C’est Logique…. and a Contest

We think of the French as great chefs, glorious vintners and gifted with all things visual – art, architecture, la mode, je ne sais quoi. But when it comes to modern life, technology, engineering, we don’t usually think of the French. We don’t usually think, “Hmm, Blackberry could use some help getting back in the game. Better call some Frenchmen (or women).” But these limiting views of French savour faire deserve a rethink. There’s a lot of cleverness here . photo 2

Here is the apartment washer-dryer. Yep,  washer and dryer in one.

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See? It will dry, it will wash, it will take up very little room and be very, very quiet so that you can have a dinner party and sip champagne just feet from your laundry, something I don’t think you do normally at home.

At home, the vogue in laundry equipment is big, honkin’, brightly coloured front-loaders that are jacked up on platforms, perform tricks like steam clean and are just plain vulgar and unnecessary. In fact, a whole cultural analysis could be undertaken on this topic and it would reveal a lot about us and them. But I will spare you. Next example.

photo 4  Okay, this is not engineering, it is commerce, yet another field I avoided in university but that could have made me a lot richer. That’s another story. Anyway, in France, they post the prices of what is displayed in the store window, in the window. I like this. It confirms for me that even during Les Soldes I cannot afford “Sandro”, something which is nice to know before I set foot inside. Can you afford these things? Zoom to see. Next example.

photo 3   Here we see a converter. Important to come to France with many of these so that you do not spend hours searching for your ONLY ONE, and blaming your husband. Do not cheap out on these. We tried that and our daughter’s blow dryer turned into an instrument of doom with actual flames coming out. That’ll dry your hair quickly.  Have high-end converters  conveniently staged everywhere so that you do not fry your electricals. Why? Because French electricity is like Le Jazz Hot: 220, man. Fast, fast, fast. Boil water in seconds. Why don’t we have this? It’s just better.

As if I haven’t made my case, here is the final example, a favourite, since plumbing is always a potent measure of civilization and the French  learned from the ROMANS.

photo 5 Voila. Le petit et le grand. We know the difference between Number 1 and Number 2 and so does the toilet. These are starting to make their way to North America. About time.

Finally, I know you have been curious about the Contest. In this contest, Alan and I are the winners. Sorry. I do have a consolation prize for the person who makes the most amusing comment on the blog.  The thing is, Alan and I just learned we have won 1000$ for opening a bank account with La Capitale. Perhaps you can too by contacting Robert Nuss and opening your own account (you’re welcome Robert). So the contest has to do with you voting as to what we should do with the bucks. Should we:

1. Have lunch at a Michelin  Three Star Restaurant?

2. Go on a shopping spree in the Marais (Alan too)?

3. Buy art – maybe at the flea market?

4. Save it for our next trip? (Do you really want to be that boring?)

Vote and vote often (using the comment space on wordpress). Alternative suggestions not accepted (unless they are damned good). Family members are not excluded. Most amusing comment wins a mud soap bar and shea butter cream from a high end beauty shop in the Marais – more about that in tomorrow’s post.

Terror in Paris II

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Sunlight and blue skies this early Sunday morning in the Paris apartment. A great morning to head out explore the city. Recent events in the city were still very much on our mind and  were hardly dispelled by the sight of soldiers in their camouflage, carrying machine guns, trigger at the ready. But we have seen that before in Paris.

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As you stroll the city the idea of terror is always there, embedded in the very stones. Soaring above the Seine, on the Right Bank at Chatelet, is the Tour St Jacques. It is all that remains of a Church, torn down stone by stone, by Parisians, during the Revolution. A tremendous fury must have fuelled the destruction of a church that had been erected as an act of faith by their very ancestors.

IMG_3609  And what did I spy at the foot of our very own apartment building: “This was the entrance of the prison of the grand army (1782-1845). At this place 161 detainees, including the Princess de Lamballe, were put to death the 3rd, 4th, and 5th September, 1792”. Of course, I looked the Princess up.

