jeudi 20 décembre 2012

Les Etrennes

My concierge has been making herself more and more visible lately which can only mean one thing. Actually, two things: the building's lobby is perpetually being cleaned, and it is the moment for the annual étrennes. Les étrennes, or strenae as the Romans liked to call them, is cash given at the end of the year to service personnel. My evenings are currently interrupted by knocks on the door by the Firemen (who, in exchange for their cash, gave me a sexy Firemen 2013 calendar), garbage collectors (no token offering given, thankfully), the Postman (old La Poste calendars are seen by some as collector's items) and sewer-cleaners (just take my money and go away...please).

The envelope given to the concierge (now called la gardienne, a more politically-correct title) is a sizeable one. Although fewer and fewer Parisian apartment buildings maintain a fulltime gardienne, (the cost of her salary and housing is borne by the building's inhabitants and it is now cheaper to outsource her duties), those of us who have an onsite gatekeeper know that it is in our interest to stay on her good side. Flowers, wine, chocolates-- while nice gestures (and never refused throughout the year)--these won't do it. You have to give her cash and a fat wad of it. If you neglect to slip her these alms, you can be sure that your mail will go astray, your guests will be directed to the wrong floor when they come to visit, your garbage will not be taken out with the rest of the building's and your Fedex deliveries refused. Les gardiennes are frequently uneducated and often barely literate, but they are powerful players in the neighborhood. They know everything--"être concierge" means to be a gossip--and will make your life miserable if you don't pay them handsomely.

Traditionally Portuguese, with the job handed down through family or word-of-mouth, my gardienne is French, which makes her a rarity. Still, she personifies the concierge mentality, with her loge, or dwelling, filled with kitchy bibelots and beaded curtains. She spends much of her time talking with the older people in the complex, complaining about various building-related incidents (the latest being fingerprints on the brass banisters). She seems to have her eyes everywhere and holds on to potent information like an embittered wife.

Still, with the absolution offered by the annual giving of the étrennes, the odometer gets set back to zero. That noisy party I held over the summer? That cardboard box I neglected to flatten before putting it in the garbage can? The joyful sounds my children make as they enter the lobby? A thick envelope of crisp new bills and all will be forgiven. For this year, at least.

Culture-specific dreams

My youngest likes to tell us her dreams at the breakfast table. They are complicated, as dreams tend to be, especially when recounted by a child. They often feature castles. Today she spoke of a menacing lavoir, a communal washing hut which was central social point of France's villages centuries ago. There was one in the town where her grandparents' country house was, and the girls loved to catch tadpoles in the stagnant water there. It still shows up in her dreams from time to time.

I also dreamt of castles as a child. But mine were castles out of fairy tales, unseen in waking life. My children grew up in the shadow of Versailles. They walk through the Louvre, touch the archways of the Palais du Luxembourg as they rollerblade through its arcades. For them, there is nothing unremoved about the markers of nobility. They live in its vestiges and its archetypes appear, unremarkable, in their dreams.

lundi 26 novembre 2012

Note to self: Don't buy fromage blanc for the next couple of days

Oh, Monoprix.  You never fail to disappoint.
See that four-pack of fromage blanc?  Some Monoprix shopper decided at the last minute that they didn't want it.  So they took it out of their basket and placed it behind the cash register.  Where it will sit for hours, days possibly, before someone returns it, spoiled, to the cold case.

jeudi 22 novembre 2012

Give us this day our daily, artisanale bread

Bread lovers are well-served in France.  Bakeries here are as ubiquitous as Starbucks are in the USA, and even if you were to find yourself in a lieu-dit--a town of fewer than 30 inhabitants--rest assured you'd still have access to the sacred baguette via the mobile baker who comes into the village a couple of times a day, announcing his arrival with several swift beeps to the horn on his truck.
It is possible, however, to find bad bread.  Not only possible, but probable, as more and more bakeries turn to industrial sourcing of dough which arrives frozen and ready to pop in the oven.  It's a cost thing.  As rent, salaries and employee taxes rise, the older, artisanale bakeries shut down, to be replaced by these mediocre vendors.  This morning I read with great sadness of the demise of  Paris oldest bakery, forced to close its doors due to a huge rent increase.
Here's a company which provides frozen baguettes, pain au chocolat and other baked goods to retail bakeries; they've got some "helpful hints" on how to make the goods look authentic:  "Sprinkle flour over the finished baguette." That reminds me of a novel I read where the working mother, learning she must supply a cake for her children's next-morning school bake sale, took a hammer to the package of Mr. Bakewells and found herself frantically tapping the prepackaged tarts at midnight, in an attempt to make them look broken and homemade.
For those who wish to avoid the mass-produced bread and cakes, it's pretty simple.  Don't buy your bread in a Monoprix.  (Obviously.)  Look for the words "Boulangerie Artisanale" on the bakery sign.  A mere "Boulangerie" or (shudder) "Dépôt de Pain" means the bread is not baked on site but trucked in either frozen (for the former) or pre-baked (for the latter).  Oh, and never buy bread in a gas station.  That's a thousand ways of disgusting. 
Not sure what you are getting is authentic?  A baguette made from frozen dough is really straight and frequently the underside will be cracked.  Speaking of undersides, an authentic artisanale baguette should still show the little dotted indentations from sitting on the linen fabric during its rising time; a frozen one won't bear those telltale marks.
If you are walking around and you see this going on, you'll know that boulangerie is making their own stuff:


See that white sleeve going from truck to the wall of the bakery?  That's bringing in the flour to the basement of the shop...where all the magic is made.  Nothing frozen going on in there!

Lastly, a real baguette will be a bit irregular.  French law says it should weigh 250 grams exactly, but an artisanale one will vary--especially one make with a dense flour such as chestnut flour.  And it will measure anywhere from 55 to 65 centimeters in length, whereas the imposter will always be 50 centimeters long precisely.  Which brings to mind a hilarious ad campaign that we were treated to several years ago; something that would certainly be censored in the USA :

I see they've sprinkled flour over that fake baguette.  Must have read the website.

Here's a new drinking game

La Belle Hortense in the Marais

The only thing I like better than a wine bar/bookshop is a wine bar/bookshop/hopscotch area.

