Monday, December 15, 2008

Mighty Maïté

I don’t know when it was that someone told me about Maïté. A sort of Julia Child of southwestern French cooking, for years Maïté had a TV show, La Cuisine des Mousquetaires, which spawned a long list of cookbooks, including the legendary La Cuisine de Maïté. But while Julia regaled us with her semi-aristocratic huffing and puffing, Maïté is a working class food goddess, who was first discovered when she was the official cook for her home-town rugby team. She specializes in simple, traditional recipes. She’s as solid and unflappable as those rugby players, and her home-cooked charm is 100% southwest. I came across this excerpt on YouTube. Watch closely as she coos sweet nothings to nervous eel that she is about to flog with a blunt instrument.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rama Yade: the movie

It’s beginning to sound like a scenario for a screenplay: a brilliant young woman of African descent is chosen to become France’s first minister of human rights. Full of energy and enthusiasm, she does her job as best she can, in light of the fact that the president who hired her invites Muammar Gaddafi to set up a tent in the backyard of the Elysée Palace, and refuses to meet with the Dali Lama before the Olympics take place in China. Her immediate superior, Bernard Kouchner, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, seems like the ideal boss, being the co-founder of Doctors Without Borders and widely recognized as a leader in humanitarian causes.

But after she speaks out against the Gaddafi visit (see my previous post, Rama Yade Rocks), she is sternly rebuked by the president. She does what she can to assume a more neutral tone, and for a time fades into the background. Slowly, she begins to suspect that what seemed to be an idealistic gesture on the part of the government, is really a marketing ploy. She starts to see that her position was created not so much to promote human rights as to promote the notion that the government is pro-human rights. That her youth (she’s only 32) and beauty serve the president’s image-machine as much as her smarts. And that every time she actually speaks out in favor for human rights she catches more flack than accolades from her colleagues. The final blow comes when the president tries to send her off to Brussels to stand in the European legislative elections. She refuses, because she hopes to be a candidate for the French legislature in 2012. Going to Brussels, she says “would be like a forced marriage to Prince Albert.” The president throws a hissy fit, punishing her by denying her an expected promotion to secretary of state for European Affairs. Then comes the betrayal. The next day, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Bernard Kouchner declares that he was wrong to ask for the creation of a ministry of human rights, and that the post serves no purpose.

The end of the film is still being written. Rama Yade, the leading character, is currently trying to fight back, saying that “there will always be those who want to renounce this important battle” and that the “fight (for human rights) is not over, the struggle continues.” As does her own.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Glory of Squalor?

Roger Cohen lamented in the New York Times yesterday that Paris has lost “the glory of its squalor”:
Gone was the acrid Gitane-Gauloise pall of any self-respecting café. Gone was the garlic whiff of the early-morning Metro to the Place d’Italie. Gone were the mineral mid-morning Sauvignons Blancs downed bar-side by red-eyed men.

Gone were the horse butchers and the tripe restaurants in the 12th arrondissement. Gone (replaced by bad English) was the laconic snarl of Parisian greeting. Gone were the bad teeth, the yellowing moustaches, the hammering of artisans, the middle-aged prostitutes in doorways, the seat-less toilets on the stairs, and an entire group of people called the working class.
While I’ll agree that much of Paris has become frighteningly exclusive, and that the very word “parigot” has been all but forgotten, I think Cohen is in dangerous territory when he starts to get all misty-eyed about squalor. Of course, for the tourist, squalor can be colorful, exotic, and even exciting. It can make great photos and induce us to think plenty of deep thoughts. But I’d venture to guess that for the people in those photos, it’s a different kettle of fish (if, indeed, there are any fish in the kettle).

Interestingly, Cohen starts his piece with observations on his recent visit to Havana. Yes, it’s true, there is something to be learned from a society that has completely missed the Internet revolution, and is not inundated with crass commercialism. Perhaps the lack of high tech in Havana has preserved the Cubans living there from the constant buzz of cyber-connection and the headaches that go with it. But it’s also what has kept Cubans living in poverty while the rest of the world lurches ahead. I’m no hard-core capitalist, mind you, but I’m sure that most Havanites would be willing to live with a few billboards if it meant that they could feed their children properly and occasionally buy them a new pair of shoes.

There is no glory in squalor. Ask anyone living in it. Parisians, just like New Yorkers, have the right to clean teeth and clean lungs, as well as decent jobs and toilet seats. There is a danger in tourism whereby instead of learning from what we are seeing, we objectify it, and make it into a neat decoration for our scrap books. That the working class has been all but banished from the French capital is clearly a tragedy. But the fact that the standard of living has risen dramatically in France over the last twenty or thirty years is most certainly not.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

WiFi or Non Non?

While working from home has its up sides (easy commute, no dress code, no office politics), being holed up in your apartment day after day with little human contact can get to you. And while making lunch for my son and his friends (school kids get a two-hour lunch here in France) makes for a nice break, the table conversation, though sometimes quite stimulating, often focuses on Pokemons and who chased who around the playground.

So one day, a couple of weeks ago, I had an idea. I would simply pack up my laptop and go to Paris and work there. This is the modern world, after all. All I needed was a WiFi (pronounced “wee-fee” over here) connection somewhere, and I was set. I would work in a café, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of humanity, or at least by other humans. Fully aware that Paris is not quite as wired as say, New York or San Francisco, I did a little research before I left home, to make sure that I had a few WiFi hotspots to target. First I went to Cafés WiFi, a site that claims to have an utterly up-to-date listing of Parisian cafés with functioning WiFi, complete with interactive map and listing by arrondissement. A large number of the establishments listed are McDonald’s, which has cleverly realized that a) WiFi hotspots are seriously lacking in Paris, and b) the young Parisians who think McDonald’s is cool usually have laptops or some other web-related gadget on them.

Still unable to bring myself to frequent a McDonald’s in France, I picked out a regular café in the Latin Quarter. Then, just in case it was too noisy, I thought I’d find out if there were municipal buildings somewhere, like libraries, where it would be quiet (but I’d still be surrounded by humans). So I went to the Paris municipal website and found that the City of Paris has thoughtfully installed WiFi in libraries, museums, and….parks. As in, the lovely little green squares that dot the city and are usually equipped with a small playground and a couple of benches. Perhaps tiny Parisians are so precocious that they will whip out their laptops when they are tired of playing on the swings.

Armed with café and library addresses, I headed into the city, full of hope. It was a fine morning and when I left the Luxembourg RER station I hopped on a Velib’ bike and headed to my first destination, the public library. To my horror, on arrival I realized that it was Monday and all the public libraries were closed. I swallowed hard and got back on the bike. Next stop, the café. Le Mirabel looked like just what I was looking for: comfortable tables, a nice big window to look out of, not too many people. But their WiFi system wasn’t working. Trying desperately to remain optimistic, I got another bike and cycled to the first arrondissement, to a café that I knew would have WiFi, the terribly chic Fumoir. Finally, the planets lined up and I had what I was looking for: WiFi access, my computer, and a comfortable spot frequented by other human beings (albeit upwardly mobile ones). And it was lovely. And I got work done. And I didn’t feel like I had just crawled out of a cave at the end of the day.

