek honey, the tinkle of goat bells on the mountain trails, white buildings trimmed in blue, the warm sun shining on turquoise seas, and hilltop views that took our breath away.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 4

Sorry but you won't see one of these fiery red emergency trucks if you're walking the streets of Paris. I caught this shot at last fall's open house at Hôtel de Beauvau, the site of the Ministry of the Interior. Vehicles of this type were in service between 1932 and 1954. You can just imagine the crew of six racing to a fire with the driver sounding the klaxon.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 3

These city workers were picking up bulk trash along the Boulevard St. Michel. I had to restrain myself from asking whether I could take home that iron headboard. I used to say that I would know I was a grownup when I didn't look longingly at the furniture on the curb anymore. Guess that still hasn't happened.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dressed for School Success

The end of the French school year is fast approaching. The last official day of classes is Thursday, July 2. (Presumably, it's Tuesday the 29th for the little ones who don't go to school on Wednesday.)

Thus time is running out to snap a few pics of French school children. For some reason, I had expected them to all wear uniforms but the students in public schools in my area don't. Neither do these kids, who attend a private school in the 7th arrondissement, but they do sport smocks: pink for the girls and black or dark blue for the boys. Speaking as a parent who has fought in vain against stains from paint, magic markers, and lunch, I'd say it's not a bad idea.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Information Please

I love my computer. And it's not just because it feeds my blogging inspiration but also because it connects me to the information I need each day about what's going on in Paris. Here are a few of my go-to sources that help me make the most of my time.

www.ratp.fr: I use the RATP itinerary tool constantly. Just plug in your location and destination, preferred arrival or departure times, and click. Fair warning: the routings are sometimes a bit bizarre but never inaccurate.

http://paris.angloinfo.com/information/movies.asp: The Angloinfo site has lots of stuff for English speakers in Paris but this is the page I use most often: showtimes for English language movies.

http://www.parisinfo.com/paris-guide/argent/gratuite-et-bons-plans/: Every first Sunday of the month, a number of Parisian museums open their doors for free. The trick is that the list varies depending upon the month with more available for free during the fall and winter.

http://www.v1.paris.fr/en/living/markets/default.asp: Forget which day the market is open or want to try a market in a different quartier? This site, run by the city of Paris, lists all the markets and their hours by arrondissement.

http://www.parisculinaire.com/fr/boutique/index.html: I love to cook but I hate spending all my time looking for ingredients. This site tells you where to find the stuff you need if you're cooking dishes from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, India, and other exotic locales. You'll have to look elsewhere for the shops selling American products, though.

http://www.davidlebovitz.com/archives/2006/02/american_baking.html: And speaking of American products, check David Lebovitz's advice on making your American recipes work while on this side of the pond. Love his site for lots of reasons; his practical information is, as the French say, le top.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 2

Super cool motorcycle with a real windshield and rear window to protect the driver from the elements. Most motorcycle riders wear lap blankets as well. How else would you keep your skirt and nylons clean on the way to the office?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Double Take

A while back, I shared with you some of the messages that the subway authorities had been posting to ensure proper conduct by riders. You may remember this:

Now that we've all gotten used to the messages and the rainbow colored stickers, I'd guess that most people just zone out when they see them. But wait, what's this message, strikingly similar in design and placement, on the subway doors?

And this?

Just a friendly and clever reminder from those opposing President Sarkozy's proposed reforms in the educational system that the 16 week strike by university students may be over, but the fight has only just begun.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 1

Paris is a feast for the eyes for many reasons. While I've written before about the parks, gardens, art, and architecture, it's also good sometimes to try to see the world through someone else's eyes. So for the next couple of weeks, I'll be sharing some scenes caught through the lens of a small boy crazy about things that go. After all, we all know one of those kids. Some of you may still be one inside.

This bike belongs to one of the hardy souls who work for La Poste. Notice that it does not have a traditional kickstand, presumably due to the weight of the front pack. Les facteurs and factrices (mail men and mail women) use all manner of conveyances to deliver the mail, sometimes even taking their hand carts on the bus. It seems to work; letters sent within France are typically delivered on a next day basis.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Night to Remember