vendredi 26 octobre 2012

Translation Thoughts

The first time I became aware of the difficulty and importance of translation (the art of, the nature of) was in 1985, when viewing the French film Péril en la Demeure (starring a very young Nicole Garcia and an even-younger Christophe Malavoy).  There's a bedroom scene, of course, (it's a French film) and the Garcia character questions the Malavoy character about his peculiar pillowcases which feature a graphic of the letter O with a line across it.  Something like this:
 C'est un "o" rayé, he tells her.  This gets a laugh; O rayé means O with a diagonal line strike, this in turn plays on the homophone oreiller, which means pillow.
I missed the rest of the film, too distracted by the idea of how one would move that wonderfully rich language-based joke into English should the film ever be exported to an anglophone market.  I actually thought about this for quite some time, years possibly, and concluded that there was no true equivalent.  Indeed, when the film eventually was subtitled in English, the subtitler deleted the moment completely.
The task of the translator (or subtitler) is immense.  He or she is not only shifting words from one language to another, but (and this is more important), a huge basketful of message which rely on those words is being carried over from the source culture to the target culture .  In that basket the translator needs to place intent, emotion, rhythm, rhymes (if he or she is good enough), connotations, jokes, puns (these are really challenging) as well as being mindful of a billion little details such as temporal context (I shudder at the thought of translating Shakespeare, for example, or L'il Wayne, to cite an extreme).
There came a time where I thought literary translations should be outlawed.  I saw it as an impossible and futile endeavor.  The Italians had a word for translators: traduttore traditore, or traitors, and I shared this sentiment as I couldn't see a way to be faithful and respectful to an original, to do the poem, the story, the instruction manual or the newspaper article justice.  It was better just to have original texts and let the onus be on the reader to learn the language if he wanted to access it.  (I'm a demanding person, I know.)  I agreed with Borges when he said a good poem is always untranslatable.
I thought about this recently when I went to see the movie Moneyball in Paris, and watched much of the audience (French) look bewildered as the story unfolded.  How can you deeply enjoy a film about baseball when you have no cultural reference?  How would you understand the notion of homeplate, designated hitter, farm teams and free agents?   There is no equivalent sport in French so the language and visual references do not exist.  No wonder the audience seemed perplexed.  It would be like me watching a movie about cricket in Xhosa.
Lydia Davis, a translator I'm ashamed to say I've never heard of, has come out with a new translation of Madame Bovary.  I'm anxious to see what she's done with Flaubert's novel, as I've read some good translations and some mediocre translations of it.  I remember one Really Outstandingly Bad translation, in which the translator (I forget who it was now) takes the famous green silk cigar case which becomes a metaphor for all the romance and luxury that Emma Bovary has been deprived of in her life, (or so she perceives) and makes it a green silk coinpurse.  A green silk coinpurse!  It cannot possibly be a coinpurse for the metaphor to work!  It needs to be a cigar case, because Emma returns time and time again to  smell the scent of its lining- a blend of tobacco and verbena.  (The translation is mine.) Talk about traduttore traditore!

Thanks, Mary Cassatt and Kurt Giambastiani

While I no longer think translations should be illegal (I'd miss being able to criticize the bad ones), I do think translations should be invisible.  In other words, we should read a translated work as we read in our mother tongue; receiving in our mind the message hidden behind (or outside of) the words.  (The hors-texte if we want to be all Derridian about this.)  This is the real obstacle when setting down to move languages from one to another.  It's a labor of love, certainly, with a massive dose of patience and a good dictionary or two.

dimanche 14 octobre 2012


The last two books I've read were memoirs written by women: Title Deeds, by Liza Campbell and Trail of Crumbs, by Kim Sunee.  I picked up the latter as I'm always game for stories written by American expats; the former to remind me that I am not alone in having grown up in a slightly psychotic household.

Both works are categorized as memoirs, but Title Deeds could be shelved under "European History" while Trial of Crumbs should be placed in the "Self-Centered Literature by Spoiled Clueless Women" section of your library. Title Deeds tells the story of Campbell's family growing up in Macbeth's castle in Scotland. Her dad is crazy; there's violence, incest and other horrible and mean acts which show up in these pages, but the story doesn't center around his wacko nature exclusively. You actually don't get to the "hook"--the fact he disinherited all his kids and left his huge estate to their evil stepmother--until the very end of the book. In other words, Title Deeds is not an instrument of vengence. Campbell writes to sort out and make sense of her mentally ill father, and in the telling she provides the reader with a thorough history lesson. It's clear that her prose was not being used to skewer her dead father or sully his name.

On the other hand, Kim Sunee's memoir is 370 pages devoted to denigrating the French (an easy target) while at the same time living in the upper echelon of their society.  She never lets you forget that she is young (23 or so when the story begins) and far more nubile than the French women around her. There is not one description of any French woman she meets which does not include "bitter," "face etched by anger," "dangling heavy breasts" (at a nude camping site), or "old, wrinkled, veiny hands." Sunee's currency is her youth and exotic beauty (she's a Korean-American) and she sleeps her way across her ten years as an expatriate, the majority of those years spent as Olivier Baussan's--the founder of that lovely soap store L'Occitane, as well as the olive oil company Olivier & Co--much-younger mistress.

This is the tricky part about writing a memoir. You can't write about your life without writing about others' lives. In Campbell's case, the other was dead, so he couldn't have his say had she written anything extemely defamatory (which she doesn't, plus her "other" was insane so he gets a pass on his behavior). Sunee's tale treats the living and the sane, however, and she does not seem to be mindful of the "others". Adding to the complexity is the issue of being a famous figure's lover and the damage she could do to him and his company's image in this quite public forum. (Indeed, I now hesitate to purchase anything at L'Occitane after learning about Baussan's private life and lovemaking techniques.) And this is where Trail of Crumbs comes off more as an act of spite rather than a search for self. It is clear that the writer hated the French and in particular French men, all of whom are described as scheming philanderers (yet she never said no to the apartments or bookstore Baussan bought for her, or the high-end vacations and the designer clothing). It's a shame that the book turned out to be a platform for her to tell the world what she thought of Baussan, because she really could have done something terrific with her source material...something Peter Mayle-esque, for example. There are some false starts, where she begins to describe the beauty of their domaine in the Luberon, but it quickly reverts to her sitting by the pool in her Missoni bathing suit and feeling lonely despite the charmed life she's earned by virtue of her good looks and bedroom skills.

All memoirs are going to implicate others--you can neither live nor write in a vacuum. If I were to write a memoir (which I wouldn't, unless you count my blog), I'd hope to leave something as tasteful as possible. Campbell does this very well and the reader closes the book with respect and admiration for her circumstances. Sunee, though, comes off as a petulant child, forever sending back the dessert she is served, hoping for a better piece of the pie.

vendredi 21 septembre 2012


France is not a car culture, at least not in the American sense.  Oh, it has a strong automotive industry, with the productive (and some years, even profitable) presence of Peugeot, Citroen and Renault, but the arteries of the country are made of steel--thanks to the fantastic SNCF railway system ---and not asphalt.  80% of Parisians don't even have a car, a figure I find astounding until I remind myself of how effectively the Paris métro is at moving people around.
 One has to wonder how Parisian teens find a workaround to the absence of the car.  I'm not talking about transportation---these city kids typically become metro-savvy in their early teens (or when mom gets tired of accompanying them everywhere), riding the subway with ease and skill.   I'm refering to the universal adolescent need for a private space in which to experience that first kiss.  (Or other.)  With no backseat, where do they go?

Enter Wednesday afternoon.

French kids go to school on Saturday mornings.  In exchange, they have Wednesday afternoons free.  This rhythm dates back to the 19th century, when, under the Third Republic, the loi du 28 mars 1882 was put into place, allowing for one day off from academics so that catecism could be taught outside the school.  The "outside the school" part is essential, as it was during this same time that France declared a separation of church and state, driving religious instruction from the public domain to the private, where it sits--in theory, anyway--today.  Why "in theory"?  I still see some holdovers from catholicism present in the public schools in the form of Friday's school lunches which always feature fish.  But the basic tenet of laicité, or secularism, is strongly enforced in France's public schools.  You will never hear "One Nation, under God," or anything of that nature in a French public school classroom.

