Friday, December 31, 2010

St. Sylvestre

If you pick up a daily newspaper in France, you're likely to find a little blurb about the saint of the day right there next to the horoscope, the weather, and the crossword puzzle.  There are way too many for me to keep straight.  But there are a few that are easy to remember, especially St. Sylvester who was pope from the year 314 until he died on December 31, 335.  His history is foggy and he seems to be best known for his relationship with Constantine, the Christian emperor who quit Rome for Constantinople thereby cementing papal authority over what eventually became known as the Holy City.

Practically speaking, the French are more likely to associate the name of St. Sylvestre with oysters and champagne than any church doctrine.  As you can see, both are being offered on tonight's menu at this mid-priced Parisian restaurant.  Neither will be on my table tonight and my guess is that we will be in bed before 10.    And that suits me just fine.  For those of you with more ambitious plans, enjoy and be safe.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Armed and Ready

I finally managed to get a picture of Paris's finest in their full riot gear.  This crew was waiting for some action which I'm pretty sure never came to pass.  Still, they looked like they meant business.  I was happy just to keep moving and not to be reprimanded for having the audacity to take a snapshot.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

High Water

It's nothing like the great flood of 1910 but days of rain and snow have the Seine overflowing.  As you can see, the feet of Zouave who stands just below the Pont de l'Alma are underwater.   The city closes the roadway along the river when the water level reaches 3.2 meters; at the moment, it's up to 3.9 meters and still rising, the highest it's been in 4 years. Traffic on the river has been stopped in the heart of Paris; my guess is that even the lowest profile barges would have a hard time making it under any of the bridges.  You can read more at France 24.

To be honest, it's way too cold and damp for a promenade along the quais anyway.   Having done my duty to get these snapshots,  a cup of hot tea seems like a pretty good idea.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


While it snowed, seemingly without ceasing, in Paris last week, we were off in Italy.  It wasn't sunny but at least it was well above freezing, really just the right temperature for wandering the byroads of Rome and Florence assuming you had an umbrella.  And while most of European air travel was paralyzed, we made it out of CDG with only a modest delay and back without a hitch.  Well, okay, our plane was struck by lightning as we landed at Rome's Fiucimino airport, but that rattled the passengers a lot more than the pilot.  Somehow we managed to miss both the demonstrations against Berlusconi and the embassy bombings.

My husband and I had been both places before.  But that trip was almost twenty years ago and most of my memories are of the heat and the crowds.  It was August, after all; I'm really not sure what we were thinking.  I went back to look at the journal entries I made at the time and while it summoned up a few more reminiscences, for the most part, it was almost as if I was reading about someone else's life.  Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce, the Piazzale Michelangelo?  Really?  I don't remember that at all.

Someone had told us to stay away from the Vatican at Christmas time when pilgrims would presumably be swarming the place.  But it wasn't bad at all.  In fact, Rome and Florence were pretty much crowd free -- no lines at St. Peter's or the Colosseum, no need for a reservation at the Uffizi or the Accademia (although we had them anyway.)  We ate plenty of pizza, pasta, and gelato, and the kids got more than their fill of altarpieces and holy relics.   We learned about ancient Rome, the Renaissance, the lives of the saints, the power of the Catholic church, that zucchero filato is Italian for cotton candy, and not to forget to compost your ticket when taking a train.

And in addition to the amazing opulence of the Vatican museums (including the Sistine Chapel), the crazy quilt mess that is the Roman Forum, the majesty of Brunelleschi's dome towering over the winding streets of Florence, and the colorful vegetable markets, we saw many interesting things although perhaps not those noted in the guidebooks. 

You can buy any kind of American license plate you like along the banks of the Tiber.

Rome is definitely the place to buy your clerical gear.  The windows with the albs, miters, soutanes, and chasubles were much more colorful but I liked the mannequins in the dreary nun's garb.  Do you suppose that nuns walk by these windows and dream?

You're not fooling me.  I have been to Paris and this is definitely not the Louvre.

Even street performers get lunch breaks.  These wings belong to a lifesized Cupid.  (Don't worry -- he was dressed.)

I imagine we'll be seeing more of these in the coming weeks.

Galileo's finger.  If you were excommunicated you might to give your middle finger to the church too.

