Traveling during a Period of Uncertainty

Written by kvfawcett on November 19, 2010 – 1:10 pm -

When the seasons change, the Bonjour Paris mailbox is traditionally filled with questions pertaining to what clothes people should bring to France. If they’re heading to the Côte d’Azur, will it still be warm enough to swim? And could you please suggest 22 day trips?

That’s part and parcel of running a website; we’re used to giving advice, making recommendations and hoping for the best. There’s no one answer that satisfies each and every person. But c’est la vie, and we do our best.

This week’s queries have been different. Is it safe to come to France? If you’ve been watching the news, you know the Eiffel Tower has been closed twice in the past week. Both times were false alarms. A friend of mine who lives near the Tower said she had zero idea about the closures until a family member called from San Francisco to see if her family was OK. Jane was amazed since she said the area was “tourists as usual.” She’d just returned from the playground with her toddlers and commented that no one looked panicked in the least.

In addition, one of Paris’s train stations was evacuated. As tends to be the case in such situations, someone had left a suitcase. Until the police and the sniffer dogs came and the area was declared safe, people were inconvenienced. Better safe than sorry.

This reminds me of when a bomb was detonated in a trashcan on the Champs-Élysées in the ’90s. The receptacles were solid with round openings. People weren’t as aware of terrorist attacks then, although the French government claims it had its antenna up and out.

Rather than waiting for another possible occurrence, the trash bins were sealed tight as drums. What people did with their accumulated trash was a bit of a challenge. The city placed brown box cartons that overflowed with paper and cans, etc. Finally they were replaced with transparent plastic bags hanging on rings so garbage could be tossed without having the sidewalks look as if they were trash dumps.

During that era, travelers were concerned as to whether or not Paris was a safe destination. Initially, I found the trucks filled with national police from the CRS always visible and looking extremely well-armed and rough-and-tough unnerving.

What I ultimately realized is the French government doesn’t want to hide the fact it’s willing to do battle with anyone or any group with subversive motives.

The police are visible in a show of strength. Imagine my surprise when I was doing an interview with one of the officers in a truck only to see the others playing cards. At the same time, they were constantly on the lookout.

My brain flash-backed to the days after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and riots erupted over the country. The 14th Street corridor in Washington, D.C., was torched. It was one of the most shocking occurrences in my lifetime.

I was young and naïve enough that it didn’t even enter into my realm of consciousness that something so terrible could happen. At that time, I lived in the Georgetown area of D.C.  Because it was where many government officials lived, the Marines and the National Guard were called into to protect the area as well as other parts of D.C.  It was an eerie feeling being surrounded by armed soldiers. We breathed a great sigh of relief when they disappeared and it was deemed safe to return to our daily routines.

There have been numerous troubling and horrible occurrences since that time, but does that mean people should give up traveling? My vote is no. I’ve even made it a point to take a flight on September 11th, the anniversary of the Twin Towers being destroyed as well as parts of the Pentagon.

There have been rumors of terrorists’ plots brewing in the U.K, France and Germany, and security has definitely been beefed up. The U.S. government is working with its European allies. But Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declined to provide specifics. “We are not going to comment on specific intelligence, as doing so threatens to undermine intelligence operations that are critical in protecting the United States and our allies.”

In France, Olivier Bagousse, who runs the Paris police department’s Command and Information Center, said authorities have stepped up their alert level following recent intelligence. They are manning a restricted area in Paris’s central police headquarters (across from the Notre Dame Cathedral) that looks and functions as a small version of NASA’s Mission Control. From there, they can survey Paris utilizing 400 closed-circuit cameras that are strategically placed throughout the city.

The seminal question is should people stop living because of fear? On top of that, my guess is there probably aren’t many cities that are considerably safer than Paris since the authorities are being more than vigilant. It goes without saying that tourists should stay alert.

Would you postpone a trip to Europe?  I wouldn’t, though I know not everyone shares my mantra that living in fear isn’t really living.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


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Posted in Around the World |

Observing the French

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:44 am -

The longer I remain in France, the less I understand the French. Or perhaps, I understand them better and have come to accept they’re quixotic. What you’d expect them to do, they don’t. What they do, you wouldn’t imagine they’d do in 1000 years.

Think of the Roma, formerly tziganes or Gypsies, if you want to get a sense of one of the French contradictions. They may complain about the les Roms, but let Sarkozy deport them—as he did—and they’re up in arms. Or consider this. Most Frenchmen and Frenchwomen agree that the welfare state as it is needs reform, beginning with pensions. In the first reading of the bill, it has passed the Chamber of Deputies, 329 to 233, a pretty clear signal. Nonetheless, the strikers will be out again next week and next month. Raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 feels inhumane to them.

And here’s an example that I find fascinating. Politeness is an attribute most French consider essential. Naturally, some things are easing up, as the world becomes more homogeneous and bad manners, rather than good ones, spread. However, the bourgeoisie usually follow certain rules.

But there are exceptions. If you own an apartment in Paris, the annual meeting of the co-propriétaires can feel as if war is being waged. People who nod to one another if they’re sharing an elevator or pass one another in the entrée will frequently raise voices when issues regarding the building are being discussed.

I’m sure there’s a French version of Robert’s Rules of Order, but they don’t appear to be enforced. My French friends tell me these meetings can be difficult and revealing about their neighbors. They can last until each and every person has had his or her say.