So Wednesday afternoons get taken up by extra-curriculars.  For young schoolchildren, this time is often devoted to a sport, lunch with the grandparents, or an art class.  There is catechism, of course, for those of that faith.   For the high-schoolers, though, Wednesday is often the day they look forward to the most, especially if said high-schooler has working parents.  They know that for that afternoon only, the apartment is theirs to do with as they wish.  Heaven help the parent of a teenager who comes home unexpectedly on a Wednesday afternoon.

You can observe the importance of "Free Wednesday" in many sweet ways here.  For little children, this is  the traditional day for les goûters d'anniversaires (birthday parties) to be held, which gives them the curious nature of never having any dads present (as they are working).  Cakes and treats will be more plentiful in bakeries (since the children eat lunch at home on that day, rather than in the school cantine); pediatricians and other children's health professionals hold more office hours on Wednesdays to accommodate their patients.  The American Embassy in Paris limits passport appointments on Wednesdays uniquely to those parents coming in with minors.

Wednesday is for birthday parties!

It's lovely, when you think about it, how an entire society shapes itself around this very old law.   Oh, every time there's a new government the notion of "school rhythm" gets examined, and some tweaks are made here and there (Saturday classes were eliminated in the elementary schools a couple of years ago) but I hope the  principal of "Wednesday afternoon off" remains untouched.  As I'm sure my teenage daughters do, as well.

dimanche 2 septembre 2012

Terminal M: A Postmodern masterpiece.

Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport was still in its youth when I first arrived in the City of Light.  Having opened to the public 15 years earlier, its eye-catching central cylindrical core, criss-crossed by clear diagonal tubes through which passengers moved not unlike gerbils in their habitats, struck me as futuristic and totally appropriate for this city, which I had imagined sleek and much more modern than my parochial hometown.  I was awestruck.  Not only was I in Paris, but I was in Spaceage Paris!

Sadly, the main building did not age well through subsequent decades and  most travelers transiting through one of CDG's satellite gates would wonder how a city as refined and sophisticated as Paris could put up with an airport that had become such an eyesore.  Arriving passengers would be greeted with long walks down dimly-lit arched hallways whose ceiling tiles had fallen or were in the process of same, floors whose carpet squares were water-stained and mismatched, and a sad assortment of shops, each manned by weary and disinterested salespeople who looked like all they wanted was to be put out of their misery.  By the year 2000, Charles de Gaulle airport probably was thinking the same thing.

But Aéroports de Paris, the company that manages CDG (among other airports) decided to change all that several years ago.  The lightfilled Terminal 2 opened in 2004 (unfortunately with a mishap occurring on May 23rd of that year, when a large part of the 2E ceiling caved in and killed some travelers) and, as of last July, the sumptuous terminal 2M was unveiled.  This shiny new terminal is a real showcase, and is, in my opinion, one of the most attractive examples of airportolgy I've ever walked through.  Talk about spaceage!  From the postmodern furnishings in the public space to the infinity sinks in the restrooms, everything about 2M says "We Are French and We've Got Class."  

Squiggly chairs in the main hall. 

 Jetson's seating

 Prior to Terminal M opening, a hungry passenger's choices were limited to the pathetic cold offerings of chains such as "Paul".  Now you can sample caviar or oysters, though the latter is probably not a good idea before a long and potentially turbulant transatlantic flight

Fushia and orange makes a statement in the women's restroom

Infinity sinks with motion sensor faucets. 

After clearing security, there's a bench area for slipping back on one's shoes.  The touch of French class?  Each seat has an attached shoe horn.

I didn't get pictures of the shopping opportunities, but trust me, all the big French names are there:  Lancel, Longchamps, Hermès, La Maison du Chocolat, Ladurée and more.  All gorgeously displayed and staffed by salespeople that don't look miserable.

Bravo Paris, for entering a solid contender in the "Word's Most Beautiful Airport" contest.  Now, if you could just get Orly to look a little less like a third-world shack, we'd really have some bragging rights.

vendredi 6 juillet 2012

I'm writing it! No, wait. I write!

Our academic semester ended a month ago so I was surprised to have a student drop by my office this morning.  I asked her if she had been traveling after her coursework had finished.    “Non, je suis en train d’aimer mon copain,” she answered.  I’m loving my boyfriend.

It was clearly a grammatical error, but an adorable one.  Her use of the present progressive conjured up images of how one might dynamically and actively love one’s partner; I pictured her running home and shampooing his hair, for example.  

 It’s odd that the student made this mistake in the first place, as French does not have the distinction between the simple present and the present progressive or continuous that the English language does.  “Je marche” can mean I walk (as in I walk all the time for exercise) or I am walking (as in I am currently walking to the store) .  I’m sure what she meant to say was “Je suis encore là car j’aime mon copain.” I am still here because I’m in love.

McDonald’s runs an ad campaign which annoys me with its use of the present progressive.  “I’m lovin’ it” is what I see in posters plastered all over Parisian bus shelters and billboards, usually featuring a sundae or some McConcoction.   The immediacy of this exclamation irritates me.  What, you are loving a sundae RIGHT NOW?  Highly doubtful.  If I were eating a sundae at this very moment, that last thing I’d be doing is crowing about it.  My mouth would be too full of ice cream to utter anything more than a slurpy “yum!”

Students of French can be perplexed by the apparent ambiguity of the simple present, with no option for a –ing suffix.  What’s the workaround? they’ll wonder, when they want to express that “doing something right now” aspect of a verb.   My student was correct in framing her phrase with the “en train de” modifier, which does imply an action which is happening at this time.  (Although I’m sure she didn’t mean she was loving her boyfriend right there in my office.)   

The French have caught on to the use of the –ing suffix, as an add-on to an existing noun.  It’s a little thing they do when they want to Anglicize a word and make is sound not only English, but cool English.  So when you want to tell someone you are a runner, you say you do “le jogging.”  If you like to stretch, you do “le stretching.”  The latest thing on the French culinary scene is “le fooding.”  If this linguistic trend progresses in a logical fashion, my student will soon be able to come full circle, and tell me that she is in Paris, still, for “le loving.”

samedi 9 juin 2012

It's been awhile since I've dedicated a post to my dislike for Monoprix.  That doesn't mean that Monoprix has improved---in fact, today I saw something that was a 9.5 on the Stupid-Stuff-Monoprix-Does-Meter, but I'll get to that a bit further down.

Today's complaints will center once again on Monoprix's "logistics".

It's Saturday , which means that the Monoprix is swarming with shoppers--primarily mothers--during the morning hours . (Because we can't grocery shop on Sundays in Paris, Saturday becomes a crowded nightmare in any foodstore. We can, however, buy Adidas on the Champs-Elysees on a Sunday, because those stores are not under the "must rest on the Lord's Day" law.  And we all know how desperately we need tennis shoes on Sundays--and not butter or milk-- so I am very grateful to the French government for this particular law.)

