Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mobile Rage

France Telecom aka Orange, you're making me nuts. Yes, you've got those cute little ads with origami and you send me lots of e-mail offers telling me about all your swell new services and you've got Iphones and other eye candy in the window just begging me to come in and sign up. But go and try to recharge your pay-as-you-go phone? Simple right? Oh wait. I forget that I'm in France where the customer is never considered right.

So to back up. Yesterday, I had to put more money on my older child's cell phone, a cell phone that is carried primarily so said child can get to and fro in Paris without Mom. But what I didn't realize until I tried to recharge it, was that my French bank card had expired since the last time I recharged it, creating a problem apparently unsurmountable by the geniuses who have 45 percent of the portable telephone business in France. Oh sure, I got a new bank card, same number, just new expiration date. But tell that to France Telecom.

I figured the only way to clear it up was to go into the store itself (naturally, the store where I bought the phone in the first place and first bought minutes, not just any old branch, mind you.) Wrongo bongo. After a fractured explanation on my part, the clerk tried to recharge it herself using the same technique I had tried. And guess what? She couldn't! Ha!

Only not so fast. Her explanation: Madame, there is a problem with your bank card. You must go to your bank. I protested that the card works fine in all the other shops and ATMs, that the problem must be the expiration date logged in the France Telecom system. Plus, I'm thinking: what am I going to tell the people at the bank? My card works everywhere but Orange? I can pretty much predict what they'll say: go back to Orange.

Time was late and I had places to be. I left without looking her in the face, simply saying I'd be back when I could be more calm. I'm just hoping that when I go back for round 2, that gal is nowhere in sight.

Update:24 hours later and everything is cool. I went back to the store, phrases rehearsed and ready to be polite yet firm. The lady who "helped" me yesterday tried to pass me off to a colleague but they were all busy with new clients. So she took me in the end. And, so it seems, she had done a bit of homework too. She found a way to enter my bank card information so the system would accept it. The phone is recharged through the end of the year. 2010, here we come.

Truth be told, I had two equally frustrating experiences with T-Mobile in the U.S. Maybe it's an industry thing?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Getting Out of Dodge

They say that all roads lead to Rome. Unfortunately, those roads seem to come at a pretty high price at this season. Thus Rome, theoretically a lovely destination for our kids' Toussaint school break, was not to be. We'll get there eventually (actually I've been there once before) but for this school vacation, we instead stayed in France, spending five days and four nights in the Languedoc and Midi Pyrenees regions. We lucked out with some sensational weather and took it slow, travelling by train and car alongside fields that were both recently harvested and newly planted. The medieval city of Carcassonne was a big hit, especially lit up at night, as was the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in Albi, the artist's home town. We took a long day trip to see the Viaduct de Millau, an incredible feat of engineering spanning the Tarn valley, courtesy of British architect Sir Norman Foster and Gustav Eiffel's construction firm, now known as Eiffage. And we even made a stop to visit the caves of the cheese giant, Société, in Roquefort. At the suggestion of my neighbor, I checked Kate Mosse's Labryinth out of the library just before we left, and enjoyed reading about the region's most challenging era, the Albigensian Crusades of the 13th century, at the same time as we visited many of the places described in the novel. (Reader beware: my husband described Mosse's prose as "overwrought.")

If you're thinking about heading that way, I can heartily recommend La Maison Vielle in Carcassone (where leaning out the window I caught the image above)and Le Phenix in Rabastens (between Toulouse and Albi) as lovely spots to stay.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Travel Games

On our way back to Paris on the TGV yesterday from a few days away in the south (more on that tomorrow), we sat across the aisle from three kids who were travelling with their grandmother. They did the things my kids do when time is stretching out before them -- played cards (concentration, go fish, and war), worked on puzzles, snacked, and drew. It was all very familiar right down to when they started in on a game of 20 questions. But then there was a question my kids have never asked in that situation: "Is it masculine or feminine?" Remind me to study up before playing 20 questions with the French.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Web Thriller

We have the bargain basement cable package and as such we don't get Canal+, the station that invites comparisons to HBO for the quality of its programming. I'm not feeling particularly deprived. After all, we never even had cable in the U.S. and I'm still catching up on episodes of Six Feet Under on video.

