Monday, December 14, 2009

This is not your grandmother's strip mall.

I was in a weekly conversation group with a bunch of classy middle-aged French and Anglo ladies-who-lunch.  I was easily one of the youngest there (and I'm not so young), but no matter, the conversation was always topical. We'd spend the first hour speaking French, the second English. Often, we'd have a field trip planned, the first of which was a tour of the passages couverts of Paris.  I was enchanted.

The passages couverts, or covered walkways, were early day shopping malls, developed in the early 19th century, just as Haussman was seriously overhauling the design of the city and before the development of the department store.  This was also at the time when strolling and people watching (the French word flâneur, as Baudelaire defined it: "a person who walks the city in order to experience it") became a national pastime, and importantly, before the sewer system was put underground.   These are the origins of the downtown arcades you'd likely find in your old hometown.  We had one in Schenectady, NY.
So these walkways were a glorious respite for walk-about Parisians. In the day, there were over 150 of them, today there remain under 20.  I've visited a handful of them, and rejoice when I accidentally stumble upon one of them.  The walkways are typically marble-paneled corridors with glorious glass ceilings, allowing for natural light from above, and dotted with high end boutiques.  But not always.  Some are seeing a real resurgence like Galerie Vivienne, abetted by Jean Paul Gautier establishing his flagship store nearby, while others remain in disrepair.

A New York Times travel section article provides a good primer on these civic jewels. Above is a photo of friend Miki preparing to do some damage outside Galerie Vivienne.
Friend Fiona outside Christian Louboutin in Galerie Véro-Dodat 

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In the day.

Several years ago I rented a weekend summer house in the Hamptons with friends. We'd stay up late playing games wearing summer sweaters and drinking any-season beer. The first game was called "Hump or Die." The premise was that you'd either have to sleep with someone completely revolting or, you know, die. Most of us value our life too much to forfeit it completely versus sleep with someone repulsive, so we quickly exhausted that game and graduated to a celebrity face-off. It was similarly fashioned, in that you'd have to choose the celebrity based on the assumption that you'd imagine yourself having sex with that person. Generally speaking, we'd pit similarly branded celebs against one another, low-brow or high-brow, loathsome or lovable. So, for example, Oprah or Rosie? Redford or Newman? Stewart or Colbert?

For a select number of celebrants, the ones whom never really aged very well or their career was seriously in the toilet, you'd be allowed to qualify your choice by saying "in the day..." So, think: Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, or hell, even a Shelly Winters. (Granted, no matter of qualification can save some, and you're just as happy reverting back to "Hump or Die." So, think: Limbaugh or Beck.)

Years later, it's this "in the day" that defines my all-time celebrity crush. His name is Alain Delon, and although he is one of the most renowned of French actors and alive and kickin', I discovered him rather late in life via my Netflix queue. I feel silly mentioning him here as he's so damn ubiquitous in France, but he never made it big in Hollywood (not for want of trying), so I'm forgiven if this Yankee arrived late to the party.

I say "in the day," not so much because he hasn't aged well, but he's gotten rather cheesy. Early on he knew the value of brand and so started a company selling everything from perfume to watches to sunglasses ('famously' worn by Chow Yun Fat in one three of his movies). His smoking shows, and he's made bad role choices. But in the day he was simply ga-ga gorgeous, dark and brooding, rebellious and unapologetic. This working class boy made it big time. Moreover, Monsieur Delon has a lot of one degree associations of stuff I like:
  • he was the face of The Smiths' album "The Queen is Dead"
  • he starred in the original film version of Patricia Highsmiths' The Talented Mr. Ripley (called Plein Soleil)
  • he's alleged to have a love child with tragic singer/Warholian Nico (he's consistently denied paternity, although his parents raised the kid)
And as if luxury brand Dior had the same "in the day" qualifier in mind, they recently launched a campaign for Eau Savage, using a photo taken of Delon in 1966, the year the perfume was first launched. "In the day"- oh for sure.

photo courtesy images de parfums

Friday, November 6, 2009

Who did JR shoot?

A family day out found us doing one of the most touristy of touristy things: a Bateaux Mouche ride down the River Seine.  As if the tour allowing you a duck's eye view of the fabulous buildings and bridges gracing the river weren't enough, we enjoyed some black and white photography of the most startling kind. 

The exhibition along the Seine was called "Women are Heroes" and featured enormous black and white photos of women's eyes.  The show's photographer simply goes by "JR," and his objective was to pay tribute to women from around the world (from 10 countries, across 4 continents). 

The photos were on billboard/poster paper, and as the exhibition ran for a month in the open air, the gradual erosion of the posters was intentional and only added to the ethereal quality of the images.