Now if I were the CEO of Monoprix, I'd be sure to make arrangements to have more cashiers on the checkout lines on this particular day, and certainly during the hours leading up to the French lunchtime (13h00). I'd at least arrange to keep the checkout stations open which accommodate shopping carts (some checkouts are for shoppers carrying  handbaskets only) because it is Saturday and that is a day where many French people do a big big shop.  Like a shop which necessitates a shopping cart! 

Alas, there were neither extra cashiers on hand, nor more than 2 checkout stations open through which you could wheel a shopping cart .

One thing Monoprix does during the lunchhour on Saturdays is restock. That's right: conditions are PERFECT for driving your forklift into the already-too-narrow aisles and stocking bread products (but not the one brand I need today of course).  The store is so crowded it is a fire-code violation, people are cranky because their blood sugar has dropped, and you think it is a swell idea to fill in the shelves AT THIS PRECISE MOMENT.


Oh, and then they do this: Every single day I see tucked into some odd place a stray package of meat, or chicken or something perishable which must be kept in the cold zone. You know, stuff some shopper decided they didn't want but was TOO LAZY to put back in its rightful (and health-preserving) area. Today there was a pot of tarama tucked into the gum display near the checkout stand. Because the checkout girls are not allowed, under their union rules and regulations, to restock shelves (nor ask one of those fork-lift guys to take the item to its proper location) the stuff just sits there until some employee--working under the appropriate labor contract--will see it, pick it up and put it in the cold-foods section.

They may as well have a special aisle called "Food Which Has Sat Out Too Long And Will Poison You With e.coli And samonella. Reduced price!"

(Note to self: don't buy any tarama for a couple of days)

But let me come back around to what rated a 9.5 on the Stupid-Stuff-Monoprix-Does-Meter today.

I'm used to Monoprix laying out their store in all kinds of crazy ways.  Toothpaste on the upper level but toothbrushes on the ground floor.  Shaving cream tucked way back amongst the lightbulbs, razors nowhere in that vicinity.  When you shop at Monoprix, you have to think like a Monoprix "traffic flow engineer", that is to say never expect to find any related items grouped together.  This insane layout is not to encourage the shoppers to wander through the entire space and make impulse purchases.  That would be way too American in concept.  No, the sole and unique reason that Monoprix shelves their products in the most obscure and illogical way possible is it drive me crazy.

Today's example will illustrate this point perfectly.  I wanted to buy some little pots of creamer for my coffee.  I spy several brands shelved here in the "Breakfast items" aisle.  That makes sense, for a change.  See that shelf with the little packs marked "Gloria"?  That's where the creamers are.  

 But wait.  My favorite brand isn't there!  What happened to the "President" creamers?  I ask a "Breakfast Items" stockguy, who, of course, is STOCKING THE AISLE during peak shopping hour.  (You can see the edge of his forklift in the picture, in fact).

He indicates that this one brand of creamer--for reasons known only to Monoprix, is situated in the fresh milk/cheese aisle (even though it is not fresh; it is packaged in UHT tubs just as the other creamers are) at the complete opposite end of the store.

Rolling my eyes, I braced myself for battle as I make my way through the crowds towards the milk aisle, using my shopping cart as a ramming device.

And there it is...the Holy Grail of creamers, why, it's the President of creamers!  Maybe that's why it gets special treatment.

 At least there were no forklifts blocking my access to it.

mercredi 30 mai 2012

French Health Care

The French national health system, la sécurité sociale, is often cited as one of the best in the world. It served as a model for ObamaCare and Michael Moore gives it ample laudatory footage in his 2007 film “Sicko”. But as with any industry where humans are involved, there is good and there is the not-so-good. And then there is the downright ridiculous, which I wrote about in the Papaya Cure.

As a longtime beneficiary of the health system here I’ve had lots of opportunities to observe and experience some of the terrific--as well as odd--services that make the French national health system one of the most talked-about when we talk about healthcare.

The Good and the Enviable: Cost

 “In France, you pay into the system according to your means. And you take out of the system according to your illness.”

I’m misquoting Karl Marx here, but this is the core philosophy upon which the French system is constructed. Outsiders often think that the French system of socialized medicine is free. Guide books will tell you that should you take ill while vacationing in France, you can walk into any emergency room and be treated “without paying a dime!”. But the reality is that it’s not free—we are taxed heavily (I pay 60% of my gross salary back to the government and they disburse it to several agencies, the healthcare system being but one of them). In that way, paying taxes is a bit like paying an obligatory insurance policy. If you have children, get sick a lot (or have children who get sick a lot), live to be old (and get sick a lot), you’ll be very happy that you and your fellow citizens paid all those taxes all those years. On the other hand if you are childless, in excellent health and age without incident, you’ll never get your money back out of the system. But you are helping the Community (which is, after all, one of the tenets of the French Republic) so that alone will get you in to heaven. (And with that sentence, I just violated another tenet of the French Republic, which is to never mix the sacred and the secular.)

I’ve already amortized my investment. Between birthing one baby on French soil and having a serious accident with a resulting year of physiotherapy, I’d say the French have put about 1.5 million dollars in me at this point. So you’ll never hear me complaining about the system here, unless it’s about the hospital food.

The less-than-stellar and sometimes irritating: Lack of centralized information

Every French parent knows the “Carnet de Santé.” This booklet is given at birth—one for each child—and you take it with you each time you bring your child to the doctor. Some are plain (my daughter who was born in America has a boring white one, given to us by the French consulate in San Francisco), some are fancy (her sister, born in Neuilly, has one whose cover features a sketch of a child going through her developmental stages), and there is an entire industry devoted to making cute protective covers for them. (Not included in your national health plan.) The carnet de santé is sacred.  You must not lose it, for inside is your child’s health history: vaccinations, milestones reached, height, weight, all illness ranging from the common cold to the more-serious. French people like to visit lots of different doctors, often for the same malady, so the carnet de santé is a sort of ambulatory health file. The doctors don’t keep centralized files on you. You do. For adults, this means you keep all your xrays, blood test results, MRI records…all the data you’ve obtained from the different places you’ve been treated. If you are sick a lot, you’d better have a closet dedicated to holding all your different films and paperwork, which you’ll have to carry with you each time you see a doctor.

Another problem with such disparate information is that the doctors in France only know their area of expertise. You cannot ask, say, your orthopedic surgeon, for a referral to a good physiotherapist. A surgeon only knows how to operate. He is not tied in to a larger community of healthcare providers. This is quite different from the States, where all these guys get together at lavish conferences in Hawaii and try to create lucrative networks. I speculate that the isolated nature of healthcare professionals in France may be a result of the lack of impetus in profit-making.

The usually kooky and often ridiculous: Medicine Douce, or alternative treatments

Homeopathic or “kooky” medicine is practiced right alongside allopathic, or “western” medicine in France. You could go to a dermotologist with a hideous rash all over your body and get prescibed cortisone-- a legitimate drug (‘take one every morning”) as well as apis mellifica, a voodoo treatment (“place five granules under your tongue every three hours”). The “real” medication will come in some boring vial or box whereas the “fake” medicine will have some elaborate system of delivery and some extremeley intricate and impossible-to-comply-with method for application. That is so that when the worthless sugar pill fails to live up to its promise, the fault is yours. I was recently told, when I purchased some snail slime, that I “should use it for two weeks. If you don’t see results, it means your body is not receptive to the product.” That makes sense. It’s my body that is not receptive, and not your product which is completely bogus. (I bought it anyway. And no, it did not work.)

