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.

jeudi 9 février 2012

While buying the breakfast bread at the boulangerie last weekend, my eyes were drawn to the cake case. There was a small individual tarte au chocolat, as there would be (for it was Sunday, the day that the French eat treats after mass/lunch). What struck me was the careful detail on the tarte; the surface had not only little scrolls of white icing, but it also featured a small flat chocolate disk upon which was printed part of a piece of sheet music, in edible gold. It was delicate and beautiful.

This is why I love living in France. This attention to detail in places one doesn't always expect--or miss, really, if it weren't there. (I'd still buy a tarte au chocolat even if it came without a musical score.) The buildings with their larger-than-life caryatids and finely-finished facades; the lavendar water the maid fills the iron with when she presses the bed linens; the knife rests and the napkin rings you still see as a normal part of a table setting...all this attention to beauty, so pleasing to the eye (and the nose), the effort made to evoke pleasure through the visual and the visceral.
I was again reminded of how much I hate Monoprix when a trip to that store took me a total of 2.5 hours. That's right---two and a half hours just to grocery shop! That's crazy even for a Saturday. First I had to wait a billion hours just to get into their stupidly-constructed and poorly-lit parking lot, then wait for some jackass to liberate a parking space, then once in the store deal with all the forklifts and drivers stocking the shelves at PEAK SHOPPING HOUR (as usual) and lastly, once my blood pressure was sky-high...for some reason known ONLY TO MONOPRIX, they shut down all but two registers (must have been union-mandated breaktime for all) and we waited 45 minutes in line. People were yelling; it was ugly.

I'd tell you how I was blocked from putting my groceries in the trunk of my car by another jackass who decided to park up against my trunk...but I'd rather tell you this other really funny/pathetic Monoprix-related tale.

A couple of weeks ago I had a bad case of food poisoning. I didn't think much of it until I got a call from Monoprix, who, thanks to my let's spy on you and track your purchases Monoprix "I'm in your wonderful Club" card, knew that I was one of the lucky consumers of TAINTED MEAT that Monoprix had sold the previous week. Mr. Monoprix left me a charming message, informing me that I should take the TAINTED MEAT back to the store for a full refund. Yeah, thanks Mr Monoprix, but I've already barfed up all your TAINTED MEAT. To add insult to injury (the phone call was way too late for anyone to still have that TAINTED MEAT in their fridge; Monoprix knew very well they wouldn't go bankrupt refunding many customers), Mr Monoprix gave me the number of the "Monoprix Medical Hotline", a number, Mr Monoprix underscored with great insistance, which, when dialed, would not cost me anything. The equivalent of an 800 number in the USA. Unfortunately, when I dialed the "Monoprix Medical Hotline", I reached a recorded message, referring me to another that would cost me 21 centimes per minute should I be foolish enough to dial it. (To be honest, I was really curious to see what kind of medical resources Monoprix was offering. But not curious enough to pay for it.) Good old "How Can We Annoy You Today?" Monoprix. First they poison me, then they try and make me pay for it.

Starbucks, continued

A Starbucks franchise opened across the street from where we live. I saw the green sign go up but didn't think much about it; I am used to going to the café which is situated closer to my flat. While it isn't the most elegant of cafés--indeed, it's got a real 70's architecture thing going on--they know me there and it's also a tabac so I can pick up gum or a card for the parking meter at the same time I down an espresso.

When Starbucks opened their flagship shop at the Opéra in 2002, I made a decision that I would never spend a euro in their place. Another example of American Imperialism! Who wants to drink coffee in a paper container? And the prices! More and more Starbucks shingles began appearing in Paris and I stubbornly maintained my stance.

But a couple of weeks ago I stepped into this new Starbucks. Amélie and her friends use it as a place to study after class and I wanted to check it out. What a pleasant shop! Instead of the tightly-packed tables of my downstairs place, Starbucks had these comfortable easy chairs, all spread out like in a living room. Everything was clean and the paint job was very tasteful; no mirrors with beer ads on them or big screen TV on the walls.

