Child of the 80s

And proud of it. Or at least, I don’t mind. Its not like I exactly had a choice in the matter, and while I wince at the memory of my forest green polyester dress suit, I still wear my purple fleece Norma Kamali winter coat and I am happy to spend hours with E and M, curled up on the sofa, munching away on popcorn as we watch Molly Ringwald’s melted chocolate eyes on the silver screen, seducing us through the expert guidance of John Hughes.

When I met my new BFF, Scaramouche this weekend I naturally had Freddy Mercury bellowing Bohemian Rhapsody in my mind. “Thunderbolt and lightening…”. Curiousity got the better of me and I learned that his namesake is a conceited clown from the commedia dell’arte. Clearly, this was my kind of dude. And what was the 2012 Scaramouche’s particular brand of conceit? Commercial hubris.

flipping through folded bus stop posters... a voyeuristic joy

This reformed pharmacist, friend of the graphic novelist Moebius and over all connaisseur rules over his domain like a light-hearted, extremely knowledgable clown, teasing flâneurs who have stopped to rest their weary soles at the terasses of the cafes in the Passage Molière. That is how Mr French and I first discovered his shop, Librairie Scaramouche. We were sitting there, sipping away at our poirés (think cidre, made with pears, delish!) when a door popped open and inside we spied a treasure trove… Ali Baba’s cavern.

Just beyond the man, we spied posters of the great, classic cinema from every decade. Everything from Mon Oncle to the 2012 Cannes film festival; Audrey in Vacanze Romane to Tim Burton at the Cinemathéque, it was all there. There were cheap reprints, affordable press shots and vintage posters, as well.

We spent hours wotj Scaramouche, admiring his collection while we discussed Moebius and Billal. Most of the work is quite affordable, in the 20€ range. I can’t wait to come back here in November for our Christmas shopping. Hopefully by then he’ll have had time to hunt down a Pretty in Pink poster in French…

Going to Nantes

Oxymoron of the day: fonctionnaire. Which is French for bureaucrat. In English you imagine some unhelpful soul sitting at their desk, pushing papers around their bureau like a rat gathers papers for his nest – Bureau-c-rat. But the French want to mess with your mind, so they give their nouns a gender, conjugate their verbs and give government officials a title that sounds like they actually get something done. Its time the Académie française re-define the term; dys-fonctionnaire.

In France, getting a copy of your birth certificate is free and easy to do online with a virtual visit to the city hall where you were born. That is because they require one that has been issued within the last 3 months for just about anything you really and truly need like; your passport, your driver’s license, and your morning baguette. When we first moved here as 1 immigrants, and 3 nationals born abroad, I had this nagging suspicion that our native city halls were not keeping files for the French government. I headed to our nearest Mairie to get the inside scoop.

Bonjour, I introduced myself on that first day, my French kids were born abroad and I’m an immigrant where can I get recent copies of our French birth certificates?

You go to Nantes.


Yes, Nantes.


As in the big city near the coast?

Yes, Nantes.

I go to Nantes and they’ll give me my birth certificate?


Uh, where at Nantes?

Just, Nantes.

The City Hall at Nantes has my birth certificate?

Beh, non, not the Mairie, Nantes!

But where exactly in Nantes?

Gaellic shrug.

So I just go to this town and when I arrive which traffic signs do I follow?

I don’t know. I’ve never been to Nantes.

So I just follow the signs to Centre Ville and I stop in the middle of the town square and start yelling for a birth certificate?

Exasperated sigh, Behn, no, clearly, you go to L’Etat Civil.

Score one for the home team, I’ve got something to google. But I’m there, so I proceed. And does this Etat Civil have an address at nantes?

Another shrug, I’m no longer sure if she is trying to frustrate me, seduce me, or drive me to Ste Anne’s.