Panettone was on sale everywhere with all different varieties and wrapping.  This lady must have had a big crowd at her house for Christmas.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Chicken Soup for the Troubled Soul

With all the fevers, colds, and upset stomachs going around, this sign has particular resonance at the moment   Happily, I managed to mend from the miserable cold I had last week without the aid of Western medicine or alternative therapies like sophrology.  My dad, who was a professor of medicine and board certified in two fields, used to say that, after three days, most things have a way of healing themselves.  And in my experience, that's proven to be pretty much true. But hey, whatever floats your boat.  I won't argue with the urge to feel better.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Christmas is not my holiday but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the festive decorations.  Bonne fête!

Buche anyone?

Friday, December 24, 2010

No Room at the Inn?

A lovely little door on a quiet street in the 17th, an almost perfect picture postcard with the contrast between the blue and the red clay pots.  But there's no hotel here, at least these days, and I've never seen those shutters open.  

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bouger: 30 Minutes Par Jour

Even the French are worried these days about putting on weight.  Although obesity isn't the problem here that it is in the States, the indicators are all moving in the wrong direction.  A new social marketing campaign seems to be everywhere, urging folks to make sure they get 30 minutes of exercise a day without even working up a sweat.  Three minutes here, ten minutes there, it all adds up.   Since sports aren't really a French thing (except for maybe tennis and fencing), this campaign seems to me to be hitting the right note.  Whether anyone will change their behavior --- well, that's a different story altogether.

Note:  I tried but failed to download the images from the campaign Web site which also feature an older lady and a young black man.  These snapshots should give you the idea if not in their full crisp detail. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Business Hours

Even after three years here, I'm constantly running afoul of the rhythms of Parisian life.  In the provinces, many shops close mid-day to allow Madame or Monsieur to eat a proper lunch.  In town, you're much more likely to see hours like these -- shops open at lunchtime and then closed mid afternoon with a reopening towards evening.  This is particularly true for food shops including bakeries, butchers, and cheese shops.  The chain stores operate on an American model with staggered shifts for their employees.  But do yourself a favor and stay out of Monoprix between 12:30 and 2:00 unless you like standing in long lines with the rest of Paris.  And definitely go back to the boulangerie for your bread after 6, when fresh batches will be coming out of the oven.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Post about Posts

It's the little things. Some time in the future, when I'm back in DC leading my hectic American working mom life, I'm going to think back on my days in Paris and I'm sure it will all be a crazy sugar-coated blur.  I probably won't conjure up these poles that line the sidewalks, presumably to keep the cars in the street.  (Although they do nothing to keep the crazy motorcyclists from menacing pedestrians.) And like the rattan cafe chairs, the smells of the boulangerie and the sight of the Eiffel Tower, they are quintessentially Paris.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Spices and Things

I don't live anywhere near rue Montorgueil but in my continuing quest to find the ingredients I need for the dishes I like, I've found myself there on a number of occasions recently.  You could call it "eat street" as there are half a dozen wonderful spots there -- a great Italian traiteur, the famed Stohrer bakery, and quite a few others.  My favorite at the moment is Agha, where the spices are hot and the service is warm. (Which is more than I can say for the fancy culinary shop Bovida just two steps from there where the fellow at the register said he'd never heard of Chinese five spice powder.) The proprietor assumed I was Brazilian (no clue why) but when I corrected him, he proudly pointed to the postcard of President Obama taped to his cash register.   That sealed the deal for me; next time I'm out of curry powder, I know exactly where I'm headed.

21 rue Montorgueil
Open Monday through Sunday from 7 am to 10 pm (but you might want to call ahead just to be sure  01 42 33 72 39)

Saturday, December 18, 2010


I don't think anyone's made keys at this property for a long time. But it's sure a sweet memory of time gone by.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Coming Attractions

I wasn't aware until I saw it on this blog (which, by the way, is quite wonderful) that there was an actual name for those green, twirly column thingies that advertise movies and shows in Paris.  And doesn't the term Colonne Morris sound so much more refined and sophisticated?

Of course, learning the term merely piqued my curiousity about the name Morris and I let my fingers do the walking to find out that M. Morris, a printer,  first constructed them back in 1868, copying a similar structure in Berlin.  The company was purchased by JCDecaux, the French advertising giant, back in 1986.  As of 2006 (the last statistics I could find), there were 790 of these columns in Paris.  Several of which do double duty as either phone booths or public toilets although happily not both.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Travaux En Cours

Today's post is for Virginia who blogs over at Paris Through My Lens.  We've never met but her photos always delight me; she sees Paris with a joy and attention to detail that are truly remarkable.  Some weeks back, she posted a photo of the famous Hôtel de Crillon at night.  Always ready to be a killjoy, I sent Virginia, who lives in Alabama and gets to Paris only sporadically, a photo of the hotel in its current state:  under scaffolding.  Regrettably, I seem to have deleted that photo from my computer.

