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.


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



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.


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.



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?


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.



IMG_3622 IMG_3624


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


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.



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.


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.


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.


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?”


Hours before the fever, I am sampling a macaron.


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.


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”.


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.


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

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


In a kitchen that looks like this.

IMG_0141 Not like this.imgres

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.

The Stomach of Paris

“You will see what even Parisians never get to see,” Genevieve said as we lurched and swerved our way through early morning traffic. Glad that she, not me, was driving, I hoped that there would be coffee at our destination. We had left our apartment at 6:15 to rendez-vous with G. “How is it that you get to go in?” I asked. “Je suis membre d’un societé,” she said rather mysteriously. “It must be the Society of the Legion of Honour,” I murmered  to Alan. “Actually,” she said, having heard, “both my grandfathers, my father, and my ex-husband  had the Legion of Honour”. I have told readers before that G. is crème de la crème. “Then you are a Legionnaire by proximity,” I said. She chuckled.

About 15 minutes beyond the outskirts of Paris, we arrived. “It has its own airport,” G. said. “Shipments come in from all over the world.”

“And from here to the rest of France?” I asked.

“To the rest of Europe.”

We are standing on a superb, sunny and warm day in a rather bleak, unending parking lot. Silly me. I had thought that Rungis, the Marché Central of Paris, would be like the cheery, tented street markets that dot the city, only bigger.

IMG_1544 Here you see row on row of electrical lines and greenhouses at Rungis.

Rungis is the successor as the “stomach of Paris” to the far grittier and picturesque Les Halles. That the earlier market existed for centuries but a stone’s throw from the Louvre is another indicator of the centrality of food for the Parisian. You may have read those wonderful Paris memoirs in which Hemingway and friends cavort until dawn and then end their white night with a bowl of bouillabaise at Les Halles. It also is the scene of many a crime novel. Today the area is under renovation but the streets surrounding the former market site are amongst our least favorite, proving that even Paris has its tacky neighbourhoods.

“Hurry,” Genevieve said. “we must get to the flower hall. It’s the first to shut down.” We step into a building that would dwarf an airline hangar and enter…. heaven.


Men with trolleys are running around frantically, as the French do when they’re working, and each trolley is packed precipitously with mountains of gorgeous, absolutely freshly-cut flowers.

IMG_1534 Bins of roses, four deep.

IMG_1533 Cut orchids.


Colour and scent everywhere.

IMG_1536 How to choose? G. and I zoned in on some white and almost black anemones. I also got white sweet peas and G. got a little pot of lily of the valley.

On to the greenhouses. We drove. Everything is big and far in this market. From a plant point of view, and as a botanical garden, Paris’ Jardin des Plantes is a bit disappointing. But who needs one when you have these massive, incredible greenhouses? Suivez-moi.

IMG_1548  Topiary Olive trees. You know how I love topiary.

IMG_1563 Clematis. We can’t grow this kind.

IMG_1562IMG_1553IMG_1549 Xmas tree- shaped azalea. Not fair.

IMG_1550 Topiary azalea. Ditto.IMG_1545IMG_1552IMG_1551IMG_1554IMG_1564IMG_1546

Okay, I know that so far there has been precious little about food. Don’t worry. We did get to food. A classic Parisian hostess, G. begins most of her soirées with a glass of champagne (yes, real) and foie gras which she always prepares herself. She gets the foie gras at Rungis, by the box. Driving over to her provider, she seemed piqued that I was not getting any. How to explain? It’s a bit of an animal cruelty objection and a bit of a high fat issue. Eating a bite of foie gras is delicious, but on the third or fourth bite I feel as though I’m eating a pound of butter. I said something lame about it’s not the way I cook. No problem, though. At this provider (“He supplies all the 3 star chefs”, G. said), I found delicious smoked salmon, a large bag of escargots in butter and garlic, a pot of fig jam, hazelnut oil, argan oil – for my skin and hair –  and duck confit. In the adjacent vendor, I bought cheeses and sweet butter (see, I have nothing against fat, in modest amounts – au contraire).

IMG_1567IMG_1568 There were also entire chateaubriands and filet mignons as big as eels. There were boxes of poultry, including pigeons as you see on the right. I was very tempted by the pigeons, as I just love them, but even on Weird Food Wednesday I would not have the heart to cut off that sweet little head. There were suckling pigs, too, but enough said about that.