When the French debate, they do it with panache and have the ability to focus—especially when it comes to spending money for capital improvements. As is the case with most building associations, there are those who advocate expenditures while the long-term residents are generally satisfied with the status quo—and if it isn’t broken, why fix it? Generally, these meetings are lively and, by the end, an onlooker might suspect the building’s residents must have hearts of stone. Not at all.

For example, the other day, I was walking by the grocery store at the end of my street. There were three police vans and at least six men and women in uniform holding walkie-talkies in front of the building. Had someone been raped, robbed or murdered? Clearly, it had to be a federal case to generate so much commotion.

Rather, the police had come to remove our neighborhood clochard, who lives on the street. For the past twenty years, we’ve had an ongoing relationship and wouldn’t consider not nodding when passing. During this time, we’ve both aged and gone through various stages of living and life. He’s lost his companion dog and part of his right leg, and it’s clear he’s drinking more wine on some days than others. He’s moved from one place to another, but likes our quartier as much as those of us who are paying big euros to live in the 6ème.

I’ve bought him food, water, juice and sustenance; he’s chastised me for selecting a small round of Camembert that wasn’t ripe enough. It was clearly his responsibility to give the resident américaine an education.

By no means am I the only person. I’ve seen him wearing a neighbor’s cast-off overcoat, and when it’s really cold, another neighbor has taken him blankets. Even thought the City of Paris has vans that take street people to shelters for the night and make certain they’re fed and bathed before letting them leave the following morning, not all people will go.

After looking to see what was taking place, it became evident that our street person was being taken to the police station. He was showing his identification and following the rules—and even though he wasn’t drunk that day, it was clear someone had complained. His possessions appear to have multiplied—and he’s not a neat freak—and things were spilling out onto the sidewalk from the doorway that he’d made home.

Speaking with the police was futile. They responded that they knew who he was and were doing their job and essentially, I should disappear. As I walked down the street, I bumped into two neighbors and blurted out what was taking place at that very minute.

Eric responded, “Ce n’est pas possible” and took off saying that he was going to keep the police from taking Michel to the station. He summoned some neighbors who happened to be on the street and there was a posse running to the corner—the famous Parisian mob, united in purpose, in this case made up of people who had nearly been at one another’s throats over the need of painting in the stairwells.

The next day, Michel was back, none the worse for wear. But I keep wondering if the flying squad of neighbors who ran to try to rescue him from the cops the day before are still united in purpose or grumbling at each other over higher wattage bulbs in the common halls or the paint or the number of recycling bins in the backyard.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


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Memories, Paris, Provence, Loss, Sadness and Joy

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:19 am -

Ever since September 11, 2001, most people can’t have that day come and go without remembering the devastating destruction and loss that occurred. Three thousand people lost their lives, and we lost some of our freedom. For many, it was the end of an age of innocence. It’s one of the defining acts in recent history that has impacted travel and so much more. As much as we’d like, the world will never be the same.

I remember the day as if it were yesterday. I was sitting at my desk in Paris in the afternoon, writing away. Because of the six-hour time difference, it was morning on the East Coast of the U.S. My son would usually sign on his computer and thank goodness for AOL instant messenger (IM)—even though we were on different continents, I had the feeling of being able to “talk” to him if necessary. As soon as he signed on, he started typing as if in a whirlwind. Where was I? What was I doing? He told me to turn on the television so I could see what was happening.

I ran into the living room just in time to see the second tower crumbling down. This couldn’t be real. Clearly, this was a bad movie and couldn’t be real.

Please remember these were the days before most of us had high-speed Internet, much less Wi-Fi. I grabbed my laptop and moved into the living room, plugged in the rinky-dink modem and, amazingly enough, was able to snag an AOL dial-up connection.

Sitting on the sofa in total disbelief, I IMed with my son and a couple of other people on my buddy list. Who could possibly believe what were seeing on CNN and why was this happening? The horror and the terror were not to be believed. It would be a while before we knew the whys…

I was unable to reach my mother who lived less than two miles from the Pentagon. All of the phone lines were jammed and there was no way I could make a call from Paris to Washington, DC. The irony was my mother thought I should move home (meaning where she was) because of some mini-bombs that had recently been detonated on the Champs-Élysées.

A buddy list friend, who lived in the area, finally contacted my mother who’d been sleeping. My son had gone home to his wife so he was off-line.

People frequently want to know what it feels like to be an expat. In this case, I wanted to be with family. But would that have changed anything? In essence, we were all impotent and could do nothing but wait and hope the nightmare would abate and we’d wake up and realize it had been a bad dream and shake the dust out of our eyes.

Phyllis Flick, who’d just moved to Paris to study, had rented a room down the street and didn’t have access to CNN. Even though we’d never met except through Bonjour Paris, she asked if she could come up to the apartment so she could see English-language television. That was fine with me. I was pleased to have the company and I think she camped on the sofa in front of the television. To be honest, the entire time was a blur.

How well I remember my neighbors knocking on my door and asking if there was anything they could do for me. We really didn’t know one another, but they knew that I was l’américaine and at times such as this, even the French don’t stand on formality.

The memory of my downstairs neighbor who worked for Microsoft will be indelibly etched in my mind. Michel appeared and insisted I come downstairs for dinner and their door was always open in the event I wanted coffee, company or a cigarette. Yes, it was politically and socially correct to smoke in La Belle France then.