At any rate, yesterday, I had occasion once again to be in Place de la Concorde and I noticed that the scaffolding had been given a face lift suitable for the elegant hotel it covers.  If you look at the wing on the left (under construction) and then back to the right, you will notice the difference.  Much better, don't you think, Virginia?

What's more, walking across the bridge from the Assemblée Nationale into the big square, I had one of those moments when I realized, once again, how lucky I am to call Paris my temporary home.  In one fell swoop, I could pan from the Eiffel Tower on my left, to the Grand Palais, the stately place with the Crillon and the Hôtel de la Marine with the Madeleine church peeking in between, the top of the towers of Sacre Coeur, the entrance to the Tuileries, the wings of the Louvre, and even lovely Notre Dame de Paris down the river to my right.  Even with the gray December sky hanging low above me, sick and sniffly, I could not fail to marvel at it all.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


A bad cold has knocked me sideways.  My head is blocked ear to ear, my throat is scratchy, and I've got that slightly woozy, not quite feverish vibe that has pretty much sucked the wind out of any ambitions I might have had this week to be super productive.  

Signs went up on our block over the weekend plus lots of orange parking cones indicating that a film crew would be at work on a major feature.  "Aha!"  I thought.  "At least I can blog about that."  But although there were a ton of big trucks lining the street yesterday, I missed whatever exterior shots they might have taken.

So in short, right now I don't have a lot to share.  Other than I feel pretty much like this:

It's enough to send anyone back to bed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Read the Fine Print

You may have heard tell that a baguette does not usually come with a bag.  Instead. you get a wispy piece of wax paper wrapped around the middle, just the size of your hand print.  After all, you're going directly home, right?

On the other hand, a baguette tradition, which is more my cup of tea, generally comes in a paper sleeve.  From time to time, I've noticed that the bag is a canvas for advertisements or public service announcements.  The bag my tradi came in yesterday is much more than that.  It is a legal document.  The text here is an extract of the 1993 defining the essential elements for any bread sold as pain de tradition or pain traditionnel.

You do not mess around with bread in France.  If you've got other ideas, you may want a lawyer with that sandwich.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Gender Bender

Worse than his and hers?  Maybe not. Let's just say that languages are clunky things when it comes to describing people.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Villa Savoye

Long ago in a land far away, back when I was in college, I took a course on architectural history. And though I've forgotten quite a bit about the things I studied back then, I have never forgotten the images of the Villa Savoye, designed by Le Corbusier.

Finally yesterday, I had my chance to see it in person. I had some trepidation about road conditions in the Yvelines, the department west of Paris where the house is located, but in fact, once we escaped the traffic around Paris, the autoroute and local roads were clear and dry as a bone. And then when we entered the grounds, my heart sunk a bit. "That's it?," I thought. "That insignficant white box?" I was feeling particularly bad since it was at my suggestion that our group of 12 had made the trip.

Once inside, in the care of a charming and well-spoken architecture student, my fears dissipated. The interiors seemed twice the size I'd expected from the exterior.  And though the site began deteriorating almost from the minute it was completed in 1928, the sense of innovation and modernity remains firmly in place. The open plan, ribbon windows, and roof garden all create a sense of light and airiness that was inviting, even on cold gray December day.

Le Corbusier's "box in the air" now sits in a park one seventh the size of the original and on all sides, it's now hemmed in by ugly apartment blocks. The picture window on the roof terrace now frames several factories and industrial parks. Still, if you've got the time to make the trek out to Poissy (about 20 minutes by car from La Defense), it's well worth the visit.

Looking from the salon out to the hanging garden.  In nice weather, you can roll back the window separating inside from outside.  The chairs are copies of a Le Corbusier design.

The architect cleverly designed a way for the help to spy into the combination living room/dining room, a novelty at the time.  This sight line is from a seat lining one of the kitchen walls and goes through the passe-plat, where plates were readied for serving.

The Villa Savoye, a national monument, is located in Poissy, some 33 kilometers northwest of Paris.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Green Christmas

Given the ridiculous amount of bottled water the French drink, I'm glad to see that some of it is being put to good use in these Christmas trees installed in Place Andre Malraux in the 1st.  The project is the brainchild of Fabrice Peltier, founder of the Designpack Gallery which focuses on the art of packaging.  If you stop by the gallery, you can actually get your very own recycled bottle Christmas tree kit for just 69 euros of which 2 euros goes to support the World Wildlife Fund.  Plus the gallery is exceptionally open on Sundays through Christmas if your schedule does not permit you to get there during the week.