I guess the moral of this story is that if you work at it, you can find WiFi in public places in Paris, but you’d better do your homework. When I was updating my guidebook a couple of months ago, my editor asked me why I was listing cybercafés, when in most big cities, like London, there was so much WiFi no one went to cybercafés any more. Well, Paris ain’t London. And besides, why would any tourist in the right mind bring along their laptop? Perhaps I am a Luddite, hopelessly out of synch with the times, but isn’t going on vacation about getting away from it all? By the way, most Parisian hotels do have WiFi, for those of you who can’t leave home without it. But come on…be brave…if you get a bad case of cyber-withdrawal, you can always head to a library and use their computers. Just don’t go on a Monday.

Sartre Thought Here

My article on historic Parisian cafés for Wizzit Magazine is out and online, click here and you can read both the English and Polish versions!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Bandes Dessinées—Comics and Then Some

Who would have though that the French would be obsessed with comic books? Certainly not me, until I moved here and noticed that in any town of any noticeable size, there was at least one bookstore entirely dedicated to bandes dessinées, or BDs as they are called for short. Aside from noticing the crowds in the BD section at just about any Fnac bookstore, I never really followed up on this observation until just recently, when I wrote an article on the subject for a magazine. After having spent a few weeks boning up on Corto Maltese, Monsieur Jean, and Isaac the Pirate, I can now report that I have been converted to the cause. Because this peculiar literary form, when put in the right hands, can produce true works of art—or at the very least, excellent entertainment. We’re not talking superheros here. Nor are we really talking graphic novels, which are getting a lot of attention in the US, but seem a lot grimmer than their French BD cousins. American graphic novels also tend to be longer than BDs, which are large hardbound “albums” of about 50 pages. Then there’s the subject matter, which covers, well, just about everything. While there is a large volume of adventure series—ranging from the legendary Tintin, which is aimed at kids, to Largo Winch, which most definitely isn’t—there is also humor, history, science fiction, pornography, heroic fantasy, journalism, biography and even a BD version of the Bible.

And then there’s a whole bunch beautifully written and drawn stories that I don’t know how to classify except to say that they are part of a more recent, more thoughtful approach towards what they call here “the 9th art.” The most well-known of this bunch would probably be Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which was recently made into a movie, but there are dozens, if not hundreds of other good writers (my personal fave for the moment is Joann Sfar, the author of The Rabbi’s Cat and Vampire Loves) out there who deserve international attention.

Many of these authors got their start at Le Festival International de la Bande Dessinée, a gigantic comics festival that takes place every January in Angoulême. Feeling intrigued, but don’t read French? Check out the English translations at NBM Publishing, Pantheon Graphic Novels, and Drawn & Quarterly, for starters…

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Drinking (coffee) Again

I was in Southern California last week, and it occurred to me that you could do a comparative culture study based on what goes on in a café. It was also interesting to note how your mind can get warped one way or another depending on what side of the Atlantic you live on. As I entered a Peet’s Coffee in Irvine with my brother, I had a difficult time suppressing the urge to scoff, loudly, at what passes for a café in SoCal. “Harumph!” I wanted to snort, “you call this a place to enjoy coffee, you heathens? Putain, everyone is drinking out of paper cups! How can you possibly enjoy a good cup of coffee in a paper cup!” Ah me, it was only a short few years ago, that I too, marched triumphantly through the streets of New York with my paper cup in hand, sipping out of a hole in the plastic top, feeling at one with rush hour. Of course I didn’t have time to sit down and drink my coffee, I was BUSY. Being busy is an end unto itself in New York City, and nothing quite says Working Girl like that paper cup. But wait, there I was in Southern California and not only was I not busy, but neither were the people in Peet’s. In fact, it was the weekend and they were all sitting down drinking out of…paper cups. With plastic tops. Now this used to make sense to me, or rather, I just didn’t worry about it. But now that I'm coming from another place, literally, it makes no sense at all. Let’s think about this. You are inside, not moving. What’s with the plastic tops? Are people really so sloppy that they risk spilling their doppio pumpkin frappucino on the carpet? And without getting too militant here, isn’t all that plastic and paper a little, well…wasteful?? Oops, I forgot, I was in Southern California, the epicenter of non-sustainable living. As I glanced around the parking lot filled with monstrous SUVs I remembered that this was The Good Life, the one that will be obsolete in about 50 years when there’s no more cheap fuel. What will the folks in Orange County be doing then? Jogging to work? But that is a subject for a different post, on a different website, preferably one like Grist.

But let me get back to Peet’s. I like Peet’s. Heck, I went to U.C. Berkeley, just up the street from the orignal Peet’s. I remember the delicious smell of the beans roasting and the line around the block every morning. And if the company has gone commercial and is now a chain, Peet’s in Irvine still serves a good cup of coffee, even if it is in a paper cup. And at Peet’s in Irvine I learned a remarkable thing: if you ask, they will actually serve your coffee in a ceramic demi-tasse! I felt so…well, Euro when I did this (I’m sure my brother was cringing), but I have to admit, it made me happy. And as I looked around at my fellow coffee drinkers, I saw that, in fact, they seemed like a pretty happy lot. Maybe I missed the unique atmosphere that reigns in a French café, where your waiter could most often be mistaken for Lurch and everyone seems to be in the midst of a deep, but thoughtful, depression. But I had to admire the seemingly boundless energy that oozes from Southern Californites, even on a weekend morning. People were bouncy, chatty, and dressed in workout clothes—you wouldn’t have been surprised if an impromptu aerobics class erupted between the tables. Even if I would be hard pressed to call most of the drinks they were sipping “coffee” (espresso drenched with syrup and soymilk? Eww!), and even if I still think waiting in line and having your name screamed out by someone you don’t know takes the romance out of things, I’ll admit there is something compelling about the experience. I’m not sure what, but there is definitely something.

Monday, November 10, 2008

On Symbols and Elections

One of the less fun things about living overseas is that you often find yourself becoming a symbolic representative of your home country. Suddenly, regardless of what you may think of the political situation back home, people around you hold you personally responsible for the current administration’s shenanigans. Having moved to France in 2000, right at the beginning of the Bush regime, I have experienced more than my share of barely suppressed sneers, wary looks, and borderline hostility when I happen to mention that I am American. It was particularly ugly around the beginning of the war in Iraq; in recent years, with Bush’s popularity sinking to ever new lows, the mood changed and lately I’ve been allowed a second chance despite the color of my passport.

It really did get old after a while. At first you'd get all fired up and work up a good 10-minute speech whenever someone gave you that accusing look, including lots of phrases like “hey, I didn’t vote for him” and “you mustn’t believe that all Americans are behind that idiot.” But then you just got weary. You'd see the entire conversation coming a mile off and all you really wanted to do is go home and eat some Oreos (if you could find them). It all seems so silly. How can any halfway intelligent person really believe that you represent 260 million people? And yet they do. America is so much more than a country to people overseas. It’s a myth. It’s really hard to convince people that it is, in fact, populated by real human beings and not characters in an action film. A friend of mine who has been living here for some 20 years got so sick of this conversation that when people asked her what she thought of Bush, she just gave them a devilish look and responded “I think his ears are really sexy.” I’m not sure what this did for her social life, but it certainly stopped the conversation cold.