Here is a link for greater information on the Women are Heroes exhibition, including more examples of the photographs, as well as behind-the-scenes prep work required to create the collages.

See Franck and kids riveted by imagery at right.

@JR: you'd make Larry Hagman proud.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sisters doing it for themselves.

I took a trip recently to Chicago, a place that features the best architecture in any American city. I lived there in the 1990s, but it wasn't until this last trip through O'Hare that I learned that Chicago has been Paris' sister city since 1996.

Sometimes it's hard to know exactly what being a sister city does for you.  Good will, sure, and some "cultural exchanges" no doubt. But I found a really fun and tangible connection just south of the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue.  They erected a "Metra" station in the pattern of Hector Guimard's celebrated and fanciful entry ways to the Metropolitain, aka the métro (the existence of which was first introduced to me via a song by 80s new wave band Berlin.)

Guimard's work is quintessential Art Nouveau and in my estimation rates only second behind the Eiffel tower as the defining Parisian public art.  Not all métro stops have his designs- 86 of the 300 - and I marvel each time I see them; a quotidian reminder of why I'm here.  His first designs were unveiled concurrent with the métro itself at the Exposition Universelle in 1900.
Chicago's Metra is a rail system serving the suburbs. From, I learned that indeed the entrance was a gift of the Parisian Transit Authority (RATP), and they have been casting replacement parts and additional station entries from the original molds.

Sounds like cities of sisterly love, to me.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Picard for a New Generation

It's time I talked about Picard. Not Shakespearean-trained Patrick Stewart's Captain Picard, but the greatest frozen sensation since, well, the freezer.

Picard is a retail operation throughout all of France that exclusively sells (gulp) frozen food. Yet, this stuff is so yummy, so you-can't-even-tell-it-was-frozen, that they have a word for it: surgelés, which comes from the verb for to deep freeze, but now can be defined as: “a really tasty alternative to a home cooked meal and way better than take-out.”

The concept: source high quality and diverse food and deep-freeze it to lock in the flavor, pack it up nicely, and sell it via highly accessible (through location and friendly hours) shops. To boot, Picard has a helpful and ready staff, they’ll even bag your purchases (something you're hard pressed to find in any grocery here).

It looks and feels a little retro-futuro, like what they thought the future would look like in the 1950s. You don't see any food upon entry, for they use horizontal freezers that are more energy-efficient. The freezers are typically aligned as a single path with sale items in front, then starters and mains, and as if you're in a veritable Candy Land, the desserts are at the end. True, it can get tricky if you realize you forgot that side of gratin dauphinois you wanted and are forced to retrace your steps, but you manage. A cashier is at the end with a ready smile and a "bonjour" and some plastic bags (while freezer-friendly bags are also available for a chanson).

Everything I've ever had from them is delicious - from ingredients like raspberry coulis and frozen chopped garlic, to full on chicken tikka and croquant chocolat. That have a lot of Bio (organic) options, too. Among my circle, its everyone’s dirty little secret how much Picard one consumes over homemade meals.

I’ve often thought about exporting the concept to the States, but I think there is too great a stigma against frozen foods, and it’s hard to compete with a 24 hour food cycle. But here you can see a steady stream of Parisians, including many well-heeled ones, popping into Picard to fetch that evening's meal. As a colleague of Franck's once quipped, "Parisians have a €50,000 kitchen in order to heat up Picard in the microwave."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Whirlwind

When I moved to France back in 2006, I spent my first weekend visiting my in-laws in Normandie. I walked into my husband's childhood bedroom (his closet still filled with bad jeans and sweatshirts from his high school days), and on the bed lay a CD of Jeanne Moreau; it was a sweet welcome gesture from my mère-in-law.

Despite my francophile ways, I hadn't heard of her before, although she remains one of the most celebrated and ubiquitous of French celebs. I've since become enamored with her and can barely pass a day in Paris without coming across her
visage gracing the cover of a magazine or seeing her on one of the many French talk shows. (NB: Her name came up more recently after Natasha Richardson's tragic accident- Natasha's dad left her mom, Vanessa Redgrave, for Jeanne).

Perhaps Moreau's most famous film is Francois Truffault's Jules et Jim, a story of a very complex love triangle. Here is a scene from it where Moreau, as Catherine, is singing "Le Tourbillon," or The Whirlwind, which I find utterly charming. It includes English subtitles. I practice my French trying to sing it.