My husband Victor had left for Provence a couple of days before. He so loved that house in the vines, and I was planning to join him a couple of days later. Since his U.S. office was headquartered next to the World Trade Center, he was concerned about many of his colleagues and friends. What a terrible time when he heard that one of the offices where he’d worked was no longer standing. So much sadness.

When I started writing this, I realized today is the fourth anniversary of Victor’s death. I came across this article in the archives of Bonjour Paris and thought it would be appropriate to republish.

To the many people in all of our lives who’ve been lost for myriad reasons, let’s raise a glass to them. To those who are our friends and part of our families, let’s do everything possible to nurture and cherish them.

Please know I consider Bonjour Paris readers family. You may come and go, but we’re a community and so many thanks to each and every one of you for being there.

September 12, 2010

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


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Posted in Around the World, Paris |

Welcome to France and the World of Strikes

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:18 am -

You may be a tourist and here for R&R. But that doesn’t make you exempt from the realities of French life. Since I live in Paris, I’ve learned (well, kinda) to factor in some of the negatives that drive others nutty and provoke people to call the French some not very nice names. Lord knows, tourists can come away with some mighty negative impressions. To be succinct, it’s the season of la grève first and la négociation after a while. The French strike first and talk it over later.

Dealing with strikes means acquiring an acceptance that you can’t change the way things are done, merci beaucoup. The first year I lived in France, the strikes were enough to make me want to jump out of my skin and decide to make a religious study of France’s best agricultural product.  Ah, drinking way too much wine succeeded in numbing some of the pain and suffering derived from the post office being on strike in addition to Paris’s public transportation system.

This sounds like the dark ages, and yet it was (only) 22 years ago. I had no option but to walk and walk and learned a lot about Paris and happily lost some weight. However, I wasn’t a happy camper since this was pre-internet (no VoIP or Skype) and phone calls were a major line item in our budget. We bought a fax, but still trying to stay close to friends and family cost a ton of old French francs. No, my husband and I didn’t get divorced over the FranceTel bills. However, there were some mighty heated conversations about my intrinsic need to communicate.

People learn to go with the flow or try to without going into cardiac arrest. For example, children are back in school; the rentrée has occurred—or so their parents thought. Twelve million students finally returned to class after a long summer—and let’s get on with education. Easier said than done since the unions that represent France’s 850,000 teachers are going on their first strike of the academic year this Monday and Tuesday.

Teachers’ unions are protesting against the government’s pension reforms and the job cuts. Approximately 16,000 jobs have been axed for this academic year. 30,000 posts were cut between 2007 and 2009. There’s serious talk of 16,000 additional cuts next September and teachers and other members of the staff aren’t happy. Nor are the parents who want their offspring to go to school and actually have the opportunity to learn.

No one is happy. This year’s reforms mean that large parts of curricula at all levels have been rewritten, and several textbooks aren’t ready for distribution. There’s talk of extending the school week so children will be less exhausted and many other changes. Change is generally unpopular.

On Tuesday, while the teachers will be striking, a general strike is planned for people who don’t want to see the retirement age raised from 60 to 62—which may give the teachers a hard time deciding which strike to join that day. All of the other unions will join this industrial action, and if you want to get from here to there, forget it. Whether or not President Sarkozy will be successful in getting this reform passed is more than problematic. There’s been a lot of yelling and screaming even though the French trade unions’ protests failed to rally enough street power against the proposed crucial reforms regarding France’s costly pension system. Anyone who reads the economic news is aware that an economic crisis is spreading across Europe and needs to be contained. Being required to work two or three extra years may ease the problem.

But are strikes and turmoil any reason for tourists not to come to France? The answer is absolutely not. Please anticipate that you may be somewhat inconvenienced, but restaurants will be open. You’ll probably encounter what frequently looks like a Fourth of July parade with vendors selling sausages and drinks to keep the protestors going. If you’re sightseeing, wear a hat with a big brim (things get thrown occasionally) and be prepared to walk and explore some off-the-beaten path neighborhoods.

Politics is a sport and a science of its own. I am by no means dismissing the long-term ramifications of these very key issues. A lot of people’s futures are on the line (including President Sarkozy’s), and French society’s future is resting on which reforms are adopted and which aren’t.

Think of it this way: Vacation is over and it’s a new season and life is back in the fast lane—or maybe it’s the breakdown lane.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


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What Happened to Paris?

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:18 am -

It’s only been a day, or possibly a week, but the Paris I love has changed complexion. It’s not that I’m not still enamored with the city—it’s simply different.

Footsteps are audible in the apartment above me. Ditto for the sounds of my neighbor’s two children, who happily have reached the age that they rarely use the hallway as a non-stop racetrack as if there were gold at the end of the tunnel for the child who comes in first. Yes, you can occasionally hear their voices, which signifies they’re home from visiting their grandparents who take charge of their offspring plus their offspring in Normandy.

Mail is finally being delivered. Perhaps employees of La Poste went on vacation. More realistically, it’s that most of the residents of this building go away, so why send mail if there’s no one home to receive it? France is in many ways more “green” than the U.S. and you don’t have to fight your way through tons of junk mail to find a letter. As is the case in the U.S., bills are automatically deducted from my bank account, accounts are accessible online and it’s hard for me to recall the last time I received an honest-to-God letter. If it weren’t for invitations to some art openings, I’d toss everything without looking.

During August, parking is free where I live. Until the last couple of days, I could have parked anywhere if I had a car. Now people are forced to jockey for spaces, and beginning September 1, the meter maids will be out in full-force, writing tickets and collecting money for the city of Paris. Vivent les pervanches!