Thank God, Buddha, Vishnu and who ever else is up there, Bush is gone and Obama is, miraculously, moving into the White House in January. Aside from being stunned that we managed to elect a inspiring leader who seems to really care about regular folk, Obama’s election comes as a huge relief to me: not only can I finally feel proud to be an American again, but I also no longer feel pressure to apologize or explain every time I mention my nationality. It’s barely been a week since the elections, and already I sense an attitude change over here; now everyone who knows I’m American wants to congratulate and celebrate with me. This is really nice and a welcome change, but it does make you wonder…after all, I’m still the same person I was before November 4. For that matter so are 260 million other Americans. But now that there is a good guy in the White House, suddenly we are all good guys. Does this really make sense? I know this election was all about change, but have we as people really changed? Now there’s a question that I can’t even begin to answer, and that is best reserved for more qualified political observers, like Frank Rich, who wrote a great column on the subject (and the election in general)in the New York Times, "It Still Felt Good the Morning After."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Is Credit Credible?

In the wake of the ongoing financial disaster that has washed up on both sides of the Atlantic, people have been talking a lot about credit, and the culture thereof. Before I go too far, I would like to point out that I understand virtually nothing about high finance, or even low finance, and the reason that I am not rushing to find out so that I can protect my assets is that I don’t have any.

But one thing I do understand is credit cards, and it has recently come to my attention that a French credit card is really only a distant cousin to an American credit card, and that it is much more closely related to the American debit card. In other words, American-style credit cards, where you basically take out a loan from a bank (and not necessarily the one where you have your account) and pay it back with interest, do not exist here. This came as a shock to me. Somehow, after living here for eight years, I never fully absorbed this information. “You mean, people here actually save up their money before they spend it?!” We red-blooded American types charge out and spend on our credit cards and then worry about saving up to pay off the bill. Then the race is on to see if we can pay off the bill before we end up paying horrendous amounts of interest. This behavior, which seems utterly normal to me, strikes my French friends as irresponsible and reckless. “Who, me?” I ask, dumbfounded. Here I always thought I was a pretty prudent spender who was very careful with what little money I possessed.

Suddenly, I was forced to face the fact that I am indeed a willing participant in the very Culture of Credit that it seems is menacing the financial planet with death and destruction. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t run up huge credit card bills (yes, I kept my US cards when I moved here) and then pay tons of interest. But I do rely on them for buying things I can’t exactly afford and then paying them back when I can. I usually pay them off within six months, often much sooner. Does that mean I am afflicted with that dreaded Credit Mentality that the European press says affects 99.9% of Americans? I never thought so, but when you look at French people (and Europeans in general), I have to admit that unlike them, I look at credit as a Friendly Helper, and not as the Dark Lord of Financial Instability, like they do.

From what I’ve gathered, credit is considered unseemly here, something that only fools and scoundrels engage in. French people may have cards marked Visa or MasterCard, but when they use those cards, the money is debited directly from their bank accounts. At most, you can get a 30-day deferral. You can find some American-style cards that offer credit in an alliance of stores, but these cards are frowned upon by the general public. I was discussing this phenomenon with my dad, who is over 80, and he remarked that when he was young, in the pre-Visa/MasterCard era, the very same anti-credit attitude existed in the States.

Upon reflection, I have to admit that there is something to be said for actually taking responsibility for your bank account and buying things according to your present reality, rather than your misty future. On the other hand, if I think of all the things I couldn’t have done without one, I still feel grateful to my credit card for giving me a chance to take that Flamenco workshop in Spain, or having that holiday in the Greek islands. I know it’s not responsible, and I know it’s not sensible. But it’s just so much fun. I’m beginning to think I’m a lot more American than I ever realized…

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Velib—One Year Later

It’s been about a year now since I took my first spin on a Velib bike (see Velib Liberates Paris, and Velib–the Sequel), and during that time, the groovy rent-a-bike program has become an integral part of the Parisian landscape. According to the official Velib website, usage goes up as high as 100,000 rentals per day, and in the month of September, total rentals reached somewhere around 2,830,000. There are close to 1,000 stands sprinkled throughout the city, and the site of someone cruising down a major boulevard on a futuristic bike that looks like it escaped from the film Metropolis, is simply no big deal anymore. It is still a great way to get around the city, provided you maneuver well through Parisian traffic and have learned how to avoid those major boulevards (not enough of which have bus or bike lanes).

There are now two types of people in Paris: those who are willing to risk life and limb to whizz around the city on two wheels, and those who think that those in the first category need to have their heads examined. The former, many of whom would never have dreamed of biking through the capital before those wacky-looking Velibs showed up, have thrown themselves into the thick of urban traffic with reckless abandon, or at least what feels like reckless abandon, because after all, simply surviving rush hour gives you a rush. It may be foolhardy, but it feels like freedom. And as some people have pointed out to me, it’s actually safer to be on a bike in Paris than in a lot of other large cities, like say, New York. There are more and more bike lanes, occasional equipped with cement dividers that keep motor traffic out, and there are many bus lanes where you only have to contend with buses, taxis, and drivers on the verge of a nervous breakdown who simply can’t resist the temptation to fly down the relatively uncluttered bus lanes.

Being a parent, and feeling a moral responsibility to return home alive, I have taken to doing something that makes me look like a total nerd, and thus something that hardly any real Parisians ever do: I wear a helmet. I bring it in my backpack just in case I get the urge to Velib. I’m not sure how high this actually raises my safety quotient, but it does make me feel a lot better.

There are things you gotta know to Velib effectively. Among other things:

• always take a map of the city showing where the stands are. Spontaneity is all very well and good, but without a map you risk much cursing and frothing of the mouth when you can’t find a stand to park your bike.

•plan ahead. Look at said map (which hopefully has one-way streets indicated) and figure out the best way to get from point A to B before you get on the bike.

•look at the bike before you hop on and realize the chain is dragging on the ground and the front tire is flat.

And now we get to the $64,000-dollar question: can tourists use the damn thing? While in theory, any credit card with a chip in it will work, in practice people have written to me that they have trouble getting Visas and MasterCards to work, with chip or not. But several bike fans have reported that for some mysterious reason, American Express does work, especially American Express Blue. I’ve even been told that chip-less American Express cards work, though I can’t imagine how. So don’t leave home with out it.

If like me, you’ve never managed to get an American Express card and you don’t have another card that works, don’t despair. Though it’s not as groovy, and you don’t get to use the high-tech stands, there are several places in Paris where you can rent bikes by the hour, 1/2 day or whole day. Try Roue Libre, Paris à Vélo C'est Sympa, or French Connection Bike Tours. The last two also offer nice bike tours.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

C'est la Rentrée

We’re back. Vacation is over. In keeping with the spirit of things, the weather has decided to become suitably miserable, and is doing a good imitation of late October. It’s the first day of school, and after several days of intense anxiety, my son has entered primary school. As of lunchtime, all was well. The teacher is nice, the friends all remembered him. The lead-up was intense. During the entire last year of pre-school, everyone keep telling him that the fun days would soon be over, and that “CP (first grade), c’est du sérieux.” You would think he was about to take on a post-doc in nuclear medicine. People get serious about school here. Entirely too serious for some of us frivolous types who went to primary school back in the day when homework was considered hopelessly bourgeois, and my third grade teacher came to school in a miniskirt and a frosted bouffant. My 8th-grade teacher, a long-haired Mr. Kuhl (pronounced, I kid you not, Mr. Cool), had us devote an enormous amount of time to analyzing the lyrics to the song “Bye Bye Miss America Pie.” Our junior high school had flexible scheduling and modular classrooms. And while I freely admit some of this stuff was of limited value, and that we may not have been the most studious of students, I did manage to graduate from high school, go to a good college, and even get a Masters.

