Susan Spano's postcards from Paris
The man at my newspaper stand asked me what I thought about the situation in New Orleans and U.S. government response to the tragedy. What could I say? From here it looked incredibly sad and, I'm sorry to say, shameful. Somehow, the shame is harder to handle here, because the French are by nature critical, especially when it comes to America.
After almost a year in Paris, my French has stalled, I fear. I'm not much better than when I got here, partly because I work in English.
As the Olympic Committee convenes in Singapore to make a decision about the site for the 2012 games, Paris is trying not to act desperate, but it's on the edge of its settee. With already available event sites, such as the Stade de France north of the city, Paris has long been considered a front-runner, while other contenders, such as London and New York, readily admit the need for construction projects to accommodate the games.
Part of the charm of Paris is its central location, making quick trips to other Western European capitals -- London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin -- easy, especially since the advent of budget airlines and high-speed trains such as Eurostar. Last week, for instance, I went to London for a day to visit an art gallery.
David and Kristine Daly from Sacramento decided at the last minute to come to Paris for the finish of the Tour de France on Sunday. I met them at a cafe just before the cyclists completed the 21st stage of the tour, riding up the Champs Élysées in a misty rain with flags flying and crowds cheering.
Recently I was struck by the unfathomable names of many Paris streets. We all know the inspirations for the Place Charles de Gaulle and the Rue Bonaparte. But even a French friend of mine who has lived in Paris for 30 years couldn't tell me why a short street in the 7th arrondissement, near the Eiffel Tower and the Champs de Mars, bears the name of General Jacques Camou. And what about Rue Blondel in the 2nd and 3rd and Avenue Georges Mandel in the 16th?
Life goes on in Paris after that announcement that London had won the 2012 Olympic Games.
Postcard readers have asked me for specific information about the City of Light. Here's where to start:
Oanh Ly from Marina del Rey is heading for Paris with her boyfriend and parents. She wants to know where her dad can get good Vietnamese pho noodles.
Apart from the friendly, helpful messages I receive from Postcard readers (which I wrote about last time), I get corrections and negative responses. When I misspell something, people point it out. I should be perfect, but I'm not, especially in these Postcards, which are meant to be casual and off the cuff. (My writing for newspaper publication is more closely scrutinized. Believe me, when I make a mistake in those, I get called on the carpet for it, deservedly.)
The weather in Paris: not so cold, say 45 degrees, but rainy and frighteningly windy. On the way to the post office -- one of my favorite places in the neighborhood -- I was almost blown over. Dead leaves were making crazy circles in the street, and Parisians were clutching their lapels.
Just five days before Christmas, it snowed here. I was talking on the phone, glanced out the window and saw big wet flakes coming down, carpeting my little terrace and making my geraniums, still in full bloom, shiver. So I put on my coat and rushed out to do a last bit of Christmas shopping in the appropriate element. I went to La Maison du Chocolat, which I mentioned in my last "Her World" column. There a line snaked out the door and down the sidewalk. Since my last visit, they had put out the buches de Nôel, starting at about $9 for a miniature chocolate-coated log, with rolled cake and filling in the middle. Better yet, they were giving out samples inside.
Bill Jones of Pasadena asks whether I've noticed that the French are slimmer than Americans. I could write a book answering that question. "Why the French Aren't Fat," I'd call it, chiefly about the differences between French and American eating habits.
A few quick notes, as I'm off to catch a flight to L.A. for a visit home to see colleagues, family and friends.
I recently had guests a friend who had never been to Paris and her niece. It was great seeing the city through their eyes. On a pretty Sunday morning, we took a ride on a bateau mouche from Le Pont Neuf at the tip of Île de la Cite to the Eiffel Tower. Terrific and, imagine, I'd never done it before. Living in Paris, not just stopping by, means I can take my time getting to know the city. Only after living in New York for 20 years did I feel I knew the Big Apple.
I've become a regular at the Boulevard Raspail organic farmers' market. It was one of those fair days in Paris, breezy, clouds scudding across the sky, a nip in the air reminding me that fall is on the way. I wonder if the trees will turn colors here. So far, the ones in the Tuileries Gardens seem to have gone directly from green to brown.
Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Those are the days of the Boulevard Raspail market, on the Left Bank just south of the Bon Marché. I go at least twice a week, not only because the market is colorful but also because fruit and vegetables there are much cheaper than at my outlandishly expensive neighborhood greengrocer. In fact, it's turned me into a cook, which would astonish all my old friends for whom I never made dinner. I make Italian food mostly, not French. Parisian restaurants are already pretty good at that.