I mention that maybe, I’d like to call Nantes and see if I can’t order birth certificates over the phone. Impossible. It is not done, and anyway, she doesn’t have their phone number, and even if she did, they don’t pick-up. Which strikes me as odd. How do you know the phone habits of someone who you’ve never been able to call, because you don’t have their number?

You have to go to Nantes. She insists.

Do you think the information is online? Do you have a URL for online requests?

Non, AY-tah SEE-ville, you must to go there. No internet. She has given up on full sentences, convinced that I am a blathering idiot.

That night, I google Nantes Etat Civil and land on Three days later the birth certificates are in my mail box. And at last; I agree with the Academie, because that was a true service.

Happily ever after…

Imagine a life without the promise of a happily ever after. I think of this occasionally; when I’m waiting for the metro to clamour up, as I avoid the people mags at the Dr’s office or at the movies before the show begins. I wonder how different my expectations would have been had my mother not ended most days of my early childhood tucking me in and reading a story about some beautiful princess, the man who rescues her and their happily every after. I particularly think of this in the cinema because this is where I first learned that in France, for this too, things are different.

Its thanks to a playful film starring the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg and her actor husband Yvan Attal and it is called, Ils se marièrent et eurent beaucoup d’enfants.

“What a funny title.” I laughed one day, walking by the billboards of the Odeon cinemas with my chief Parisienne.
“Its like in the fairytales.”
“What fairytales?”
“Yes, you know, they always end with that line, and they got married and had lots of children.”

In France, Cinderella went from her step-mother’s frying pan into her new husband’s fire with a bevy of children to look after; challenging her waistline and her future. And it would seem that Frenchwomen have bought into the story line, hook, line and sinker, contributing to one of the highest birth rates in Europe. Frenchwomen are not raised with the expectation of having a fairytale life once they marry, so they prepare to look after themselves, which is one of the reasons they have one of the highest employment rates of mothers in the Western world. Being a princess starts to sound a lot less fantastic, and a whole lot more realistic.

Which I am starting to find works for me. Let’s face it, I am not a princess. The laundry needs to get done, the dishes don’t wash themselves and raising kids is alot of work, even when being tackled by two people who love each other very much.

Then there is the niggling detail; happily ever afters simply do not exist. Again, I learned this from the French. I was at a Paris night club, having a fantastic evening with my husband, dancing and drinking champagne, when a hit from the 80’s came on and I began to sing, listening to the lyrics for the first time, “Les histoires d’amour finissent mals.” (All love stories end badly)

No they don’t! I objected.
Yes they do! I reasoned.

Because even if you love each other madly until the end of your days, there is an end to your days, and your partner’s and that end rarely arrives simultaneously. The French are right, there is really no such thing as a happily ever after. Which sounds so sad, but is really quite liberating and makes you savour the happily for now moments of everyday life.

Happy Graduation, E

After an entire week of written exams and two weeks with oral exams, it is official (almost). E’s high school career is over and she can now play for 8 weeks before heading off to dazzle the University of Chicago.

Almost. I say almost, because we only get the results July 6, and it is not enough to have taken the exams, she must also pass them. Which is why, there are no high school graduations in France. This is fine with me, but many, many expat families demand that final ceremony, and when your kids go to a large, International school, there are bound to be enough Anglo-saxon parents to get things organized.

Which is exactly what happens at the girls’ school every year. First, the parent’s association sponsors a prom in the spring. Kids are given about three weeks notice, the girls throw on what ever they happen to have in their closet and the boys may wear a jacket, but certainly not a tux. I have never seen a corsage in France. Nobody comes to the house, picking up your gorgeous, princess disguised daughter giving you the photo op of a life time. Mine was so relieved.

Things are equally relaxed for the not-quite graduation. Grandparents are not invited and even siblings are told to stay away. I went to E’s graduation alone. There was a tent, in case of rain, and the speeches were in two different languages, directed at an audience representing over 53 countries. Caps and gowns are hard to come by this side of the Atlantic, so the kids are given 2012 sashes. And there are no diplomas, because no one has graduated; they each get a rose. Even the boys. And because this is Paris, we end the evening with a silly line dance followed by a champagne toast. The legal drinking age is 18 and none of the kids have a driver’s license, so everyone is relaxed enjoying the final moments before our kids buckle down and start writing their Bac.