I've been back several times since, which makes me wonder if I'm cheating myself out of the European experience. I mean it is total Americana in this place--they even have carrot cake and low-fat muffins. (The latter an oxymoron.) Of course the service is still French; they can never get my order correct and it takes them hours to make my skim milk decaf latté, but if you can get past the personnel, you could pretend you are in Marin County (except that I haven't double-parked my giant SUV outside the door of the place and I never go in wearing lycra running shorts). While it will never replace the café experience--Starbucks is too sanitized to feel European--I have the feeling that I'll be crossing the street again tomorrow for our hit of Americana. And rather than feel guilty, I'll just tell myself that it is all part of keeping my children's alter-culture topped up.

mardi 7 février 2012

Monoprix: It LOOKS like a supermarket, but doesn't act like one

As I waited in the long lunchtime line in the Monoprix today, my eyes fell upon a sign tacked to the side of the register. It informed us that Monoprix, in an effort to provide "even better customer service" was surveying departing shoppers and would we please take a moment to respond to the nice clipboard-holding women at the exit doors?

There were a million things I wanted to tell these ladies, including but not limited to:

-why not open more than two cash registers during peak hours?
-why not be proactive and offer plastic bags rather than wait until the customer asks for one, when CLEARLY the customer is holding only her purse and has not brought a more planet-friendly carrying device?
-why not stock aisles and shelves during off-hours so shoppers can move thru the aisle with a shopping cart?
-why not place razor blades and shaving cream on the SAME level, rather than one downstairs and one upstairs?
-and, while we are on the subject of levels, WHY NOT REPAIR YOUR FAKE ELEVATOR WHICH HAS NOT FUNCTIONED SINCE 2007, instead of using it as an extra stock room, holding Mentos boxes and expired Christmas sweets? That way, people with strollers would not cause accidents and put their babies at risk while attempting to take the escalators.

Oh, I had a lot of time in the line to come up with some fine suggestions on how to run a better business. But of course, when I got to the exit...

...there were no survey takers. Guess their union decided that they'd worked enough.

vendredi 3 février 2012

More metro love

P aris metro tiles, kilometers of which make up commuters' daily landscapes, are now a hot home decor item. Who would have thought? You can make your bath or backsplash look like a subway corridor. Huh. Most Parisians would give anything not to be reminded of their quotidian schlep through the slender labyrinths which connect the underbelly of the capital.

It's the bevelled edge which gives these tiles their distinctive and recognizable look.

Paris 006

The bevelling (and I may be making that word up) allows light to bounce around much more effectively than light on a regular flat-plane tile. You need as much light as you can create in those subways, so bevelling is good.

Some metro stations have really ugly 60s tiles, like La Motte Piquet Grenelle. And they are not even bevelled, which is probably a blessing.

Paris 005

There's a building on rue Vavin that is all metro-tiled. It was done before this was so hipstery.

(not my photo; taken off the internet)

I think I'll incorporate some metro tiles into my next home decor project, though I'll abstain from doing the entire facade of the house.

Mad about the Metro

I 'm what the French call a ferrovipathe; I like rail transportation. I have a fun obsession with the Paris métro, especially métro paraphenalia. I've still got my Carte Orange from my student days (over twenty years ago!). Hey, they could be museum pieces! Hey, they are museum pieces! I saw some displayed recently when I went to see the final days of the Métro...Ticket pour une expo exhibit at the Musée des Arts et Métiers.

I haven't always loved the métro. In fact, in the early 90s another expat and I had the idea to write a collection of essays (we were going to call it "Métropolitains", aren't we clever?) where she would write why she loved the métro (which she did) and I would write why I hated it (which I did).

It wasn't so much that I disliked public transportation, it was more that I was phobic about being underground. Years went by where I never slipped a ticket through the turnstile. On the other hand, I knew the Paris bus system backwards and forwards, and I learned the mad art of driving in Paris.