Hopefully we will all enjoy good health and limited contact with any health care system, French or not. But if you do find yourself in a French doctor’s office, it’s important to keep your mind open and your mouth shut. The latter I learned first hand when one of my doctors brought out some medieval-looking hook which he wanted to use on me to break up some scar tissue. Fearing leeches next, I exited his office as fast as possible.

mardi 15 mai 2012

At the intersection of expectations and reality

Cross-cultural confusion can be the greatest where expectations meet reality. I saw this clearly when reading some comments on one of David Lebovitz's blog posts which focused on Speculoos but also wove in a good chunk of Monoprix insanity. Both Lebovitz and his readers cited the refusal of the Monoprix clerks to provide change (to use the photocopier, or break a large-ish bill when purchasing a small item) as an example of French rudeness.

Yes, it appears to be rude. But the thing is, these folks were looking for change in the wrong place. In America you can ask a supermarket cashier to open her drawer and break a bill for you. In France, you can't. You have to go to the [poorly-named, one must admit] Customer Service desk, situated near the entrance to the supermarket, to get change. That's where you go to get an item refunded or exchanged as well. Not the checkout lady. But because the supermarket setup looks the same as in America, we expect the people working in the French supermarket setup to have the same job functions as back home.

This is always a source of frustration when traveling, and especially so when traveling to Paris because Parisians are by nature not warm and cuddly to Anyone Different, nor are they information-sharers.  So when we (Americans) go to, say, the French hairdresser and expect to have our hair shampooed before it is cut, because that is normal procedure in our country and we find out that that will cost extra (as will the cream rinse and the styling and blow dry after the cut), we think how odd. The place looks the same but the people don't act the same.

When I first moved to Paris, there were a million things that appeared similar to what I knew in America but which tripped me up until I learned the new cultural code of operations. The neighborhood café...I didn't realize, until a waiter told me so, that there was a three-layer price scale in that place: cheapest at the counter, mid-level seated indoors, and most expensive if seated outside. Where I came from, all prices/seats were equal in a coffee shop. So the first time I paid more for my coffee when sitting out in the sun compared with the cost the previous day when I had sipped it at the counter, I complained loudly to the waiter that he had overcharged me. His reaction was not customer-friendly. But it was I, in my cafe-price-scheme cultural ignorance, who was at fault.

One of the most-essential lessons I've learned as an expatriate is never to assume that things will work as they do back home, even if they look the same. From the way the post office functions (you can bank your money there) to how to eat a hamburger (with a fork and knife), it is always prudent to stand back and watch the natives first.
In France they don't serve you water automatically when you sit down.
But they will serve it to you automatically when you order ice cream.

dimanche 6 mai 2012

Coquilles Saint Jacques

We have a sweet modest weekend home out in the Norman village of Verneuil-sur-Avre. One of the many architectural highlights of the village is its Gothic church spire which can be seen from as far away as Chartres and is mentioned in one of Proust's stories.

 During the Middle ages, Verneuil-sur-Avre was a stopping point for Christian pilgrims hiking the Saint Jacques de Compostelle trail, and the town remains quite devout today. While that piety was not a drawing point for us--we are more prone to be found at the village bakery than inside the church on Sunday mornings-- I do love this little emblem I spied this weekend embedded quietly into one of the village walkways:
This is a marker showing that this town is a pilgrimage site. In the background is the famous Mont-St-Michel which is an hour and a half away (by car for the non-pilgrims), and which certainly ranks higher than Verneuil on the hierarchy of religious stopping points. The shell and the hooked staff are traditional pilgrim talismans. St Jacques shells were easily collected from the beaches along the route then pocketed and used by pilgrims for sipping water from trailside springs. The shell also holds a metaphorical value: the many grooves coming together at one point symbolize the various ways to get to Santiago de Compostela, the town in northwestern Spain which is the endpoint for the pilgrims' journey. The staff was used as a hiking tool and with its hook, also became a carrier.

There are still people who hike the St Jacques de Compostelle trail today, some as religious pilgrims, others as secular nature lovers. I'm pleased when they come through our little town and I find it incredibly cool that there's this tiny secret marker lighting their path, right there between the bakery and the café.

mercredi 2 mai 2012

Something you'd never see in a French election

This, from my absentee ballot for the California primary:
Living in secular France, this language shocks me.

mardi 1 mai 2012

May 1st and kooky rules

It's May 1st, the French Labor Day, which is celebrated  here in diverse fashions.  Some--generally the wealthy-- take a four-day weekend.   Others--generally union activists-- hold noisy protest demonstrations to show their displeasure with Sarkozy.  The Far Right pays hommage to party idol Joan of Arc.  And everybody offers the dainty muguet, or lily of the valley, which can be purchased on any street corner from those people whom the French government euphemistically refer to as "itinerant travelers," the bane of the Right.  It's an odd paradox  (or maybe it's entirely normal) that the only people working on this historically significant holiday are those who hold the lowest ranking in the hierarchy of immigrants.

The French come out with some kooky rules from time to time, and as we sit here five days from the conclusive round of the Presidential elections, this moment is no exception.  An edict has just come down from the RATP, the managing body for the capital's public transport system, instructing ticket-checkers to not check tickets during these "tension-filled days leading up to the election."  During the last election in 2007 some métro riders were caught hopping the turnstile and things turned nasty and riotous.  While the RATP insists this order, which is in place from now until May 6th, has "nothing to do with politics", it seems a bit suspicious.  But what do I care?  FREE RIDES ON THE METRO FOR EVERYBODY!  (Even the itinerant travelers!)  This is almost as good as the parking ticket amnesty that typically follows each presidential election, another kooky decree but one for which I wait eagerly every five years.

samedi 17 mars 2012

Monoprix and Me

Readers ask me why I continue to shop at Monoprix, since my complaints  about this market are incessant.  Proximity is one reason.  Quality, certainly when compared with Franprix, is another.

 Ease of negotiating the aisles, however, is not one of the reasons.

Here we are in the cheese aisle.  It's noon--a peak shopping time.  Got a shopping cart?  Sorry, the cheese aisle is off-limits to you!!!!

This stack of cardboard will stay there, blocking the ham section, forever.  Or until the one guy whose labor-union allows him to remove the cardboard packaging gets to work. 

If you were tempted by anything in the shelves which this palette is blocking, you are SOL.  That thing ain't going anywhere.  AND DON'T TRY AND MOVE IT YOURSELF unless you want to get yelled at.

Hello noontime crowd.  Open up another register so the line doesn't back up into the wine section at the rear of the store?  Of course not!  Because the checkout girls need their lunchbreak too!