I was unaccountably depressed by the ascendancy of the nons in the Sunday referendum on the European Union constitution. It wasn't even close: 55% for no, 45% for yes. I went to my newsstand to buy the paper so I could read all about it. But the stand was locked up tight, with a handwritten note saying the proprietor was on strike over low commissions, among other things. Perfect.
I have been trying to get a carte de séjour, the official permission for foreigners to stay in France for more than three months. Most semipermanent residents of Paris, like me, circumvent this by visiting a non-European Union country every 90 days so they get a new entrance stamp in their passports when they return, entitling them to 90 more days in France. But I wanted to find out what was entailed in obtaining a carte de séjour.
The weather in Paris has been bizarre the last two weeks. Pelting rain, sometimes hail, thunder and lightning. Then the clouds blow over, and there's blue sky and intense sun. One never goes out in the right clothes, but I love it when it rains while I'm in my sixth-floor garret bedroom, which seems like a little boat braving stormy seas. And the smell of the streets after the deluge is something out of a perfume bottle.
Mary Ann Zipagang asked me about workers in France. "I have read ... that the typical European office worker has more vacation time and sick leave and that the work pace is not as demanding or hectic as the typical American office worker's. What is their workday like? Do they get more breaks? What are their work ethics in general?"
At last, an epiphany. On Memorial Day, which is a holiday here too (for different reasons), I did some yoga for the first time in a while (maybe that was the key), then took the Métro to Les Halles and started walking north. I followed Rue Montorgeuil. This was a trendy section of Paris a few years ago, just west of the upper reaches of the Marais. The sort of area where there's trash on the street; CDs, shoes and clothes are sold on the sidewalks; people speak in foreign languages --and I don't mean French -- and the prices are lower than where I live in the 7th. Actually, the 7th was closed tight for the holiday, the streets dead, but on Rue Montorgeuil there was life, a city pulse, as in New York.
I've had some interesting encounters with people of late.
On March 10, the city of Paris was disabled by a general strike of postal and transportation workers, air traffic controllers, ambulance drivers, teachers, students, parents -- the list goes on and on. Really, it seemed as if everyone who could strike did. And those who didn't seized the opportunity to stay home because Métro service was drastically curtailed and, with tens of thousands of workers marching from the Place d'Italie to the Place de la Nation, the roads were clogged.
We had a hot spell in Paris in early June, which was miserable, as air conditioning isn't standard in these northern European climes. I'm desperately hoping for no revisitation of the blistering weather of last summer that killed 15,000 people.
I am now the proud owner of an American Library in Paris card, which cost about $125 for a year's subscription. When you walk through the front door on rue du General Camou, in the 7th arrondissement near the Eiffel Tower, you may as well be at a public library in Stockbridge, Mass., or Stockton, Calif. Kids listen to librarians reading Dr. Seuss as they sit cross-legged on the floor. The fiction stacks are lined with novels by Danielle Steele, John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway and Herman Melville. In the reference department, American college students labor over laptops.
Every day I receive e-mails from Postcard readers, mostly warm and intelligent, written by people with a range of Paris experience. Some know far more about the city than I; others have asked me what the word "arrondissement" means. I do my best to make the blog interesting to everyone.
Last Sunday, when my head wasn't so foggy from writing the cover story for May 8, I went with a friend, visiting from America, to the ballet at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, near the Place de l'Alma, at the bottom of the chic Avenue Montaigne. It has a svelte, white Art Deco façade and is where Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" premiered. Champagne seemed necessary.
Is Paris burning? If so, the source of the conflagration is a fifth-floor terrace in the 7th arrondissement, where the impatiens are blooming, James Taylor is blaring and pave de boeuf is cooking on the little Weber kettle I carried home from L.A.
I was in the States for a couple of weeks recently -- New York, L.A. and Utah. What a shock to the system. New York was gray, California big and bright (this was between the torrential rainstorms), southern Utah so empty. I ate lots of Caesar salads (the French always get those wrong) and went on a shopping spree at Target, saw friends and asked my editors to let me stay in Paris. (More on that later.)
It was recently "open house" week in my quartier, an annual event during which the extraordinary antiques stores and art galleries in the 6th and 7th arrondissements, south of the River Seine, stay open late, serve wine and welcome window-shoppers. It's a good time to visit, because most of them are so high-toned and museum-like that one is reluctant to go in. I didn't bother to price the 17th century bust of Napoleon at Bailly or the head of a walrus (complete with tusks) from an 1880s arctic expedition at J.C. Guerin and M. Withofs Antiquities, both on the Quai Voltaire. Where in the world would I fit them in my little 5th-floor walk-up? Then, at Catherine Arigoni on the Rue de Beaune, I found exactly what I was looking for: a slinky white 1990 Pierre Cardin ball gown, with short sleeves that looked like wings. Only, I didn't think it would fit either -- and I don't mean in my apartment.