Shutters are being opened, and everybody’s cleaning house: duvets are hanging out to air, and it feels like a new morning. The apartment where I witnessed the recent raucous party is also undergoing a metamorphosis. Gone are the sex, drugs and rock and roll as well as the red curtains and the inhabitants. Perhaps they were ephemeral squatters who were taking advantage of the fact that they were not going to leave a forwarding address.

Now, there’s a painter giving the walls a coat of white. I couldn’t hightail it quickly enough to the café below to ask the owner whether or not the apartment is for rent. Perhaps I have a friend who might want it and could snag it before it goes on the market, which it will any minute if someone hasn’t already purchased the property.

I’ll know the answer tomorrow and was able to take a look at the very nice digs. In the process, I was able to get some exercise because there’s no elevator and walking up to the fourth floor (that means the fifth in the U.S.) means it would have to be a very healthy friend. Actually, I should probably move into it—my legs would be so much better for the exercise. In addition, I’d be forced to be so much more organized, because who wants to go down and up four flights because of a forgotten liter of milk?

Construction crews are back and the relative sounds of silence have gone away. Work that came to a grinding halt at the end of July is now being finished. The lobby of a building that has been in the process of being renovated forever may actually be ready.

Parisians who have the means to spend the month of August elsewhere have returned home all at once like lemmings: highways have been filled with bumper-to-bumper cars waiting their turn for their sortie that will take them into Paris.

Women are meeting, greeting and gravitating to cafés, as if they haven’t seen one another in years. It’s clear they have a lot to discuss after having been separated while on vacation. Or have they been? People seem to be having conversations while socializing but the hot thing is that everyone who’s who (and who’s not) has an iPhone, which seems to be in constant use.

This year’s fashion style for “older” women is tights and shirts that are loose flowing tops, as if they’re not quite ready to make the leap to wearing true city clothes. Feet are covered with sandals; people are hanging onto summer. Women’s faces and arms are bronzed and many of them look as if they’re waiting for an appointment with the hairdresser because they’re allowing their hair the privilege of being a tiny bit wild and naturally streaked—which is unnatural in Paris.

Last week, grocery stores were nearly empty. This week, you get the definite impression that people are stocking up after their time away. Grocery carts aren’t filled with that day’s necessities, but are brimming, and purchases are being stacked in plastic boxes that will be delivered within the following two hours—or so they tell you.

Voilà the trucks filled with cartons of groceries, water, wine and more that people have ordered online. Those sites didn’t exist until about five years ago and people using them initially might have been chastised for not caring enough to select their own items. Quite frankly, I don’t feel the need to handpick my own laundry detergent. I do choose produce and fresh fish at the local markets. And naturally, cheese, glorious cheese….

What’s most poignant about this period is that children are obviously getting ready for the school year. Parents are assiduously ensuring their charges have the right books, pencils with gradations of thickness, pens, notebooks with grids and so many other sundries.

After giving the August-September phenomena some thought, I realize my new year always began in September because that’s when we returned to school. The official January 1 new year was always symbolic of the winter-holiday vacation more than another year and a new start. Is this a universal feeling of people where the school year begins in September?  Do we ever break the feeling even if we’re no longer lugging book bags?

Perhaps we’re eternally school children at heart no matter what nationality is stamped on our passport. What do you think?  As some children say, “Good night, Moon,” perhaps we should say, “Goodbye, August.”  But, there will be another one.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


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Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll in the Summer

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:17 am -

Good, I hope that got your attention. It’s not that the French avoid sex, drugs and loud music for eleven months of the year. But they are more discreet about when and where and how. When August comes, people remaining in Paris assume they’re just about the only ones left, only tourists are walking the streets, and no one is looking out of windows—a Parisian pastime. Clearly, that’s not the case, and if you’re the least bit aware, you may see things that weren’t intended for public viewing. Or you might not see when the weather’s in the single digits Celsius. But August is warm.

If someone lives in an old Parisian building, most windows require curtains that are three meters in length and can set you back a pretty centime. Since the majority of these apartments don’t have air-conditioning, people leave their windows open to let in the air and let the noise out. If you live on a street that’s narrow or looks out over a small courtyard well you may be privy to activities for which you didn’t buy a ticket.

Though all those churches make France look like a Catholic country, relatively few people attend Mass or go to confession. Many (especially middle-aged and younger) French residents appear to have been born without the deep-seated modesty genes good Catholics were supposed to have. Seeing someone in his or her underwear is no big deal. Watching a person (hopefully the occupant) clean the apartment wearing next to nothing isn’t unusual in the summer. Perhaps it’s because it tends to be hot or maybe it makes sense since it cuts down on washing clothes that get dirty during the process. Whatever…

I’ve seen people cooking in their über-chic designer kitchens, eating dinner, sitting in their living rooms drinking wine, having conversations that look heated, putting babies to bed and making love. Come to think of it, I’ve seen relatively few people watch television—even though I know full well they do.

During summer months, I’ve spotted my homosexual neighbors across two courtyards make love as if they’re dancing and want an audience. Oh, to be that limber! Rather than yelling bravo, I close my blinds or exit the kitchen. There are some things that are none of my business; what a consenting couple does between is their business (please), and my fantasies just don’t work that way.