My phobia lifted eventually (don't know why--it certainly wasn't anything I did to make it go away) and I started using the métro again. And loving it. Oh, it is still filled with drunks, hookers, pickpockets and beggars, but is also whisks me to work in 25 minutes (driving takes about 45) and I get a lot of reading done if I get a seat.

I love learning about métro trivia: the ghost, or abandonned stations (Porte Molitor, Haxo and Croix-rouge to name but three); how shallow some stations are (only 80 centimeters from the street surface!!!), how you are never over 500 meters from a station when in the city and how the métro was designed so you never have more than one change to make to reach your destination.

I'm very interested in the history of the métro signage and how the graphics, colors and fonts have evolved over the years. You still have stations with some of the vintage signage (Vaneau is one and it is beautiful) and there are a handful of stations which have preserved Guimard's squiggly art nouveau entrances.

I'm old enough to have lived through three color-changes of the métro ticket, from yellow to purple to green. I also lived through the change from the Carte Orange (the monthly pass) with its coupon to the present-day Carte Navigo which dematerialized the coupon and works with a smart chip. I just wave my purse over the turnstile and it opens! (Men use their butts.) I've also watched the métro map change as the system extended existing lines and added new ones.

Here's the museum with the poster for the exhibit. This museum focuses on industrial arts as its permanent collection.

The line 8 is my métro line. I was glad to see it featured and learned that it moves 440,000 passengers each day, me included!

Here's the line 8 all lit curves from the left bank to the right and back again out into an eastern suburb.

This was a super cool artifact. In the initial days of the métro, there was a guy in each car who punched your ticket. Each line had its own punch-shape; you can see here that line 9 was a heart. Serge Gainsbourg wrote a song in 1958 about these ticket-puncher guys called "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas".

Some vintage tickets

Man I love these old signs. It's a shame they didn't have a whole wing of these; I'm sure there are a ton of them in an old warehouse.

When I was finished, I took the métro back home and thought it was like I was still in the museum. Sadly, I wasn't on the renovated platform of this station (I was taking another line) because they've done up the station to resemble the museum with these huge gears and cogs and all sorts of industrial icons all over it.

If you are a French reader, and as interested in the Paris métro as I am, I recommend the following books:

Petite Histoire du ticket du métro parisien, by Grégoire Thonnat. It's really terrific; the cover looks like the yellow and brown métro ticket and it focuses on all the iterations the tickets have gone through over time.

Métronome Illustré by Laurent Deutsch. Graphically striking and fun to read.

There's a new coffee table book out called Archives Inédites du RATP (the RATP is the organization which manages the métro and bus system).  It's quite pretty and has a good collection of archival photographs. You can see what the first métro line looked like (line number one, natch) with its wooden cars and wooden seats (in second class, leather in first). And no grafitti. Yet.

Zazie dans le métro by Raymond Queneau. A novel about a quirky little girl who just wants to go in the métro. It has been translated into english as Zazie in the Métro.

The end of an era

A moving celebration was held last December in honor of George Whitman, bookseller célèbre and Paris literary icon, who now rests among esteemed company (Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Appollinaire and Jim Morrison, to name just a few of his new roommates) at the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Part of my Paris memories are strongly tied to his bookshop Shakespeare and Company. Having expatriated long before the availability of the internet, 37 rue de la Bûcherie was my go-to site when seeking like-minded anglophone bibliophiles. After brain fatigue set in from trying to master le subjontif, I'd make my way to his bookshop and pick up one of the 25-franc (this was the pre-euro era) used paperbacks in English. When I was really broke, I'd help myself from the "free" box, set outside the front door, which contained genres which weren't my favorite--lots of detective and romance novels--but whose familiar language made reading effortless after a day with Voltaire.

Shakespeare and Company was a place where I knew I fit in. It was an embracing and comfortable shelter when I felt too brash, too loud, too American, floundering around in the sea of Parisians I'd plunged myself into at the age of 21. Part of me wanted to become that French girl, of course--no one voluntarily expatriates oneself only to hang onto her birth culture, but there were days I just longed use the words I was born into. The bookshop was a place I could do that. Inside, surrounded by copies of Ginsberg's Howl, Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, I could start up a conversation with another San Franciscan and alternately complain about and marvel at our adopted culture for hours.