(note; The graduation was weeks ago. I’ve posted this after the Bac. My mother was Italian, my Dad is Jewish, I’m superstitious)


A Monumental Monumenta

Monumenta 2012

When I came to Paris as a student, the Louvre had a day that was free for students. At the time, the entrance was at the eastern end of the palace, and I used to love walking past the crowds once a week, heading straight into the museum with my backpack. I would set-up on a large, wide bench, directly in front of Jean Louis David’s painting of Napoleon’s Coronation, and I would do my homework. The whole week’s worth. It would take me hours and I loved that time in the somber, dust scented air.

Monumenta 2009

I have not tried this as an adult, but I suspect the increased crowds would now be something of a distraction. However, I still go to museums or art galleries on a nearly weekly basis. A lot of the art I am seeing these days is contemporary. I love the playfulness, the irreverence and the pertinence of the art being created today.

Paris has the annual FIAC, Salon de la Photography and countless other events to keep the scene fresh and new. One of my favorite events is Monumenta, when every May an artist is invited to create an installation for the Grand Nef of the Grand Palais. The space is gi-normous making for art that is Grand to the power of two.

A few years ago an artist I really admire, Richard Serra was invited. His pieces are known for their huge scale, but inside the Grand Nez, his artistically rusted steel walls seemed like ridiculous child’s toys. A domino set ready to topple. In the video made about the show he mentioned that he had under estimated the volume of the space. I would say so!  In fact, I was so disappointed that I skipped the Boltanski show in 2010; large cranes moving in piles of clothing.

Monumenta 2011

Last year, another favorite of mine, Anish Kapoor accepted the challenge. M Kapoor’s art is not always monumental in scale and there is an entire body of his recent work that I find silly (the cement droppings), but I curiosity got the better of me. Thankfully, because it was perhaps the single most impressive art experience of my life. I now have an idea of what the folks during the Renaissance may have felt when the first saw the Mona Lisa, or how visitors to the 19th century Salons may have when first viewing a Monet. This piece change the definition of art for me, adding an entirely new vocabulary and leaving me dizzy from the experience.

Buren was the guest of honor. He is the artist responsible for the black and white columns at the Palais Royale, and while I think they are fun, I am not convinced it is great art. I expected to be disappointed. I was wrong. I still would not consider his installation great art, but it has a lot of what I like from the contemporary scene; it was playful, inspired interaction and made you see something in a new light. This time quite literally, with blue, green, orange and yellow plastics filtering our view of the Nef and changing the light shining down on one another.

I can’t wait to see who is in town next year!

200% more rain

Tropical dreams

A recent email ended with my sign-off, “Enjoy the grey skies”.

The exchange ended with the query, “By the way, how does one enjoy the grey skies?”

Blue skies guaranteed

To be honest, I haven’t the faintest clue. The recent weather, full of rain and lacking light, seems to have the entire city in a slump. If you’re a visitor, you just buck up, put on a happy face and hit out to see the sights; museums, restaurants, cafés are all waterproof. Not as easy for denizens, whose sights tend to be the local Carrefour, or the inside of the same office you see all day, every day. But I do try…

I remind myself that the sky is blue in Syria. Suddenly, dull, grey Paris is sounding fantastic. When I asked a handful of locals how they cope. I expected a dozen different answers. I got one; they concentrate on their vacation plans. I can’t believe I had to ask.

You can even surf in the rain...

At this very minute the government is proposing more school holidays for students who already enjoy almost two weeks of vacation every six weeks. How is that for an economic austerity plan? More holidays for everyone! This news would be absolutely tragic for working families, but most employees get a minimum of 6 weeks paid holidays with a 35 hour work week so nobody is complaining. Except the financial markets, and maybe Germany.