Now here's a recent addition to the Monoprix.  Surely influenced by the draw of  Krispy Kreme's "HOT DONUTS NOW" , they've installed these baguette-makers. One euro, one minute, and you've got a freshly-baked-from-industrial-dough baguette! Monoprix's bread is as far from artisanal as you can get, but I give them points for this fun contraption.

Tongue Tripping

While shopping at Sephora recently, I had a reminder of the lacunae which exist between the signifier and the signified. It came about during a brief exchange over moisturizers. Not seeing my old standby on the shelf, I asked the saleswoman if they had discontinued this particular cream. She said no, the product had merely been repackaged. Then she said:
“C'était comment, votre pot?”
(“What did the old jar look like ?”)

But this is what I heard:

“C'était comment votre peau?”
(“What was your skin like ?” )

To which I responded with a detailed description of the varying tendencies of my skin to go from dry and flaky in the winter to soft and well-moisturized according to the degree of humidity in the summer….

She finally stopped me when she realized I was not talking about the earlier packaging of Clarins© Crème Hydratante.

I consider myself fluent in French. I hold advanced degrees in language and literature, and I’ve lived here most of my adult life. I’ve birthed a couple of babies in French, bought three properties in French, taught in the French university system in French, married and divorced in French. But there was a time when my language skills were not as polished as they are now.

In my early 20s I rented an unfurnished apartment. I spent a good deal of time amassing furnishings for the place and was anxious to show off the result to any and all visitors. The only thing lacking was a bed. (I can’t recall why the most essential item one could have in an apartment was the last thing I got around to purchasing. Where did I sleep?)

The landlord came around one day to see my progress. I proudly showed him all my “finds”. He nodded his head in approval. Acknowledging the lack of a bed, I said to him

“J’ai tout ce qui me faut. La seule chose qui me manque, c’est un matelot !"

What I thought I had said :

“I have everything that I need. The only thing missing is a mattress!”

But what I really said was:

“I have everything, everything, everything that I need. The only thing I’m missing is a sailor.”

He advised me to take a quick trip to the nearest naval base to complete the apartment.


From that apartment, I moved to a room in a Countess’s place. I was not used to being around aristocracy—even fallen aristocracy—and her presence made me nervous. My language skills would completely disappear whenever I had to speak with her.

One day she relayed a message to me that I had received a phone call. It was Madame X, inviting me to a dinner party. I tried to tell the Countess this:

“Je suis ravie lorsque Madame X m’invite. Elle fait tellement bien la cuisine. »
(I am thrilled when Madame X invites me over. She is such a good cook.)

But filtered through my anxiety, it came out like this:
“Je suis ravissante lorsque Madame X m’invite. Elle fait tellement bien la cuisine.
(I am ravishing when Madame X invites me over. She is such a good cook).

Yep. Anytime I get an invitation from Madame X, I always put on full makeup and get my hair done. You must look ravishing when going to eat a fine meal.

During my married life, I lived in the 16th arrondissement. (Le seizième.) One Sunday my then-husband wanted to see what time mass was held at the local church. He asked me to call the diocese to check out mass hours: “Appelle le diocèse”. What did I hear? “Appelle Dieu-seize”. "(Call God-sixteen".) I thought that perhaps there was a direct line to God from the 16th arrondissement; you just had to dial 16 to access Him.  (Upon reflection, and considering the tendency towards haughtiness that pervades that arrondissement, I suspect the residents of the 16th do think they have a dedicated channel to God.)

Then there was the time I confused “aujourd’hui” (today) with “au revoir” (goodbye). Or the time I told someone that the place they were looking for was located on the Quai Branlé (the masturbating banks) instead of the Quai Branly (a proper name).

I’ve embarrassed myself plenty on a linguistic level during my time as an expat. But as I used to tell my students, you have to check your pride at the door if you want to learn a language well.  If you aren't making mistakes---hugely embarassing mistakes--you aren't speaking enough.

samedi 3 mars 2012

What next? Making us all buy an Easter Ham?

On July 1, 2012, France will require all drivers to have an unused breath-alcohol test in their glovebox.
T he government's assumption that we all drink alcohol is offensive. The government's assumption that we all have the sense when drunk to actually test our alcohol levels is frighteningly ignorant.

 I doubt this new law has much to do with keeping people safe on the roads. Think about it. How would having an unused breath-alcohol test in your glove box prevent an accident? (If the cop pulling you over finds the kit used, or no kit at all, the fine is the same: 17 euros.) Now, if the law required you to have TWO breathalyzers in the car, that would make sense! Ideally, after a fine meal or an evening at a club, you’d use one test, come up sober, and take the wheel. If the cop pulled you over, you’d show the second, unused test.

 If France were truly concerned with keeping its citizens safe, it would put into place immediately the Loi Morange, the proposed law requiring landlords and homeowners to install smoke detectors in their dwellings. With 10,000 people perishing in household fires in France each year (compared with 4,000 road fatalities per annum) I cannot understand why the government has set the date for the Loi Morange to go into effect in July of 2015. Why such a long leadtime for something so inexpensive and so effective? Why no leadtime for this breathalyzer law?

Something is rotten in Denmark, er, France. Could it be that this breathalyzer law is less about keeping us safe and more about subtly snubbing the part of the French population that doesn’t drink? Another slight to the Muslims? (Oh, and the Mormons, too, although they only represent 0.05167 of the population here.) Can you imagine how the practicing Muslim must feel about being required to purchase and carry around an instrument he will never, ever need?

This law is as thoughtless as the weather girl announcing the Saint’s Day on the nightly news, or the ubiquitous fish on the Friday lunch special at every restaurant in this country. Hello? We are not all drinkers nor Catholics. If you require all of us to have this device in our cars as of July 1st, you should distribute it for free.

jeudi 23 février 2012

The Papaya Miracle Cure

In some ways, French society is one of the most rational in the Western world. French thought process is inherently Cartesian, their educational system relies on a strong base in mathematics, and the country graduates more engineers than all other disciplines combined.

But push open the door of a medical professional here and you'd think all these folks had graduated from the Dr. Bombay school of medicine.

In an ongoing quest to alleviate my foot pain, I'd been referred out to get some custom orthodics as well as physical therapy. "This will speed the healing," my surgeon assured me.

So last week I went to get my foot "read" for the orthodics. Dr M. received me in his office, which was also his living quarters.  He had me walk across the room. "You are limping," he observed.

"Yes. My foot hurts."

He then asked me to step up onto a translucent platform which was set above a mirror. If this was some kind of trick to see up my skirt, he was out of luck. I was wearing trousers.

After constating that I was 'a heel walker' (and what biped is not?), he motioned for me to lay down on his examining table, saying he'd fix it all up with a little infra-red. I stuck out my foot towards the machine, wondering if it would turn my appendage into a spy with superpowers.

Several boring minutes later (spent staring at the dust-encrusted cornices of his curlycue'd ceiling), he pulled out from a wooden box The Sacred Black Mystical Healing Shroud (In reality, a torn and fraying piece of dark fabric which was as filthy as the ceiling). With this he wrapped my foot tightly and told me to repose myself for a bit. He left the room. (Surely to check on the state of the rôti de veau which I could smell from his apartment-office).