She's lost her voice now, thanks to the many french fags she smokes, but still sings and remains one very cool cat. meow.

photo by Dusty Groove America

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"The French invented the tongue"

I'm a big Bill Maher fan. He's a little obnoxious, sure, but he's spot on I believe re: politics (although he does seem very conservative re: the use of Rx products). I listen to podcasts of his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, the best part is his "new rules" (a favorite of mine: "New Rule: Yoko Ono must stop saying 'this is what John would've wanted.' I'll tell you what he would've wanted: a divorce and Lucy Liu."). French friend Laurence recently posted this video on Facebook re: his take on France. I heard it when it was originally aired around the French election, but it cracks me up just the same now, and sadly, still remains relevant in the context of the healthcare debate back home.

I love how guest Sean Penn is trying to keep it together, but can't help cracking up. Even Bill M. himself cracks at the end. This one had me at "France."

Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville, Robert Doisneau (1950)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Other Roman

News came down earlier this week that after 30+ years living like a lawless legend, Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland and extradited to the USA related to charges of having sex with a 13 year old.

While having sex with a minor is clearly despicable, and in another life might I call him an a-hole for otherwise narcissistic and misogynistic behavior, I have a real soft spot for Roman Polanski both for his creative genius (Rosemary's Baby remains one of the most haunting and gorgeously shot films- the best way to see The Dakota if you don't have the fortune of a guest pass) and for the serious hard knocks he's endured (as a young child he fled the Nazis in Poland where his mother was killed in Auschwitz, and 25+ years later, his 2-weeks-from-delivering pregnant wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered).

While my own little guy Roman wasn't expressly named after Polanski, I did like the association, and frequently reference it for clarification to distinguish "Roman" from the more French "Romain." Any of Polanski's crimes and misdeeds didn't deter me from embracing the name in the way that the associations of a loaded "Napoleon" or even a "Claus" (van Bulow) would. Besides, I couldn't name my son after a type of lettuce.

Indeed, before (my) Roman was born, we had a binder to file all his important things like ultrasound images and insurance papers. Camille has a similar binder, as do my husband and I. Our photos grace their bindings for easy recognition of whose is who. In lieu of any photos of Romie (the above reference ultrasound image being one notable exception), we had one of a young, always short, Polanski, and only upon my son's birth did we change it. But I didn't part with the image entirely, it persists in the inside of the binder.  

I'll be curious to see what happens with Polanski, its hard to rally behind a guy who doped and raped a 13 year old, but for my part, if he were to be sent back to Paris, he'd make a helluva celebrity sighting.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Socialist Shmocialist

All of this asinine talk about Obama being a socialist (no wait! he's a Nazi! a Fascist! an Extremist on the left or right but we don't even know our political ideology!) has really got me down. Strangely, its put him in a situation where he needs to defend himself against something he is not, and in so doing gives credence to the notion that, in this case, being a Socialist is necessarily a bad thing. (In the same way he had to 'defend' himself as not being Muslim).

The truth is, since moving to France, I found that I'm much less left than I thought I was, especially as it relates to free enterprise. That's because the political spectrum in the states has narrowed so much, that to be on the left means you are centrist, and to be on the right now means you are a deeply socially conservative yahoo. And while I abhor extremism of most any kind, its refreshing to live in a place where radically different ideas for governing can have some foothold. During elections here, one can readily find candidates from the left and the right, and party names include (as translated) the Revolutionary Communist party, Green Party, Workers Party, Socialist Party, Democratic Movement Party, and UMP (Union for the People's Movement). Francois Mitterand, most famous in the States for having both his widow and his mistress attend his state funeral, was a Socialist who was in power for 14 years- that's two terms- and has had some major lasting effects, some good, some not so much. With some serious exception (say the National Front Party), many of these party's ideas have (at least) some merit.

In the last French election, while chatting with a friend about Nicolas Sarkozy vs. Ségolène Royal and expressing my preference (of the two) for Sarko, my friend (who himself is 1/2 French) had an immediate and almost prophetic response, "...but I think that citizens should be entitled to healthcare" (the implication being that only a Socialist candidate would support a national healthcare system). "Yes," I said, "but nobody is even talking about that." "True," he says. End of conversation. The French health system is by all accounts the best in the world, and what's more, it's socialist and is barely disputed.

While kicking around the 1st arrondissement the other day, I stumbled across a Socialist Party office. It looks a little like a hippie hangout, with its logo and color flags. Two thoughts came to mind: One, no way-no how could I imagine a place like that existing in any meaningful way in the USA. Two, despite the mid-afternoon hour, it was closed. ;)

Friday, September 4, 2009

You've got to keep 'em separated.

Granted. Going back to school in the States is a big deal; everyone gets a new pair of shoes for the year (in my day, from Thom McCann), and a bunch of Mead notebooks. Still, it is no comparison to the veritable national holiday they have for it here. It's called, simply, la rentrée, or The Return. Camille made her "return" yesterday. 