One of my closest friends here is leaving next week, following her husband to his next assignment in the Far East. And while I'm going to miss her terribly, I have to admit that I've been enjoying the long string of celebratory good byes. Over the weekend, we were a party of eight for one such celebration with reservations for dinner at the Hidden Kitchen. Billed as a "private supper club," the Hidden Kitchen offers dinner twice a week, three times a month for 16 lucky souls in the home of its American owner/chefs, with a 10 course tasting menu paired with wines. The food changes continuously depending upon what's available at the market and the imagination of the chefs. Suffice it to say, it was a truly delicious meal, fresh and inventive, and among the best we've had in Paris. Hidden Kitchen has been well received by the foodie blogs and travel writers so you may have to book several months in advance. And for those who quibble about why you would bother eating food prepared by Americans while in France, I only have to ask, "would you dine at a top French restaurant in New York?" If you want to split hairs, spend your money elsewhere. If you want a memorable evening, book your space at the Hidden Kitchen.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Nth Circle of Hell

There's an old saw for domestic air travelers in the U.S that if you're going to hell, you'll have to change planes in Atlanta. The corollary in Paris? If you're going to hell, you're likely to have to change trains at Châtelet. Châtelet and Châtelet Les Halles are theoretically two different stations but they connect through a maze of grubby, poorly lit tunnels, some long enough that moving sidewalks make sense. All in all, three RER lines (A, B, and D) and five métro lines (1, 4, 7, 11, and 14) go through there. Some of the connections are a piece of cake (just walk across the platform to switch from RER A to B); others will leave you swearing that you'll do any to reroute around it in the future. One cause for optimism? The RATP has a terrific boutique in the station with demitasse sets, t-shirts, umbrellas, and other unforgettable Paris souvenirs. But danged if I can tell you how to find it in that subterranean netherworld.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Be Prepared

If I had a nickel for every time I've received a card like this one in my mailbox over the past 21 months, I could maybe afford a cup of coffee in Paris. Seriously, we probably receive more of these little emergency phone number cards (really just disguised advertisements for the local locksmith, plumber, and electrician) than honest-to-goodness mail. And despite all that, I don't have one posted by the telephone.

For those who don't read French, the numbers are for: locksmith, window repair, electrician, plumber, heating repair, emergency medical response, police, firefighters, poison control, physicians who make house calls, and burn center.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Better Safe than Sorry

Quick! When was the last time you saw a scooter chained to a parking spot? Better yet, when was the last time you saw someone doing their errands by scooter? No fair if you live in Paris.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Perfect Guest

The other day, a friend told me about a writing exercise she had done that involved describing the perfect guest. We have not been as inundated with houseguests as I had originally expected but I've been doing a fair amount of bed making and extra grocery shopping of late, and thus this topic resonated with me. Honestly, I don't mind the extra work as long as it's for someone I enjoy. And if you pick your friends well and discourage visits from those you find toxic (family or friends), it is a pleasure to share the best of Paris. That being said, in my book, the truly perfect guest asks (rather than informs) well in advance, is confident and willing to do their own thing a lot of the time, and offers to help out with meals, dishes, and whatnot. Our guests of late have been all of these so I can't complain.

But let me point out one teensy little item for people planning to visit Paris. In Paris, it rains. A lot. As in all the time. As in even when the day starts beautifully as it did yesterday, it still will probably get damp before night falls. And unlike in DC, where the umbrella sellers crop up like weeds on street corners every time it rains, finding an umbrella in Paris requires a bit more work and a lot more cash. So please, bring an umbrella or a jacket with a hood. Because yesterday, I sent off a family of five with two umbrellas. The reason I didn't have more is that the guest who was here two weeks ago left with the umbrella she borrowed from me. Bottom line: the perfect guest brings his or her own rain gear.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Brass Band

Unlike Polly Vous Francais, I did not get an engraved invitation to attend the ceremonies commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day with Presidents Obama and Sarkozy. (And if I may ask, Polly, what's your secret for getting on the guest list?)

But as luck would have it, I was able to catch another military commemoration last week on the Champs de Mars. I was walking along, minding my own business between two errands, when I heard the sound of a brass band playing. I followed my ears and a glimpse of plumed headgear and happened upon a ceremony honoring Gustave-Auguste Ferrié, a French military man who was a radio pioneer. Thanks to him, a transmitter was installed on top of the Eiffel Tower, allowing communications with the Russian allies during World War I. He also initiated use of mobile radio transmitters by French troops.

Although I didn't stick around for the ceremony itself, I did manage to get a gander at the aging veterans of various branches of the French military who formed the honor guard as well as these resplendent musical gentlemen.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

To the Polls

The French go to the polls tomorrow to cast their votes for members of the European Parliament. From what I gather, the significance of this event in France is that it signals the relative strength of the various political parties, most particularly the ongoing battle between the UMP, the party of President Sarkozy, and its principal rival to the left, the Socialist party. Sarkozy's approval ratings are bad but the Socialist party has been in disarray so who knows? Jean Marie Le Pen, the ultra right leader of the National Front, is on the ballot and a new face on the scene is far leftist Olivier Besancenot. A real wild card will be voter turnout, currently projected in the 35 percent range, pretty dismal compared to other national elections.

