Reminiscing about Paris

    Not that long ago I was able to meet up with a dear friend I made while I spent a sensational semester in Paris as part of an undergraduate exchange.  While Amanda is a native of Minneapolis (I use the term native loosely, since as a child she moved around for a substantial part of her formative years as a part of her father’s contract with the US Navy), attended college in Olympia, WA, and happened to meet me, a Jersey girl, in the City of Lights.  As part of my cross-country move to sunny San Diego, we arranged a rendez-vous in Des Moines since it had been a long two years without seeing one another.
    Four four months in the autumn of 2007, we spent at least five afternoons a week, sitting next to one another in Madame Jehiel’s class at the Sorbonne’s Paris IV language institute for foreign students.  Upon seeing her brilliant cheveux rouge (courtesy of Aveda, I believe) in the restaurant parking lot, I was immediately struck with intense feelings of nostalgia for the blissful months we had shared as American ex-pats.
    Over dinner, we began to recall the dozens of Parisian particulars that we longed for, as part of our lingering re-entry shock.  First, we described, for my mother’s benefit, a detailed account of our typical grammar class.  Located in a kind of shabby building near the intersection of Raspail and Montparnasse, our daily grammar drills required us to walk up at least ten flights of stairs into a stuffy little room lined with old wooden tables and chairs.  The setting, more typical of an elementary school classroom than a collegiate lecture hall, was only enhanced by the melange of nationalities and our eccentric Prof, Mme. Jehiel.  Fortunately, or perhaps for the sake of learning French grammar drills, unfortunately, most of the students in the class were either of American origin or spoke fluent English while our beloved instructor did not.  Before I continue, I feel obliged to provide a physical description of this unforgettable Madame.  Standing at barely five feet tall, Mme. Jehiel was of an unknown Asian origin, though we suspected Vietnamese or Chinese, and had quite a unique style, both in fashion and instructional method.  She wore flamboyantly colored pantsuits, reminiscent of my ninety-one-year-old grandmother, while Mme. Jehiel was probably not a day over sixty.  In addition to these colorful get-ups, which always provided an interesting subject to study during roll-call, she was adorned by what must have been pounds of jewelry, typically bangles and large earrings, high heels, a sort of triangular bob, and of course a full face of maquillage, often with bright lipstick.  
    While none of the pupils were really ever impolite enough to tease her about her physical appearance, her mannerisms and favorite phrases were simply too easy to parody.  There are many things that I can hardly recall about the way she conducted her afternoon grammar drills, but her favored expression, which she managed to exclaim and bark simultaneously, was, “ZERO!”  Hardly a day went by where neither she nor a student, in an affectionate, mild sense of mockery, used the expression to draw attention to a complete failure to do a grammar exercise with a shred of accuracy.  In fact, to this day, there is even a Facebook group dedicated to her former students who were either scarred or simply entertained by her eccentric and amusing antics.  
    Amanda and I giggled over our meal as we recalled those long afternoons, longing to take a stroll up the Boulevard Montparnasse to grab a cafe creme at a cheap, chain cafe before riding line four to line twelve to search for exorbitantly priced delicacies in the Grand Epicerie or my biggest weakness, yarn from my cherished Bon Marche.
    When we snuggled into bed in the hotel that night, we made a list of all the things Amanda would need to do in the coming year, since she is in fact returning to Paris to teach as part of the Language Assistant in Paris-Créteil-Versailles program through the French embassy.  “You have to got o BHV, and don’t forget the gelato place with the cherub on the sign,” I reminded her.  “Do you remember when I had to sleep at your apartment in the 13eme during one of the grèves?” I asked her.  “Do you remember when you gave me your books and ran all the way to Raspail from Bois Colombes during on of the grèves?!” she replied.  “Please eat a lot of creme fraîche, Bonne Maman, fromage frais with a bit of sugar sprinkled on top, and drink kir for me,” I requested.  As we began to drift off to sleep we continued to list memories or Parisian vices, the bad date I had at La Defense - well it wasn’t totally bad, since I did get to see the latest Bourne movie - dinners at my house, the little old man who spilled red wine on my cream-colored sweater, F.G. her host brother who is not only perfectly sarcastic  and basically all-around awesome, but had the knack to remove red wine from aforementioned sweater, baguettes, pain au chocolat, the mairie in Bois Colombes, and its live creche at Christmas, the transillien, Vietnamese food - the only food we could afford to eat out - chocolat chaud at Angelina, and countless others that escape me even now. 
    As my chère Amanda embarks on her latest Parisian adventure, I cannot help but render an emotional fondue of happiness, envy, and longing.  With any luck, however, I will be able to save enough money in the coming months to be able to also hop a transatlantic flight to CDG and Amanda will not be forced to enjoy ALL of our favorite Parisian pleasures toute seule.