We learned in advance from la maitresse (who was, by the way, rather sexily clad in a light white cotton dress with some questionable decollete and high black heels
) that the kids are allowed to bring one doudou: a doll or stuffed animal. Camille isn't particularly attached to any single one, but rather has a chorus of favorites that she swaps in and out depending on her fancy. When I invited her to pick one for school, it was also at the moment I was clearing out some rogue stuffed animals, and had in my hand a "new" pink rabbit that a friend of my fathers kindly sent to us (a woman whom I've never even met). The bunny is as soft and fluffy and cute as the next, but its distinguishing feature is the embroidered "Jesus Loves Me" emblazoned on its belly. Moreover, if you press its left paw, it will tune to the "Jesus Loves Me" song.

Oh the irony. We are not religious and she doesn't even know who Jesus is.

More significantly, however, is the major (I'm gonna say it) faux pax I risked by sending her to school with it. You see, stuff like this is interdit, prohibited thanks to something called laïcité. Its the French concept of a secular society, which can be roughly translated into a very serious separation of church and state. Ostensibly, we have this in the States, too, as outlined in our constitution, but we still have time-consuming and rigorous debates over school prayer and if we should display words like "In God We Trust" on public buildings and greenbacks. The French take this concept verrrrry seriously, and literally. On balance, I think its a good thing, but the very thing that is intended to promote tolerance can feel restrictive and discriminatory. The French government got a lot of heat for it back in 2004 when a muslim girl was prohibited from wearing a head scarf to school.

In sum, it means that things like necklaces with crosses or Stars of David are strictly verboten. And so, I'd imagine, is a pink fluffy rabbit with Jesus Loves Me burning a hole through its belly, even if its an unsuspecting and unschooled 3-year old who is carrying it.

photo courtesy of Laïcité of Seine Saint Denis

Monday, July 20, 2009


A very happy birthday celebration for Camille and Roman in Normandie this weekend. Old friend Meryl from NYC joined us hot off a true insider's tour of Veuve Cliquot in Reims (the most difficult of all French words to pronounce, best to avoid it if you can, and opt for the more encompassing "Champagne"). She left behind a biography of Widow (Veuve) Cliquot for me. INSEAD friends Laurence and Jean-Francois joined us from Paris with their two little ones.

Franck and his dad spent the better part of Friday putting together their birthday present: a swing set (
portique). They sure don't make swing sets like they use to. And that's a good thing. No more rust to poison you or stain your shorts. No metal chains to trap your fingers. No more shiny metal slides that reflect the sun and need a cool down before you can even attempt to try it. No more metals poles poorly planted in the ground threatening to uproot and upend you mid-air.

Best of all, of course, was the cake. All pink and sugary and otherwise over the top. I "Normandized" it by putting on some fresh strawberries.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Brownie for Romie

Roman turned one today, but he doesn't know it. Age is an abstraction for him. But he certainly knows how to WALK, and he did, all over. He was, however, guest of honor at the little party we had for him at the park just around the corner on rue Danton (indeed, there are many 'rue Dantons' in France, named after Georges Danton, one of several early French revolutionary leaders, who was in turn guillotined under the Reign of Terror). Guests included two other newly one year old boys, both named Sebastian. "Sebastian" was a contender as a name for Roman. Phew.

Franck helped me make brownies (read: Franck made them), and I frosted them and put authentic Gummi bears on for decoration, much to Franck's horror. Big sister Camille blew out his candle, but he'll get her next year... or maybe even in two days when she turns three.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Celebrating La prise de la Bastille

Last year at this time I was in the hospital. Bastille Day in Paris and I was one of the lone few checked into Franco-Britannique Hospital awaiting the arrival of my son. Indeed, his due date was July 14th, a fitting, if ironic due date for my 1/2 French baby. But he didn't come that day, and it was only through an induction the next day that he finally made an appearance. Delivery was fast and intense, or as I describe it, chronic and acute. Our little Roman John joined us at 12:33pm, just in time for lunch.

So today, the eve of Roman's first birthday and the anniversary of the beginning of the French Revolution, we decided to do something special, and went (walked!) to Le Jardin d'Acclimatation.
The last time I was there was, appropriately enough, July 4, 2008. There's something about independence day(s) and this park...

In fact the park is dreamy. Set in Bois de Bologne, its a joyous, historic, and adorable place filled with amusement rides, swings, animals, a botanical garden, a train, boats, sprinklers, horse stables, trampolines, carousels, crepes, a Théâtre de Guignol and more.

