Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Brave Woman in Paris

I met a woman for coffee at Cafe de Flore today whose "moving to Paris" story inspired me; I thought you might like to hear it, too.

She's a friend of a friend whose name was passed along with a request that I might help acquaint her with life in Paris. This is one of the many benefits of living here -- I get to hear from so many people (friends and distant connections alike) who are coming to Paris and want the "inside scoop." I don't fool myself that this is due to my personal charm -- let's just say we had noticeably fewer visitors in Boston -- but to this beguiling city that I am lucky to call home. (For now, that is. No familial panicking, please.)
So we met at Flore, one of the city's most famous cafes, where Sartre and de Beauvoir carried on their infamous love affair. I recognized my coffee date right away (as she did me), marking one another by our unmistakable American-ness. There's something about the open expression, eager smile and informal air that makes it instantly easy to spot fellow countrymen.

And so she shared her tale of living the Paris dream so many have, but only a brave few actually attempt. She leased out her house, bid adieu to her beloved job, rented a storage unit and filled it with her worldly possessions. No longer a kid but a woman in her prime, she's lived long enough to know that life is short. Single and independent, it was time to explore the possibility of actually living in Paris. Her plan? To write, explore and expand her horizons -- generally live life, and all its small pleasures -- while figuring out what the next step will be. Pretty great, eh?

She's staying in a Latin Quarter flat owned by some relatives, filling her days discovering museums, parks, restaurants and hidden treasures. (She also bravely joined a French gym, perhaps a post for another time...) There was talk of a memoir project and architectural research -- both perfectly suited to the passions of this fair city. As we talked on about language programs, the many groups to join, classes to take and places to visit (not to mention shops to discover), I began to think her adventure may extend beyond her planned three-month stay. But as is always the case in life, we have to take that first bold step before we can see (or even imagine) the rewards that might follow. Bravo to her for having the guts.

Who knows? She may come to the end of her Paris stay and decide she's ready to return to the full life she left behind. Then again, Paris has a way of changing people's plans. I have a feeling she might be one of them.

What about you? Do you dream about living in Paris or somewhere abroad? If you live in Paris, was it tough to make the move? I'd love to hear from you...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

London Calling: Our Weekend Across the Pond

The first thing I noticed was the noise. Then the toothy smiles. And the collegial laughter. For an American living in Paris, traveling to London can feel like a homecoming of sorts, where much is familiar and yet nothing is quite the same. The fact that it’s worlds away from Paris – despite a deceptively brief Eurostar ride of just over two hours – is obvious from the moment of setting foot on British soil.
After living in Paris for more than a year, our kid-free weekend visit to London (to celebrate our 12th wedding anniversary) proved just how accustomed I’ve become to the ways of the French -- their discretion, rigid politesse, hushed voices and trim, chic ways. As much as I love Paris, a little British cheer felt like just what was needed.

After checking in to our hotel, our first stop was ThePhoenix, a gastropub in Westminster where we enjoyed a simple lunch. Both Greg and I ordered Eggs Benedict with sides of creamed spinach and fries. Mmm, good. And not a baguette in sight.
I couldn’t stop noticing how un-French everything felt. Influenced, no doubt, by the summer-like weather, many Londoners (already much less formal than their Gallic neighbors), had adopted a clothing-optional policy, with men walking shirtless around the city and people strolling barefoot through the streets and parks. I couldn’t help but stare at a woman in a breezy floral sundress who walked in to the pub, took a seat at the bar and ordered a pint, her strappy sandals slung casually over her wrist. Not something you’re likely to see in Paris.
And the noise! Filled with music, sports on TV and raucous, lager-fueled laughter, the pubs spilled over with happy revelers for whom a long-awaited sunny day proved reason enough to celebrate. It’s hard not to love London’s festive air and the unpretentious banter that animates its streets.

London’s overall vibe is indeed celebratory these days as the city ramps up for two big events. First, the Queen’s Jubilee, the celebration of her 60 years on the British throne, is only a week away. In her honor, the city is festooned with Union Jacks of all sizes and the Queen’s royal visage is more ubiquitous than ever. Then, this summer, they’ll welcome the Olympics, a weeks-long affair for which some Londoners seemed ill prepared. Several people we spoke with moaned abut the events and announced their intentions to “clear off” during the games. Preparations were evident in round-the-clock roadwork and widespread construction. 
We spent our day strolling the city with no particular agenda in mind.  A stop at the Saatchi Gallery for the Out of Focus photography show is a must for any London visit. (Show closes July 22.) Katy Grannan's haunting series of portraits taken in L.A. and San Francisco were my favorites and are not easily forgotten. I was blown away to read that she was born in Arlington, MA, our former Boston suburb. A quick stop at Boot's, the English pharmacy chain, was also a must to stock up on essentials, plus a couple items Ms. Paltrow recommended on goop. (Embarrassing, I know. But it is good stuff.)
For dinner, Greg had booked us a table at The Ivy, an institution in the dynamic London food scene, where we enjoyed a classic meal and toasted our twelve married years with a bottle of Saint-Veran (French wine, bien sur). With the kids back in Paris in our sitter's capable hands, we were free to wander the city and get a little lost. From the West End through Soho and Chinatown, along the Mall and through St. James Park, our one night in London was magical and memorable indeed.
Now here I sit, aboard the Eurostar, bound once-again for “real life” in Paris. The seat next to me sits empty, with Greg staying on in London for business this coming week. A final surprise awaited as I boarded the train – an unexpected first class seat with magazines (in English!), a gourmet meal, coffee and dessert. Thank you, G. I miss you already.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Breakfast of (French) Champions