As for drugs, the teens (and older folks) who remain in Paris appear to feel no one’s looking and they can smoke marijuana or do a little coke (not cola) with impunity and immunity. The other night (rather morning) I decided to sit on the balcony at 4 a.m. and witnessed a party in full swing. Being of the live-and-let-live frame of mind (that does not apply to my son and his offspring), I figured what they ingested was their business, wasn’t doing any harm to my central nervous system, and wasn’t going to get my apartment raided.

But I was highly offended by the rock and roll emanating from the apartment. How dare it rupture my silence? I took my trusty whistle and blew it with all my strength. I didn’t want to yell la ferme! since I knew they’d know it was l’américaine who was putting a damper on their party and their fun. Then I began to wonder whether or not I was the only person left on the block or if everyone was so sound asleep they were oblivious to the music that was blasting loud enough to entertain people on the Right Bank… I’m on the Left.

There’s also another August phenomenon. When you think about it, it makes sense. People vacate apartments. It’s as if it’s the end of an old and the beginning of a new school year. Parents are undoubtedly getting situated so their children are settled when the semester begins.

Still, it’s a quiet month because when the French move, they move efficiently and quickly. The truck, complete with scaffolding that goes up and down mechanically, is parked in front of the building and boxes are loaded and unloaded in a fraction of the time it takes in the U.S.

Even though the French don’t move anywhere near as frequently as Americans, there’s been a fair amount of turnover on my street. This is good and bad since it undoubtedly signifies the neighborhood’s value is increasing as apartments are virtually dismantled and reconstructed. It also means the street can be blocked while the movers are at work. Some of the apartments, which had permanently closed curtains or shutters, can now be seen, leaving me to wonder if they had been vacant or inhabited by moles.

Invariably when a property is sold there will be increased noise for a while because the French are now into major renovations. We all know that can take forever and generate a lot of dust and forget about quiet. Anyone who’s lived through a property being gutted down to the studs, rebuilt, etc., knows it isn’t a silent process. I’m fully aware I’d better find another place to work when floors are being sanded, because I feel as if I’m sitting in the dentist’s chair with him drilling my teeth.

Happily, most workmen take the month of August off or concentrate on renovating commercial properties. That’s when they’re most in demand, can charge premium prices and have a finite period to gut and reconstruct before the rentrée and “new” establishments doors open.

By the last week in August, the world eases back to normal. Bakeries reopen. Restaurants spring to life. Invariably there are some new stores and prices have edged up just a tiny bit—as if people wouldn’t notice because they’ve been away. If nothing else, you can count on that. And of course, there are sex, drugs and rock and roll. They’re simply less visible because more people may be watching.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


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French Bureaucratic Hell?

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:16 am -

I’ve been worrying about this for two years and I’m not exaggerating. Would I or would I not be allowed to stay in my adopted country? There are “eight million stories in the naked city” and I was certain each and every one of them would befall me.

If you live in France and don’t have an EU passport, and haven’t been exposed to a discussion about obtaining a carte de séjour (or titre), you’ve been living under a rock. That plasticized card is worth more than its weight in gold, especially if it permits you to work.

Horror stories abound where people have been literally been given hours to pack up their belongings and get out of Dodge—or actually Panam’ to use the equivalent for Paris in the old days. This is not referring to the recent crackdown on illegal immigration. I’ve known people who’ve outstayed their student visas and have been forced to hightail it back to the U.S.

Others have chosen to remain here sans-papiers—yes, some of my best friends don’t have residents’ cards. But it’s become increasingly difficult because if you’re taking a France-bound flight from the U.S. without a return ticket within 90 days (and no, that doesn’t mean three months) you stand the risk of not being allowed to board the plane.

So you opt to become legal. There’s no way out of having all the many papers translated by an official translator, of proving you can support yourself without working, of having medical insurance, divorce decrees, a marriage license, an official address in France—and that’s just the beginning.

And as is true with all bureaucracies, the rules change or maybe it’s more accurate to say they are moving targets.  One fonctionnaire will ask for a paper another one doesn’t feel is pertinent or required. Welcome to long lines, repeat visits, and Excedrin headaches.

So my day had come and my stress level was on the rise. It was time to renew my ten-year card and, being a wee bit of a pessimist, I was convinced the French government would bid me au revoir. I realized this was highly unlikely since I own property in Paris, pay taxes and, darn it, sing the country’s praises.

My first ah-huh moment came when my photos were turned down because they didn’t meet specifications.  I avoided going to one of the ubiquitous booths that ask me to buy my identity photos here. I spent more at a photo place because I didn’t want to screw up. Well, I did because I smiled.  The application papers were returned and I had photos taken that make me look as if I’m a prisoner on death row. Hopefully, I won’t have to show the card frequently, but probably will since it’s valid for ten years.

No more official letters meant (I hoped) good news—no news is good news, right? I decided to make the foray to the Préfecture de Police on the Île de la Cité, which is Paris’s central headquarters for official business and also houses some fairly mean-looking people awaiting trial in one of the building’s jails.

It’s common knowledge you should expect to spend a day when having to accomplish anything official. Registering a car in Paris took so many hours that I became friendly with a woman in the process of waiting and being shuttled from guichet to guichet.

So, I determined this would be a lost day, shoved a book, a sandwich and a bottle of water into my bag and assumed I’d be home before dark. After all, this is August. I walked up to the métro to be greeted by a train pulling into the station and then whisking me to the Cité stop. If I hadn’t been in such a hurry, I would have stopped and bought (or at least admired) the plants and the flowers at the open market at the top of the métro stairs.