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She was Marie Louise Therese de Savoie, the dear friend of Marie Antoinette. She was caught up in the Terror, or, a moment of terror before Robespierre and friends really got to work at Place de la Concorde, with their “humane” death machine, the guillotine. Beware, oh one percent.

IMG_0175IMG_0174  The most beautiful room of the Musee Cluny houses the decapitated statues of Kings, removed from the facade of Notre Dame during the Terror. Thought lost, they were rediscovered in a rubble pile and take their place together now, a commentary on power, loss, and the passage of time.

 

 

IMG_3604   Elsewhere in our neighbourhood, the Marais, the story of terror is present in more subtle ways. Hoping to confuse the mob, aristocrats at the time of the Terror had their coats of arms removed from the streetscape outside their  mansions. They present a blank face. Aristocrats? Us?

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But, despite this city’s  frequent and potent reminders that human history is a story of violence and terror, there are many moments that point the other way.

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We live four subway stops from Place de la Republique, but the crowds walking home from the “manif”, today’s unity rally that drew two and a half million  Parisians, were huge and continued past  our apartment for hours. Tired, happy, proud. They stood up to terror and said no to fear. They asserted their unity and their humanity.

Everyone who watches the news today will know about the huge success of today’s event. But I would like to share a small moment that I witnessed last year, on World Holocaust Day. Just down the street from our apartment was the Memorial de Shoah, which was behind barricades that day. Pedestrians were allowed to go past, and as you did, you could see a shelter and an event taking place. It was a ceremony, and it took us a moment to understand. “They are saying Kaddish.” Prayers for the dead. It went on all day.

Take a look at who provided security for this event, creating a sense of safety for the Jewish relatives of the dead.

IMG_1726_2  Yes, policemen. Of African origin. French citizens  aiding French citizens in the act of remembering and repudiating terror.

 

Terror in Paris

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By now most of my friends know that during the Charlie Hebdo shootings I was inside the Picasso museum which,  next to the Elysee Palace, must be  one of the most secure spots in the city. The lineups to get into the newly- renovated  museum had been fou through Christmas and New Year’s so we purchased our tickets on-line and hoped that by this week the crowds would have  gone back to their classrooms and offices. There were still substantial lineups, and in some of the galleries, overcrowding, but by the time we came out – no one. Hmm, we thought, should have come later. Would have had Picasso to ourselves. At the same time, my friend Genevieve was out for the first day of les soldes, the Paris Winter sales. Wandering the world’s most wonderful department store, the BHV, she was astonished at its emptiness  since on this day of the calendar, hepped-up Parisiennes vie for the orange-ticket items and run to the cash with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Interestingly, Genevieve and I both learned of the grim truth from our far-flung children, texting us to reassure themselves about their mothers’ safety.

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At dinner that night chez Genevieve, surrounded by her friends, fear, angst, and anger flowed along with the champagne. “I’m terrified,” said Francoise -the -beautiful -dentist. “These young men , many of them are French, Catholics even.” She envisaged an unstoppable fifth column of citizen terrorists destroying the French way of life. The other Francoise, a gravel-voiced banker’s wife, was imagining how the families of the dead were feeling, their friends too. “Just because they stand up to these….. Islamists!” She spat the word and looked around uneasily. I thought it unlikely that any of these extremely tasteful and  soignee bourgeoises had been faithful Charlie Hebdo readers. But that night in Paris we were all Charlie.

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Freedom of expression, of self determination, of religious affiliation (or none) are hard-won French values we Canadians inherit and hold dear. For us,  adoption of these ideals has been comparatively easy. But for the French, centuries of turmoil were needed to effect their ascendance. And now the French are coping with a post-colonial legacy they cannot control and that threatens the humanist freedoms their ancestors died to establish. This legacy takes the shape of disaffected, potentially violent  urban youth, often born in France, but with parents from former colonies, who are picked up by extreme movements offering them that sense of belonging the Fifth Republic cannot or does not provide. I mumbled something to my dinner companions  about trying to identify the lonely, the misfits, trying to lend support to those working with youth in the banlieues. I was thinking of my daughter Charlotte’s experience in a Paris high school. She was stunned that Ismail, 18 years of age in a grade where everyone else was 14, a giant lad with the ebony skin and pleasing manners of the Senegalese, was simply waiting out the year in order to drop out and go on the dole.

