Saturday, December 25, 2010

Scenes from Christmas

12:30—Guests arrive. Apéro: lots of crunchies and a glass of Lillet

1:00—Lunch starts. Huge chunks of foie gras. Two glasses of Sauternes.

1:30—Smoked salmon. One glass of Sancerre. I’m getting full.

2:00—Main course: magret de canard, sautéed potatoes, and green beans. Two glasses of Pomerol. My head is spinning.

2:30—Salad and cheese. I eat salad but I can’t even look at the cheese. I try to take interest in the table conversation without contributing anything, for fear of laughing hysterically. I try not to nod off.

3:15—My mother-in-law tries to get people to sing. I run to the kitchen and do dishes.

3:50—Dessert: chocolate and chestnut bûche. Champagne. One glass, I think, but I can’t remember.

Sometime after 4:00—Coffee and chocolate. Coffee has no effect. I go back in to the kitchen and dry glasses with my mother-in-law’s friends. Start telling jokes no one wants to hear.

Later—Some guests leave “early.” Others stay and my inlaws put on a DVD. I can’t bear watching yet another movie with Gerard Depardieu. I finish my husband’s Armagnac.

Even later—I’m hiding in my father-in-law’s study. My son is playing Adibou on the computer and I’ve discovered my father-in-law’s massage armchair. If all goes well, no one will notice I’m gone until the movie is over…but then it will be time for dinner…

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

SOS Healthcare

I remember the first time in happened: my roommate was sick as a dog and the doorbell rang. “It’s the doctor,” she wheezed.

“The who?”

“The doctor.”

“What does he want?” I wondered.

“He’s coming to see me. I’m sick!”

Suddenly, I realized what was happening. Her doctor was making a house call. My jaw dropped. She was sick, but she wasn’t dying, after all. Not that that would make a difference in my country. Back home, if you are dying, you take an ambulance. House calls have gone the way of the Model T. House calls belong to another era, a mystical time when you could get a root beer float at the drug store counter. They are the butt of jokes, an example of something that is so impossible to obtain, you might as well wish you could fly.

When I opened the door for the doctor, my mind flashed on the last time I was sick as a dog and still living in New York. First I had to beg the doctor’s secretary for an appointment the next day. Then I had to drag myself out of bed and take a taxi to the doctor’s office. Then I had to wait for an hour and a half in his office. When I finally got in to see him, he seemed irked. Apparently I was wasting his time because it was “only” the flu. He spent about 10 minutes with me and I left on the verge of tears. I then paid something like $150 for this rewarding experience.

At this moment, the US Congress is gearing up for a fight against the president’s very mild health care reform that would attempt to cure only the most blatantly unhealthy aspects of our health care system, and is a far cry from a single payer system like the one in France. For those who fear “socialized” health care, here is another first-hand report on what a single payer system is “really like.” If house calls aren’t enough to make your hair stand on end, get this:

The other night, my 8-year-old son woke up at 11pm with severe abdominal pain. When it didn’t go away, my husband called SOS Médecins, a public service that sends a doctor to your house in emergencies. True, we had to wait 3 hours for him to show up, but when he did he was pleasant and professional and the whole thing cost 55 euros, which will be reimbursed by the public health system. (By the way, my son was fine – it was just gas, I’m embarrassed to report).

Yes, these are the kinds of things that can happen when the government gives in to those lefty big government types. Tomorrow it could happen to you. You too might get excellent health services delivered right to your door. Anything is possible.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


In other posts, I’ve discussed the Parisian Coffee Paradox: in a city filled with lovely cafés, it is hard to find a great cup of coffee. More specifically, you can find good coffee, but it’s nothing like the excellent espressos of Italy. Basically, the city seems to lack coffee weenies. People get excited about cafés, but not café—it’s hard to get anyone worked up about beans or blends. Or at least that’s what I thought until I wandered into the Brulerie des Ternes on rue des Petits Champs. Due to my diminished olfactory state, I can’t tell you about the delicious aromas filling the tiny boutique, but I’ll be they are fab. I can tell you that the place seemed to be crawling with something I’ve never seen before: French coffee weenies. They were all hovering around the bar, drinking tiny cups of darkest brown coffee nectar and buying bean blends with Italian sounding names. One guy was inquiring after fill-it-yourself coffee pods, which according to the woman behind the bar, are so easy to use a child could do it. “You don’t know my daughter,” he responded.