But, I was a woman on a mission. I expected a line a block long to just be able to go through security. There was no one ahead of me, and I was in the door, having had my bag go through x-ray and walking through a metal detector so quickly that I assumed I was in the wrong place. I headed to the building where you take a number and wait your turn. My ticket number was 69 and, when I looked up, I saw that I was next. I didn’t even have time to take a gulp of water before my number was flashing on the sign.

In I went and was greeted by a young man with a beaming smile. I said “bonjour” and he replied “hello” and off we were going to getting my new card.  I asked for the card for Mme Fawcett and his face lit up with (I must have been imagining it—hallucinating?) with a modicum of recognition. He looked in the collection of dossiers under F and returned to report my card wasn’t ready.

My new best friend, who insisted on speaking English while I was babbling in French, asked to see my old card again, smiled and immediately went to another area.  He was looking in the wrong place since my identity in France will always be under my nom de jeune fille (maiden name) even though I can hardly remember when I was called that.

Bertrand, my bureaucrat pal, instructed me to go across the hall and purchase a tax stamp for 120 euros. That took precisely two minutes, and I was almost home free. Or so I thought.

I was back waving the stamps and was about to take my card and hit the nearest café and order a glass of champagne. No such luck. Bertrand was holding my card. I could see it—well, thank goodness I couldn’t see the photo—and he told me I’d have to return in six days since that was the day my card expired. Oh, couldn’t he please make an exception. He assured me no (in English) since he’d lose his job. But who was this lovely man who said he’d look forward to seeing me the following week? A mean and nasty French fonctionnaire? Hardly. Perhaps things are changing in La Belle France.

Or realistically, I got lucky, and August may be the best month for dealing with bureaucratic matters. So many Parisians are en vacances and office workers are actually glad to see you since they’re not frazzled or being hassled.

But, what’s with their speaking English? Is that correct? Can’t say it wasn’t helpful, though.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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So Much for the Smoking Ban

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:16 am -

When the French government banned smoking in restaurants three years ago, no one thought people would go quietly in the night. Most assumed you’d hear a lot of yelling and screaming and the tobacco addicted would ignore the law.

They were about half right. People began congregating outside bars and restaurants without terrasses and annoying neighbors. The signs suggesting that noisy patrons would not be tolerated seem to have had no effect. Screaming in the night, probably having more to do with alcohol than a craving for tobacco, is a new Paris tradition.

Not really surprising. There aren’t enough police in the world to hand out fines to all the perpetrators of cigarette smoke. French fonctionnaires aren’t completely dumb, so they announced restaurant owners would be the ones to pay and possibly have their doors closed in order to enforce the law—but if the smokers are outside their doors?

This is not to say that the smoking ban has failed altogether. Initially, people did smoke less. There were 15% fewer heart attacks reported the first year of the ban and it was looking good. But people are creatures of habit and some are next to impossible to break of their habits. In addition, statistics have shown that when the economy is down, people tend to light up due to stress.

After the government imposed the smoking ban and raised taxes on cigarettes (at today’s exchange, they’re about $7.50 a pack, that is, about the same as a pack in Washington or New York), the French did cut back on their cigarette consumption. But, that seems to be a thing of the past. In 2009, there was a 2.9% increase in the number of cigarettes sold, but it was short-lived as people resumed their former habits.

What’s especially alarming is the number of 13-to-15-year-old smokers is estimated to have increased by 66 percent between 2004 and 2008. And almost one in five French 16-to-20-year-olds now smoke, compared to one in ten just a decade ago.

On the plus side, the French smoked 97 billion cigarettes in 1991 and smoked (only?) 55 billion cigarettes in 2009. I guess that makes tobacco manufacturers and distributors unhappy—thank goodness they have Asia as a new and growing market. Come to think about it, so does Starbucks.

During the winter (whether in Paris, London or New York), you’ll see gangs of people clustered in doorways looking like fugitives getting their nicotine fixes. La vie est dure, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Now that it’s summer, it’s hard to walk down the street and not be surrounded by smokers.

Life on the street where I live has taken on a new look and feel since the weather has become more than wonderful. I’ve waved to neighbors whom I’ve never seen before since they’re sitting on their balconies puffing away. I want to go on record that I’m deadheading my geraniums, which is my idea of gardening.

Some theories as to why the French haven’t quit smoking in spite of aggressive anti-smoking ads:

Does printing “Smoking kills” and other one-liners on cigarette packs discourage smoking? By the time you’re close enough to read it, you’ve already bought the pack. Waste not, want not. And the bad news about smoking is old.

Older people frequently say that smoking is one of their great pleasures and why stop now? They may have a point, but it’s their choice.

French women are fast to say they’d rather smoke than gain weight. Plus, since they’re drinking less, it’s a way for women to socialize with one another. Unless or until there are medical reasons for a specific woman not to smoke, they’re quick to say they’ll continue to do it in moderation.

If they decide to get pregnant, most women will stop smoking. They already drink less wine, or practically not at all—much to the chagrin of the French wine industry—so that’s less of a problem, unless of course winemakers start investing in Philip Morris.

Some people attempt to confine their smoking to parties and when they’re out socializing in clubs and in after-dinner bars. That seems counter-productive since they’re forced to stand outside and miss what’s happening—unless of course the reason to go to the clubs is to stand on the street and smoke.

What’s evident and prevalent are the ever-expanding restaurants with terraces and mushrooming tables on the sidewalk. They’re doing booming businesses catering to smokers. If you want to sit outside and enjoy some sun and fresh air, expect to be inundated by second-hand smoke. There’s talk of some restaurants instituting non-smoking terraces, but as the French would say, “On verra.”

