Paris Windows

Written by admin on March 26, 2010 – 11:35 am -

It’s rare I have revelations in the true sense of the word. But recently, I realized I’ve seen and experienced so much of Paris simply by peering out my windows. And looking into them.

If this makes me sound as if I’m a voyeuse, it might be deserved. I’ve never considered myself one, but perhaps I should reconsider. Spending hours looking out of my apartment’s windows has given me insights into how the French live. It’s a very personal microcosm on Parisian life.

This view isn’t unique to France unless you live in the country or far enough away from neighbors you’d need to sneak around for a look-see or resort to binoculars.

However, when you live in Paris, few people have clear vistas. That’s one of the city’s charms. People talk about its rooftops and, yes, they’re lovely and do change according to the light, the weather and shadows. But they remain essentially the same if you live in central Paris. Rooftops aren’t living theater unless your thing is watching birds and where they perch.

Parisians rarely close their shutters unless they’re away and, if they’re home, why pull down shades or close curtains unless they want to darken their bedrooms when they’re sleeping. The French, at least in my quartier, don’t appear to be instilled with the same sense of modesty as Anglo-Saxons.

When I first moved into our home 20 years ago, many of our neighbors were older and lived predictable lives by the clock. The kitchens were functional, but that was about it. Many of them had racks where people would hang laundry to dry.  Many French didn’t believe in dryers because of the cost—they were expensive to run—and they could possibly ruin clothes.  No self-respecting French woman would put underwear in a dryer because undies are a true investment. Some people had maids and left the laundry to them.

Five years later, some of the apartments’ residents began dying off. If they were living in some of the smaller apartments across the courtyard where my bedrooms and kitchen are situated, more than likely a younger relative would move into the premises. As a rule, the French don’t like to sell property because of inheritance taxes and they feel better owning bricks and mortar.

Contrasted to Americans, most French didn’t redecorate for the sake of redecorating. Family furniture was cherished. Much of it was period and may have been recovered, while the walls were given a fresh coat of paint—but that was it.

The surprising thing is I didn’t know the name of my neighbors even though we were a part of the others lives. One couple had a cat and our kitties were brought to the window each morning to say hello.

There was a deaf woman who lived across the way who would always smile. When she first moved in, she had a lover. When they broke up, my heart ached for her. After approximately a year, another woman moved into the apartment and it was apparent their relationship was more than platonic.

We’d bump into each other on the street and always nod and smile but we never knew one another’s name. When the apartment was sold, I was sad when she moved out. A woman, who has covered every wall with purple wallpaper with tiny flowers, has bought it. She dresses and behaves to match the décor.  In other words, boring.

Babies have been born and I’ve seen them grow up. One teenager, whom I’d watched since she’d moved into the apartment with her parents, made the family’s apartment headquarters for all of her friends.  They’d come home after school, go into the garden and light up and they weren’t smoking cigarettes.  I did know the parents and debated as to whether or not I should tell them what was taking place while they were at work because the air was being permeated with smoke from cannabis and you could get a contact high. After a few weeks of ongoing parties, I did tell them and questioned my decision.

In recent years, many of the apartments have been sold and the area has made more than a few contractors and architects rich. Designer kitchens equipped with high-tech appliances and super chic bathrooms are now the rage.

New owners are gutting the apartments, and after they’ve completed the rehab, frequently decorated with Italian furniture mixed with antiques, they entertain. But they never close the curtains.

Which means you can see things at all times of the day and night, including parties.  They could be parties anywhere, except the French serve far more champagne and far less food.  I’ve attended so many of them, but from afar—across the courtyard or the street.  I’m tempted to organize a block party, but that would be so very un-French.

Discussing the know-your-neighbor-but-not phenomenon with the building’s guardienne, she laughed and told me that everyone refers to me as the American who’s always sitting in front of her computer. They’re right.

