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

NON… arrête!

There is a new book out about parenting your child like a Parisienne. I have not read the book, but the reviews talk a lot about how parents here use a stern voice to get their message across and inspire obedience. This is only half true. That stern voice comes with the evil eye, and is backed by a swift smack upside the head. Which is something I’d like to do to a whole whack of people these days who are refusing to use their common sense or basic courtesy.

photo courtesy of Metromole

Recently, lovers have been inspired by somebody from somewhere who had this very romantic, incredibly unique idea of taking a padlock, decorating it with his and his lover’s names and then locking the symbol of their love to a fence, throwing away the key, to rust away for posterity at the bottom of a river bed.

10’s of 1000’s of visitors have caught on to the idea of fixing “love” locks on to the bridges and monuments of Paris. Which is cute. But not really. There is a big debate about the practice these days. For starters, the locals find it ugly and are particularly dismayed by those who tie bits of trash to their locks to make them stand out. A torn bit of garbage to highlight one’s symbol of love? It boggles the mind and the people who live here don’t particularly appreciate you leaving a permanent trace on their city. I’ve heard it being compared to acting like male dogs marking their territory. Romantic, n’est-ce pas?

But now the issue goes beyond what people like or do not like. The locks are destroying the bridges. Even worse, some egotistical jerks have decided their love should stand out and they are attaching the locks to antique, ornate fences and even signed works of art on the Pont Alexandre III. What ignorant, self-absorbed jerks think that it is ok to tag public property that is so beautiful, even taggers do not consider the site to be fair game? There is, today, a gorgeously crafted, bronze crab on that very bridge, with tacky, rusting locks attached to its leg. Non merci!

There are a lot of locks on several bridges now and I have even heard they adorn the Eiffel Tower. People are putting locks on top of locks. Locks, of course, are made of metal and metal is a becoming a valuable commodity these days, so now, some savvy metal collectors are coming along, cutting out entire chucks of the fences to collect the “love” locks and melt them down to be sold as scrap. Which is Paris poetry at its best, a symbol of love ending up in the junk yard. Almost as good as a slap up side the head…. BAFFfff

Everyone; STOP putting locks on the bridges of Paris. As an alternative, I propose a pair of handcuffs… seriously. Never mind locking a symbol of your love in some far off city. What could be sexier than chaining your special someone directly to you? The French jeweler Dinh Van has the perfect pair that can be worn all day, everyday, with a model for men and women so you can even have a matching pair. The perfect symbol of your love and a memory of Paris that is sure to melt hearts without destroying our bridges, or risking the ire of a French Mom.

Dinh Van

The debate

It is still the Presidential elections in France and last night was the great debate, which I didn’t find so great, but I did find rather fun to watch. French political debates are very different from my memories of US Presidential debates. Instead of standing officially at lecterns, each candidate is comfortably seated, with their notes. They face each other, not the voters, which helps tensions rise and makes for some great tv moments. As does the fact that the candidates do not have a set time limit for each answer. From an anglo-saxon perspective, this is not a debate, but a moderated argument, that turns into an intellectual free for all.

If I had any doubts as to the tone of the debate, I had only to look at the stage set, which closely resembled an electrified, post-modern gladiator arena from the days when Astérix and Obelisk were tormenting their Roman landlords in a Paris that was known as Lutèce.

Two journalist join the candidates at a table that, in keeping with the ancient roman theme, resembles a gladiator’s shield when seen from above. Their official role is to ask the questions, balance each candidate’s speaking time and try to keep the debate moving forward. Their unofficial role is to prevent it from coming to blows.

In true forum style, candidates quickly go beyond the gallic shrug and show their latin roots as they pound fists on the table, point fingers and throw insults at one another. And what never ceases to amuse my anglo upbringing is that they interrupt each other. Loudly and for an extended period of time, so that voters, hoping to be more informed, and perhaps make a decision based on some facts, never actually hear any facts.