Odeon 004

Odeon 016

In 2005 I was priviledged to be a participant in a 12-week writing workshop held on the second floor of the bookshop. It was a time in my life where I had a lot of words seeking to show themselves. The workshop was instrumental in helping me string these words together in a beautiful, succinct way. Some of what I consider my best short essays came out during that time, pieces such as Drum and I Know How This Will End. The easy-fit I felt sitting in that room with Others Like Me was...nourishing.

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There are several books that saw their genesis under George's roof. My favorite, and one which I find captures the soul of the Shakespeare and Company experience, is Jeremy Mercer's Time Was Soft There. It does a fine job of conveying what it is like to be down and out in modern Paris as well as giving the reader a real sense of the bookshop's-- and George Whitman's--history (and demons, in the latter's case).

We all feel a bit in the dark now that Whitman's light has been extinguished. That said, I know the bookshop will continue to be that soft and familiar place to land and congregate. The spirit of George will watch over it, assuring that this historical institution continues to leave open its rooms filled with books and inspiration.


The Myth of the French Lover

This essay first appeared in Polly Platt's last work:  Love a la Francaise, 2008, published by Schoenhofs Foreign Books

T here is a abundance of myth circulating in regards to the amorous talents of Frenchmen. “The French Lover” is seen as a redundancy, and many of my female compatriots will attest to the pants-dropping effect of English spoken with a strong French accent. I’ve been pondering this idée reçue lately, trying to put a finger on what exactly makes the Frenchman so sexy.

Seductive tool # 1: I think I’m handsome; so should you

To us American gals, the average Frenchman is just that: physically average. Observe the French actors who are continually cast in heart throb roles: Gérard Depardieu, Vincent Lindon, Daniel Auteuil. None of these men possess the physical attributes of say, a Brad Pitt or George Clooney, yet all three of them have bedded some of the most beautiful women in France, both on-screen and off. How did they do it? Sheer confidence. There is nothing more seductive than a man who thinks he is worthy of your attentions.

Even if he is 5’5.

The Frenchman’s self-image is a reflection of France itself. You’ve got a small country the size of the state of Texas here, yet it is one notch down from the United States in terms of international relations, with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Just as France revels in its self-importance (Former President Chirac once proclaimed France “a beacon for the human race”; I once knew a Frenchman who thought the same of his penis), your average French male projects a similar sense of self-worth.

Seductive tool #2: You are the most beautiful woman in the world.

Frenchmen do not hesitate to tell you how beautiful you are. It is not necessarily used as a pick-up line; it can be a mere observation proffered as fact. Once I was riding the métro, daydreaming and minding my own business. The train arrived at my destination; as I rose to exit the car, the very normal-looking, neither swarthy nor lascivious man across from me spoke up: “Mademoiselle,” he said, “Je voulais vous dire que vous êtes ravissante” (Miss, I wanted to tell you you are ravishing.) There was no subtext to his statement, he was merely sharing his observation. Whether it is true or not, I cannot confirm. But the unencumbered freedom with which the Frenchman shares his thoughts about how he perceives you is powerful stuff.

Seductive tool #3: The Actual Act

Frenchmen love to make love. They love to make love to their girlfriends, to their wives, to their mistresses; why, sometimes they love to make love to all three of them one right after the other! Flagrant desire is a source of pride and a renewable resource. They have such a good time between the sheets! It’s like an amusement park in there!

None of this research is going to get me into the Panthéon. My statistics may be skewed because I have not done much random sampling, my subjects are self-selecting, and I lack a control group. But it is my academic duty to continue on, in the name of Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité! Aux armes, citoyens!

jeudi 2 février 2012


I 'm pondering the meaning/symbolism of coffee in my two cultures today.  The idea of "to go" coffee, you know, the sort you can buy in a drive-through.