I spent my 20s in New York, which was perfect. Now it's wonderful to be 50 in Paris. Walking across the Pont Royal recently -- with that stunning view up and down the Seine -- the city seemed very much like a woman of a certain age, still beautiful, if meticulously maintained, respected and gently treated.
I recently rented a car at the Gare du Nord, which meant driving in Paris. I was going to lunch with a friend near the Etoile, where I used one of the city's convenient underground parking garages for the first time. All went smoothly, but the return of the car was a mess, especially when I tried to find the rental car return at the Gare du Nord. I must have circled the station five times. Finally, I put the car in a parking garage and told the car rental people to go find it themselves.
It's D-day weekend; here, that's "Jour j." President Bush came to visit. The headline of one Paris newspaper was, "The Longest Weekend." However, most of the snide comments I hear about the president and our Iraq policy come from ex-pats. You run into them at Fish, a restaurant on Rue de Seine, and in the Village Voice, a terrific English-language bookstore on Rue Princess (both on the Left Bank). Regardless of what I think about the war in Iraq, I get a little weary of hearing Americans here run it down. French people are far more discreet; they enter into conversations about the war with great hesitation.
Remember the old Beatles lyric, "You say yes, I say no..." Well, that's the story in Paris on this Thursday before Sunday's vote on the EU constitution. Everywhere you go, there are posters: "Say yes" or "Turkey in the EU? I say no." And tonight, French President Jacques Chirac goes on radio and television, pleading the yes cause. The whole thing seems nuts to me, like France shooting itself, not to mention Europe, in the foot.
My French friend Monsieur P. and I are carnivores. We favor côte de boeuf at a little place in the 5th, Au Moulin à Vent, served with terrific cube-shaped frites, which are OK to eat with your fingers, he says. He also says it is OK to eat asparagus with your fingers, but who knows?
As I was sitting at my computer on Bastille Day - working, because, as my boss said, it's not a holiday in the U.S. - I heard the high whine of aircraft. I ran to the terrace to see whether Paris was being invaded. But no, the French government was showing off its military hardware in a massive flyover, following the Seine. The irony of the French flexing their muscles on their independence day while preaching pacifism wasn't lost on me.
Paris is sweltering. I've been desperate for a swim, but I don't like the public pool near me at the Marché St.-Germain because no matter when I go, it's horribly crowded. So today I tried the Club Latin Quartier on Rue de Pontoise, which is terrific. It has an airy glass roof and a lane for people who do the breast stroke, medium fast, like me.
A reader recently wrote to say I wasn't giving an authentic picture of Paris, that if you live here, as opposed to being a tourist, you know there are problems. I take his point. I don't see a lot of the ugliness that haunts Paris because of where I live, but there are still annoyances. These are superficial, I realize, but, let's face it, I'm still really only a tourist here.
Well, here I am. Logged on. And at high speed, thanks to a cute technician who climbed five flights of stairs to visit me this afternoon.
Today was the sort of day that makes a person want nothing more than to be alive in Paris. It rained and stopped, and clouds chased the sun and vice versa, with dramatic lighting effects.
Denis, who lives in Paris, has asked me to stop talking about shopping and tourist stuff in Paris all the time and consider more serious questions, such as the miracle of French socialized medicine.
One Postcards reader told me to go wandering and get lost -- literally. That's a magical way of discovering a city like Paris. But I'm more of an agenda person these days. I go out on specific errands and stop by a museum or park or bridge on the way.
More on French medicine. I had to get a mammogram at a fancy clinic in the 7th near Les Invalides. In most ways it was just like having a mammogram in the U.S., except...
I was in southern Italy for two weeks, which was indescribably wonderful, though I will describe it eventually in a travel story.
One thing I really like about Paris is that it seems perfectly acceptable to eat while walking down the street, especially breakfast on the run. You buy a croissant or brioche at the boulangerie, then munch away on your way to the Mètro.
In moving from L.A. to Paris, I felt the difference between living in the suburbs (L.A.) and a city (Paris) as strongly as the difference between living in the U.S. and Europe. Cities are really exhausting; I have to rest whenever I come back home.