However, that doesn’t mean I miss so many of Paris’s nuances. Still, I’m becoming increasingly tempted to throw that party. If no one shows, so what? I’m betting it will be a mob scene since so many French have become increasingly Americanized.


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Formal French Functions – as in Soirées

Written by admin on March 19, 2010 – 2:52 pm -

Recently I offered the use of my apartment to an American friend for a reception.

Jerry heads a global think tank, The Millennium Project, that does admirable work in the field of future studies and research. It was a no-brainer to host a gathering chez moi and was the least I could do. It required minimal work or wear and tear.

Even though all of the attendees would be guests of this group and I wouldn’t know a soul, what did it matter? It would be an opportunity to meet new people, the majority of whom I assumed would be French.

As it turned out, people were from all over the world. In that way, it was similar to parties in Washington, D.C., where it’s rare to meet someone actually born there. Only one guest was a native Parisian, but many had lived here for the majority of their lives. Each person had a mission and that was to make the world a better place through committed dedication and not simply talking the talk.

The one thing the women had in common is they all wore black. If you’re in Paris during cold weather and want to look Parisian, black is it no matter what the fashion gurus are trying to have us believe.

The evening was a success. But upon reflection, I realize it might have gone more smoothly had my American side not surfaced.

Two weeks prior to the “cocktail”, custom-designed and elegant invitations were sent. So far so good, right? No, probably wrong. Call it the Green movement or laziness, they were sent via cyberspace. The invitation composition program is ingenious and tracks who’s received the invitation, whether or not they’ve opened it and even allows people to RSVP on the spot without having to send an extra email or pick up the phone to respond.

Don’t get me wrong. The French are incredibly Internet savvy and use it with a vengeance. They send mails, and on-line communication isn’t the enigma it was ten years ago.  The French have not only taken to computers but they’re frequently glued to iPhones, Blackberries—and lord help you if you’re not a master at texting.

Ride on any métro (it’s amazing the signal can reach that far down) and you’ll see people typing away rather than reading newspapers as they used to do. Come to think of it, perhaps they’re reading their news on-line.

In the case of this event, people didn’t respond to the invitation. I’ve always found the French to be très correct, but why weren’t they saying whether or not they were attending? It was baffling.

When it came to saying yay or nay to the reception, perhaps it was because the invites were cyber-sent during winter vacation when the recipients had other things on their minds. Or maybe they were holding off in order to see what was on their agendas for that day.

There was no reason to bother fretting (or in my case, obsessing) because there wasn’t a darn thing I could do except buy a few extra bottles of wine and faux-champagne for Kir royals, which would be served in flute-shaped glasses.  People could opt to drink hard liquor, but not ever one person asked for scotch, gin, vodka or anything with high alcohol content.

The French usually don’t serve tons of food at cocktail receptions. Nuts, olives, a few hot and cold appetizers usually do the job. Guests are expected to go out to dinner after an event and usually plan on doing so. The evening was so interesting and people were so involved in exchanging ideas and meeting one another that they didn’t drink and run.

This is where my American side comes into play. The idea of people leaving a party of mine hungry goes so against my grain. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons Americans tend to have problems with their weight since they rationalize that anything they eat while standing up, or that’s been passed (or grabbed off a plate) doesn’t enter into the calorie intake quotient.

If you’re of the Martha Stewart generation, it was only polite that guests could go home without having to stop for dinner or cook before going to bed.

Do you think it’s a fundamental difference between the French and Americans that cocktails mean cocktails and not dinner? Now that I think about it, my French friends tend to bring a bottle of wine or some flowers to an event (don’t believe that those are no-no’s) while my American friends frequently offer to bring food and, even if you say no, frequently arrive with something edible.

I know I always ask what I may cook or bring when I’m in the States. I don’t when I’m in France; perhaps it’s simply yet another cultural difference.

As someone who’s always curious and fascinated by cultural differences, I know that no matter how hard I try to stay au courant, it’s hard (O.K., impossible) to keep up with rapidly changing trends as the developed world becomes increasingly global.