Now Canal+ has gone and made a series just for the Web, Kali, and it's free for the looking with new episodes every Monday and Thursday. The episodes are just six minutes long (plus you can pause and replay if you didn't catch the French) but there's plenty of action and a tense story line that involves amnesia, the Eurostar, hand to hand combat, video surveillance, and piracy of new technologies. And while this isn't the stuff of my everyday life, it's very evocative of Paris, right down to the annoying SNCF jingle being played in Gare du Nord. Will Kali remember who she is and what she's doing in Paris? Is she British or French? And just who are the good guys and the bad guys? Stay tuned.

Note: I'd be interested to know whether the series is viewable from outside of France. Most U.S. networks do not permit airing of their content to IP addresses outside the country. Let me know what you find out.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Good Enough to Eat

Someone I just met sent me the link to an adorable slideshow, Paris Pastry, by graphic artist Susan Hochbaum so I'm passing it along to you. It'll make you think about Paris in a whole new way. Then again, it might also just send you to the nearest pastry shop.

Monday, October 26, 2009

City Limits

In days of yore, Paris, like most cities, had a wall around it to protect it from marauding invaders. Actually, there were multiple iterations of the city wall over the centuries as the city grew from its original confines on Ile de la Cité. Today, the city is bounded by the Boulevard Périphérique but you can still traces of more ancient barriers at different places around town. There are several remnants of the wall built by Philippe Auguste before he headed out to the Crusades back in the 13th century: one that borders the playing fields of the Lycee Charlemagne along the Rue des Jardins de Saint-Paul in the Marais and another scrap that you can spy inside a building on le Cour de Commerce Saint-André on the Left Bank. (It's just opposite Le Procope; go ahead, stick your face up to the glass. You'll see it.) Charles V built another wall in the 14th century that enclosed Paris to the north where today you find the fashionable Rue St. Honoré. It was there that Joan of Arc was fatally injured trying to enter Paris to save it from the English. (Nothing remains there but a commemorative plaque above number 161.) And there's even a piece of a wall built in the 1550s, relatively recently discovered in what is now the lower level of the Orangerie in the Tuileries.

The last wall surrounding Paris was the enceinte de Thiers, constructed in the mid 19th century. A piece of that wall (pictured above) can still be found in the Parc de Bercy in the 12th arrondissement. The gardens themselves are contemporary and stylish but these rough stones are a vivid reminder of earlier and perhaps more palpably dangerous times.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Guided Tours on the Cheap

If you're ready to dig a little deeper than the typical Paris guidebook and you don't have the time or the dough for one of those incredibly pricey personal tours of lesser known venues, here are a couple of resources you may find handy. The first is a series of 31 Balades du Patrimoine available on-line from the city of Paris. (You can also get these in an attractive print format but honestly, I can't remember now where I picked them up.) Each guide follows a certain theme -- horses and knights, church bells, fountains, stained glass windows, for example -- and provides a map for a walking tour along with explanations of the various themed sights along the route. (Fair warning: the guides are in French only. If you're like me and your reading French kicks the stuffing out of your speaking French, you shouldn't have a problem.)

The other is a joint effort of the Pavillon d'Arsenal, an information center focused on the architecture of Paris, and the RATP, Paris's own public transport authority. Working together, the team has created a series of guides, Archi-Bus, that provide interesting details about contemporary architecture that can be seen along eight public transport lines. I discovered the series after picking up a brochure on the bus but it may be a safer bet to download them yourself. This one is also in French only.

Now get out there and see you some sights.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Le Cowboy

When I was a kid on a family vacation in Denmark in the '70s, we made the obligatory visit to Legoland. Among the many wonders of the world rendered in Lego, there was Mount Rushmore and more astonishingly, in the shadows beneath it, hordes of blond, blue-eyed Danish kids, done up in full Apache war bonnets, roasting rolls over a campfire. What a sight.

The French have their own fascination with the American West, incarnated by, among others, Lucky Luke, the cowboy who can draw his gun faster than his own shadow. Lucky Luke, with his talking horse Jolly Jumper, is the star of a series of cartoon books that first made their appearance in the 1950s and they are a huge hit among the French and Belgians of the postwar generation and since, as successful as the series better known to Americans, Tin Tin and Asterix. This week, the cowboy comes to life on the big screen in live action. Played by French hunk, Jean Dujardin, Lucky Luke is joined in his cinematic adventures by friends Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, and Jesse James. History be damned. There's nothing like a shootout, the vanquish of evil, and a cowboy riding off into the sunset. Even if he is speaking French.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Death by Cotton Candy

Just one of the photographs that can be found along the banks of the Seine opposite the Musee Quai Branly between now and the middle of November. The exhibition, Photoquai, is the 2nd edition of an effort to share the work of photographers not well known to Europeans who come from South and Central America, Asia, Oceania, Africa, the Middle East, and North America (although curiously no Americans are among the group). There are some incredible shots, particularly a composite of a vertical favela in Brazil and set of portraits by a Lebanese photographer whose subjects were all shot from behind, facing a wall. It's free and open 24/7.