“Well, what does he do every day?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “He just sits at the back of the class.”

“Don’t the teachers yell at him?”  It was  a bit of a joke. The teachers were always yelling in a way we found shocking, until it became funny.

“No. They leave him alone.”

I was mystified. Perhaps you don’t yell at a young man who could so easily punch your lights out. Or maybe you don’t yell at him because you have no hope for him, less even than he has for himself. Maybe such a young man goes on to become the ideal target of “recruiters”; I cannot believe that it has to be so.

Gripped

THE BAD NEWS: I have had the worst flu ever, something I imported to France, however unwittingly. This flu is truly the worst. Many of my Canadian friends have come down with it, and some have had it twice, which seems particularly unfair. My friend’s brother-in-law spent his Christmas holidays lying on the living room floor groaning. No one wanted to move him.

This flu feels like death. Everything hurts. Your eyeballs hurt. You are exhausted and while at night you cannot sleep, in the day you can do little else. You are wracked with a tight cough that hurts and fever that goes on for days. You have a sour stomach and no appetite. You are in Paris and you have no appetite. This is a new category of hell. Oh did I say that that is the good news? I AM IN PARIS AGAIN, FRIENDS, and I have spent the first precious two weeks with the flu.

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This is me, languishing on the couch. Alan, reflected, is taking the picture from our balcony.

“Admit it,” my friend Alison said on the phone. “There’s something exotic and interesting about being sick over there.” Sort of. At first I tried ignoring it. No, that’s not the flu, that’s jet lag. Better to just power through. So I tried just getting up and going out until I experienced a kind of cerveau fouetter (whipped brain) – like someone had gone after my brain with a mixmaster causing me to briefly black out and trip on the cobblestones. This is not chic behaviour anywhere but particularly not out in the ultra-cool Marais. I went home and decided that I would spend all day in bed. This has been fail-safe in the past. One day in bed has always fixed me right up. But this evil Canadian flu just laughs at such feeble strategies. “Vraiment?”, it says (for some reason it has a French accent). “Want some more Cerveau fouetter?”

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Hours before the fever, I am sampling a macaron.

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Next day, at the Brancusi Museum, pretending not to be sick, but looking like hell. 

I have never been sick, really sick, while away and it changes everything. Passing cafe windows, I was sickened. “Why do they keep eating and eating?” I wondered. “Eleven in the morning, four in the afternoon, they eat and eat. What for? Go home. It’s enough!”

“What am I doing here, anyway?” I thought. “I’ve seen everything already.  I can’t think of anything I want to do. Why didn’t I realize this before?”

What do the French do when they are sick? Apparently, they take a lot of drugs. “Dolyprene”, a young houseguest assured me. “Avec Advill”. “BOTH?” I said. “Le molecule nest pas le meme” he explained. “Sounds scientific” I said, swallowing down my pills. Half an hour later, I was able to sit up and within an hour, I was out on the cobblestones again. A few days later, quite suddenly, it lifted. I was on my way to the iStore (upcoming post) and I stopped for a cafe creme. A couple of sips in, everything was suddenly normal. I felt, well, perky. The waiter’s jokes seemed kindly. The rain shone on the sidewalks with an Impressionist shimmer. It was going to be okay.