All over town, these sign boards have been erected with each party getting a chance to make its pitch to the populace. Here's a look at some of the pitches:

Socialist party on the left (how appropriate) and more centrist (but still to the left of Sarkozy) Democratic Movement (MoDem) on the right.


UMP candidates, post graffiti. "J'adore Dior" is a dig at Rachida Dati who is known as much for her sharp attire as for being the first woman of North African descent to reach the ministerial level. She looks better without the mustache.

Some people just won't let it rest. Amazingly, there is a party running on a platform about the importance of all European nations adopting Esperanto.

Friday, June 5, 2009

All in the Line of Duty

How many Frenchmen does it take to change a lightbulb? Honestly, I have no idea. But I can tell you that if a police car breaks down, it takes two other police cars plus two jeeps full of army dudes like these strapping young fellows to arrange for a tow truck. I trust that there was not a serious security or criminal incident elsewhere while they were thus occupied. You actually see jeeps like this cruising the streets of Paris fairly frequently; I'm not exactly sure what their mission is.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Walk in the Woods

City living is great but every now and then, you just need a breath of fresh air. Fortunately, escaping to the countryside is a piece of cake, even if, like me, you don't have a car. Yesterday, I spent the day hiking in a big circle starting and ending in Ozoir-la-Ferrière, a town technically suburban but feeling quite rural, some 20 miles southeast of central Paris. Within minutes of disembarking from the RER E, we were deep in the woods and walking along paths laid out for bikers, hikers, and those on horseback. Every now and then, the forest cleared and a crossroads appeared.

We saw some deer, a frog, a snake, geese, a mole, and maybe an otter during our walk but very few people. And even more remarkably, after lunch, we came upon a bona fide chateau, built by the Rothschild family in the mid 19th century.

And that's how you know, even though the flora and fauna are reminiscent of places I've lived in the U.S, that you are not in Kansas anymore.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Basilica of St. Denis

Last weekend, we made the long ride on line 13 north of town to the Basilica of St. Denis, named for the saint who was bishop of Paris around the year 250. Beheaded on what is today Montmartre, he apparently picked up his head (which continued to preach the gospel) and kept walking for five miles, collapsing finally on the spot of the current cathedral. But whether you buy into this story or not, the true significance of the church in more recent history has been its role as burial site for virtually every French king since Dagobert in the 7th century. During the French revolution, the church was heavily vandalized and the remains of the monarchy thrown into a mass grave. Later, the bones were reinterred in an ossuary in the crypt; today cenotaphs (funereal monuments without remains) are placed throughout the church.

St. Denis is also one of the first Gothic cathedrals, designed by Suger, its abbot during the 12th century. It's not particularly impressive from the outside, mostly because it's crammed into the concrete jungle that is modern day St. Denis. But inside, it's as peaceful and impressive in its soaring arches and stained glass as the best of them.

These statues depict François I, the great Renaissance king, with his wife Claude and several of their children at prayer. Claude did her duty as queen, bearing seven children, before dying exhausted at the age of 24. Although she was the eldest child of King Louis XII, she couldn't inherit the title. Even so she was plenty rich. Roger Wieck, an expert on medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the Morgan Library in New York, commented in The New Yorker last year that she was a good catch despite the fact that "she was short, fat, lame, slightly hunchbacked, and cross-eyed." The sculptor fortunately spared us those details.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, shown here, were not buried at St. Denis. After their executions, their bones were thrown into a mass grave, later exhumed and interred at the Chapelle Expiatoire in Paris.

The light in a Gothic cathedral is meant to inspire. You don't have to be a believer to feel connected to something bigger than yourself.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Tennis Anyone?

There's a lot of talk about tennis right now in Paris because the French Open is underway at Roland Garros. But while the superstars of today and tomorrow battle it out on the clay courts, I had the feeling of stepping back in time when I saw this sign. Paume is the old French term for tennis, made famous to the rest of us for that moment in French history, the Tennis Court Oath (or serment du jeu de paume), when members of the Third Estate pledged not to disband until a constitutional government had been formed. It came by that name because this revolutionary act took place on the tennis court at Versailles. Louis XVI was pretty much toast after that although it was another three years before he met his death.

Nowadays, the sports page is focused on just plain old tennis. That is, of course, you're a member of this presumably aristocratic club. Do you suppose they serve champagne between sets?
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