There is nothing but coffee and sugar in this store, no cookies, no biscuits, no fluorescent-colored bottled water. The coffee is French roasted, as in locally roasted in France, somewhere nearby I’ll bet, and it is really really good. I got a “carte de fidelité,” which means if I drink enough coffee there I’ll get a free bag of beans ground to my specifications, but in true French style, there is no address or website on the card. But I believe that it was 30 rue des Petits Champs, and there are other outlets where you may or may not be able to drink a cup at 10 rue Poncelet, 28 rue de la Annonciation, and one more on the bottom of rue Moufftard.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Frostbite Bites Back

Today the French prime minister blamed Metéo France for…the weather. François Fillon declared that the French national meteorological service only predicted 3 centimeters of snow, and there were 11, and that is why the roads were a disaster on December 8 and 9 and millions of motorists were either stranded or stuck in traffic in the Paris area. In other words, it’s not the government’s fault. It’s not even God’s fault. It’s Metéo France’s fault.

In France, after a natural—usually meteorological—disaster like flooding, avalanches and heat waves, there is a period of concern and dismay when everyone gathers together in a united front against the slings and arrows of fate, and then…everyone blames the government. The government is held accountable for the weather. Why didn’t anyone predict what was going to happen? Why weren’t they prepared? Why weren’t they there to protect people?

My guess is that the government is sick of being the bad guy in these cases, and has decided to beat everyone to the punch and stick it on the weather service. Naturally, Metéo France countered with its own press release and frostily disputed Fillon’s claim. According to them, they predicted 3 to 10 centimeters of snow, and Fillon is quibbling over 1 centimeter. In fact, the region was on “Alert Orange” for snow since Tuesday.

I’m hoping this will make everyone think a little harder about improving mass transit in the suburbs. While everyone was stuck in their cars for hours on the road, the trains were running, more or less. Something to consider.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Silence is Golden

Today I make a solemn vow: I will no longer get into discussions about the US with my French or other non-American friends. Naturally, I will continue to bitch and moan about various things that are going on back home with friends from the Old Country. But I can no longer stand taking on the highly implausible role of Defender of Old Glory.

For reasons that are beyond my analytical capacities, it seems that many extraordinary, intelligent, and wonderful people over here can only relate to America as a media concept. It is as if the US is not simply across the ocean, but on a different planet. This probably sounds cranky, and it is, but after 10 years of this, I’m tired. I thought it would end with Obama’s election, but no. People still seem to think that life is somehow totally different in America, as if the laws of physics, not to mention common humanity, just don’t apply there.

I suppose I could blame it all on Desperate Housewives. Or Friends. Or any of the dozens of American television series that Europeans tend to confuse with documentaries. “That’s fiction,” I try to point out. “It’s escapist, even for us. Listen, I was a single woman in New York for many years and I can guarantee you, Sex in the City is Fantasy Land.” But they don’t want to believe me. My own French husband was brutally disappointed the first time he came with to New York City (in winter) and most women were wearing…down parkas and sensible shoes.

It all started the other night when the husband of a dear friend informed me that the Deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was a result of an American penchant for bad risk management. Apparently, he once took a bus from Newark Airport to Manhattan and was traumatized by the sorry state of the Lincoln Tunnel. He is convinced there will be some terrible disaster there before the decade is out. From this experience he deduced that we are a wildly reckless people and that something like the BP disaster was bound to happen. I admit, this was after several rounds of pastis. But still! “Are you implying,” I slurred, “that the Gulf spill is the fault of the American people?” In short, yes he was. The shady dealings on the part of BP and the regulatory agencies involved democratically elected politicians, ergo, it’s the voter’s fault. “That’s cruel!” I gasped. “People on the Louisiana coast are losing their livelihoods, the environment is destroyed, people are suffering.” Then I heard myself say: “Don’t Americans have the right to suffer?!”

I should have stopped there, but I went on to embarrass myself for the umpteenth time, leaving my friend’s place feeling like an idiot. What made me do it? I’m hardly a flag-waving patriot. I griped about the US all the time when I lived there. But I didn’t leave because I hated the place, I just needed to explore my obsession with France and ended up living here. I still love my country, warts and all, and feel the need to defend it from unkind assaults. It’s weird how that happens when you are overseas. I remember seeing Jane Fonda on a French talk show years ago. Knowing that she leans to the left, the host and guests felt free to air their grievances about the US and its inhabitants. At first she laughed politely, but after a while, Jane—yes, Hanoi Jane—got her dander up and started defending the American people. She said something to the effect of “hey, wait a minute, you can criticize the government, but please keep in mind that Americans are generally nice people and don’t mean anyone any harm.” Thanks, Jane.

And so I have decided to stop. From here on, when these kinds of conversations erupt, I will simply nod my head and try to look as vapid as Carrie on Sex in the City. My lips are sealed.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Paris Reading Underground

I have been advised that spending too much time working at home is becoming dangerous to my mental health, so I’ve made an effort to get out and about more. So the other day I decided the time had come to finally do something about the pile of books that has been sitting next to my bed for about a year, and go to one of those places in Paris that buys used English-language reading matter.