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Tope Trope

We all have our little quirks. In the spirit of no-holds-barred, here is one of mine: I love topiary. I do get it that topiary is, well, silly. Why trim the heck out of some poor plant in order to give it a shape Nature never intended? The French would scoff at the idea of respecting nature’s intentions. They unabashedly fly in the face of nature. In fact, friends were shocked when we explained that we simply let the trees on our country property  grow without interfering. It just seemed bizarre to them, “You mean you don’t keep them trim?” The expression on the faces would have been the same if they were saying, “You mean you never wash your hair?” Below is an example of what untrammelled French slashing leads to:  the deformed stumps they call trees in Limoges.

IMG_0877Public square, Limoges.

 Seriously. Why would you do this? Looks like Edward Scissorhands ran amok.

Still, the sculptural possibilities of trimming plants into shapes delights me. For example, Levens Hall in the U.K.

levens Admit it, this is fun. images

 

 

 

 

His Royal Highness Prince Charles has some pretty good topes at his garden Highgrove.imagesThe-Thyme-Walk---Andrew-Lawson-2011---G395-11D-79These are yellow holly topes. So cool. How enchanting it would be to walk this allée, enjoying the artistry of the many forms these shrubs take while waiting for the White Rabbit to pop out from behind one of them. Of course, the Prince bought the topiary along with the Elizabethan era mansion that is the heart of Highgrove. I have been less fortunate. In the financial sense.

But even Prince Charles cannot manage the largesse of some other royals. Louis the XIV, for instance. One of the pleasures of Versailles are the hundreds of perfect topiary specimens that line the major axis of the gardens. I think I photographed half of them.

IMG_1651 IMG_1637IMG_1633IMG_1631 Beautiful, no?

But, having shown you Levens Hall, Highgrove and Versailles, you are no doubt breathless for a view of my own topiary, introduced some years ago in my country garden. This plan was hatched after a typically long Quebec winter that I spent poring over the very compelling book by Bunny Guiness, Highgrove – A Garden Celebrated. So what if Prince Charles had a crack team of gardeners to help him keep the Thyme Walk Topiary in trim? I had to try. And, as usual, short on time and cash, we went to our own woods to dig out baby fir trees. I chose tamaracks for their bluey-green feathery foliage. Examining our work in progress, our friend the forester, Justin, helpfully pointed to the 50 foot tall tamaracks of our forest and said, “You do realize that they get quite tall”? “I will keep them trimmed,” I said breezily.

IMG_1883 Here is half of the main axis of our garden that runs parallel to the south side of the house. The topiary were to provide structure and demarcate the axis,

IMG_1884Gulp. Here you have it . Four topiariy-in -training, one half of the topiary walk.

IMG_1875Here is my best one. I said this to a friend recently and she said, “Aren’t they supposed to be, well, round? ” “Getting there!” I responded testily. It’s OK.  Lots of other friends come to visit and say, “I LOVE the topiary!” And they smile and squeeze my hand. I think what they are saying is, I love it that you are the kind of crazy person who would conceive and try a topiary walk in a frozen little Northern garden when you are not Louis XIV or even Prince Charles. Right.

Au Revoir, Paris

Sad. Can’t help feeling it, saying good-bye to beautiful Paris. Tomorrow we will be winging our way home, looking rather like this.

 

Image from www.alovelybeing.com

  Image from http://www.alovelybeing.com, with thanks.                  

 

The first thing we do on arrival is retrieve this wonderful being, my “son”.

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Then we will light a fire, even if it is rather warm.

IMG_0062   But the Christmas tree will not be there. I hope. I did take it down, didn’t I?

I hope that these two people will come over right away.

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And we will open presents from Paris and a bottle from Bordeaux.

I will fix them a dinner that looks something like this.

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In a kitchen that looks like this.

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Then in a day or two someone who looks like this will come from Toronto and we will give her big hugs.

IMG_0116  And we will have visits with mothers, and sisters and pay our taxes late – first time ever, I swear and it will all feel wonderful. It does already.