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How I Know I’m Not French But Then…

Written by admin on March 12, 2010 – 4:33 pm -

May 1st is the twenty-second anniversary of my moving to Paris. It’s hard to believe I’ve been here so long and how many things have changed—especially me.

I’ll never be French in spite of feeling very much part of the culture and loving so many aspects of life in France. The global insights that accompany relocating to a new country are both mystifying and enlightening.

No matter how long anyone remains in a new country, no one assimilates one hundred percent even if they’re totally comfortable in their adopted home. Scratch the surface, and invariably you’ll unearth a raw nerve.

For example, strikes are irritating and will always be. Even if they’re announced (as they’re legally supposed to be) and you plan accordingly, there are times when the best made schedules will crash and burn.

How well I recall the day I spent at the Gare de Lyon not going to Provence, even though the departure board showed my train would be pulling out of the station within the next 30 minutes. Sure. Had I been smarter, I would have returned to the apartment after a couple of hours. But that would have ensured the train would leave within minutes of my climbing on the bus heading to Boulevard du Montparnasse.

During strike season, working at home has its advantages albeit isolating. There are days when I stay put with my computer—even though I know it’s important not to become a hermit. I may become lazy (or absorbed) and sometimes have to force myself to get up and go.

I’m still irritated when I can’t accomplish things during the vacations and days off that are a part of French culture. One of the things about being an American in Paris is that French holidays aren’t necessarily holidays because I’m working with people in the U.S.

Ditto for American holidays. When all of the U.S. is observing Thanksgiving, I’m invariably working or preparing a Thanksgiving dinner to be served after 8:00 p.m., when friends are available. I’ve never heard of a multi-national corporation telling its American employees to take the day off even though some U.S. expats do return home to eat turkey and the fixings with their families.

More likely, Americans wait until the Christmas holidays to make a beeline to the States. It’s well known that not a whole lot gets accomplished during Christmas and New Years even if you don’t observe them.

But wait. I’ve done nothing but cite negatives. After all these years, more of me is French than American. For example, it’s hard to see into my closet because ninety percent of my clothes are black and it feels as if I continually buy the same ones.

The moment the sun appears during the dreary months of January and February, I make a mad dash outside to soak up a few rays. After all, if nothing else, we all need vitamin D, and if you’re someone who feels better after absorbing natural light (and who doesn’t?), you can rationalize the escape is precisely what the doctor ordered.

My French self is really evident in how and when I buy clothes and housewares. If something isn’t on sale, forget it. Retail has never been my thing (yes, I miss discount stores that are in practically every U.S. shopping center) but unless I’m desperate, I never buy anything unless it’s discounted.

Food has assumed more significance since I’ve moved here. Iceberg lettuce is no longer a staple. Don’t laugh: that was one of the few fresh vegetables you could always count on finding in a U.S. supermarket more than twenty years ago. Discovering French cheeses was a revelation. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven—and will unless I eat substantially less of it because of my cholesterol count. Unlike the French who eat tiny portions, my innate reaction is (was) to pig out.

Wine is an affordable commodity. It’s easy to experiement with different ones and you don’t have to spend more than a few euros per bottle. It’s not a major budget item and I’ve developed an anti-snob attitude and rarely spend more than ten euros per bottle in the grocery store when I buy it. What’s dinner with a glass or two of red wine? It’s good for your heart and it’s my contribution to France’s wine economy.

Flowers are a must in where and how I live. This isn’t a new phenomenon. I used to buy inexpensive ones at sidewalk vendors in Washington, DC, but soon nicknamed them graveyard flowers since they always died within 24-36 hours. There are incredibly expensive florists (ergo, artists) in Paris where you can drop a bundle. But there are also chain stores where you can purchase flowers that don’t make you feel as if you’re robbing a bank. My most recent purchase was forty white roses that cost ten euros and gave me ten times the pleasure.