The image above is by Mexican artist Daniela Edburg. I love that the French term for cotton candy is "barbe à papa" which translates as "Daddy's beard."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Change of Seasons

It's definitely fall in Paris. The light is less direct, the days are noticeably shorter, there's a chill in the air, the market is full of pumpkins, and the fellow selling roasted chestnuts has once again set up shop next to the subway entrance. And yes, while the leaves are turning and falling off the trees, there's something missing.

It took me awhile to put my finger on it because all the other signs of the season where there. No, it's not the jack o'lanterns. It's the vibrant reds of maples, the vivid yellow of tulip poplars, the orange of -- well I don't know, some tree whose leaves turn that wonderful shade of orange -- plus the wonderful sight of a hillside bathed in all those colors at once. Instead, in Paris and in the environs round about, the trees simply become brown and then bare. For all the complaining I did about raking leaves when I was a kid, I should be grateful. But for the moment, I'm dreaming of the Appalachian mountains or simply my DC neighborhood where the trees form a canopy over the street and the leaves sometimes cover the sidewalk like a crazy quilt. A cozy sweater and a bowl of steaming homemade soup will have to do.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Coronelli's Globes

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Okay, maybe it's not a secret but I'd never heard anything about this bit of French history until someone took me down into the public areas of the Bibliothèque nationale François Mitterrand a few weeks ago. I'd even been there once before and somehow missed it. In short, back in the 1680s when Louis XIV was king, his ambassador to Rome, Cardinal César d'Estrées, commissioned Vincenzo Coronelli, a Franciscan monk renowned for his maps and atlases, to create two gigantic globes -- one depicting the known world and the other depicting the skies on the day of the Sun King's birth. Coronelli came to France for two years to do the job and the result is stunning. They are huge and awesome and beautifully preserved for your viewing pleasure absolutely free. In short, if you'll excuse me for sounding like a complete blithering idiot, they are completely and totally cool. The library has also created a Web site to go with the globes so even if you're not in Paris, you can check them out. If you are in town, ride the escalator down from the plaza and enter on the west side. Special thanks to Jacques for letting me in on the scoop.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Decor Gone Wild

There's a whole lot of busy going on here on this house at 27 and 27bis Quai Anatole France, just two steps from the Musee d'Orsay. The work of architect Richard Bouwens, the building was constructed in 1905. Sure wonder what's going on inside. Then again, it might give me a migraine. I'll just imagine.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Market Day Aftermath

Paris's open air markets are a feast for the eyes and I bet if you looked around the blogosphere, you'd find a whole lot of pictures of veggies, fruits and flowers, cheese and fish, sausages and scarves, olives and spices, and all manner of other stuff. What you might not get to see though is the amount of work it takes to make those markets come alive. The vendors bring tables, refrigerator cases, generators and signage, and it's the workers of the city of Paris who set up and take down the awnings (and clean up all the mess) after every market day.

I snapped these pictures a while back on Avenue President Wilson where these fellows were hard at work on the long stretch of that avenue that gets transformed into a gastronome's playground twice every week. Next time you sit down to eat some of Paris's bounty, remember to raise a glass to this hardworking crew.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Birds but No Bees

I've got an animal lover in the house who's dying for a pet. But to my mind, a Parisian apartment is no place for a dog, I can't stand cats, and how much love do you really get from a fish anyway? Nonetheless, a kid's passion must be fed in one way or another. One strategy is to visit the market Place Louis-Lépine on Ile de la Cité on Sunday mornings. It's mostly birds and cute furry creatures such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and hamsters. You can also buy food for your feathered friends and all manner of gear -- cages, perches, dog carriers, leashes, chew toys, the works. Lots to see and good people watching too. And my advice to parents: have a plan for something to do afterwards like a visit to the Conciergerie or lunch at a creperie lest you get talked into buying a critter all of your own.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lady in Red (and White)

One can't have a blog about Paris with too many pictures of the Eiffel Tower, right? Non, c'est impossible! I caught these last weekend when the tower was dressed in red and white in tribute to the country of Turkey, part of a larger celebration in Paris that started in July and goes through next March. It was crazy pretty although I don't particularly recommend being on the tower itself when it starts twinkling on the hour. Those flashing lights are enchanting from a distance but if you're mid climb, it's a little too much strobe for those of us who tend toward motion sickness.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Third Time's a Charm

One of the things I've really enjoyed having time to do during my sojourn here in France is cook. That's not to say I didn't cook before. I did. I'm a big fan of dinner parties, a firm believer in family dinners, and never cared much for take out. But there's a big difference between putting dinner on the table every night and having the time to test and enjoy new recipes and cuisines. Fortunately, I've got a couple of friends here who are on the same wavelength and we've tried to cook lunch together about once a month.