Should you be in the Rue Montorgueil area in the 2ème, there are plenty of restaurants on the pedestrian streets that have more tables outside of the restaurant than in the interior. Everyone’s eating, drinking, and smoking away. Because most doors are kept open, non-smokers are doomed if they want a smoke-free meal.

According to data from The Non-Smokers’ Rights (NSR) Association, the ban on smoking is currently being violated far more than it was when the 2007 law went into effect. In addition, restaurants have constructed enclosed terraces, initially so people could eat outside under heaters; these terraces have become de facto smoking zones. The NSR says it has conducted tests that show the air in establishments with covered smoking terraces is three times as toxic as in restaurants and cafés without them.

It’s as if people aren’t even trying. Fewer people are buying stop-smoking nicotine patches and gum to try to diminish the need to light up.

What do you think is going to be the bottom line in France and, for that matter, in the U.S. as well? Are people ever going to stop smoking? And for those us who have (and with difficulty), are we doomed to have our clothes smell like cigarettes because we’re surrounded by others who can’t kick the habit?

Something tells me this isn’t a simply French phenomenon. What do you think?

© Paris New Media, LLC


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August in Paris & I Want to Stay Here

Written by kvfawcett on September 6, 2010 – 11:13 am -

It’s August when well-to-do Parisians flee the city like lemmings, leaving the other critters behind. But for the past eighteen years, I’ve opted to stay here. To be truthful, August is my favorite month in the City of Light; it’s the one when you can veg out and, yes, restaurants are open. Honest.

Even though my husband and I owned a wonderful house in Provence, which was situated in the midst of the vines—with a pool and all—I’d rent it out during July and August and hightail it to Paris. I didn’t like the crowds or having to place an order for the next day’s bread unless I planned to be in town at 7 heures précises. If I wanted the International Herald Tribune, it had to be ordered since they were snapped up by all the Anglophones who were passing through. There were simply too many tourists, and trying to go around a caravan of trailers (loaded to the gills with more equipment than you can imagine) lost its charm.

When we bought our house, it wasn’t in a chi-chi area. There was one design store and next to nothing for those hunting for bling. A butcher selling horsemeat didn’t qualify.

But after it was discovered, Vaison-la-Romaine assumed the characteristics of anything but a quiet village. Thank you Patricia Wells for writing At Home In Provence and so many others books that were researched or written from her mas overlooking the town.

Our area of the Vaucluse became so crowded that locals stopped going to the Tuesday market. You’d have to watch out for your feet and shoulders, and wrap yourself around the sack of fruit you had purchased since it would invariably end up squished in the crowds. Ah, welcome, you busloads of tourists, and after the Tour de France added to Mont Ventoux’s fame (did you see Lance Armstrong?), the area was on engraved the map of must-see places in France. So much for the summery charm of Provence.

As a result, the area became increasingly chic, so if we rented during the house high season, we could recoup part of the cost of running our country digs that were high akin to dumping euros into the ocean. Being a city girl, dealing with a septic tank was nothing I’d ever experienced and could pass on the privilege, merci.

My husband, who died three years ago, hated leaving Seguret no matter the season. He wanted to watch fruits of his labor grow in the potager. Victor poured over seed catalogues every winter. Each year, he’d become more ambitious as he spent hours squatting on a stool in this plot of land, placing each seed in the earth with slide rule precision.

He spent hours with neighbors and farmers from the area discussing what would grow best. It was Victor’s garden. He came by this passion naturally, maybe genetically. Victor was a man of the land and felt if you couldn’t get your hands dirty, you were missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures. He was born and raised in Italy and constantly recounted his childhood memories of climbing up and down the stairs next to where he lived on the Italian Mediterranean. The stairwell was surrounded by fig trees. He could as a boy watch figs grow—imagine that—for hours, so as a man it made sense for him to watch zucchini grow.

Good for him, but the garden was mine to weed and to water—and why the hell didn’t the automatic water system shoot water where it was supposed to go rather than shooting it elsewhere? Then there were those zucchini. I’ll spare you the gory details about what you do with a vegetable that grows so large overnight that it could be used for a baseball bat and as abundantly as kudzu.

I was much more pragmatic. I loved entertaining in the South. But there were some days when I felt as if I were running a hotel and conducted more than my share of wine tours though the Côtes du Rhône. In addition, just as I sold the house, it was only then that FranceTel took the leap and installed lines so people could connect computers via DSL rather than being forced to use dial-up modems that were so slow (and took multiple attempts) that I could do the laundry while waiting to hear, “You’ve got mail.”

I grew up in an apartment and didn’t love my summer forays to girls’ camps where we slept in tents and had to walk (for what seemed like forever) to the cabin with toilets and showers. Plus, there were those ever so unexpected encounters with snakes and other animals that crawled in the night. When we finished renovating, expanding, and landscaping our perfect house in the vines, I couldn’t believe there were critters crawling in the night, and dear Kitty, whom I mourn each day, would present us with snakes. Perhaps I loved her more when she became a city cat.

If you think Paris is hot in the summer, double that when you think of Provence—and throw in the wind. Depending on where you are and whether or not the mistral is blowing, you can broil. It’s not that I don’t love the area; I do. It’s simply that I prefer to visit when there are fewer people on the roads and vying for, well, everything.