It was originally opened in 1860 by Napoleon III Empress Eugenie as a zoo. Morbidly, during the Siege of Paris in 1870-1871 (when the Prussians invaded Paris and Parisians were effectively starved into surrender) many of the animals in the menagerie were cooked and served in a fine Paris restaurant.

Given this bit of history and despite some finer dining options, I think one's best bet is to pack a lunch.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Let Them Eat Birthday Cake

Camille's 3rd birthday is coming up on July 17th. It's also Roman's first birthday on July 15th. (Nearly 2 years to the date, only surpassed by my friend Emily from whom I just received word that her son was born on the exact same date, as her daughter 2 years earlier. Bam!)

No matter. I need to make them a birthday cake. I asked Camille what kind of cake she wanted. She tells me, unsurprisingly, "chocolat" (yes, en Francais). Then I ask her what color frosting she wants, knowing that she doesn't even really know what frosting is, but to not expose her ignorance, she safely answers, "how"

The thing is, they don't really do birthday cakes in France. Not as we know them- double layered, colored with butter cream frosting, icing that says "Happy Birthday", lots of candles. Naturally, you can find a whole variety of delicious cakes here (I'd say heaven looks a little like a French patisserie), but the most traditional kid-birthday thing they do is akin to a yellow cake rolled up with confiture: génoise à la confiture. That's fine, I suppose, but I'm keen for my peeps to have something they can really stick there hands into. Yet baking American recipes in France, while not impossible, can be a drag. First is the issue of translating measurements, next comes finding the right size cake pans, third is finding an oven if you are like us and are using a microwave/convection. Finally is finding the oh-so-right ingredients. Baking powder gets tricky, as does confectioners sugar. They exist, I know, but can be hard to find, or may necessitate a trip to an "American products" store. A Canadian friend of mine, who lives in French Switzerland assures me otherwise, but for now I need a sure thing. That is to say, I need a box cake mix. The horror.

So I take the 3 line metro from Louise Michel to Arts et Metiers, one of my favorite metro stops. I transfer to the 11 line and take it to Hotel de Ville and make the splendid walk down rue Rivoli to rue St. Paul where there is an American goods shopped called, aptly, Thanksgiving:

Its a lovely-looking shop, filled with over-priced but comforting American products like Cheerios, Philadelphia cream cheese, Borden's evaporated milk, and Ben & Jerry's (which, if I'm honest, you can readily find all over Paris now). 22+ euros later, I have me a box-cake mix, some food coloring, muffin tin liners (just in case I opt for cupcakes) and two 8" foil pans. I better not screw this thing up. I can't even afford a beta test.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

origins: Me & My RC

I work in branding these days, and have always been a huge fan of advertising and commercials. Jingles. Logos. Slogans. Love it. Indeed, my dad used to tell me that as a kid I'd always perk up more for the commercials than for the programming. Part of the appeal of Bewitched (beyond Elizabeth Montgomery's clever nose-twinkle, impossible to replicate (no offense, some offense Nicole Kidman)), was that Darrin worked in an ad agency. No surprise that today I like the show Mad Men (ok, ok, who doesn't?).

In the 70s, along with Tab and Fresca in the soda aisle, you'd also find Royal Crown (RC) Cola. It still exists, but seems to have had its heyday back then. They ran an ad campaign with the jingle "Me and my RC." A quick google search later, I learn that the most famous version of it was sung by Louise Mandrell (of country music fame, The Mandrell Sisters, and Babs' younger sister.) Apparently Sharon Stone also made an appearance in one of their early ads delivering pizza on a skateboard (I'm going to assume she was wearing panties). I can't seem to find that ad, but here's another. You get the idea.  Check out the length of the commercial (a minute!) and the full story line:
Old RC Cola ad

Now, years later I've got an RC of my own: Roman (R) and big sis Camille (C).

"Me and my RC! Me and my RC!..What's good enough for anyone else, ain't good enough for me."

Introduce yourself, check check right on.

I should've done this three years ago when I first moved to France from NYC, 5 months preggers with my daughter Camille. But I thought I was coming here for only 9 months, and never got around to it (although I did do a lot of journaling during that time, and maybe some of those entries will make an appearance here). Now, my second child (a boy, Roman a.k.a. "Romie") will turn one in less than a week, so it seems a good milestone to mark the occasion. Or, I could also plant a tree. Maybe I'll do that, too.

My goal: to share a little something-something about life in France (two children, one French husband, one on-again/off-again career). My good friend Kristen, who herself lived in Europe for ten years, told me once that I'll always feel a pull to both places, a feeling that I'll have one foot on one continent, the other on another (which makes for an awfully long stretch).