Adele's preschool held a breakfast for parents the other day. A couple times a year, parents are invited into the classrooms to see what the kids are up to and chat with the teacher over petit dejeuner. We were asked in advance to bring something and everyone signed up. Standard stuff.

So, given all the praise heaped on the French for how they feed their kids, you'd expect an impressive, healthy spread, right?

Not so fast. Check this out.

See that lonely plastic container of cut fruit? Ours. Breakfast was a veritable buffet of ways not to start a day of healthy eating. Pains aux chocolat, croissants, madeleines, even chocolate cake. Then there were the hot and cold chocolate drinks. Adele was in heaven.

Was this just the rare "special occasion" breakfast? I have learned that most French kids start their days with toast liberally topped with their beloved Nutella. (What's not to love?) And I've written before about the daily 4pm snack: Chocolate-filled pastries, cookies, candy (candy!?) and my personal favorite: the hunk of baguette with a bar of chocolate wedged in the middle. A chocolate sandwich! How great is that?

It has me thinking. How do the French manage it? Their kids do eat incredibly well a table. I've seen it myself. They sit patiently at the table, eat all (or most) of what is put in front of them (no matter what it is) and manage to stay put for the duration of the meal. They have one (and only one) snack a day at 4 o'clock and otherwise don't expect to eat outside their three well-structured meals. (Except breakfast which maybe isn't..?)

Here's what I've concluded. Because the French place such great emphasis on quality meals (especially lunch) and don't snack, they feel free to indulge their kids with sweets at snack time or on other "special" occasions. One French mom explained that chocolate, candy and sweets are "un privilege de l'enfance" (childhood privilege) and argued that it's good for them to indulge in a controlled way. If they know they can expect sweets at snack time, they won't desire and ask for them at meals and throughout the day. Hmm. Pretty smart.

Of course, none of this really explained the preschool classroom spread. I guess it was deemed a special occasion? I did try to imagine the reception this bakery buffet would receive in many communities in the States. My guess is not very well, especially given what I've read recently about banning ice cream and bake sales in places like Brooklyn and Somerville, Mass.

I think it comes down to enjoying things in moderation, whether it be chocolate, wine or foie gras. As with many pleasures in life, the French seem to have this down to a fine art. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Monday a la Mode: J'adore BHV!

A short post today to share a bit 'o love for BHV, the central Paris department store located next to Hotel de Ville. When we lived in Paris the first time (eleven years ago), our apartment was just up the street on rue Beaubourg. That meant lots of trips to BHV for things like kitchen supplies, a shopping caddy or small appliances. 

Boy, did we dread those visits. Back then, BHV was a nightmare. Finding someone to help you was tantamount to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and departing with both your sought item and your sanity was seemingly impossible.

Writer Adam Gopnik even joked about his own BHV shopping experiences in his memoir, Paris to the Moon. (We had similar takes on the place). 
What a difference a decade makes! In the years we were away, BHV found its groove and now happily (and even somewhat efficiently) sells everything from beautiful home accessories and clothing to perfume and latex paint. Whether you're looking for a fab outfit (they carry Maje, Sandro, Kookai and many more) or a hand-sander to refinish a table, BHV has got it. They also have an incredible department devoted to art supplies and crafts. Well worth a visit. 
Check out these gorgeous home scent diffusers and faux calla lilies. 
And funky lighting!
 A seamstress's dream.
The famed sous-sol (basement) is also a treasure trove of goods for home repair and maintenance and also stocks lots of goodies for the DIY-minded. Check out this dyed leather and these fun decorative letters. Someone could get very creative with these. Enjoy!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Growing Up (a little bit) French

Last year at this time, after almost four months in Paris, our family was still finding its way. Especially little Adele, who was three-and-a-half when we moved. As I've written about before, Adele's first months at French preschool were tough. She spent many hours crying and clutching her lovey for dear life. Those were hard days.

But one year later, Adele has blossomed and is each day becoming a little bit more la petite francaise.

She has her "French lady walk" down pat (a seductive, hip-swinging swagger) and even does an impressive pout a la Parisienne. She liberally sprinkles French words into her English vocabulary and floats seamlessly between the two worlds. It's been amazing to watch.