Following another anglo tradition, my New Zealander friend Koko has an important note for the socialist party’s candidate; your party’s colors are red, not blue, red. Change the glasses, get a new tie and for heaven’s sake man, show some pride in your team! Nobody, but nobody in the French press has mentioned this little faux pas, so my best guess is that in France, this is not a faux pas. Red is simply not ‘in’ this year and no matter what your political allegiance may be, this is Paris… fashion first!

After talking to Koko, I made a point of noticing that the two journalists on the set. They were both clad in a judicial, neutral black. Très chic


May Day

Confession. I collect dolls. I have collected dolls since I was a very young girl, then I started collecting masks, and then I opened a portrait studio. I seem to be obsessed with faces. One of my favorite dolls when I was very young was from the Kiddie Kologne collection by Matel. Sour apple, Honeysuckle, I had them all, but the one I loved was Lily-of-the-Valley, for her charming blossoms and delicate scent. I still love Lily-of-the-Valley, but today I have to settle for the flowers.

May 1st, 1561, King Charles IX received a Lily-of-the-Valley for good luck. He liked the idea and offered the same flower to all the ladies in his court. It was a very good idea and 500 years latet the tradition seems to have stuck. Probably because the lady receiving the flower is obliged to give a kiss in return, which seems to inspire quite a bit of generousity. Every year, on May Day, the streets of every town are littered with people selling bouquets of muguets, while the forests are full of people harvesting muguet on the one day it is legal to do so and even the chocolatiers get into the act, filling plastic pots with chocolate soil and adding a plastic sprig of the bloom.

When we were first dating Mr French noticed that I like white flowers in general, and I may have mentioned the Lily-of-the-Valley specifically. The weekend before ‘our’ first May Day he showed up for a date with a huge bouquet of Lily-of-the-Valley. No fillers, just lilies. There were probably 200 sprigs in the bunch. It was gorgeous. It swept me off my feet and made me feel like one of Charles IX ladies at a royal court.

Mayday, mayday

Tomorrow is May Day and it is going to be a big political day here in Paris, with the party-who-shall-not-be-named throwing their annual fiesta at the foot of the Jeanne d’Arc statue on the rue de Rivoli. Poor Joan. Really, it was not enough that the English burned her at the stake, she had to be adopted as a symbol by the nationalist party? Did anyone ask her thoughts on the subject? I’ll be avoiding that area, as I do every year.

Not to be out done, the Presidential candidates have decided to throw some parties of their own, with Hollande (the candidate, not the country) calling for members of his party to join the unions as they walk from Denfert Rochereau to storm the Bastille. Although I presume his campaign manger will be staying home nursing a hangover, after the party he attended this weekend with Daniel Strauss-Kahn. Seriously? The week before the elections and Hollande’s men are already flirting with the world’s sleaziest flirt? Sarkozy, who seems to be arriving a bit late to the whole game, intends to take over the Trocadero, or perhaps the Champs de Mars; he wasn’t sure the last I checked Le Monde. ALthough, facing France’s military academy, L’Ecole Militaire shows there is a lot of conflict in the air.

Personally, I’d rather be visits museum, but they close for May Day. I’d rather go shopping, but the stores close, too. If the weather was nice, I’d go for a hike, but its not looking like the weather is going to be nice. Au secours…. damsel in distress!!!

La honte*

a visual moment of silence

This week, I am ashamed to be French. This week, Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the Front National, a racist, anti-immigration, anti-Europe, far right political party received 18% of the popular vote in the presidential elections. This distressing news has captured the national headlines, with people decrying the fact that 1 in 5 French have racist tendencies. I estimate that it is probably worse than that, once you’ve removed the Jews, Muslims and immigrants from the calculations. You would remove these groups because that is what Le Pen would like to do, remove us from France, so it is very unlikely many of us actually voted for her. The party-who-must-not-be-named (I am avoiding using their name or initials for Google reasons) is the 3rd most important political party in France. Things were only slightly worse in 2002, when the party-who-must-not-be-named candidate was actually in the second round of voting, and was dangerously close to actually being elected the president of France.