Our expedition was not finished, but the battery in my camera was, so you’ll just have to imagine the massive florist supply store we went into where G. enthusiastically darted about getting little bibs and bobs for her grandchildren for Easter. We ended at a wine and gourmet item warehouse (chocolates, sauces, sun-dried tomatoes and the like). We were invited to taste champagne. Well, it would have been rude not to. G., as the driver, took only a tiny sip, but the gentlemen serving were pouring out tumbler-fulls  for Alan. I guess that noon is late in the day at Rungis and they didn’t want to waste it.

Back in the car, on our way to Paris, G. asked,”Does this interest you, going to Rungis?” This is French for, “Did you like it?”

“Yes,” I said. “It fills me up. It’s like Paris itself, so packed with possibility, so expressive of a particular viewpoint on life, where everything produced is the best one can get, is just what one really enjoys, is there and will always be there and promises so many future pleasures that….” I trailed off, feeling confused. Perhaps it was the champagne leaving me feeling foolish and tongue-tied. Genevieve just smiled and shrugged.


The Matter of Size


My husband is not a tall man. In fact, one of his early romantic gambits was, “You should let me move in….I don’t take up too much space.” Pictured here, at the beautiful Musée Bourdelle, you see him further diminished by the monumental sculpture typical of 19th century Paris. But for the most part, Alan is right at home in Paris where he is not short, but of medium height. We buy his pants here, which suit his slim frame and they don’t need to be altered.

IMG_1049 Here, the Smart Car doesn’t seem so tiny.


We have been amazed at how easy it has been to live in 400 square feet. Except in the closet/kitchen, the apartment doesn’t seem cramped at all. When I paint, it is like Jackson Pollock, on the floor. Not ideal for me, but workable.


So, while in Paris, small may be beautiful in so many contexts. But it is also true that here, the French are also masters of BIG. La grandeur as a vehicle of power is practically a French invention, and they have perfected what my friend historian Pierre L’heureux would call the architecture of absolutism.

IMG_0660 Louis XIV, Mister Big.

IMG_1624 Versailles. You have to respect a guy whose home is big enough to accommodate 20,000 guests.

IMG_1625 The garden comes with a pool.

IMG_1634Or two. The point is inescapable. The owner of Versailles is the Big Kahuna and you better mind your P’s and Q’s. Sorry – wildly mixed metaphor.

Back in Paris, the same point is clear every time you open your eyes.


IMG_1189 Paris Town Hall. Huge Square in front. More statuary than you can shake a stick at.

Then there’s the Louvre which obviously supports my case. There is that breathtaking moment when you walk into the central square. It’s magnificent and imposing. It imposes its owner’s power on you.


IMG_1606  This makes you feel pretty darn good when you are on the inside, as Alan is here, having birthday lunch at the Louvre. Dining in its vast arcade he felt like Cardinal Richelieu. Only jewish. And married.

IMG_1376 Then there are all those vast cathedrals such as Notre Dame, shown here. Towns outdid each other to produce the biggest, tallest ones. It took ages to build them and all kinds of tricky engineering such as flying buttresses but it was worth it to make the point that God is great. Pilgrims – after the Vikings, the original medieval tourists – added considerably to local economies. In this rush to impress, everyone forgot that blessed are the meek. Oh, well.

In Paris, going west is going to bigness. Below, the Grand Palais is aptly named.


Across the road, the Petit Palais is not petit at all.

IMG_1192  It does have some very nice stuff, however.

IMG_1193 Aren’t those hooves killer?

IMG_1198 Alan coordinates with the statuary.

Come to think of it, the Greeks knew quite a lot about impressing people and the Romans even more. Or maybe they just cared about it more.  So, while the impulse to create grandeur may arrive from tyranny, greed and other nasty human traits, we,  the lucky inheritors of the architecture of absolutism, its buildings,   statues, bridges, roads and towns, get to enjoy it all and not care a whit if Louis XIV was powerful or not. In fact, if we don’t feel like cooking in a closet one night, we can even go dine on his porch.










Weird French Food IV


No, I didn’t. There are lengths to which I will not go, even to amuse you, dear reader, and eating this trio of lamb heads on offer at Marche d”Aligre is one of them. It was interesting to me that they stuffed the mouths with something – kind of like the apple in the roasted pig’s mouth but I can’t tell what and I hesitated to go in closer for a look. Obviously, I do not have what it takes to be an investigative reporter.