One of the reasons that this type of dispensary could not exist in France (aside from the fact that the French are not a car culture) might be grounded in the idea of coffee, of having a coffee, being an excuse to congregate, rather than a fill a physiological need to replenish one's energy supply. Sure, I've downed an expresso at 16h00 when my head starts dropping onto my desk...but it has always been inside a cafe, either at the "zinc"--the counter--or sitting down however briefly at a little round table amongst the smokers. It involves an exchange with the cafe owner ("Bonjour Monsieur") as well as an exchange with the waiter ("un express, s'il vous plait") and some chit chat with any other regular I might recognize in the cafe where I go near my office.

What I'm highlighting here is this idea of connection, communication, exchange...these subtle threads that are so important in helping one feel a part of a larger community. And this is what the drive-through cannot provide. I do understand its role in American culture: these drive-throughs offer convenience, an adrenaline fix for a tired mom with two kids strapped into carseats in the back who otherwise would not get the recharge she needs to keep on going, sustenance for the communter who overslept that morning and did not have time to make his own brew...and I'm glad that one has the option available to fill up his styrofoam cup at the same time one fills up his gas tank. Choice and availability are but two of those things that American marketers do best.

But I wonder if there are still places here in California where one can go to find community and coffee...and I'm talking about coffee as a pretext to sit and shoot the breeze, not designer $4.50/350-calories-a-cup coffee taken to go. In my hometown, there are no more diners. Heck, the old bars which lined a certain section of Fourth street during my childhood, with their untrendy names like "Pago Pago", "The Gold Clown", "The Vault" are all gone, replaced by Peet's and Starbucks. The old guys of San Rafael, on their fixed pensions, can't afford the products sold in these places, and they certainly would not find companionship nor conversation amongst the clientele who frequents them.

After a recent hike out in west Marin, I took the kids to an old, authentic eatery out in Point Reyes Station. And I pointed out to them the old timers, the Portuguese immigrants who came to west Marin to work the land, the dairy ranches. I went to high school with their kids whose names seemed so exotic to me: Texeira, Nunes...I made it a point to show the girls that these guys came to this particular place to linger over a plain, black cup of coffee. That they probably would sit there all day, just enjoying the talk and the gossip. And without places like this, the threads of the community would be hard to keep intact. And that we were very lucky to still have these watering holes on every corner of every street in France. Serving good, inexpensive coffee, plain or fancy. And a side order of conversation and connection.

Cultural Misunderstanding

T he majority of cultural misunderstandings occur not due to a lack of cultural sensitivity, but more because of an innate reflex to interpret the alter culture through the lens of one's mater culture. It is in this juxtaposition of a prioris where clashes and frustrations are born. "If only they could be more like us!" is a frequent cry heard when Americans come up against some of the French idiosyncrasies.
Don't Go Thinking Banks Are Where the Money Is
I'm not quite sure what the main purpose of French banks is, but I've found that they are the least reliable places to perform monetary transactions. (The French like to go to the post office to do their banking. Maybe the bank is the place to go for stamps?)

I needed to pay my grad students their stipend, so I called the University's banker, the appropriately-named Mr. LeSot ("the fool") and prepared him for my arrival. "Please have xxxx,xx euros ready for me," I tell him, because I know, as a long-term resident of the Hexagone, that one must order one's cash withdrawal in advance. You see, French banks don't actually have any money in their tills.

So I present myself at the window a couple of days later but the teller cannot provide me with the correct assortment of bills, despite my pre-order. "We only have large bills," she tells me. But you are a bank! This is where the money is! If you can't supply me with bills of smaller-denominations, who can?

She suggests I take the large bills to the Post to break them.

(I almost asked her for 10 books of stamps, but held my tongue.)