If anyone tells you Paris closes during the month of August, that’s nonsense. Yes, “my” bakery will shut down and I’ll simply have to walk a block further if I’m craving a croissant in the morning. Or, they have terrific frozen ones (don’t tell) at Picard. They’re open during August (even on Sunday) and if it’s a hot day, spending time in one of their stores is a great way to lower your body temperature. It’s even cooler than the movies with their air conditioning—and you don’t have to buy anything.

One of the things I love about being in Paris during August is that everyone who is here is very much more laid back than when business and work are in full gear. Gatherings happen spontaneously and people you might never have met appear to turn up where you least expect to find them.

How do you feel about being in Paris during August or any big city where people (if they can afford it) take off for the country?

© Paris New Media, LLC


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Where is Home?

Written by kvfawcett on September 6, 2010 – 11:12 am -

When I ask the question Where is home, I’m not referring to where you were born. Or where you grew up or even graduated from high school. And, yes, home is where the heart is—or, as Robert Frost taught us—“home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” But so much more comes into play and the equation.

Perhaps people who have always lived in the same place have an advantage over others who’ve taken to the road. Sure, there are bound to be changes, but they tend to be subtler—or perhaps, more gradual than they are after you’ve been absent and haven’t been privy the (for better or worse) changes.

They may move away—to college, on a business assignment and even for romance or a job. But you know it’s transient and you’ll return. You may even venture beyond your comfort zone. But it’s always in the back of your mind that it’s not a question if you’ll return home, but when. Whether or not you do, is something else. But the thought gives you solace, doesn’t it?

Others, often referred to as “hired guns” by headhunters, go where the job is, do it and keep on going to the next assignment. People who’ve opted to join the military move frequently, and packing is a way of life. Their friends tend to be ones they encounter on different assignments. Ditto for those who sign up for the Foreign Service. But, when queried, the majority of them will have a precise place in their minds about where they’re going to retire.

But then there’s the real expat. I keep wondering whether or not there’s an invisible line that, once crossed, there’s no going back cannot be crossed again, except for serious family reasons such as taking care of elderly parents. And once that’s done, they return “home.”

At dinner the other night, this was a big topic of conversation. One woman moved to Paris because she loved France. Twenty-five years later she’s still here and working as the Director of Communications at an internet company. She ultimately married and divorced a French man. Deborah now has a 14-year-old daughter, who’d left the previous day to visit her grandparents in Southern California. We all agreed the weather in that part of the world is a whole lot more seductive than Paris. Why doesn’t she move “home”?

After considerable discussion, she said she welcomes going back once a year, enjoys seeing family and falling into the sand and surf groove. But when it comes to living and life, she’s become Parisian. Her daughter has too because after ten days of going to the beach and hanging out with contemporaries, even she is bored—and it’s not because her English isn’t fluent. She has grown up with a different frame of reference.

Deborah elaborated that when she goes to California, she says she’s going home because that’s where her family lives. But even they put it into perspective, when they assured her she should stay in France because that’s where she belongs and it’s her home.

Another woman said she really hasn’t lived in the U.S. since she was in her early 20s. Even though she returns frequently for work, she no longer really understands the culture. Neither woman could envision herself moving back permanently although both agreed the Paris expat community plays major roles in their lives.

Jim Haynes, who’s known for his Sunday night dinners that attract people from all over the world, rarely leaves Paris unless it’s to attend the Edinburgh Festival or other book and arts festivals in the E.U. He doesn’t make frequent pilgrimages to Louisiana where he was born. Jim doesn’t want for friends or meeting new people since they gravitate to his place.

If you attend one of his soirées, it’s not unusual to encounter lots of tourists who are passing through Paris, plus those who’ve chosen to live places other than their home country, many of whom have opted for Paris.

The reality is that no one ever totally becomes the nationality of the country they adopt even if their language fluency is 100% perfect and they’re totally assimilated into the culture. People still maintain their native identity despite any outward adaptations they may have made.

No matter how long you live in a place, there’s nothing like talking “shorthand” with someone who understands your language, the nuances and how to say something so fast that there’s zero need for a translator. It’s essentially subliminal and what the hell. Jane and I just had a drink and it was akin to bingo. She and Olivier are in the process of moving their chicer than incredible cooking school to three-story digs overlooking the Seine. Both of them are excited but there’s nothing like a construction project to make anyone nervous.

After our glass of wine, I realized my construction terminology is now in French rather than English. The last three properties I’ve renovated have been in France. Don’t get me wrong; I have no illusions of being French. It’s simply my frame of reference has changed—and how. It’s symptomatic of where my head is … for better or worse and if I need a plumber.

After polling some expats, the best answer I received about how to define what is home came down to one word: “homesick.” Tirumalai said, “When I first left my native country, I’d get homesick in my adoptive country after visiting my native country. After living here for several years, I found the situation reversed. I became homesick for my adoptive country while visiting my native country. That was the defining moment for me.”

No matter where I go, I find France is always part of my psyche and how I view situations. It’s not that I can’t be comfortable in the U.S. I can be and don’t feel completely out of place. On the other hand, I’m not completely comfortable anywhere and don’t expect to ever be 100% integrated. I like to rationalize it’s because my mind is always being challenged which I think is positive. But, not everyone agrees, and I’ve even been criticized for being too much of a travel junkie.

I’m saying it’s not the easiest life, but it’s the life I have chosen. If you have similar feelings, how do you manage? Let us know at Bonjour Paris.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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