Instead, we opted for seafood. This week in the closet, uh I mean kitchen, I have a comely assistant.


This is my daughter Charlotte, here on Spring Break. (See my post “Mother and Child Reunion” to understand how really happy I am at this moment.) She is saying, “Mom, do we have to have to eat the eyeballs?”

These lovely big shrimp are called Gambas. There are even bigger ones but you know me, I’m cheap when it comes to marketing.  The great cuisines of the world are all ones in which necessity was the mother of flavour. Think: French boeuf bourguignon, pot-au-feu, confit de canard. It’s all farmhouse cooking, cheaper cuts and  methods for making them delicious. Same with Italian food, where all the recipes were developed by someone’s grandmother and are based on rice. pasta, abundant vegetables, and a very little  bit of meat, ground or pounded into submission. Chinese food, too, doesn’t begin with the idea, “What are the most expensive ingredients around? Let’s cook them.”  I say, “Let’s get creative and save money. Then, we’ll spend that money on wine!” I’m sure the lamb heads were cheap, but as I said, I do have limits.


Here are the Gambas in the skillet. I started by sauteeing leeks and mushrooms. I set them aside and sauteed the shrimp (rinsed and dried) separately. I use olive oil in the skillet. Once the shrimp were pink on both sides, I put the mushrooms and leeks back in. Then I added some white wine – a nice light Sancerre. Five minutes later, voila. I don’t peel the shrimp before bringing them to the table. Maybe I would if Queen Elizabeth were coming for dinner but she has not turned up as yet. Eating this kind of food is a dig-in-with-your-fingers sort of event. So we peel, we eat, we mop with bread and wash down with the Sancerre. And we do not eat the eyeballs.


Next on Weird Food, something I need to show you, for a giggle, but have held back because it’s not food and it’s more like weird advertizing. But what the heck. You know Orangina. It’s kinda weird – an orange flavoured fizzy drink. Better than Orange Crush, but the sort of thing you would only drink if desperately thirsty and trapped in an airport due to flight delay and the only other option is a  tepid, rusty water fountain. Anyway, they have it here, and the advertising campaign features sexy cartoon animals. You heard it. Cartoon  deer and giraffes that are shaped like pin-up girls and posing in a come-hither way.

IMG_0690  IMG_0689

I hope you can decipher these images, which were on a cafe window, hence the interesting but disruptive reflections. It’s at times like this that I feel I am in an utterly foreign society. Isn’t there something weird and vaguely disturbing about making cartoon animals that are provocative? And obviously Mr. Orangina (or MS.?) thinks that these images are totally appealing and will sell his product. These critters have been around for some time – at least for the five years that I have come to really know Paris -so they must be working.

Regulating Life in France

I think I’m on to something about the French when it comes to this whole notion of correctness and the rules.  Yesterday’s post was about the misunderstandings that arise from the way the French follow codes of behaviour understood by them, but not necessarily everyone else.

Medication for jetlag

In France there are rules, regulations and standards galore. This sounds oppressive, and maybe it is. But it may also be what makes the culture so great. Let’s take our daily bread as a humble example. The downstairs baker, like the local cheese vendor, has been recognized as “Meilleur Ouvrier en France”. He makes a damned fine baguette in his boulangerie-artisanal, a type of operation that is completely controlled in terms of its recipes, ingredients, and products. This government regulation is fairly recent – a decade or so old – and came about when the classic approaches were giving way to frozen breads, concocted off-site. Rather than see their treasured baguette globalized and out-sourced, the authorities stepped in and a great  tradition continues.

Paris, this most beautiful of cities is nothing if not standardized. We all know the look.

014034ff506cdedbce056b265a23b1801dbf8e70a40113970bc6c6ad12c7036f89aaff6e85065f0258c401ac34f7e082086dd09763e01b6a7238bb2ead8df8_00001 Here are some examples of what I see from my desk –  the beige-coloured stones, the wrought iron work, rows of French windows –  the vocabulary of Paris buildings for hundreds of years. It’s all standardized, down to the colour of your front door. I recognize the Paris I am living in when I look at 19th century paintings of the city.

paris_paintings_winter_france__1280x800_artwallpaperhi.com Pissaro, Winter Morning, 1897caillebotte-paris-rainy Caillebotte, Rainy Day, 1877.