A reader has asked me to give the prices for certain ordinary things in Paris. I came here prepared for high prices, so things don't seem so terrible to me. A small saucepan: 16 euros, $19.50. A four-pack of yogurt: 1.83 euros, or $2.25. A bag I really want at a cool shop called Upla near St.-Germain-des-Pres: 125 euros, $152.50. A haircut on the Right Banks: 60 euros, $73. I'm figuring at 1.22 euros to the dollar.
Two things worth noting happened to me in Paris. One was a surprise, and the other was expected. Together, they seem emblematic of this city, the way it thinks and goes about life.
Bernard, who is here in Paris, wrote to say that you can read the story of Paris on the street. Every block or so, there's a nice informative sign in front of a building saying when it was completed, who the architect was and which famous people lived there.
I hope blog readers will forgive me for my Left Bank bias. It's where I live and flaner -- a word that's hard to translate but means, approximately, walking idly around the city, sitting in cafes, reading newspapers and watching people. I can't try to render the whole of this remarkable city, which I seem to love more and more.
Everything was going so well last Saturday. I'd come back from a trip to Germany in good order. My niece and sister-in-law spent a night with me on their way back to L.A. after spending a month and a half in Europe. I felt positively upbeat.
L. Dickson, a reader from Houston, writes, "One of my favorite memories of Paris is shopping the outdoor market for fabulous produce...tomatoes so plump and sweet they needed to be eaten like apples. Is it still like that?" A longtime American expat friend said she had never missed a Saturday morning market in her neighborhood. I feel the same way, but I tend to go on Sunday mornings to the organic market on the Boulevard Raspail (especially now that my greengrocer has gone to Portugal and Brittany for the month of August). The Raspail market is a feast for the eyes -- zucchini blossoms, fresh fish, cheeses -- that later delights the stomach. Once, I encountered an American selling homemade muffins and banana bread out of the back of a truck. I said, "Hey, shouldn't you be in Napa or Sonoma?" which made him laugh. Another good one but very different in tone is on the Boulevard Ornano in the 18th Arrondissement, on the north side of the city. It's an African immigrant neighborhood. There are so many stands, you can barely squeeze along the sidewalk.
Some rampant opinions:
There are some of the biggest leaves in the world fallen from trees on the Rue de Furstenberg, around the corner from La Derniere Goutte, a marvelous wine shop where they hold tastings on Saturdays.
Living through a full year of weather and seeing all four seasons has been a surprise benefit of my extended stay in Paris. I never anticipated being moved by something so simple.
My diet has gone out the window in France. I'm eating things I never touched at home: bread, pastries and butter.
A compendium of observations and musings on life in and around Paris:
I've been thinking about where to live if I stay on in Paris. My wonderful one-bedroom in the 7th arrondissement near the Seine, with a terrace, is too expensive for the long term. Rents are more manageable outside the central part of the city, which is frequented by tourists. Still, I don't want to end up too far away from everything I love about the city.
I am very keen now on certain French products, including pre-cooked beets, available in sealed plastic bags at markets and greengrocers. Fresh beets are bulky to carry and a pain to prepare, so the pre-cooked French version seems to me an invention of genius.
My first agenda when I got to Paris was to nest and make my apartment my own. Never mind that the Musée d'Orsay and the Louvre are both five-minute walks away. I spent my first week or two at the Habitat store on the Rue de Pont Neuf, the BHV department store near the Hotel de Ville and Monoprix, investigating bath mats, desks and baskets. I bought a bunch of potted plants for my wonderful terrace at the flower market on the Isle de la Cite, too early in spring. They promptly died, except for the bright red geraniums in a window box overlooking my courtyard. I've always had a green thumb with geraniums, here and in L.A.
On the way home from the Hemingway Bar, I shopped for dinner. I bought a little "rumsteak" at the butcher, cheap at about $3.50 but incredibly tender; I know from experience.
A reader wants to know how I'm managing financially, given the unfavorable exchange rate. It's about 1.21, dollar to euro, which is actually a bit better than it was. Articles in European papers such as the Financial Times and the Herald Tribune predict that the rate will begin to come down, which would suit me fine, of course. Meanwhile, I'm paying my rent in dollars to an American landlord, and I haven't yet opened a French bank account (though that may ultimately prove necessary).
I've done a lot of complaining lately about the long vacations French people take and the way Paris virtually shuts down in August. But as the holiday month comes to a close I've found a few things to like about les congés, as they're called. Long vacations mean people can take trips to faraway places, which is hard for Americans. And it's fun to watch Paris wake up, shops re-opening, streets filling back up. I'm not convinced, however, that getting six weeks of vacation every year makes for more togetherness and stronger families in France, as stated in a recent International Herald Tribune Op-Ed piece. I know some French families as dysfunctional as any in the U.S.
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