Do Not Announce The Name of Your Business
When I answer the phone at work, I always say "University of Euphoria" because, well, I'm not at home, I'm at work! But whenever I call a French homologue--be it my colleagues over at the Ministry of Education, or the assistant to the President of the Sorbonne, that person will pick up the phone and say


making me think I've misdialed. So I always have to say something like

"Je suis bien au Ministère de l'Education Nationale?"
("I've reached the Ministry of Education?")

to which they reply, all huffylike:

"Bien sûr [quelle idiote]. Vous n'êtes pas au Pizza Hut!"
("Of course, [you idiot]. This is not the Pizza Hut!")

Never Display the Hours of Your Place of Business
I can't figure out why this is taboo here, but you'll never see one of those "Open: 9am Closed 5pm:" signs affixed to the merchant's door. Maybe it is just so they can arrive as late as they want and not have to be accountable to the customer for their tardiness.

Children Pee Openly In Public
Part of this is the lack of public toilets, but it is also due to the freedom the French feel they have to display their genitals at all ages. I must say, when toilet-training a child, it is a blessing to be able to pull down their underpants and hold them over the gutter when the toddler feels the need to "Go potty, Mommy!" But the first time I tried this in the States, I got arrested.

I long ago learned not to pull my hair out when confronted with the vagaries of different cultures. (I'd be bald if that behavior had continued.) The best way to go about it, as I tell my students, is just approach it all as a learning experience. Listen, observe, take notes, and go home and write about it mockingly on the internet.


This essay first appeared in So Far and Yet So Near, an anthology of expatriate musings, published by ACA Press.

T he day STARBUCKS© hung their shingle in Paris, the press was all abuzz. The presence of yet another icon of American consumer habits on French soil—joining the ranks of GAP, ESPRIT, MCDONALDS et al-- has me reminiscing about the days when we Americans-in-Paris were hard-pressed to find anything from our native land over here in our adopted one.

I expatriated myself in 1986. Global marketing was in its infancy and the internet did not exist as we know it today. A few American companies had made inroads in getting their product to market in France: one could find Coca Cola (although the mix was tailored to local tastes, ie less sweet and never served on ice), and McDonald’s was just setting up on the Champs-Elysees (later to be fined for allowing dogs on the premises; they shut their doors for a bit but reemerged with a new policy). I would always take an empty suitcase on my trips to America, with the intention of filling it with all that I missed and could not find an adequate substitute for in Paris. These items fell into two categories: foodstuffs (peanut butter, Reese’s Peanut Butter cups, Hershey’s Kisses, Lucky Charms) and health and beauty products (Crest toothpaste, Vidal Sasson shampoo, deodorant).

For my longer stays in the US, I would do the same in reverse. I would leave France with a suitcase filled with everything I could not find in the States: again, the comestibles (Ricore coffee, 80 percent chocolate cooking chocolate, Carambar candies), and the rest: Dim stockings, Klorane hair supplies, French lingerie.

Oddly, once I had the foreign product in hand in my “other” homeland, I would often refuse to use it, for fear of running out, or hoard it for so long that I would surpass the expiration date and have to toss the thing away!

I no longer drag local goods back and forth. I realized after a time that it was not the actual product that I longed for when away from either country, but the country itself. The product was merely a talisman which served to conjure up a memory or illusion of something about that “other place”. As I sat on my parent's deck in Marin County, I could fix myself a bowl of chicory coffee (a bowl, not a mug!) and have the Proustian madeline moment of believing that I was back in my Parisian apartment. And upon my return to France, I could pop a Hershey’s Kisses into my mouth while riding the métro and conjure up a memory of sitting in Candlestick Park with my Dad, watching the Giants play ball.

I also realized that I savored the specialness of the separate country/separate product paradigm. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese belongs in America! Runny and ripe Camembert belongs in France! Having access to all goods in all places produced such a pale feeling of sameness. There is a beauty and soul to regional goods. Something that strip malls and ubiquitous branding have left behind.