For an interesting slice of life, we heard the result during dinner with E and two of her close friends. One whose father survived the Rwandan genocide, another whose mother educated herself out of the Marrakesh Medina. Both of these heros immigrated to France, both became doctors and both now have international careers, making this world a healthier place for the whole world.

I have to be honest, as a Jew, an immigrant and an incurable globe-trotter, I have never really followed this party’s program in great detail. It was enough for me to know that they would not be getting my vote. I could not quote any of their proposals or cite any of the changes they’d make. But not long ago, someone I know well mentioned that she and many of her friends were considering voting for Le Pen. At first, I was in shock. It is tragic, but I eventually understood why she’d been led astray. She is French, middle class and relatively young. None of the candidates are speaking to her, yet she represents a large percentage of the population. Then you read the party-who-must-not-be-named’s proposals and they talk about cutting budget costs and protecting France and it sounds reasonable. In fact, it sometimes sounds like they are the only party offering a solution. Tragically, it is the wrong solution, but it is easy to see how people get taken in. In order to convince her otherwise, I went into research mode.

I learned from their site that the party-who-must-not-be-named wants France out of the Euro zone, to re-enforce its borders, and install a zero-tolerance policy towards crime. One of its key proposals would reduce the titres de séjours for visitors wishing to stay more than 3 months from 200,000 per year to 20,000. That means less foreign students, less foreign workers and less ex-pats. In a time of globalization, this all sounds like a pretty bad idea and it hides some of the more sinister aspects of their plan, like turning out all illegal immigrants and denying them medical care. I then went to SOS Racisme to see what the other side, my side, had to say. The party-who-must-not-be-named was founded by the current candidates father, a man who has been to court and condemned countless times for his racism. A man who is President of the party. Which does not seem to bother nearly 1/5th of my countrymen, but it certainly bothers me.


SOS Racisme


Rooms with a view

This is the view that greets me as I open my eyes each morning. My very own guardian angel. She is here because I live in an 18th century convent. A modern Jewish girl living out of wedlock in an 18th century convent. Irony…

The Bug no longer notices our angels, but our view has captured her attention recently. Wednesday, April 4, she was at home studying for her mid-term exams when she heard a rather loud clanging bell. Peeking her head into my studio she asked what was going on. I followed the sound back to her window and looking out, I saw that it was the rémouleur. I had forgotten that this neighborhood had its very own knife sharpener. He passes by the first Wednesday of every month, ringing a large brass bell in his left hand to tell us that it is time to affûte our blades.

photo courtesy of the Rémouleur blog

The profession has existed since the middle ages and they still have a guild mentality, with a French blog of their very own, featuring images of rémouleurs, past and present, from across the globe. The French singer, André Claveau even wrote a whimsical song about these men and their work in 1952.

I thought this was incredibly charming when I first moved to France. Admittedly, it took me several first Wednesdays of the month and a keen sense of voyeurism before I understood what all the commotion was about. But once I go it, I was IN, running downstairs with a handful of kitchen knives at the first clang that signaled his arrival. We agreed upon a price, then he set down his cart, and started pedaling, putting the whetstone into motion. 15 minutes and 20 euros later he had basically destroyed my entire collection of high-tech cooking knives. It took several years with a proper rémouleur at the Sunday Richard Lenoir market to set things straight. Despite my disappointment, it still thrills me that this man passes by my street each month, as another man once did when my home was first built, and as men have done for the past 300 years.

Marché Richard Lenoir


Ah Vo Tay

That is your French pronunciation lesson for today.  Ah Vo Tay is how to say a voté, I wanted you to hear this French expression from chez vous, because we voted in France today. And responsible citizens from across the country will hear this cry as they place their ballot in the voting urn and someone declares rather loudly, a voté”! It put shivers down my spine the first time I heard this when I was finally able to vote and it still thrills me to bits. Today was a particularly special day because I got to hear the official call twice; once for myself, and once as my 18 year daughter voted for the first time in her life.