What is it about this generation that is so panicked about diplomas that they are ready to sit on a six-year-old’s head and tell him he’d better get to work now or he’ll never get a decent job? From what I understand, this isn’t just a French obsession: even back in the States, parents are flogging their children with educational videos when they are still in diapers and looking at elementary schools under a microscope before they will agree to let their child set foot inside.

It must be said, however, that in France this tendency is taken to a level of mass insanity. And not without reason—the French school system is so demanding, so onerous, and so hard to get through that it’s a miracle that anyone gets out alive, let alone finds a job. I don’t have the time or the resources right now to set out rational arguments to support such a loaded statement, but personally I am convinced that the weight of this outdated school system is close to crushing all that is hopeful, dynamic and creative in French youth.

But enough rash statements and snap judgments. Do I sound like a nervous parent? I am. I’m worried that the daily homework assignments that my son will receive this year will snowball over time into a huge burden that he will have to lug around in addition to his overstuffed book bag. I fret when I see his older cousins spending a good chunk of every vacation working on homework, and when I kids going through the dreary process of deciding what they want to do with their lives when they are only 15 because that’s when you have to decide which kind of university entry exams you are going to take.

And what does all this stress accomplish in the long run? Are the French schools the best in Europe? No. Are French students the best prepared for the working world? More importantly, are there any jobs out there once they’ve gone through their academic ordeal? These are the questions that irk me, though to be honest, I don’t yet really have any reason to be irked. For the moment, my son seems to like school a lot. Today they drew seahorses and soon they will start learning to read. For the moment, all is well. Let’s hope it lasts.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Les Grandes Vacances

OK, here it is—The vacation post.

It's July, and life is slowly seeping out of my suburban neighborhood. Not exactly a bubbling cauldron of activity at any time of the year, in July what little buzz there is fades out and an alarming silence sweeps through the streets. There are no kids screaming in the park, there are hardly any old ladies rolling their caddies down the sidewalk, and the stores on the one "busy" street are closing down one after an other. It's as if the entire neighborhood is entering into a state of deep hibernation. By August, all will be still and the urban pulse will have slowed to a couple of beats per minute.

It's peaceful here, I'll admit. It's peaceful knowing that you are still safe and sound in your apartment while almost all of your neighbors are stuck somewhere south on the autoroute in a horrific traffic jam. You could get rather smug about it, but you know that soon it will be your turn—soon you too will be battling overstuffed freeway on-ramps or fighting through the crowds at the train station. Despite the bother, you are kind of looking forward to it. Despite the illogic of everyone going on vacation at the same time, and the knowledge that there will be crowds in every sunny spot on the continent, and the firm conviction that we would all be better off if more people traveled off season, you don't like feeling left out of the party. You too want to be able to flaunt your tan in September at the rentrée (literally, re-entry), when everyone will be swapping vacation stories and moaning about going back to work. You too want to be part of the smiling hoard of vacationers invading normally tranquil places and wondering why there is so much noise. You too want to roast, at least for a little while, in the sun after endless months of clouds and rain.

I used to be convinced that my husband's desperate need to go to the family holiday cottage every year at the same time (August) was based on some deep-rooted insecurity or ancient childhood trauma. The idea of voluntarily spending time with one's parents and relatives over vacation seemed highly suspicious to me, particularly when it meant three weeks in an isolated house in the middle of the woods. That was before I had been seduced by the pure air, the relative calm, and the abundant supply of fabulous foodstuffs available in that particular corner of the southwest. For better or worse, I've adapted. This year, to make sure that I get my share of noise, pollution, and madness, I've tacked on a week in New York at the end of my trip. As any ex-New Yorker knows, ya gotta tank up every once in a while.

So this is a long way of saying that I've succumbed—you probably won't be hearing from me until September. Bonnes vacances—on se verra à la rentrée!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My Life in Hell—Another Visit to the Préfecture

I wasn’t going to do this. I was going to write a nice post about the impending vacation season and it’s effect on my neighborhood. But I can’t. I must vent. My frustration level has reached an alarming level and if I don’t do something soon I will simply dissolve into a mushy, pulpy mess, or more likely, explode and spatter all over the walls. As you may have guessed by now, I’ve had another morning at the Préfecture. For those of you who are not aware, the Préfecture is the home of the French Immigration Service. This is where you have to go to deal with your carte de séjour, the French equivalent of a Green Card. I thought I was ready this time. I got all my papers together. I even got new pictures taken, even though I had already done all this back in December, when I was obliged to descend into the depths of bureaucratic hell because I didn’t have my current address on my carte de séjour (see my previous post, My Beautiful Préfecture).

What has happened since then to push me to return to that evil place? Quite simply, nothing. I still haven’t received my new carte de séjour. And I realized that my recipicé, the piece of paper they gave me back in December that authorized my existence until I received my new card, expired in March. Filled with dread, I called the Préfecture. Sure enough, they couldn't tell me anything because the telephone information service had been suspended indefinitely. I was informed that I must come in person, even just to ask a question. Filled with even more dread, I gathered my papers last night and put them in a bag next to the door. After a very bad night’s sleep, I charged out into the morning rush hour feeling relatively hopeful, since I had gotten an early start. I triumphantly arrived at the Préfecture at opening time, only to realize that I had left my bag of papers at home. At 9am, a long line was already winding out the entrance. I decided to dash home and get my papers—after all, sometimes you actually have a shorter wait if you come a little later after the 9 to 5-ers have left. I dashed back to the Préfecture, papers in hand. Usually there is a little machine that doles out numbers so you know where you stand in the line. The machine was not working. Actually it said “service fermé.” Surely, an error, I thought. I know the service is open. The machine must be broken. I then waited in line at the accueil, which actually means “welcome”—a serious misnomer since I can’t imagine anyone less welcoming than the harpy that was behind the window this morning.

Said harpy informed me that the service was indeed closed, that they only dole out 150 tickets each morning because otherwise “we would all be here until midnight,” and when I gasped in horror, snapped out a few more spiteful phrases and told me to get there by 9am next time. O alas, and double alas, if she only knew that I actually was there at 9am this morning! If only I had taken a number before running back to get my papers! But then again, how in the name of God’s Green Earth was I supposed to know that they had suddenly decided only to take 150 tickets?? This certainly was not the case every other time I ventured into the Dark Realm. Mouth still hanging open, I noticed that there was not so much as a sign on the window explaining the new procedure. And of course no one had said anything when I called. And God forbid anyone should think of posting a little notice on their uninformative website.