So while I applaud the opening of the STARBUCKS© at the Place de l’Opéra (I like my decaf nonfat latte as much as the next suburban yuppie bitch), I also relish the fact that I can still patronize the little merchant down the street that sells nothing but sea salt from the Guérande. And he has no idea how to export it nor interest in expanding his market share.
From their flagship shop at the Opera, to this post-modern masterpiece under the Louvre, Starbucks is now as ubiquitous here in Paris as it is in the United States

L'Arabe du Coin

« L ’arabe du coin » or the corner Arab, is the term—racist and pejorative in nature—that the Parisians use to refer to the small neighbourhood grocers which stay open late and on Sundays in this city. Their goods are pricey and limited, but often exotic (pistachios and pastries from the Middle East; Jergen’s Hand Lotion imported from Tunisa and bearing a label straight out of the 1960s; the whole line of Cadbury chocolate snacks) and obscure.

I never patronize my grocer when I need to do a major shop but I do stop by with the girls to pick up a bottle of water or select some penny candy. The latter involves a time-consuming ritual: the children take a small kraft paper bag and fill it with sweets picked from the drawers of a structure which was certainly destined to hold small bits of hardware in someone’s tool shed rather than gummy bears, gelatinous worms and chocolate-covered marshmallows. Since there are about 20 different drawers to choose from and the assortment changes from time to time, the girls can spend a lot of time examining and deciding on their bounty.

My particular grocer is one of the nicest merchants I’ve ever dealt with in a city not known for warm customer relations. He could be curt and gruff, given that his shop is close to the Eiffel Tower and his clientele largely made up of tourists with a limited notion of French (or Arabic). But he is always happy, always eager to chat, and always gives the girls a little something. Today it was a little feathered “bird”, the kind one sees stuck in floral arrangements. He showed off a postcard he had received from some recent visitors to his shop—some Americans he had charmed and who courteously remembered him after they returned home. The space around his cash register is filled with postcards from “friends” who have stopped and bought a cold coke and a sack of chips from his place.

I have seen him make deliveries to the older folks in the neighbourhood, sometimes just a 6-pack of mineral water to an old lady too frail to lift the thing and carry it home. He closes the shop to do this. “If I don’t, who will?” he once told me when I asked about it.

My father inherited the family concern, a menswear store in San Rafael, a store which did a good business during a time when most working men wore suits and shopping malls had yet to mushroom across America. [Name redacted]Shop for Men and Boys was where the Marin County businessmen went to be outfitted sharply and the local talent could find original shirts and Levis. My father dressed Jerry Garcia and Van Morrison, Philip K Dick and Frank Herbert, all Marinites at one point in their lives.

I grew up in that store. I would go there after school, do my homework in dad’s office above the “floor” and ride home with him after he closed the shop at 5:30. When I turned 16, I had the “right” to work there, hocking the ties and Jockey shorts, the cords and the cowboy shirts. To this day, I can accurately gauge a man’s neck size, arm length and inseam without the help of a tape measurer.

My dad was probably the last of a generation of professional retailers….at least in our part of California. He knew about fabric drape, where the cuff of the pants should “break” at the shoe, how to chalk a suit jacket for alterations (“We’ll have this out of the tailor shop in time for your wedding, Mr Albert, you can count on it”) and how to lay out a tie so you could see how it might coordinate with the shirt (“Offer it like a box of chocolates”). He took a great deal of pride in his shop and in his product. He worked 6 days a week, stood on his feet for 8 hours a day, and never complained.

In the 80s, dad saw the writing on the wall. The malls had moved in, with their free parking and all-in-one shopping under controlled climatic conditions. He correctly predicted that downtown San Rafael would be going belly-up in a matter of years. He measured his last client’s inseam length, stitched a perfect hem into the worsted wool, and locked up the shop.

Trend predictors say that in retail, there will ultimately be only two contenders: the large stores like Macy’s and Nordstroms, and the small specialty shops such as my dad’s. But I don’t see too many of those small places thriving when I go back to California. And I certainly have trouble finding a professional salesperson who knows the width and depth of his product, or even cares about what he is selling for that matter.

So I truly appreciate the attitude of my neighbourhood grocer. It brings back a memory of my father, and of a time when pride in doing the job correctly, of filling a community niche, was important to both the giver and the receiver.