Yesterday, inspired by the movie Julie and Julia, we put together a meal à la Julia Child -- the beef bourguignon that figures so prominently in the movie, a bonne salade verte with beets and a delicious dressing, and tarte tatin. I was in charge of the tarte tatin, not completely satisfied with the one I'd made for this same group about a year ago. Back then, I used the apples recommended by the vendor at the open air market, les reines de reinettes, which were flavorful but turned to mush. I learned another rendition from the ladies from whom I took an informal cooking course; they recommended using Golden Delicious (in French, "les Golden") which I found too sweet plus the technique for making the caramel finicky.

And today, well as they say, the third's time the charm. I used the recipe from Julia Child's 1994 book, The Way to Cook (which you can find on-line here) and it was a doozy. The apples? Boskoop. The caramel? Sinful. The maneuver to flip the red hot cast iron skillet? A success thanks to a second pair of hands. This one's a keeper.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Le Petit Nicolas

Le Petit Nicolas is the star of a series of books written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Jean-Jacques Sempé (perhaps best known to Americans for his covers for The New Yorker) and much loved by the French. The stories are told with warmth and nostalgia for the uncomplicated life of a little boy in France in the 1950s, a world where the principal is someone to fear, one's teacher someone to love, and football, cowboys and Indians, and new bikes and all things "chouette" (cool) are the abiding passions. Nicolas and his buddies, chubby Alceste, spoiled Geoffrey, teacher's pet Agnan, and others get into all types of scrapes but the punishments never last long enough to stop them from having one more adventure. Now Nicolas has made it to the big screen with a live action film that opened in theaters last week. It was the first time I've seen a movie entirely in French (no subtitles, no nothing) and I'm with the reviewers: a sweet diversion for a weekend afternoon. My guess is that U.S. viewers will have to wait for the DVD.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What's In A Name?

I passed by this street sign yesterday and thought, "I should take a picture of that and then remember to post it on Columbus Day." Then I realized, "Oh yeah. That's tomorrow."

Why a street commemorating Columbus in Paris? tells us that the street was laid out in 1865 and received this name in 1867. I'm not sure if Columbus ever made it to Paris and if he did, this spot, just off oh so chic Avenue Georges V, would have been nothing but wilderness.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


A funny thing happened to me when I was on the bus the other day. My ears pricked up when I caught the thread of the conversation behind me, something that often happens whenever I'm in earshot of people speaking English. Then all of a sudden I realized that they weren't speaking English at all; it was French and I knew exactly what they were saying. Whoa. I'm still a long way from fluent but clearly I'm making progress.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Do you ever notice that the Louvre is a little bit like Ikea? True, there's no need for an allen wrench at the Louvre, but whenever I go there, I see families in distress, marriages falling apart, people standing in the middle of one gallery flummoxed as how to get to where they really want to be. Getting out can be as tough as getting in and you may end up in Mesopotamian sculpture when you thought you were headed for Old Masters, or in couches when all you really want to look at is bookcases. And the jockeying to read the signage in the special exhibitions is strangely similar to looking for a parking place in Ikea's lot on Saturday afternoon.

The whole idea of the Louvre may give you a headache. But since it's hard to imagine a visit to Paris without making a visit there, here's a few thoughts on how to make the experience less stressful. Go early. Enter by the Porte de Lions instead of from the Pyramide or the Carrousel du Louvre. Avoid the Mona Lisa. Check your extra bags and coats at no cost in the vestiaire. Sit down and rest in the Cour Marly and check out the offerings on the upper floors like the over the top Rubens cycle feting Marie de Médicis on the 2nd floor of the Richelieu wing. And if you never have to go to Ikea again, count your blessings.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

In Praise of the Fig

It's the season for fresh figs, something I had eaten before I came to France, but had never seen in such abundance until now. Let me just say that the fresh fig is a wondrous thing; you can eat it at any time of day, savory or sweet, cooked or raw. It's always delicious and not at all like the figs you know from Fig Newtons.