There is a lively trade in English-language books here that sometimes resembles a smuggling network. It works something like this: you meet someone who is an English native speaker who lives in Paris. You work the conversation around to books, and how expensive new English language ones are here and how you should have stocked up last time you were in Chicago. The other person’s eyes narrow slightly. They say: “I’ve got books.”

“You’ve got books?” you reply, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Yeah, I’ve got a whole stack of them that I’m trying to get rid of.”

“Really?” You take a sip of your coffee and look out into the traffic. “Hmm…I’ve got some too.”

Your companion lower’s his voice and looks at you significantly. “We could exchange some…if you want.”

“What have you got?”

“Oh, a few thrillers, some mysteries…”

“Oh,” you say, and stir your demi-tasse.

“…and the new Paul Auster, a Zadie Smith, and some David Sedaris…”

Your heart starts to pound. “OK, when do we meet?”

“Here’s my card. Bring a sturdy backpack.”

Or you can just take your books to the San Francisco Book Company. This used bookstore deals exclusively in English-language books. There is wheeling and dealing here too. First the dour bookseller will assess your cache and pick out which ones he wants (in general, surprisingly few). Then he will offer you a minimal amount of cash, or twice as much in exchange, i.e., you can pick books from the store. You start to drool, because the store is full of great used books. Until you look at the prices, which are much higher than you would have imagined for a used book. You start to balk, until you remember that you are overseas and they’ve got you over a barrel because English-language books cost a fortune in the stores and even on Amazon you’ll have to deal with hefty postage. And besides, you are a die-hard, someone who does not want to Search Inside! on a computer screen, no, you are someone who wants physical contact with their prospective read.

So you are stuck. You find yourself paying nine euros for a dog-eared copy of a New York Times best seller. At those prices, I’m not sure why the booksellers are so dour. And they are very dour. Expat anglophone sellers of English-language books tend to be even more dour than Parisians. I’m not sure if it’s because Literature Is Serious Business, or if it’s because they are permanently disappointed that Paris is no longer the city of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Either way, it’s a challenge to get a smile out them.

Just down from San Francisco, there is very similar store, called Berkeley Books. Clearly there is some sort of connection, though the owners claim they are not affiliated. Perhaps there is some sort of Bay Area association. Maybe soon we will see the opening of Emeryville Books, or The Cupertino Reading Room all within a six-block radius of the Odéon metro station. It could happen. Anything is possible when it comes to the Paris Reading Underground.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Velib' Update

I’m hardly a Velib’ expert. Living in the burbs, I don’t get to use Paris’ way-cool rent-a-bike program as often as I’d like. There are thousands of Parisians out there who have thoroughly integrated Velib’ into their lives and can test tire pressure, adjust the seat, check out their bike and sail into traffic while I am still pulling my Velib’ card out of my wallet. That said, I’ve gotten used to the system and it seems way less baffling than before.

And less scary. As time has passed, I have been forced to acknowledge that despite the psychotic look of Parisian traffic, you don’t see cyclists being bumped off at every corner, nor is there a steady stream of ambulances rushing mangled Velib-ists to city hospitals. Of course, there are plenty of accidents, and you should worry, but you should also know that there are a lot of cyclists doing dumb things on their bikes, too.

I think it was my old roommate who finally made me see the folly of my ways. She thinks nothing of sailing out into the middle of place de la Bastille on two wheels. In fact, she does it almost every day. Since she has to eventually turn left, she actually gets herself into the center of it, near the mighty column that celebrates Les Trois Glorieuses (that’s the revolution of 1830, by the way, one of the several other revolutions that Paris witnessed on the rocky road to becoming a republic). “Are you nuts?” I asked, dumbfounded. The traffic that careens around the place de la Bastille is so bad I won’t even go near it in a car. Imagine a giant roundabout the size of a (round) football field with cars whizzing around at the speed of light.

That said, I am forced to admit that cars get around it without pile ups every five minutes. Maybe there is some kindly god like the winged Spirit of Liberty on top of the column that hovers over the place de la Bastille and protects drivers and cyclists from the law of probability. My roommate responded that she gets around just fine, and that car drivers are much more aware of cyclists these days. I decided it was time to stop worrying so much and start appreciating the joys of Paris on two wheels.

Besides, it’s my civic duty. If cyclists don’t take to the streets in numbers, Paris will never complete the transition to becoming a bike-friendly city. And perhaps it is fitting that the bicycle revolution should take on the place de la Bastille, birthplace of the first French Revolution. Aux armes, citoyens! Though I still won’t ride through it like my roommate. I’m not crazy. I wear a helmet.