Vacations are so important in France that large companies offer their employees Chéques Vacances. Chéque Vacances are gift certificates that can be used to pay for hotels, vacation rentals, surf clubs, golf resorts, theme parks and even highway tolls, a really generous way for companies to subsidize their employee’s vacations.

Summer vacation is taken so seriously in France, that along with the Fall campaign to help Children’s hospitals, it is one of the top charitable organizations in a country that doesn’t really do much fundraising. There are “Send a kid to camp” drives, “take a kid on vacation with you” opportunities and Ferrero chocolate sponsors “Kinder Village” summer camp. Even the City of Paris subsidizes some kids’ summer plans, because in France vacations are not a luxury.

Getting us through the grey....

And where are the French going this summer? Many stay in France, visiting family, heading to their vacation homes or going to exactly the same spot they stayed at last summer, and the summer before that and all the summers in the last 20 years. Unfortunately for us, the weather reports don’t look good, and we may all end up chasing the grey, instead of chasing the grey away.



Wine, not…

San Francisco is great wine country, but in our little world, wine was a weekend treat to be enjoyed with friends over a good barbeque, or with a picnic at the beach. It was not a beverage, but a special moment.

Then we moved to Paris.

The first month we had an expense account and no kitchen. I got to eat out every day, twice a day. At lunch time I’d notice my neighbors whetting their palate with rich, enticing reds to accompany their confit de canard. It was one of the coldest winters in history and everyone was eating gras. After three days of this, I decided to do something wild and order a glass of wine with my lunch. I was drinking alone, mid-day and it was lovely.

After lunch I’d explore the neighborhood, learning where to shop and finding the men and women who would be making my life livable; a tailor, a cobbler, and a glazier to replace the 150 year old glass window my daughters broke, were priorities. So was a cavist who didn’t try to take advantage of my accent and sell me astronomically expensive grand crus for my coq au vin recipe. Which is how I met Didier, at Ryst Dupeyron, an armagnac specialist operating from a shop that has been in business for over a century. Or, about the year my daughters’ window was first installed.

Didier turned me on to Armagnac, offered Porto tastings and hooked me up with Lillet. He’d introduce me to a new apéritif every week and every week I’d buy a bottle to bring home and try with the girls’ dad. We were developing something of a cellar.

At dinner, we couldn’t resist a glass, or perhaps even 1/2 a carafe with our meals. Did I tell you it was cold out? It was cold out and we were having the time of our lives tasting all these complex, mind pleasing subtle French wines to pair with all of the new French recipes I was testing out and the fabulous cheeses we were savouring. It was wonderful. And we weren’t even gaining weight!

One morning I awoke with a head ache. Like a normal person, I went to take a pain killer from the medicine cabinet. In a moment of bizarre inspiration, I decided to test my reading skills and read the warning label on my Tylenol (Doliprane). It read,

“If you consume three, or more glasses of alcohol each day, consult a physician before taking this medication.”

I scoffed. Then I hesitated and counted. One glass at lunch, an apéro, one, maybe two glasses with dinner. 1+1+2=4. Holy moly, TinTin, I was an alcoholic!!!

I was shocked, and a bit disappointed to realize that I had been destroying my liver without really having had the fun of being drunk. I have since matured and (try to) limit myself to a glass at dinner only a couple nights a week, with a touch of folie on the weekends. Not an easy task, but a working girl must work.

MY SUPPLIER/ Ryst Dupeyron

You know you’re in France when…

This morning I headed out for the weekly shopping, but this time its was a little different because I was shopping for one teen. Mr French’s son is graduating from Columbia Law School, which is pretty amazing for anyone, but even more amazing for a French kid, so he and I are headed to NYC for a week of celebration.