More than 5,000 bottles were used to create these trees.

Peltier's team also decorated the rue de Richelieu, a green alternative to Christmas lights.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

From Gray to White

A inch or two of slushy snow brought Paris to her knees yesterday.  It was a mess.  Fat gloppy snowflakes made sidewalks sloppy and slippery.  The gutters were lakes, the streets rivers.  The Eiffel Tower closed at noon.  And the traffic.  Well as the monitors in the subway system pointed out, "En raison des chutes de neige,  l'ensemble du réseau bus est paralysé." Yes, that's right.  Total paralysis.  A couple of the metro lines and the under-any-circumstances ultra sensitive RER A had major problems.  And out in the suburbs, it was gridlock.  At 4:00, regional traffic authorities announced that circulation was "impossible."  And by 5:00 p.m., early for rush hour, there were 308 kilometers of traffic jams in Ile de France.

For me, the pain was minimal.  One of my kids was on a field trip at the Pompidou Centre, making the ride home just a quick trip on the subway.  The other ended up going home with a friend for an impromptu midweek sleepover.  I put on a pot of lentil soup and called it an early night. Now to deal with the aftermath.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Silly Bandz

Silly Bandz, those colorful elastic rubber bands that miraculously retain their shape after hours of being stretched around a child's wrist, bane of the existence of American parents and elementary school teachers for many months, have finally made it to France.  Although as my 11 year old pointed out, when you can buy a trendy item in your neighborhood Franprix, that's probably as good as evidence as you're going to find that the trend is definitively over.  But for those of you who haven't had enough, have no idea of what I'm talking about, or simply like to practice your French, click on over to this Web site for all your latest Silly Bandz news à la française.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

It's Paris, Only Grayer

I'm trying to remember the last time I saw the sun.  It probably wasn't more than a week ago but the gray which has descended upon Paris is playing tricks with my mind.  It's barely light at 9 in the morning and my kids are coming home from school in the dark.  The damp cold seeps through the layers of sweaters, scarves, and coats.  What little snow fell over the weekend is just a puddle.   Nothing seems quite in focus; I could swear that the mist in the atmosphere has infiltrated my brain.  Somehow walking across Paris, which in warm weather is a question of "why not," is now a question of "why bother." 

My list of holiday season errands is long.  Fortunately, trips to the dry cleaner and market, shopping for gifts, baking for teachers, volunteering at the kids' school, and travel planning are punctuated by loftier pursuits like yesterday's visit to the Louvre to discover portraiture from the Middle Ages to the early 19th century.  I did tune out the guide a bit, however,  when lured to gaze out the window at the scene above.  The dye in the fountain is presumably "art" although I can't say who the artist is or what his or her purpose might be.  The rest of Paris is hiding in the low clouds; you can just make the Ferris wheel in Place de la Concorde, the roof of the Grand Palais, the Arc de Triomphe, the lonely skyscraper at Porte Maillot, and even the fuzzy outlines of La Defense in the distance.  (Click on the picture if you want a closer view.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

All's Not Quiet on the West African Front

Things are a bit tense in the Ivory Coast at the moment.  A week ago, the West African nation held a presidential election and the winner was the opposition candidate, Alassane Ouattara.  But despite this announcement by the nation's top election official and certification of the finding by the United Nations, over the weekend, the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo declared himself the winner as well.  And to keep a lid on the situation Mr. Gbagbo's government sealed the borders and blocked foreign radio and television broadcasts.

And what, you might ask, does this have to do with Paris? Well, because the Côte d'Ivoire was once a French colony, Paris is home to a number of expatriates and immigrants from there.  Just how many I can't tell you because the French Republic doesn't keep numbers on that sort of thing.  Suffice it to say that on Saturday, despite the frigid temperatures, somewhere between 100 and 500 protesters assembled by the embassy of the Côte d'Ivoire to signal their displeasure with Gbagbo's actions.  The police  were out in force and fully prepared for the worst, dressed in full riot gear, blocking off access to the embassy for several blocks on either side with both their large white vans and lines of police officers carrying plexiglass shields.  I was in too much of a hurry to stop to photograph the scene (and frankly a little worried about how that might be perceived).  Yesterday morning, as you can see from the photo above, all was quiet.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


It's been bitter cold in Paris all week.  The forecasters keep warning about the snow that, much to the chagrin of my children, has not arrived.  (Well okay a few flakes have hit the ground in town and there's a thin crust of white in the 'burbs.)  The prediction for the weekend is slightly warmer temps, although only warm enough to cause problems.  Amazingly, my geraniums are still thriving in their window boxes.  I hesitate to cover them, water them, or even pinch them back lest it shock their systems too much.