In San Francisco, we’d vote from a neighbor’s garage, but every polling station I have been to in France has been inside of a public school. Despite the early Sunday morning desolation of Paris during the school holidays, there were lines at all three polling stations I visited (Mr French, my daughter and I were each assigned a different address) today. Upon arrival at the station, you present your Carte Electorale and an official ID. You are then handed an envelope (today’s was powdered blue)  and invited to collect the voting sheets. A voting sheet is an index card-sized document that bears one candidate’s name printed in large, bold letters. This year there were 10 candidates, but I only took 9 sheets, because I refuse to even touch Marine LePen’s ballot.

You are then invited into the isoloir. The isolation room. Sounds scary, but its just a simple voting booth with a wildly evocative name. Inside the isoloir, you pick your candidate’s ballot and slip it into your envelope. Outside the booth stands a large paper recycling bag for the rejects ballot, but I keep my voting chits because It feels more private. You then get back in line at the urn. When your turn arrives, they once again review your ID and confirm that you are on the list. The urn master then makes his declaration. Today he had a slight problem with my name and I stood there mutely as he announced;

Sylvia Jean Jeanne Jane Sabes a voté!

Save the Parisiennes

Metro Poster

I am in a fantastic gym class doing the ab exercises, in a packed room full of grunting women and our coach, Eugene, when an English speaking mom starts talking to me. We know each other from the girls’ school and she is a very nice lady, but talking in gym class is not the done thing and I think she has a hearing problem, because she SPEAKS VERY LOUDLY. Eugene is my favorite teacher at Fitness First (now Health City), he takes our workouts very seriously and can be fairly strict; ridiculing students seems to be his second favorite sport, which is why I am not really listening to The Mom as she babbles on. Suddenly, the music cuts out and the room is filled with her voice screeching, “…so I told my husband, that’s why Parisiennes are all a bunch of bitches, they’re starving. These women need to eat someth…” The music mercifully returned. After class I bolted out the door, not stopping to see if she made it out before being eaten alive.

Kermit the FrogBut my gym mate does have a point. In the French guidebook, “Comment devenir une vraie Parisienne”* they note that the highest suicide rate in France is among single women in Paris and even the most oblivious tourist will note that very few women in the metro seem to be smiling. Kermit sang that its not easy being green. Its not easy being a frog(ette), either.

Like the woman at the gym, when searching for answers, I’d blame it on hunger, or the painful shoes, or the fact that working women in France still do 80% of the domestic chores and are grossly underpaid compared to their male counterparts. But I like My Parisiennes and I had to believe that there is more to it than just the framework of their lives. If their heels make them that miserable, they’re smart enough to change shoes and surely they must be getting some pleasure out of feeding the family, or they’d just stop. Like I did last month.

While on dinner strike I had time to visit the doctor. My GP is a nice man and incredibly intelligent, but I only use him for the most basic of needs because I consider him to be something of a nut ball, in the absent minded professor kind of way. I was not at all surprised during my last visit when he went off on a 20 minute diatribe about vitamin D deficiency, only half listening as he claimed that the percentage of Parisiennes with a vitamin D deficiency was greater than among women in the refugee camps of Sudan. I don’t want to sound like an idiot by stating the obvious, but Sudanese are dark skinned, which is a natural inhibitor of vitamin D AND they are malnourished, yet doing better than the locals for this one nutrient.

Two days later my blood test results came back. The nut ball wasn’t so nutty after all and I, a native sun drenched Californian, had virtually no vitamin D left in my system. The Sudanese women had me beat by a long shot. The cure is easy, Cod Liver Oil. Cold liver oil is nasty stuff that comes up on you throughout the morning, even if taken in a self contained gel cap. Which explains the mystery of the unhappy Parisiennes. Vitamin D deficiency causes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and with 88% of us affected, the next time you see a grumpy looking woman confronting the aisles at Monoprix, it is very likely that she is either depressed or has just downed her daily dose of Cod Liver Oil. All that’s missing is a kiss from Kermit!

*How to become a true Parisienne

Health City

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