The Bug will be staying with friends, but E is an adult now and I wanted her to taste a bit of what that means, so she’ll be flat sitting for us. My first stop this morning was the butcher. It is one of the first hot days of spring, so I ordered carpaccio for dinner. I love that the local butchers sell pre-sliced, already plated carpaccio. I then asked for a steak or two that would be appropriate for freezing. What froze was my butcher’s expression. I had made a major faux pas. A false step.

“I know,” I back pedaled, “its almost criminal to freeze…” I stalled with a delicate uhm…  as I read the information card on his showcase, telling me the name of the cow that had been slaughtered to become my steak, “Blanche.”

Oui. It is obvious, you only have to come by more often. You live around the corner. It is not complicted.”

“Yes, I know, but I am leaving for a week and my teen will be home alone and she will be preparing for her BAC.”

Monsieur the Butcher unthawed immediately. The BAC is the French baccalauréat. It is a series of major exams taken at the end of one’s high school career and the results can be the determining factor for one’s entire future. No pressure there, as your average 17 year old is desperately trying to tame those hormones raging through their body.

Effectivement, she’ll be needing to eat plenty of meat. Absolutely. I’ll tell you what. Tell her to pass by here after school each day and I’ll prepare something special. Something easy. She won’t have to worry about a thing. Just give me your name and I’ll keep a tab for you.”

You know you are in France when; there is an information card with a photo and the name of the cow you are about to purchase in the form of a steak, you have a butcher, your butcher is so against the idea of you freezing his meat that he is willing to set up a running tab for a client who has been in his shop exactly four times in the last six months. Yes, we are definitely in France.

And it is time I started thinking more like a French mom; I rounded up my caddie, swallowed my guilt and headed home to tell E that she would have to do her own grocery shopping for the week. Mom was clicking her red ruby slippers and heading “home” for the non-holidays.

 My Butcher


A Parisienne packs

Ok, adopted Parisienne. I have had lessons from some pros, but like a teasy flirt in middle school, I don’t go all the way. The first thing to understand is that les Parisiennes do not see the value of packing light. The concept is as foreign as dipping your not-so-french fries in a McDonald’s shake. It goes beyond their imagination; you will not find articles in Madame Figaro teaching packers to roll their clothes and there is no televised travel guide guru preaching the values of carry-on only.

shoe bags, lingerie bags, packing cubes and laundry bag, all ready to go!

Packing properly takes considerable advance preparation. When she shops, la Parisienne carefully watches the sales person ensuring her purchase is wrapped in tissue paper. She may even ask for a bit more. Once home she may go so far as to iron that tissue paper. Sounds excessive, but we are talking about a species that irons dishtowels! The tissues are then neatly folded and stored in a miniscule Parisian sized, lilliputian closet, next to all the cloth bags that come with new shoes she has been collecting.

A week before departure, it is time to get everything out of the closet. Taking the time to wash what needs to be washed and do some more ironing. Its is a national obsession. Shoes are shined and water proofed. Lingerie and stockings are matched to the garments and a few scarves are selected.

It is now the night before departure. Those precious tissues finally come out of storage and are used to fold the clothing so that la Parisienne‘s wardrobe does not come out of the suitcase looking like a sharpei puppy. When I say ironing is an obsession, I am not exaggerating. I would not be surprised to learn that Paris was denied the 2012 Olympics because they were simultaneously trying to have ironing recognized as an international sport.

It is now time for things to go into their bags. Not their suitcases, but their bags. Shoes return to the cloth bags that accompanied them on their maiden voyage from Italy on to the shoe store shelves. The carefully folded shirts, pants, skirts, dresses, lingerie (yes, it has been ironed), stockings and fragrances go in to their individual packing cubes and things are kept as light and airy as possible to avoid the dreaded wrinkle.

Its a lot of work, but upon arrival, la Parisienne looks absolutely fabulous wearing the same jeans, t-shirts and sneakers that I have on, but looking so much chicer than the rest of us practical, but creased globe trotters.

I particularly love my gorgeous packing cubes from Sequoia

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