I know that there have been, in the name of streamlining the system, cuts in personnel and I know that now less people are supposed to do more work at places like the Préfecture. But shouldn’t these kinds of reforms go along with a little reorganization? I’m no genius, but Christ, even a 5-year-old could figure out a more efficient way to get people through this dismal process. I could understand (sort of), if we were in a third-world nation, but this is France, for heaven’s sake. Land of philosophers and scientists. If they can get their brains around Decartes, why oh why can’t they realize that they would save everyone on both sides of the window an enormous amount of time and energy if they would just make appointments over the telephone, or post the lists of necessary papers to bring on their website? Would it be so hard to install one of those voice message systems (“if you still haven’t received your paperwork, and you are ready to commit a violent act, press 2”) telling people of procedural changes? What gives?! Fer cryin’ out loud, what, exactly, gives?!!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Drink and be Merry

I crossed a new cultural threshold the other day. I was at the annual end-of-the-year lunch for a select group of moms who hang out at the park next door with their kids. A bottle of 15-year old Morgon was set out on the table and after it was opened, the only person deemed qualified to taste it was…me. Out of the seven of us, four were French de souche, and here I was tasting the wine. How this could happen to someone who 10 years ago could barely distinguish between white and red is mystifying, to say the least.

When I first moved here in 2000, I was convinced that French people were genetically conditioned to understand the subtleties of wine. It seemed like there was some massive collective unconscious that was the source of this secret knowledge, and that no self-respecting French person ever hesitated for a nano-second when ordering a glass at a bar or café. When I asked people how they learned about wine, they would just shrug and mutter something about the grape-growing region where their family came from, which only reinforced my genetic hypothesis.

When I finally understood French well enough to understand muttering, I realized that what they were actually saying is that they didn’t know that much about it, but were familiar with the wines their parents grew up with, or that a friend recommended, or that they stumbled across. Wine is everywhere here (almost literally—just about every region of France has vineyards), so it’s not too difficult to absorb information if you have any interest at all. But while there are lots of people who know a lot about wine, there are even more who don’t, which is very reassuring to an outsider from a relatively wine-challenged country. I guess over the past 8 years I’ve absorbed a bit of The Knowledge, at least enough to be able to tell if a bottle has turned or not. But I would have never dared to think that I knew more than the moms from the park. Is it that wine-tasting is a male activity and they hadn’t ever needed to develop the skill? Or was it simply that they were bored with the whole wine thing, the way Italians might be about pasta, or the Dutch about tulips?

So there I was, a glass of the red stuff in my hand and 6 sets of eyes turned upon me. I summoned my courage, held up the glass, and swished it around a bit for show. I suppose I could have sniffed, but considering the fact that I have no sense of smell, that seemed a bit too theatrical. So I just sipped. As far as I could tell, it was divine.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Let's Hear it for Enthusiasm

I feel the need to clarify something in my last post. I know it is not particularly edifying to know that many French people seem to feel that the American tendency to smile a lot is a sign of their limited intellectual capacities, but try not to take it too personally. I mean, look at it this way: if you were visiting an isolated tribe in Borneo, and your guide told you that smiling a lot was considered a sign of lunacy, you wouldn’t be offended, you would just do your best to be culturally aware when visiting their village. And of course, this perception is not universal, there are plenty of French people out there who appreciate the American willingness to be upbeat, even when presented with strong evidence that the situation is anything but. Which brings me to a thought that has occurred to me recently.

It’s funny the things you miss about your home country when you’ve been living away from it for several years. There are some things I do not miss at all. I don’t, for example, at all miss the kind of enforced cheeriness that runs rampant in Southern California, e.g., the inanely jolly waitress who hovers over your table crooning “Hi, I’m Gloria, and how can I help you today?” Nor the phony exuberance of sales people and gym teachers. But I do miss something that I never really appreciated until I moved overseas and saw my country from a distance: the very American sense of curiosity, of wonder, and enthusiasm. Americans aren’t afraid to ask questions, and don’t feel constrained by appearances the way many French people are. If they are interested in something, they’ll try to find out about it, and if they like (or don’t like) what they find, they’ll show it. I hate to sound like a pom pom girl, but I truly believe that this quality is part of what makes the US great, in the best sense of the word. If this kind of enthusiasm results in some people on this side of the pond thinking we’re idiots, so be it. I, for one, get a kick out of being taken for an optimist, something that would have never occurred to me in my previous life.

I think it is possible to detect a hint of jealousy behind those who look down their noses at Americans and pronounce them hopelessly childish and ignorant. It’s very hard for French people to break through the cultural and social boundaries that keep them from aspiring to the same kind of crazy fantasies that Americans seem to. So let’s hear it for goofy grins and wild ideas. They certainly could use a good dose over here.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Smile, You're in Paris

As I was listening to a song on the radio the other day whose refrain went “I don’t like going to sleep at night because I’m afraid I’ll wake up dead,” it occurred to me that one thing I like about living in France is that while in the US I’ve often been scolded for being too gloomy, here I am considered a cockeyed optimist. As a child living in southern California, I was regularly assaulted in the street by strangers who ordered me to smile. Looking pensive in Laguna Beach was a crime on a par with spitting on the flag or making fun of the high school pep squad. Things improved when I left town, but while my outlook on life has brightened considerably, I have never been accused of being intensely upbeat.

That is, until I moved to Paris. Here, the fact that I smile at all pegs me as happy-go-lucky and possibly missing a few synapses. The American tendency to grin from ear-to-ear when at a loss for something to say has long been interpreted here as an indication of mental deficiency—which in turn is used as an explanation for odd behavior and questionable foreign policy choices. While I can’t be sure of my neighbors’ assessment of my mental capacities, I can say that they seem to find me a little giddy and strangely cheerful. Even small children think I am unusually silly, which may be true, but I wonder if it isn’t because French parents pay a lot more attention to decorum when hanging out in the park with their kids. I would hazard to guess that I am one of the only parents on my block willing to play monster and chase my 6-year-old son and his friend back to school after lunch. This doesn’t seem like a very big deal to me, but my son’s friends seem to think its license to play me for a fool whenever the opportunity arises.

Have I turned into a goof-ball since I’ve moved to France, or have I just fallen into another cultural reality gap? Am I now rebelling against the norm by being stubbornly smiley in a place where outward expressions of joy and enthusiasm are usually reserved for weddings and soccer victories? I have to admit, I’m generally pretty happy about living here, which might be making me unduly jovial. I’ll bet that would make the Smile Nazis back in Laguna happy. Or would it?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Vive La Loire

I was on assignment in the Loire Valley last week (ooh, that sounds so important) for an article on hotels, and it soon became obvious to me that only a fool would live in the Paris area for three years without having visited this gorgeous area. Being that fool, I hereby confess that my previous feelings about the Loire Valley had to do with a trip I took there with my family back in the Dark Ages, when computers were house-sized and the only people who had cell phones were the characters on Star Trek. While I seem to recall that the castles were very pretty, my memories of those royal abodes are mixed with scenes of domestic angst where my younger brother, who was three at the time, rebelled against incessant castle-viewing, and my mother, who still can’t understand why a three-year-old would not be interested in French history, furiously stormed one chateau after another.