Read More!

Les volets (the shutters)

     To the average American, shutters are simply a decorative attachment to a house that recall a bygone era of the country’s Colonial youth.  Only perhaps if you live in the states potentially affected by the devastating effects of hurricanes would you ever have a functioning shutter to protect your windows, and even then it is almost certainly aesthetically displeasing.  In France, however, shutters are not merely pseudo-accouterments used to look like they will protect a home from the elements, but they function in all propriety and manage to look beautiful in the process.

     The photo above was taken in the Panier in Marseille (I’ll address that experience at some point in the future, but let me say, the beautiful photos I brought home were the only good to come of the holiday).  Regard how the shutters actually close on the windows... shocking, I know!  In fact, French shutters are not only placed around windows, but some summer homes, like my friend’s in L’Ile d’Oleron have big shutters on the doors a well.  I distinctly remember the remarkable experience of my friend Popi making her bedroom as dark as night during the middle of the day.  Unsurprisingly, she tends to amiably grumble that she cannot get proper beauty rest at my house in New Jersey because of all of the bright morning soleil that begins to pour in my room as soon as the sun rises.

     While it may be impossible to see from the provided photos, the shutters often times fold back on themselves in order to make it easier to bring them in when the time is appropriate.  Furthermore, the outward-folding shutters require the windows in french homes to come inside the room, rather than outside, as with American casement windows.  In the grand scheme of the world, these details are probably inconsequential, but to me, the lower height, easy accessibility, and practicality of the windows and shutters lends a certain charm and inviting friendliness to a French home.  I have, on more than one occasion, turned the lock on the frame, folded back the shutters, and leaned out the window in my friend’s Niort home only to be filled with the desire to shout “Bonjour!” to the pietons below and go out and attack the day with a Carpe Diem sensibility.
     I have yet to find an explanation for this cultural phenomenon, which in my personal opinion, is a blunder on the part of American house designers.  Functioning shutters provide protection from not only storms, but relentless summer sun, and allow you to sleep late into the day. undisturbed, which is particularly helpful if you return in the early morning from a late-night, champagne-filled soiree.  Someday, when I am building or restoring the beautiful old stone farmhouse or villa of my dreams, make no doubt about it that there will be charming blue shutters adorning my inward-cranking windows that will allow me to lean on their sills and shout my morning greetings to whomever I please.

Read More!

Madeline, the beginning of a Franco-American love affair

I’m not exactly sure at what age the fascination began, but I can figure that I was probably four or five when I was introduced to that very cute little écolière named Madeline. I loved her old house in Paris that was covered with vines. I loved the eleven other girls that walked along with her and Miss Clavel in two straight lines. In fact, my favorite characteristic of Madeline was a tie between her audacious poo-pooing of the tiger at the zoo and the awesome scar she retained as a result of an in-the-middle-of-the-night-Miss-Clavel-said-“Something is not right”-appendectomy. At some point in the middle of my childhood I even had a blue wool cape, carefully crafted by my maman, that reminded me of my own Madeline doll’s blue coat.

The countless readings of not only the original Madeline book by Ludwig Bemelmans (who isn’t even French at all, quel horreur!), but its subsequent sequels, in combination with perpetual screenings of the television cartoon nurtured an early devotion toward all things French in my nascent heart. Before I could even point out my native state on a map of the USA, I knew that France was just across the horizon at the Jersey Shore and that the center of this romantic place was Paris. It didn’t take long to daydream about wandering by the Seine, munching on a croissant, and most importantly visiting the Tour Eiffel.

What I find most peculiar about this fledgling attachment to the nation of baguettes, Victor Hugo, and Le Vache Qui Rit, was that I concocted in my imagination, pictures of a city and country I had only seen in illustrations. I probably didn’t see a photo or image on television of the Eiffel Tower until I was at least nine! Perhaps this is the reason that I still harbor incredibly romanticized images of France in my mind (images that have almost all but been brushed aside the night that I was nearly stranded in Paris because of a grève or the time I broke down into tears when I was followed by creepy men in Marseille). For nearly the entirety of my young life I have had an intense desire to invoke that joie de vivre, the je ne sais quoi, the incomparable Frenchness that will inevitably escape my American self no matter what I try. My honest efforts in my cause have led to two moderately long journeys, countless purchases of L’Occitane and Chanel beauty products, insisting on making my own salad dressing, wearing scarves in the summer, and interjecting des petits phrases en français into my everyday English conversation.

So while I have come to terms with the impossibility of actually becoming French, I will not seek a cure for my very serious case of Francophilia. Instead I will write about my past and future adventures feeding my passion, and humbly attempt to garner a bit of readership that will engage in a bit of reactive dialogue. And if no one comes along, well... c’est la vie!

Read More!