It's going to be a good weekend for cleaning the house, writing Christmas cards, reading books, and perhaps hitting a lesser known museum as Sunday is the first Sunday of the month.  All this to be accompanied by copious amounts of hot beverages -- coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, your pick or perhaps all three?

Friday, December 3, 2010

On a Mission

When I look back at the time I've spent in Paris, I can say quite proudly that I have used my time well.  I have explored many neighborhoods, taken the bus and subway to the far corners of the city, and have a stack of museum tickets ready for the scrapbook.  But I feel like a piker next to Roxana.  Iranian by birth and Belgian by marriage, she's hit Paris by storm, vowing to walk every street and visit every museum in town before she and her husband pull up stakes and move on to their next post two years from now.  It's an ambitious goal and one that has lately made her a little nervous given that she's only close to completing three arrondissements:  the 17th, the 1st and the 4th. 

I'd met Roxana sometime last year and then bumped into her again this fall.  The first time I met her was with a bunch of English speakers.  The next time and more frequently since, we've been surrounded by French speakers.  But the die was cast.  We speak French with the French goup but English when we're one on one.

Earlier this week Roxana let me tag along as she finished up bits of the 1st arrondissement around the edges of Les Halles.  With a tattered photocopied map in hand, the streets she'd already explored highlighted in yellow,  we zig zagged up and down the streets surrounding, stopping to look at historical markers, puzzle at street signs, and peek in alleyways and shop windows.  She wanted to see the remnants of Catherine de Medici's palace alongside the Bourse de Commerce and that allowed me to suggest a peek inside at the domed ceiling and frescoes. 

I asked Roxana if she had any tips for those intent on discovering Paris.  She carries little with her -- a map, a small camera, bus tickets, and some pocket change -- preferring to consult her books at home, rather than carrying them around. That's not to say she doesn't like the guidebooks.  In fact, she particularly recommends Paris Secret et Insolite by Rodolphe Trouilleux. 

She's also a big fan of walking tours which, while perhaps not covering a lot of ground, have the benefit of getting you into places you might not see on your own, in particular, behind those closed wooden doors.  She'd recently taken one of the free tours conducted by Eau de Paris and looks forward to doing more.

Roxana's mission got me to thinking.  If I took out a map of Paris, how much ground could I say I've covered?  Come to think of it, maybe I'll just pull out my own yellow highlighter and see where it leads me.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Kid Commute

In Paris, there's no such thing as a school bus if you're in the public schools.  It's walk or take public transportation.  Out in the hinterlands, it's another story.   There are school buses for kids who live a good distance from school but more and more often, parents drop off their kids by car.  In fact, between 1983 and 2003, the number of French parents taking their kids to school by automobile quadrupled from 10 percent to 40 percent.  What's more, most of these trips are less than a kilometer, about 12 minutes on foot if you are a kid.

So enter the walking school bus, or as it's known in France -- the Pédibus.  Kids gather at predetermined locations and walk together with parents to school.   This concept isn't unique to France (in fact, it's the brain child of an Australian) but it's catching on.   Currently, about 150 "lines" operate in France, including this one in Saint-Rémy-Lès-Chevreuse, a town southwest of Paris on the RER B.   Less traffic, fewer parking hassles, and an opportunity for kids to walk to school with adult supervision -- sounds pretty good to me.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Public Art

If you've seen one Parisian metro station, you can pretty much figure that you've seen them all -- lots of white tile, concrete platform, a row of newer plastic benches or seats, and billboard sized advertisements elaborately framed.  It's a look that dates back to the Métro's early days, something that the powers that be have either deliberately decided not to mess with or retained out of benign neglect.  There are a few notable exceptions:  the sleek space age look of the fully automated line 14, the copper encased nautically inspired version at Arts and Métiers, the reproduction of antiquities at Louvre-Rivoli, and bits of calligraphy at Cluny La Sorbonne.  My favorite though is the line 12 platform at Concorde which is tiled, walls and ceilings, with the text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.  It's not easy to capture with an unsophisticated camera but that never stopped me in the past.

I wouldn't recommend trying to read the entire declaration while you're standing on the platform.  And where would you even start?  But picking out the words isn't a bad way to pass the time while you wait for the next train.  

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