"Feeling better?" he inquired as he reentered the room.

"Um. Too early to tell." I got off the table and walked around the room. "Nope. Still hurts. But I do believe I see the image of Jesus now imprinted on my sole."

He inked my feet and I pressed them onto a piece of paper. He told me to return in a week's time to pick up the inserts. I limped out of his flat, craving roast meat.


That afternoon I was scheduled to visit Dr. K, the kinétherapeute. These professionals are a hybrid of masseurs, chiropractors, weight management charlatans counselors, and occupational therapists. It is a branch of paramedicine which is viewed as entirely legitimate and is indeed reimbursed by French National Health. The State benefits used to be quite generous towards these practitioners: when I had my first baby in 1995, I was entitled to 6 weeks of sessions with one; sessions completely devoted to firming up my abdomen and pelvic floor so I would be primed and a ready-contender to recontribute to France's natality rate. I even got the State to send me to a post-natal spa for a week!

"You have a unique last name," Dr. K began. "I only know of one other [my last name]: the famous cyclist."

Me: "Yes. He was a cousin of my former husband."

Dr. K:"Really? I was his masseur on his Tour de France win. It is thanks to me, and my diagnosis that he was lacking in magnesium, that he won that year."

Me: "Hmmm. It's a real shame he committed suicide later."

Dr. K: "Yes. A little problem with the Armagnac."

Me: "I guess the magnesium can't cure everything, right?"

He instructed me to disrobe and walk across the room.

"You are limping."

"Yes, my foot hurts. I'm here for my foot."

He stood behind me and pressed his fingers into those dimples that ride above one's buttocks. He pronounced my morphology "lucky." This was followed by a lengthy pseudo-scientific explanation of the two types of female morphologies: the "unlucky" mediterranean one--where the woman's hips spread out to all southern European countries once she has given birth, never to snap back--and mine, the "lucky" Nordic frame, which Dr. K judged I possess (despite my being descended from a long line of overweight Eastern European peasants). "These are women with no hips, but the baby makes them carry their fat in the stomach. Once you get to your goal weight, you will see! It all snaps back!"

I glanced down at my sad and flabby lower abdomen, thinking that this man is at best, deranged; at worst, a snake-oil salesman. My latter intuition was confirmed as he continued:

"You know, if you wanted to spot reduce I can send you to a Nutritionist. I had a young patient who had a very impressive poitrine.  [He glances at my bare breasts.] Her mother told me that she was planning to take her daughter to a surgeon to have a breast-reduction performed. I send her to The Nutritionist. Six weeks later--what a miracle! La fille avait fondue! (The girl had melted!)  All from a papaya-based diet!"

"Why would I want to abolish my only asset?" I asked. "And honestly, do you truly believe that eating a specific food will eliminate fat from one part of the body?"

"I don't know how it works," Dr. K mused, "but it works."

Dr. K continued to share his vast knowledge of the body and its workings while he massaged my back (and foot, eventually). It would have been very nice had he shut up. 10 minutes later he told me to get up and get dressed and asked for 55 euros.

"Can we concentrate a little more on my foot?" I asked him as I wrote out his check. "My surgeon wrote the prescription for ultra-sound therapy with you."

"Of course! But I don't believe in ultra-sound." He pointed to an odd-looking, dial-filled machine on a stand by the massage table.

"Next time we will do magnets!"

dimanche 19 février 2012

Oh, eau!

Thirsty in Paris?  Have a drink on Simplicity, Charity, Goodness and Sobriety.

The French are all about their water, especially if it comes in a bottle.  There's a specific brand of bottled water targeted towards whatever ails you.  Fatigued?  Buy the magnesium-enriched one.  Looking to shed some pounds?  Try the one which contains a diuretic.  Need help with digestion?  A certain fizzy brand can take care of that; you even get a choice of bubble-size.  Preparing baby's formula?  Only one brand is trusted by les mamans to be pure.  Even aquariophiles have their preferred water for making sure the fish tank remains at the optimal ph level.

Despite a government campaign reassuring Parisians that their tap water was one of the purest, safest and cleanest in the world, Parisians continue to buy bottled water to the tune of 18 cases per year, on average.  Contrary to Americans who have come to realize that bottled water is one of the biggest rip-offs the marketing companies have ever come up with (not to mention how planet-unfriendly the whole business is), you won't see the French carrying around any reusable, BPA-free bottles.  They continue to be faithful to the big names in the bottled water industry and look with suspicion upon any outlier walking around with a no-brand container.

This cultural resistance to drinking the free stuff has thankfully not led to the demise of the Wallace Fountains you still see around the city.  Put into place by British philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace in the late 19th century, these dark green, cast iron fountains were at that time the only clean water source many Parisians had.  Even now, over a century later, the 67 remaining Wallace fountains continue to supply pure water to the homeless (as well as thirsty tourists) and provide the city with a neat, recognizable, and very-French icon.  Not much has been altered from the original design except that there are no longer tin drinking cups attached to the fountain; these were removed during the 1950s as they were deemed unsanitary.

Originally these fountains ran continuously in a rather symbolic gesture assuring Parisians that they would never lack for clean water again.  But a couple of years ago the municipal water authorities decided to stop the fountains from flowing from mid-November to mid-March, fearing a freeze might damage the water-delivery system.  What these means, of course, is that the homeless (and thirsty tourists) just have to do as the rest of Paris does during the winter months:  buy bottled water.  Or, heaven forbid, drink from the tap.

samedi 18 février 2012

To each season a beverage

I recently met a friend for coffee down at Le Rostand. I love Le Rostand; it has everything a Parisian café should have: good location (next to the Luxembourg gardens so I can go check on the beehives when I feel the need), extended hours (I've never once encountered the doors shut in all the years and all the odd hours I've been going there), an interesting assortment of clients ranging from tourists to les habitués, the latter including dogs, and--most importantly--a perfect café crème.

The interior décor of the café has long intrigued me. To my knowledge, Rostand never set foot outside of France. He was born in Marseilles, did his major work up in Paris, and then retired to the Basque country for reasons of ill health. (He had pleurisy, but he was also made quite uncomfortable with the fame garnered from Cyrano de Bergerac and felt the need to get out of Paris after the play opened.) Yet the entire cafe is a temple to French colonialism. The flooring, a gorgeous mosaic, is done in the muted colors of orientalists' tableaux. The walls host bas-reliefs of palm fronds. The artwork features scenes of colonial conquest. All the furniture is rattan (at each table there is even a little rattan stool upon which ladies can pose their purses) and potted palms are placed as strategic space dividers throughout the (now) enclosed terrace. I half-expect to see Stanley peeking out from behind one of them, binoculars in hand.

There is a protocol to drinking in cafés. You can spot a tourist by listening to his order. No "café au lait" after the breakfast hour. ("Un crème" is what the French call this--"grand" or "petit". And although "crème" is a feminine noun, it takes a masculine article in this case, since the "un" is referring to the coffee, not the cream.) Post noon, you want to be ordering "un express" or "un déca" but nothing with milk in it. You wouldn't order a "coca" or a "limonade" before lunch, either. Women alone do not order "un ballon de rouge" up at the bar, yet it is perfectly acceptable for them to order red wine while seated at a table.