All we need do is change the clothes and switch out the coaches for cars and these paintings would be accurate depictions of Paris streets in 2014.

It is not a coincidence that nothing in central Paris has changed and that nothing is ugly. Nothing is permitted to be ugly. Even the gas pumps are banished underground, because a filling station is just too ugly a thing for citizens to look at. Even the glass of wine I am sipping is the result of a vintner following the rules of the appellation to the letter. The French are very, very good at creating beauty, creating deliciousness, and then they insist upon it. They believe there is a correct way to do things and once they arrive at that correct way, that is it.

I could go on. In French high school, my daughter was taught the one permissable way to take notes: subject title written in blue ink, underlined twice in red ink, subtitle, underlined once in red, notes follow,dictated by teacher. In the arts, the Salon system had the creation and marketing of fine art locked up tight in a control that began with the artist’s enrollment in the Institut de Beaux Arts, a rigid and formulaic program in which the artist copied works endlessly before being allowed any self-expression at all. He (women were not accepted) must then compete for prizes, and win them, if he were to have a great future. The painter David despaired of winning the Prix de Rome and wanted to kill himself after his third failed attempt (he won on the fourth). Then, throughout his career,  the artist must submit his works to a jury for selection in the great art show, the Paris Salon. There were no independent art dealers until the very end of the century, and tellingly, that started first in London

It all seems so exhausting, doesn’t it? Not to mention repressive. Is France a sort of OCD nation, obsessively and compulsively creating and enforcing elaborate, and neurotic,  rules? Yes (see evidence above), and also No,  because France is also very good at Revolution and when they shrug off their bonds and go crazy in the name of liberty they do it with a vengeance. Consider these Heads of Kings, ripped off the facade of Notre Dame because rioting citizens could no longer bear the thought of authority.

01ba1ff4ed2dbf8036e416a2d9e60f16ed400b718f01d7ef710a5872bb850c390653f703f47846148d98 Musee de Cluny, Paris.

I’m glad that the French have rules that are creating such a great quality of life for me and my husband in our Paris home. But in a way, I feel bad for the French, having to be under such pressure all the time. Do you know what I mean?




“But are the French… Nice?”

I’ve been giving this question, asked by the bank teller back in Montreal, a lot of thought.  It has long puzzled me that people everywhere find the French, especially the Parisians, rude. Sure, I had experienced hauteur on the part of waiters, but saw it only as that, a kind of game you play in which you have only to be more haut  than them and you win. Apart from waiters, I have experienced much kindness and decency here: the hotel clerk who ran after me with a complementary umbrella because it might rain, the flea market vendor who gave my daughter a vintage handbag  she liked very  much because there was wear on the inside, the food vendors yesterday who gave us avocados for free because they couldn’t guarantee their freshness. That’s nice, no argument.


(Umbrella image thanks to http://www.artistgifts.com)

But here’s my point – it’s also correct. And the French would almost always rather be correct than nice. We Canadians are the opposite. And what I find truly interesting is that this difference -the source of so much misunderstanding – also resembles the two classic positions in moral philosophy. As a former ethics teacher, I see  Canadian “niceness” as honouring an Aristotelian, ethics of care, value system in which your motivations and intentions, the spirit in which you do things is all-important.You tried your best, you were nice; if things weren’t perfect it’s OK because you are working on improving.  The French are more in a  Kantian vein, they want to determine the rules of correctness and carry them out scrupulously. The French waiter has a job to do, he knows the rules and he will obey them. For the French, this is what makes him a good waiter, not his attitude toward you, the customer.  The rules include acting with appropriate respect, and  not with inappropriate friendliness. Your job is to obey the rules of customer behaviour, which include respecting the waiter, the norms of French dining, ordering your meal with care and enjoying it when it is well-prepared and served. When both parties follow these rules, the mini-society within the restaurant gets along swimmingly.


It’s usually the case that when the French get annoyed, and act with rudeness, it’s because you are not understanding the rules, what is called for on your part. For example, people will be ticked off if you don’t greet them. The rule, when you want to speak to someone, is to first greet them and this goes for bus drivers, sales associates, or people on the street you wish to ask for directions. Greet them, “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur.” You can even go on  to ask if you can ask a question. This level of deference always wins points. The last time I did this, the metro guard I wanted to get directions from  escorted me all the way to the correct platform. Now THAT was nice.