I think my primary revelation was that there’s a lot more to the Loire than castles. Without launching into a guidebook entry, I’d like to point out that this languid river valley has a lot of other things going for it, like a) hundreds of kilometers of bike paths (there’s a long-term plan to make it possible to cycle from the Loire to the Danube); b) pretty hotels that are about a third of the price of similar digs in Paris; and c) that languid river—a natural, wild river that has never been strangled by canals and dams.

Actually, there are at least three rivers here that look like they are posing for an idyllic landscape painting: the Loire, the Cher, and the Indre. None are deep enough for serious river traffic, but you can paddle down them on a canoe or a kayak, or sign up for a ride on a traditional flat-bottomed boat. The view was so green, so peaceful, so relaxing, that all I really wanted to do was sit on someone’s veranda and read a book for a week or so. Of course, the intermittent rain and occasional hailstorms served to remind me that one of the reasons that Parisians leap-frog this lovely area at vacation time and head further south is that it shares a good portion of Paris’ soggy weather. After, all, it is only an hour or two south of the city. But that’s just it! It’s only a couple of hours south of the city. And if you can’t get to Spain or the Côte d’Azur, why not go to the Loire? These days, you can even find things to do there with a three-year-old.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Velib'—the Sequel

I’m still a big fan of Velib’, the city's virtually-free bike program (see my previous post, Velib' Liberates Paris), even if it seems like I’ve encountered just about every problem you can have with them during my infrequent usage. Being spontaneous on Velib’ requires thinking ahead. First, after an unfortunate incident with a faulty derailleur, I learned that you should make sure your bike works before you unhook it. Then, after circling the 6th arrondissement for a good 20 minutes, I learned that you should buy yourself a map showing all the stations before you try to find a place to park it once your done with your ride. Then, after discovering two hours after I thought I had returned my bike that my account was still open, I learned that you should make sure the bike stand is in working order before you check in your bike. It’s a long learning curve, but I still appreciate the practicality and usability of the program. It’s the perfect thing for short trips that would be a pain by public transportation or a shlep to walk. And it’s fun, provided you don’t find yourself on boulevard Haussmann at rush hour. It will be even more fun once the city has put in real bike lanes with cement barriers, like the one on avenue Daumesnil (the only one I’ve found so far).

But I have a question for the cyber-world. I’ve had a lot of people ask me if tourists can use Velib’ and I’m having a hard time coming up with a straight answer. In theory, as long as your debit or credit card has a chip in it, you can stick it in a stand and get a 1 or 7 day ticket. The problem is, most American credit cards don’t have chips. But I’ve also heard rumors that people with American Express cards, even chip-less American Express cards, manage to use Velib’. I’ve contacted the Velib’ office and all they can tell me is that the card has to have a chip. From what I gathered during the conversation, they have not made any real effort to make Velib’ tourist-friendly for fear of riling the bike-rental outfits in the city. So here’s my burning question: has anyone successfully used Velib’ with an American credit card, be it AmEx, or otherwise? Do chip-equipped US cards work? Thank you one and all!

Monday, March 31, 2008

More Café Musings

I’m not really obsessed with cafés, and it’s certainly not as if I spent an inordinate amount of time in them, but the coffee discussion got me thinking about their appeal….The other morning, I was feeling a bit out of sorts, nothing major, just that vague, itchy feeling in the back of my brain that didn’t really correspond to the present reality. I was attending to business at city hall (that sounds important but really I was just signing a form), and I thought, hey, I have a half an hour, why not? And I went to a nearby café and ordered a coffee. The coffee was mediocre (I forgot to try asking for a “serré”) but the experience was just what I needed: a good half hour of doing nothing in particular. It occurred to me that perhaps that is the main draw—in a café you are allowed, nay, encouraged, to do nothing in particular. In fact, the whole café-going enterprise is a royal waste of time—and therein lies the beauty of the thing. How often in our daily rush-around lives do we get to do something as non-productive as sit around drinking coffee and staring out the window?

Here is where café culture in France is clearly superior to that in say, New York City. I am proud to say I lived in New York City for 13 years, but when I think of the difficulty involved in achieving the perfect zombie state in a café there, well, it gives me a headache. I lived on the Upper West Side, but to get to a café that was actually comfortable and welcoming (and not a coffee bar with painfully high stools), I’d have to walk a good 30 blocks to La Fortuna on West 71st street. Assuming it’s still there, Fortuna is the only place I know above 14th street where you can actually find an old Italian grandmother hanging out at the manager’s table. And if you look carefully, she will be staring out the window, doing absolutely nothing, as is only right and proper. For me, it was rare to have the time and energy to get there, and once I was it was already an event, which meant I needed to be doing something important, like talking to a friend, or writing, or meeting the love of my life.

But in France cafés are everywhere, and more importantly, they are not filled with Julliard students or West-siders trying to make a point. They are generally not even filled, just lightly dusted with a quirky clientele (depending on where it’s located) mostly concentrating on doing nothing. Communing with the ectoplasm of lost souls who have haunted said café for decades or even centuries. Outside of an ashram or a cathedral, where else are you allowed to empty your mind and let your thoughts wander in the company of strangers—for the price of a cup of coffee?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

There’s coffee and then there’s café

A comment by Teena in Australia made me think about the French coffee conundrum: How can a country that has one of the world’s most developed café cultures not have the best coffee? One could go on for days about the unique quality of the French café, or the quintessentially French nature of it’s customs and clientele, or the long list of Famous Writers and Thinkers that have created great works while sitting in one. But does anyone really have anything to say about the coffee? There’s the wonderful shape of the tiny cups, there’s the deep blackness of the mysterious brew within, but what about the taste? Does anyone really care?

It’s hard to tell. The quality of coffee in Parisian cafés can range from acrid to excellent, but it’s rare that you’ll come across a cup that would make your average New York coffee freak sing. I think it’s an acquired taste. If you are expecting Italian espresso, you’ll be disappointed. But if you are willing to accept your coffee cup as merely one piece of your overall café experience, you’ll soon find that it’s syrupy, bitter quality is the perfect complement to the peculiar atmosphere that reigns in a Parisian café. Now that there’s no more smoke (see The End of the Smoky Café), it is the coffee that must express, as it were, the gestalt of the establishment. The French are not afraid of the negative, in fact they often embrace it whole-heartedly. So if their coffee is slightly acid, or harsh, well, hey, so is life. Chances are, the person behind the counter is not going to feel like prettying up the bitter reality of the dark liquid that seeps out of the massive machine behind him or her, nor is the customer at the zinc bar going to expect it. Which is one of the reasons that I think (hope) that Starbucks, despite its current invasion of Paris, will never really catch on.