This may seem odd, but the French are incredible when it comes to packaging. It’s a sense of aesthetics that brings me such intense pleasure. If you purchase something and say it’s a cadeau, the vendor usually wraps it as if it’s worth a million dollars using tissue, cellophane paper, ribbons and imagination.

Yes, there are irritations when living in France and it’s not for everyone. But, it’s captured my heart and part of my soul.

(c) Karen Fawcett


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Life in France and Some Challenges

Written by admin on March 12, 2010 – 3:04 pm -

Many Bonjour Paris readers question if there’s a way to beat the French system. Well, oui et non. If you’re going to live here you need to acclimate yourself to the country’s customs, recognize there are cultural differences, and grin and bear it.

If you’re trying to get a Carte de séjour (a legally required resident’s card if you’re from a non-EU country and plan to stay in France more than six months a year), the rules say loud and clear (and in black and white) that you must apply for one before you leave your country of residence.

Some Americans have come to France, bought a house, even married a French spouse, only to be told they must return to the U.S. if they want to become legal. During the process, which can easily take six months, they’re not entitled to enter France. It goes without saying this can cause more than a fair bit of aggravation.

A freelance journalist, who’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times, was ousted from Paris and sat in the U.S. waiting and waiting for his papers to be stamped, sealed and delivered. He wasn’t asking for a work visa since he wouldn’t be working for French companies. The French government isn’t quick to hand out work permits to people who might take a job away from a French citizen and who can blame it?

Then system D comes into play. Another friend married a Frenchman, for love and not for papers, only to be told she had to leave the country and it didn’t matter whether or not her husband might miss her—much less his children whom she was helping to raise. This came as a shock since she’d inquired at the French Consulate in New York City and was told not to worry.

System D, which stands for débrouiller or disentangle, came into play. Perhaps it was due to her screaming and her husband’s persistence that the mayor of the town where they live intervened and she didn’t have to return to the States. One never quite knows exactly what takes place. This is why I advise people to seek the advice of a lawyer, who will cost money, but hopefully can save you more in time and aggravation.

Don’t get the idea the French aren’t frustrated by French red tape and stalling, even in domestic life. One taxi driver told me he no longer makes dates with his brother, because he’s consistently late and doesn’t bother to call or excuse himself when he arrives. His compromise is that if they’re going to see one another, his brother has to come to his apartment—and no, not for a meal. Claude said his wife was done with serving overdone food and had gone on strike. You can’t blame her.

When we had a home in Provence, dinner guests frequently turned up more than an hour late, which did nothing for my cuisine or my disposition. My late husband was far more forgiving than I, and ultimately assumed kitchen duties and hoped I would open the door.

Those dinners went on forever and more than a few times, I’d rudely say goodnight at 11:30 and excuse myself. When people say goodnight after two-plus hours in the U.S., I’m surprised. When I lived in Washington, D.C., invariably I ended up walking around the block for 15 minutes so not to arrive early.

In France, people don’t show up precisely on time because invariably the hostess won’t be dressed. As a result, when I’m in the U.S., I have to readapt to the on-time habit.

Another shocker in France: If you call an office and try to leave a message, forget it. You’re usually told to call back and when you do at the appointed hour, the phone line is invariably busy. During an appointment yesterday, I voiced how frustrated I was over not being able to leave a message and having no alternative but to put my phone on automatic redial. The recipient of this minor diatribe explained his office receives 600 phone messages per day and it would be impossible for the staff to field all of them.

Much to my amazement, my response was that if he didn’t want to hire more personnel, his phone system should have voice mail for individual employees. He replied he’d look into it since he found it frustrating when he was out of the office that he was unable to contact his staff by phone.

Go figure and take the good with the bad. If you live abroad or for that matter in the U.S., please register and post your frustrations. But I keep thinking that the French would do themselves a big favor by figuring out how to apply System D to all facets of their lives and, instead of tying everything in red tape, get to the point.


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