Dames d’un Certain Age II

Don’t think I have ceased researching my soon- to-be best-seller on the beauty secrets of middle-aged Parisiennes. Au contraire.  I know that in this time of resurgent Cold War and financial uncertainty, when a SARS-like epidemic out of the Middle-East (coincidence?) is heading our way, the primary pressing concern of the average North American woman of a certain age is how to stave off the ravages of time, shed wrinkles and extra pounds,  and achieve the insouciant epitome of chic that is the natural state of women over here. I have dedicated myself to this research (a fact I particularly insist upon in the expectation that I can write off all of my expenses on this trip in my 2014 tax return). I cannot give away all the book’s secrets, but to whet your appetite I would like to begin with a general discussion of certain myths concerning the aging Parisienne.

#1. It is not true that all  Parisian women are young-looking and chic. Not at all. They often  show their age. Every one of those Gitanes they smoked as they mounted the barricades in May 68 is written on their faces in wrinkles as complex as the Paris metro map. They often wear nondescript outfits and sensible shoes. Their hair is in  a bun, and  not a chic messy-bun as seen in the advertizing for Aesop skin care products. Not at all.

#2. It is not true that the French don’t try to be beautiful. Believe me, they try. Take cellulite creams. In the pharmacies of Paris there is hardly room for any drugs because of the amount of shelf-space devoted to cellulite creams. And honestly, who would be naive enough to think that a cream would get rid of cellulite, anyway?

Imagined conversation:

Pharmacist:   “Desolez, Madame, but I cannot give you any antibiotics for your oozing sores to-day, because we ran out of room for them.”

Customer: “Zut, what shall I do?”

Pharmacist: “Perhaps try some cellulite cream? It’s very effective.”

#3. It is not true that Parisiennes do not use botox. At a dinner party I attended recently, a truly beautiful fellow guest was so botoxed that when she spoke, she sounded like she had no teeth. It was painful to see her try to form words, and discover that her upper lip just wasn’t going anywhere.

Exercise for those considering botox:

Go to a mirror. Stuff four cotton balls under your upper lip. Notice that those witchy lines do disappear, but also notice that  you look like Bugs Bunny. Now try to talk. Say words like: wonderful, please, and why would I want to look so ridiculous.

Enough myth-busting, although there is much more to be said. Time for stalking the chic Parisiennes we do admire. Let’s look at some photos and analyze.

A few weeks ago, at the Paris Art Fair, I noticed that I was surrounded by the subject types we are most interested in. Ah-ha, iphone 5C at the ready!

IMG_1299 Here’s the setting. The beautiful Grand Palais. Chic Parisiennes are everywhere, selling, buying, discussing, seeing and being seen.

IMG_1282   Our first subject shows that you need not be young nor happy to be chic. She has style, she matches the paintings, the grey hair was a good choice and she understands that if you are going to go grey you have to wear lipstick.

IMG_1276 Perfect. The figure on the right has orange everything – jacket, hair and hem. And it’s really working. She looks vibrant, chic – er than thou. Her friend has the most gorgeous coat. The purse and pants are right.

IMG_1241 Some art. Just to raise the tone of our discussion.

IMG_1245 Oh, the young Moms. Jeggings, leggings, great knee-length coat, large hand bag, white platform running shoes. Copy that.

IMG_1253 Running shoes again. Now this hurts a bit, because no running shoes unless at the gym, used be a central tenet of the Parisiennes’ creed. But things have changed and running shoe culture has come to Paris. Still, as your teenagers know, they have to wear the RIGHT running shoes. White or black lace-ups. Look like Keds. Could be platform if you want a little height.

IMG_1243 More art. Improve your mind.

IMG_1246 Yes. Camel and perfectly coiffed. Oxfords are another good shoe choice and they are everywhere here.

IMG_1295  Arty, shawled, dark tights. Take notes.

IMG_1277 Dashing about. She’s working but always coordinated in the great Paris non-colours that are a no-risk choice for the chic.

Okay, there you have it. More myths busted and more secrets revealed in “Aging Like A Parisienne”, by Christine Stonehewer. Advanced orders accepted.