At a recent welcome event at my kids' school, the Europeans were all clamoring for the figs being served with a selection of French cheeses and most of the Americans were recoiling a bit, nervous as to just what they might be. (Although in their defense, the Koreans were even more concerned, mostly huddled in the corner, not sure whether they wanted to try any of it.) "It's a fig," I said, picking up a quartered beauty and popping it in my mouth. "You can eat the whole thing, skin and all." As the French say, "miam, miam."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Score One for Rick Steves

With their trusty guidebook in hand, these two ladies seem to be following Rick's advice to the letter: travel in "shoulder" season, dress unobtrusively (black being an excellent choice), and enjoying life like the locals do, with a leisurely coffee in an outdoor cafe not too far from Steve's favorite street, Rue Cler. I'm kind of amazed that this picture, which I shot through the window of the 82 bus, actually came out so well. Hope you enjoy your stay.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Car Wash

This flyer was stuck on the windshield of every car on the block over the weekend and it's got me wondering what exactly makes this car wash American? They only take gas guzzlers? Your car gets washed by a couple of cheerleaders? The customer is always right? Without a car, I don't really know what Parisians do to keep their cars clean. Maybe this is just the ticket.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Dreyfus Affair

I've been meaning to write something about the Dreyfus Affair for months, particularly since I learned that this statue on Boulevard Raspail depicts Dreyfus holding the sword broken by military authorities in 1895 after they declared him guilty of spying against the French state. Dreyfus went on to many years of exile on Devil's Island only to be eventually restored to his proper position in the army and French society after his innocence was established and the corruption of his accusers exposed. It's a long story, full of twists and turns, trials, retrials, lies, cowardice, and injustice and I was sure I'd never get the details right. Fortunately, for those interested, Adam Gopnik provides a terrific synopsis of the whole sordid affair in the September 28th issue of The New Yorker. Ostensibly a review of Louis Begley's new book, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, Gopnik's article not only serves up the chronology of events but also considers what the whole murky mess meant for the French state and its future. I don't know how long The New Yorker makes such features available; surf on over there now before it's too late.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

This One's for You, Joe

Today's the day I stop complaining about French bureaucracy. After fretting about what I might be getting myself into, I made a long trip into the bowels of the 15th arrondissement to pick up a wallet that my friend Joe had lost (or more likely had stolen) when he was visiting Paris back in July. Somewhat surprisingly, he received a letter from the Paris police in early September that his wallet had been found and was available for pickup. Why he wanted to pay the 10 euro fee to retrieve the wallet, which appears to have been mended with duct tape, is a mystery to me, particularly since he'd already cancelled the credit cards and gotten a new driver's license. I don't know...maybe there's something special in there. Trust me, I didn't look other than to check whether there was any cash remaining. (There wasn't.)

But back to my point. What a breeze. The process at the lost and found office was remarkably efficient. There was virtually no one there and I was in and out in under 10 minutes. The only problem: this blog post isn't nearly as interesting as I'd imagined it would be. Chalk one up for the fonctionnaires.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Vehicles of Paris: Part 18

Paris may be as well known for the dog crap on the sidewalk as for the Eiffel Tower, beautiful bridges, and heavenly bread. Although the authorities can't seem to get the locals to pick up after their pets, they do have an impressive array of tools for combatting the aftermath.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Fashion Week

I was just going about my business this morning, returning books to the library, getting my flu shot, wondering whether I might be able to spend the entire weekend in my pajamas given that our house guests are gone and my husband is travelling for work, when I encountered this:

Yes, indeed, it's Fashion Week and the designers are here showing off for their spring/summer collections. This crowd of photographers had gathered to see the departures after the Balenciaga ready to wear show. Since I didn't really have to be anywhere, I hung around for a bit and galked at the scene. It just confirmed for me that when it comes to fashion, I haven't got a clue. For example, can someone please explain this?

There were a handful of celebrities whose faces looked vaguely familiar and whom the photographers were crazy about, including Enrique Murciano from Without a Trace with his arm wrapped around girlfriend Lily Cole, and French film stars Amira Casar and Marie-Josée Croze (captured below).

The biggest star was Catherine Deneuve but the only picture I could get of her was this:

After the big names left, the paparazzi thinned but the models were still willing to pose for the fashion press:

As for the fashion, the ponytailed photographer summed it up as follows: "I saw a lot of dead animals and nothing fresh." And there you have it.
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