We bought an espresso machine last year, and I was surprised how little interest my coffee mania inspired in my French friends, or in the machine sales people, for that matter. Though weak, American style brews are simply not tolerated here, coffee is coffee for most French people, and that could mean anything from drip to pods. Nespresso has made huge inroads here, probably mostly thanks to George Clooney’s mug on the advertisements. People like the gadget, but no one seems to really get worked up about things like grind, aroma, or beans (which are really hard to find). That’s OK, we managed to find a good machine, and to my delight I’ve realized that you can find Italian espresso in the supermarkets here, if you dig around a bit. But you’ll still be hard pressed to find a decent cappuccino in this city, which is perfectly understandable to a Parisian. After all, this is Paris. They just don’t do frothy here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Attack of the Motherboard

I haven’t posted in a while because a tragic mishap befell my computer. A couple of weeks ago, I caught a bad cold and decided to work from bed. I got all comfy with pillows and put my laptop on my knees and managed to be quite productive despite my malaise. Feeling pleased with myself, I climbed out of bed, placed my closed laptop on my dresser, and plugged it in to let it charge. About a half an hour later, careening around the apartment getting ready to go pick up my son from school, I tore into my room, tripped over the cable, and watched my computer take a four-foot dive onto the floor, where it bounced with a grisly thud. I felt like I was watching a small child get into an accident. I gingerly picked it up, hoping and praying that the “titanium” exterior of my beloved PowerBook protected its fragile insides. Alas, when I booted up, it made all the appropriate noises, but the screen remained distressingly black.

As soon as it was physically possible, I ran my computer over to the nearest Mac hospital, and explained what had happened. The technician looked grim. “We won’t know anything until we open it up,” he warned, as he prepared to wheel my laptop off to surgery. “It could be a simple matter of changing a minor card, or it could be that we’ll have to change The Motherboard.” There are few words fraught with as much tension and danger as the word “Motherboard.” It makes one think of some enormous, ominous-looking spacecraft hovering over Earth, threatening to blow up the planet. Another unpleasant element was that in the first case I would be out a mere 350 euros, and in the second, over 800 euros, clearly more than my three-year old was worth.

I went home, relieved that my computer was in capable hands, but nervous about the diagnosis. Two days later, the call came. “I’m sorry to tell you this. It’s The Motherboard.” Shock, dismay, existential angst—a whirlwind of inappropriate emotions overcame me. How could I feel so emotionally attached to a bunch of circuits? I couldn’t help it. I felt I was looking into the void. No more Internet access. No more e-mail. No more writing. What would I do? What would become of me? What about The Future?

After several hours of such gloomy thoughts, it occurred to me that I could simply buy a monitor and hook my laptop up to it, since after all, the computer worked, even if the screen was whacked. And my husband brought to my attention the fact that if I bought the correct cable, I could even hook it up to our flat-screen TV, which is how I am currently writing these words. But between the accident and the cable hook up, over a week passed by where I did not have a computer. I have to admit, it was kind of a revelation. First of all, I realized that I can talk to my friends by telephone. Then it occurred to me that if a pen and paper were good enough for Shakespeare and Dickens, they were good enough for me. Most importantly, my insomnia, which has been cursing my existence since I had brain surgery in June (I can’t wait until I get to use that line at a cocktail party) vanished during that week.

Mark Bittman wrote a lovely article in the International Herald Tribune (March 3) about the terror and joy of turning everything off on the weekend, pointing out that not so long ago we all lived without cell phones and Internet and were none the worse for it (and perhaps better off). While I have no intention of tuning out, this experience has made me rethink my priorities a bit, and where exactly my computer should be on that list. If nothing else, for the sake of my sleep cycles, I shall henceforth shut down after 9pm. The Mother of the Motherboard has spoken.

Friday, February 15, 2008

An Afternoon at Les Gobelins

As part of my guidebook-updating duties, I found myself at the Manufacture des Gobelins yesterday, the place where fabulous tapestries have been made since the days of Louis XIV. I had booked myself on a tour of the workshops, which was conducted by a very affable man who attempted to explain the incredibly complex process involved in weaving a tapestry. Well, maybe not so much complicated, as very detailed and very long. He pointed to a huge modern tapestry hanging on the wall and told us that it took the weaver three years to complete. Today’s tapestries are not filled with flowers and ladies and jumping stags—they are resolutely contemporary, complete with bright slashes of colors and puzzling motifs. In fact, each tapestry is a recreation of the work of an artist, who has provided the Manufacture with a massive painting as a guide. What’s more, none of these tapestries are for sale: this is a state-owned enterprise and the works are created to be hung in state-owned places like ministries and embassies. It’s a closed ecosystem. Louis’ original intent was a state-owned workshop to make tapestries for royal castles—today, in a nod to democracy, they make tapestries for castles and mansions owned by the people, sort of.

However one feels about the logic behind the enterprise, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by what goes on in the ateliers. We went into the first workshop and saw a row of about five or six giant vertical looms, each being worked by a solitary weaver. This courageous individual, with the patience of a saint, was carefully fitting a shuttle full of woolen yarn through a forest of hundreds of threads, half of which fall under the heading "warp" and the other "weft." By literally pulling strings, she would weave the one into the other. During this operation, she was carefully choosing her colors and trajectory according to the design that she had earlier inked on each individual thread, according to the model provided by the artist. This elaborate ballet is further complicated by the fact that she works on the back of the tapestry and can only see what she is actually creating by looking at a mirror placed in front of the loom. Once the shuttle goes through, she has to delicately tamp down every inch of yarn with her fingers or a comb. Then she’s got to verify that she didn’t mess up by comparing the design in front of her with that on transparent plastic guides.

In short, it’s completely insane. It goes against everything we’ve ever learned about getting things done in the modern world. It’s a desperately slow process that shows hardly any results in the short term. And yet the weavers do not look in the least bit stressed. On the contrary, they have an other-worldly serenity that would make me think of monks working on illuminated manuscripts if it weren’t for the iPods dangling from their ears. These hardy souls have survived four years of intense training for a job that they can pretty much only do here. In other words, they have signed on for life. They have made a kind of commitment that went out of style in the Middle Ages. They are a link back to the days of artisans guilds and apprenticeships, the days when your identity was literally defined by your craft—as in Mr. Miller, Mr. Smith, or Mr. Taylor. “I’ve been here for 20 years,” said a kindly looking weaver with a smile when a man from our group posed the question. “C’est un beau métier,” the man commented—literally, a beautiful profession. “You have to love what you do,” she responded, wisely.

Monday, February 4, 2008


Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni got married over the weekend. The fact that she is an Italian ex-top-model-glamorous-pop-singer and that he got divorced from his other wife a mere three months ago wouldn’t be any big deal if it weren’t for the fact that he is the President of France. I mean, come on! Ça ne se fait pas! It just isn’t done. Even in France. It’s not that people are shocked (although many are), it’s that here it is considered the height of bad taste to discuss one’s private life in public. Sarkozy has been living his private life in public. For months, we have been treated to magazine covers, TV reports, and newspaper articles on the successive episodes of the presidential soap opera. The part I love is when the press decides that this is merely an example of how Sarkozy has adopted American presidential behavior. I think French reporters have been watching too many episodes of Desperate Housewives. Can anyone imagine what would happen in the US if a president not only divorced his wife while he was still in office, but then went and married a younger, beautiful pop star three months later? There would be a rash of moral apoplexy that would clog hospitals and mental asylums across the country. The world would cease to turn. Pundits would appear on talk shows discussing the coming of the apocalypse. It’s simply unthinkable.

It’s not just Sarkozy’s personal life that is making him sink in the polls, it’s his bizarre tendency to careen around various ideas and policy issues with the same manic energy as he careens around the world making state visits. One day he’s signing juicy contracts with Qadaffi, the next he’s telling the pope that France needs to get religious. I think it was his comments on the Church that really sent people over the edge. Secularism is almost a religion in this country, and any attempt to mix in Christianity with government awakens the revolutionary fervor that lurks not too deep in the French collective soul. If he keeps this up they’ll be storming the Bastille Opera sometime soon.