A perfect crème is reason to cross the city

There are also seasons to café drinks. I am looking forward to being able to order--without breaking seasonal protocol-- "un citron pressé", a drink one should only consume during warm-weather months. Pastis is another beverage limited to the summertime. I wonder where absinthe fits in on the calendar?


Above the arched entryway to my girls' school is a holdover from when public learning establishments were sex-segregated: an engraved keystone which reads "Ecole Des Filles". (Above the adjacent door to the left, now leading into the vocational college, a separate entity, is its counterpoint "Ecole Des Garçons".) Although their school is now "mixte"-- part of the movement towards secularism which occurred during the last century-- the overhead epithet remains.

All around this old city are architectual witnesses to permanence: mosaic flooring in shops where the tiles spell out the business' name; stained-glass storefront windows whose motif mirrors the goods one will find within; the signature of the architect and the date his building was constructed chiseled into the Haussmannian stone façade; the lush and erotic caryatids that no post-16th century builder would have the inclination to include his elevations.

Embedding your business name into the flooring means you intend to stay for the longterm
Photo used with permission from Wendy at

This sense of permanence is not only present in the physical. The French homeowner's mindset is one of homeostasis. France is not a nation of movers. Unlike Americans, who think nothing of changing homes, careers and academic disciplines at any and all points of their lives, the French view as suspect anyone who demonstrates perpetual mobility.

Renting my first unfurnished apartment in Paris, I was surprised by the expectation that not only was I required to provide my own white goods (refrigerator, stove, dishwasher),  I had to furnish my countertops and shower curtain rod as well. Neither light fixtures nor toilet paper holders await the new tenant. You are expected to buy and install it all. No wonder the French seem to be the least peripatetic people on the planet. It is too costly and labor-intensive to move.

Renting a French apartment?  Be prepared to install your own  kitchen, from cabinetry to outlets.

While there is a certain comfort in knowing that one’s environment is stable and unchanging (my students love the fact that when they return to Paris years after their studies, their favorite bakers, newsagents and café waiters are still here, loyal to their posts), it can be said that such immutability lends itself to routine. When one possesses a temperament which embraces the idea of constant reinvention, one senses a vitality, a dynamism and a willingness to take a risk which, in turn, can bring enormous societal benefits, and not just economically.

I can't say I have a preference for one ideology over the other. I never tire of viewing all the architectural efforts to put the brakes on tempus fugit: the statues and the engravings and the frescoes; at the same time I find the fluidity of the American nature something to be admired, for it is a sign of renewal and hope for the future.

More Monoprix

Ysterday, for the first time ever in history, the Monoprix opened the "10 items or less" line during the lunchhour.

But the scale for weighing fruits and vegetables had never worked since the store first opened was out of order, so up went a sign: "Fruit and vegetable scale broken" with the implied message that should you have any food of that nature (which most lunch-buyers would, this being France where people don't eat Twinkies and Coke for the midday meal, ahem), you couldn't use that register.

What irritated me most about this (besides the obvious)? The sign wasn't just something a Monoprix "worker" scribbled on a piece of cardboard. No! The sign was a professionally-printed, plastified structure, totally aligned with the color scheme and cheerful font Monoprix uses all over their stores. ( Their motto, for example: "Qu'est-ce qu'on peut faire pour vous aujourd'hui?" or, "What can we do to annoy you with today?")

In other words, they know the scale doesn't work. They know the scale has never worked. They know they have NO INTENTION OF EVER FIXING THE SCALE...and so, the need for a permanent, nicely-made sign.

This brings to mind another Stupid Thing I've Seen At The Monoprix. A couple of years ago they remodelled this Monoprix and tried to make it sexy. They were obligated by French building codes to install an elevator, as the store is on two levels. (I will save for another post how insanely-allocated the different products are on these two levels, but here is a teaser: you can buy razors on the bottom level, but you must go to the next level to buy shaving cream. Believe me when I tell you that this strategy is not to get you to move throughout the store and therefore buy more-impulsively--for that is not the economic mindset of the French-- this strategy is done deliberately to drive me mad.)

Anyway, the day they started constructing that elevator I said to my colleague and fellow-Monoprix-hater Melissa, "That will NEVER function. They'll put in in, but they will NEVER maintain it. Some shopper will get stuck in there for life with their trolley full of frozen food, and they will never get her out."

And that is exactly what has come to pass. Well, sort of. Monoprix never even got to the "working capacity" part of the elevator. They built it, they let the building inspectors sign off on it, and then they turned the whole glass structure into a storage unit. Everytime Melissa and I walk by all those boxes of catfood and Pampers stocked inside the inert lift, we just laugh and laugh. Before we cry, of course.

The Monoprix elevator: providing an extra stockroom since 2008

lundi 13 février 2012

Expat writers, threesomes and Cultural Identity

A reader thoughtfully pointed me towards this important piece of sleuth reporting for which I thank her.

I had mentioned on my Facebook page that I was set to implode should I read another review of Pamela Druckerman's newest fluff piece on the supposed superiority of French parenting. While she didn't write about Why French Women Don't Get Fat (that subject belongs to Mireille Guiliano), Druckerman's latest is built around a similar conceit: Everything We Do In France We Do Better Than You In The U.S.A.  And, according to the link, We Even Do Threesomes Better Than You.

Do you not just LOVE how Druckerman, in an attempt to be taken as a "serious writer" got Marie Claire to take down the link to the article? I certainly do.
Following the release of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, this is prime time for these sorts of pieces to appear; the romance of life in Paris has always been a favorite for publishers (and dreamers). That said, Real Paris is far from being the perfectly-coiffed city that these women depict. The sterotypes presented in most expat stories are reflections of their own privledged lives and the lives of the white, wealthy partners they married and settled down with in France. It is easy, or easier, to raise a well-mannered child when he grows up among the navy-blue wearing citizens of Paris' posh 16th-arrondissement. Maman can spend her days Not Getting Fat at the health spa while the nanny educates the child Not To Throw Food.

This genre of low-brow literature annoys me because it ignores the elephant in the room. Should any of these writers venture out of the wealthy arrondissements, or Provence as is the case for two of these women, they would see another face of France, a face which is very different in color and culture, but equally French. Take the RER out to the "93", home to the highest rate of criminal deliquancy in the Paris area, and you will also see French parents. But their method of parenting wouldn't make for a compelling article in Elle, would it, with those French parents ripping out the hardwood flooring the government has installed in their housing project to turn around and sell it at the flea market. Those French parents do not educate their children not to throw food; throwing food would be the last transgression those French parents would have to worry about. Foremost on their minds? Getting the drug dealers who squat their landing to go make their deals in another hallway of the cité.

Bringing Up Bebe:  Just not in Seine St Denis

There is one voice of balanced sanity in this cohort. Beth Epstein just came out with an excellent study of
French Cultural Identity called Collective Terms: Race, Culture, and Community in a State-Planned City in France. Of course that title isn't sexy enough to get her a headline in Marie Claire but at least she'll never have to ask them to take the story down.