Some of it can be worrisome, too. Like the time we went out for Vietnamese (the best pho in Paris is in the 13e), and we caught her "smoking" a bean sprout (albeit backwards..) "just like the teenagers do, Mommy!" Eeek.
She's hyper aware of the world around her and has absorbed certain French-isms more than the rest of us. She's learning to eat skillfully with both knife and fork in hand and has a love of French bread that borders on excessive. She has mastered the native inflection to her voice and even adds that unmistakably Gallic, "...unh?" at the tail end of her sentences. After years of speaking French, I have yet to nail that one.

And so I wonder what it will all mean as I watch her grow up a little bit French? It's a culture I appreciate in so many ways: its food, art, celebration of history and beauty and the smaller pleasures in life. The French prize intellectual debate and parsing ideas, things we hope to instill in our kids, too. And there's so much more.

But when I think about the lessons and priorities I hope to share with Adele, there are aspects about womanhood in Paris that trouble me, too. Like the obsessive focus on appearance and weight. (Not exclusive to France by any means..) And the whole befuddling (and somewhat reductive) game of seduction between French men and women. There's an element of artifice to it all that gets a bit exhausting and sometimes leaves me longing for a dose of California ease. Then there's the way women relate to one another and the (dare I say it?) subtle hostility I sometimes sense among them. Do they share the camaraderie I so value with my own friends? Or is closeness in friendship just defined differently and therefore just feels foreign? Maybe because I'm the etrangere, that's one aspect of life here that I'll never completely get.

Of course I know I'd have as many (although perhaps different) worries no matter where we live. That's just what it is to be a parent. 

As for Adele, only time will tell. For now, she's an irrepressible just-turned-five year old who may just be the funniest person I've ever met. (Except her Aunt Marla. Maybe that's where she gets it?)

So, to celebrate her birthday this year, Adele compiled a list of 14 kids to invite to her celebration. (What a difference a year makes!). Maybe it's because she didn't have a real party last year. Maybe it's because I'm a sucker for a party myself. Either way, we decided to throw her a real fete to remember complete with a French birthday party animatrice, puppet show, magic, make-up and balloon animals.

Here are some shots of my sweet Adele. Thanks for indulging me. I'm one proud maman.
 Like my hat(s)? Big bro's birthday before we move to Paris.
  I like cafes...
Bike riding on avenue de Breteuil.
I can tie my scarf just like a French lady!
Celebrating "Allo-een" with Jacques-o-Lantern.
My first visit to Laduree...yummy. 
Baguette...c'est bon!
"I'm a big girl now, I'm five!"

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hot Air at the Paris Hammam

A friend and I recently treated ourselves with a visit to Hammam Pascha, a Mediterranean style "spa" offering massage, steam baths, body scrubs and beauty treatments for busy Parisiennes. It bills itself as an urban "oasis of serenity" to relax, indulge and unwind. After two and half weeks of 24/7 quality time with the kids, I'm tightly wound indeed. A day spa sounded like just the thing.

With various treatment packages all promising inner peace, glowing skin and free mint tea, I opted for "Well Being" and hoped for the best. Did Pascha deliver? Well, that depends. If your relaxation ideal includes fluffy robes, Zen music and iced water-with-a-slice-of-cucumber, Pascha's probably not for you. If however, it includes a full body scrub-down by an aggressive Moroccan wearing a sarong and a lethal loofah mitt, Pascha may just fit the bill.

Because it isn't a day spa at all (silly Californian). It's an authentic hammam (Turkish bath), just like the name says. So instead of soft lighting, aromatherapy and discretion, you get colorful Moroccan tiles, a large soaking pool and treatment stalls complete with hoses and squeegees to tidy up between clients.
Stripped of our street clothes and wrapped in wafer thin robes, our misplaced Anglo modesty quickly  became apparent. Prone Parisiennes splayed around the steam-filled space, thoroughly engaged in the act of posing, er relaxing. Some swanned about in chic floral sarongs (it is Paris after all), some in nothing at all. Either way, our body-covering swimsuits looked silly at best. My masseuse gruffly ordered me to "enleve votre haut" with a roll of the eyes that said, "Cherie, I've seen it all."
I had bravely signed on for a full body scrub (gommage) having been warned that it might seem a tad rough compared with what I'm used to. If a sanding that could resurface an oak dining table could be considered rough, then yes, this was rough indeed. The peels of epidermis I unwittingly shed on the tiles were proof enough. Ouch.

Then came the full body massage (again, modesty has no place) and unanticipated nutritional pep talk. I need to eat "much, much, much more bread," according to my masseuse who found my corps wanting in the poundage department. What's more, I needed to learn to r e l a x. When I replied that in fact, that's precisely why I was getting a massage, she sniffed and stated that wasn't sufficient. Prescription medication for relaxation was deemed necessary. Oh, and extra Vitamin B.

Ah, the French and their deep devotion to meds.

And so we emerged into the Paris sunshine, devoid of dead skin cells and polished head to toe. Was it relaxing? Mmm, not so much. Entertaining and enlightening? Ah oui, bien sur.