The marriage was conducted in private, mercifully, and the public was informed after it was over on the evening news. Two questions immediately popped into my mind: 1) will the marriage last his term of office? and 2) when’s the baby due?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Guide Me!

I haven’t posted in a while, mostly because I did something I swore I would never do: I agreed to update my guidebook. As those close to me are aware, my guidebook-writing experience was an ordeal that nearly drove me (and them) insane. I know, I know, everyone says the same thing: “wow, you get to write a guidebook! How fun! You get to run around Paris and sample restaurants and museums all day! I’d love to do that!” I was having more or less the same thoughts when I accepted the job, truth be told. But think about this equation: 130 museums, plus 100 or so restaurants, plus about 80 hotels, not to mention a ton of parks, monuments, and assorted other stuff, all to be written up in six, count ‘em, six months. Yes, that’s 330 printed pages to write and research in six months. Add the care and feeding of a four-year old child and minimal marriage maintenance, and you’ve got a recipe for a nervous breakdown. I’m not saying that parts of it weren’t fun—there were even some sizable chunks. But after nine months (my six stretched into nine), I never wanted to see a guidebook again, let alone work on one.

Time heals all wounds, and a couple of years later my resolve has softened as my bank account has emptied. Employment has been elusive. My most recent writing job was a short article on the history and merits of marshmallows. Let’s just say Frommers made me an offer that was surprisingly reasonable and I took it. Mostly, I have even more time to do about a third as much work—updating mostly consists of changing prices and small details. So I’m back out on the streets, bothering busy hotel and restaurant owners with nosy questions. Yesterday I visited the newly remodeled Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature), a museum that tries to reconcile man’s love of animals with his desire to kill them. Food for thought. Well, it’s a start. I’ll keep you posted…

Monday, January 14, 2008

Christmas Stuffing

It’s been a while…I think excessive eating over the Christmas holidays has had a negative effect on my writing skills. As usual, we celebrated in typical French style: non-stop eating between Christmas and New Years. In France, this means pulling out all the stops. Forget roast turkey. Baked ham? Please. Here, Christmas means oysters, lobster, caviar, and foie gras—and that might all be part of the same meal. Chocolates and champagne are de rigeur—vintage cognac and eau-de-vie soaked sour cherries are normal finishing touches. It’s enough to send one’s soul—and one’s cholesterol levels—soaring aloft. But then, as everyone keeps reminding themselves, it only happens once a year. What’s a few thousand calories between friends?

The French Christmas menu item that is probably the most typical is also the most difficult for Americans to swallow, namely foie gras. The reasons for the current foie gras uproar in the US remain mysterious to me: after all, we are talking about a country where the delicacy is virtually non-existent. I would be willing to bet that a vast majority Americans have never even heard of foie gras (at least until the uproar) and that the percentage of people who have actually tasted it is infinitesimal. I know, I know, it sounds gross. Ducks and geese are force-fed until their liver becomes enlarged, and then once they are killed, the over-sized organ is sold at a high price to slavering food fiends. But let’s take a step back for a minute. Foie gras is an artisanal product: the good stuff is always made on a small scale, on farms where the ducks and geese live healthy lives running around real barnyards and eating real grains and greens. Can we say the same about that flaccid supermarket chicken that is sold all over the US? Is there anything even vaguely humane about poultry farming on an industrial scale? Or for that matter, about any industrial meat or fish farming? Hmm, if I was a farm animal that was eventually going to be slaughtered one way or another, would I rather spend my days outdoors on a small farm in the country, or penned up with hundreds, if not thousands of other miserable animals in an closed factory farm? If it meant my last days would include force-feeding, I think I’d still opt for the small farm.

I admit I have a certain bias in all this. My husband’s family comes from southwest France, which is arguably the foie gras capital of the world. While there are certain food historians who insist that the idea was first dreamed up in Alsace and then drifted southward, any true south-westerner will swear that foie gras emerged fully formed—like Venus on the half shell—from the dark waters of the Dordogne River. At our family gatherings the buttery substance is reverently served as a first course with a glass of silky Sauternes and some fresh bread. Being from the area, my in-laws have the inside scoop on where to get the goods. In a tiny town lost in the forest of the Landes, there is a foie gras maker who knows how to turn chopped liver into gold. It’s a word of mouth sort of thing, and believe me, they do a land-office business.

I’ve also met people who raise their own ducks and do their own force-feeding. When you mention that the city of Chicago and the state of California have outlawed foie-gras due to cruelty to animals (and now it looks like New York may do the same), they just look at you with incomprehension as if you are too stupid to realize that farm animals eventually die so we can eat them. While it is true that thousands, perhaps millions of ducks and geese sacrifice their livers every year at Christmas time, it’s also true that you can’t claim that you are being kind to animals when you bite into a Big Mac.

I think a lot of French people think that the foie gras bans are just another version of the Roquefort boycott or Freedom Fries, i.e., another case of Americans taking pot-shots at the French. I don’t know if this is really true; I’d wager foie gras bans have more to do with vote-getting and moral grandstanding. In any case, foie gras is prohibitively expensive in the US, so the price will keep more people away then the ban. C’est la vie.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The End of the Smoky Café

Since January 1, a new law banning smoking in public places has cleared the air in restaurants, bars, cafes, and other eating and drinking establishments all across France. Will Paris ever be the same? Has something essentially Parisian been swept away with the dirty ashtrays that no longer grace café tables? How will the city cope with the loss of one of its most lasting clichés (preferably filmed in black and white): a smoky, slightly dingy café filled with a world-weary clientele nonchalantly inhaling Gitanes? And more importantly, will anyone still go to cafés, or will they simply close up and die, while Starbucks storms the city, snapping up empty storefronts like Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo?

Having been a long-time fan of smoky cafes (though not of smoking), I have pondered this conundrum and have come to the conclusion that since suffering for the greater good is value deeply embedded in the French consciousness, smokers will continue to frequent cafes, regardless of the fact that they are no longer permitted to enjoy their vice. Sure, now that the smoke has cleared, you’ll be able see how dingy some of these cafes really are, but you’ll also be able to see your neighbors, not to mention taste the food you are eating, should you venture in at lunch time. I find it hard to believe that a cigarette is the spark that lights up a good café; good talk, good food, and good ambiance are far more essential to café success. As proof, three days into the new smoke-free era I can report that in my two local ex-stinky cafes, there is still plenty of clientele. And for more substantial proof, look at Italy, where a similar law was enforced three years ago and none of the black predictions of café-owners came to pass. In fact, many now say that they have more customers than before.

Perhaps I am painting this rosy picture of the future of café life because, admittedly, I am very relieved not to have to suck up second hand smoke every time I want to sit down for a cup of java. The irony is that I haven’t actually smelled smoke since my operation in June (see my post "Thinking of Having Brain Surgery During your Stay?") rendered me incapable of smelling anything, so I’ve been enjoying “smoke-free” cafés and restaurants since June. And though I regret deeply my loss of sense of smell, I gotta say, cigarette smoke is one scent I haven’t missed a bit.