How Times Have Changed When Talking Turkey in France

Written by kvfawcett on December 23, 2010 – 11:22 am -

Ah, it seems like yesterday, but it wasn’t. To be precise, it was twenty years ago. Being a good American, there was no way that I wasn’t going to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was the one holiday where we’d get together, eat too much, laugh and have a good time.

Of course, getting up at the crack of dawn in the U.S. so the bird would be ready before noon was kind of a pain, but Thanksgiving and the NFL football games went hand in hand. It seems distant now, but that was the way it was in those days when I lived in Washington.

After Victor and I moved into our new Paris apartment, we decided to invite our American friends to come and celebrate, which (for Americans) falls on the fourth Thursday of November unlike Canada where it falls on the second Monday of October. We included some French friends who thought it was more than a strange meal and a stranger ritual.

All I knew was that I was hell-bent on having a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. What I didn’t anticipate was that we could have gone to the most expensive restaurant in Paris and eaten for less than that dinner cost, but we wouldn’t have feasted on turkey—and please don’t say “so what?” In those days, it mattered.

Being of the Butterball generation, it didn’t occur to me that chemically treated über humongous birds simply didn’t exist in France. I went to the butcher only to be told that it was impossible to buy a turkey large enough to feed twenty people before Christmas.  Didn’t I understand these were free-range birds and weren’t going to grow large enough just because I wanted one?

OK, that was no problem. Being resourceful and being able to add, I ordered two turkeys. Defeat would not be mine. Oh, how I wish I hadn’t been able to add when the bill was presented. It was nearly $125. Were the birds stuffed with gold?

By the time the fixings were purchased (what do you mean one can of Ocean Spray cranberries costs $6?), it was time to contemplate taking out a loan. But defeat would not be mine: a tube of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce on a plate, with the marks from the can looking like ribs, is a sine qua non of Thanksgiving, particularly if no one eats it and it is thrown out whole.

I won’t bore you with what it cost to import enough pecans to make a sticky and gooey pie. It was sheer determination… defeat would not be mine. Ah, hmmm. That was until I picked up the fowl that morning only to realize there was zero way both could possibly fit in one oven, especially ours which was French and small.

That was the year of our becoming extremely friendly with the concierge of our building. We usurped that oven and shuttled up and down five floors so we could baste both turkeys. Each time we went down to the ground floor apartment, we took a bottle of wine. After all, that was only polite.

Dinner was a roaring success. In fact, it was the best Thanksgiving we ever had as twenty people were stuffed into our dining area, which usually seats eight.

I went to bed with a headache that night, undoubtedly from the stress of cooking for so many people and the fact that the guests each brought a lovely bottle of wine—and there was no way we could insult anyone by not drinking all of them.

Since this wasn’t a French holiday, dinner didn’t begin until 8 p.m. By the time it ended after midnight (thank goodness someone brought a bottle of first-rate cognac), I wondered how our guests were going to be able to work the next day.

But this being France, the only one who had a real hangover was I. And clearly it was due to the fact that I refused to go to bed until all of the dishes, glasses and silver were washed and put away.

Happily, Thanksgiving comes only once a year—it takes that long to recover. But that evening was one I’ll never forget.  Nor will our guests and the concierge who’s still talking about it:

Vivent les Américains (even if they are crazy).

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


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Ten Reasons I Love Living in Paris

Written by kvfawcett on November 19, 2010 – 1:15 pm -

Are there only ten? No, and in fact I have twelve here. Though I could go on forever—or at least for another dozen reasons, lists of Ten Best or Top Ten or Ten Dancing Girls seem to go over better, a fact of life from vaudeville to the internet—and it probably started in Ur of the Chaldees.

Anyway, I figure I can always come back for more. So here are my twelve reasons for why Paris is the place I live and love.

1. Architecture: There’s eye candy as far as the eye can see, and I’m not only referring to the city’s roof tops. Look at the buildings’ façades, windows, balconies, and wander into small passages. Invariably you’ll find a garden or something you weren’t expecting—like a bicycle circa 1955, still in working order.

2. Safety: The feeling of safety and most especially as a woman alone. Being able to return home after midnight alone (using big city smarts) gives one such a feeling of freedom.

3. Food: I’m not just thinking of restaurant meals, but what you can buy in markets. Even though people do buy French, you can go to ethnic markets throughout the city and come home with a taste of other cultures.

4. Cars: You don’t need one. Public transportation really works, and considering the saving that comes from not having to buy, maintain, insure and garage a car, I could (but don’t) hire a limo. If I want to go away, I either take a train or rent a car from Auto Europe.

5. Solitude: Being able to sit in a bar or café and keep to myself when I want to be enveloped in my cocoon. When I feel social, it’s perfectly safe and comfortable to go to a nearby jazz bar for the music and a glass of wine, and nine times out of ten, I’ll end up having a conversation with others. Music is a great equalizer. But being alone is sometimes just what I want.

6. The gardens and parks: There’s my favorite, the Luxembourg Garden which I think I mention more often than just about anything else. But the city has many magnificent parks like the Parc Monceau—not to mention those forlorn and seedy little squares where my friend and colleague Joseph Lestrange sits and daydreams about the other people sitting on benches and gives the half his sandwich he can’t eat to some down-and-outer. And you don’t have to look far to find what American urban planner Jane Jacobs would have labeled vest pocket parks. You want more? Take a look at a list of Paris’s parks.

7. The world is my oyster: You can be exposed to other cultures by simply boarding a cross-town bus. India, China, the Middle East, anywhere—Paris is anything but a homogeneous city. There have been clashes between people, but rarely between the different cultures that coexist within Paris proper.

8. Talk: The main topic of conversation here isn’t money or real estate. I have friends who live in humongous apartments and others who live in shoeboxes. People aren’t judged by their financial means, but rather by who they are and what they do and think.

9. Shopping: It’s all here. Women can buy anything from haute couture to black jeans (black anything) and look chic. Men, too.

10. Culture: There’s always something going on. It’s nice to be able to buy a big-euro ticket to the opera or the ballet. But if you can’t, you’re by no means going feel culturally deprived. So many events are free or cost next to nothing.

11. The height restrictions in Paris: Central Paris doesn’t cause people to feel claustrophobic, as New York City tends to do. Washington can also make a similar claim, but the architecture there is most decidedly not Beaux-Arts.

12. The monumentality of the city: I’m the first to admit I’m prejudiced. Before moving to Paris, I thought my hometown, Washington, DC, was a glorious capital city. It isn’t at all bad, but its scale and grandeur simply aren’t as spectacular as the views of Paris. Perhaps it’s because, unless you’re at the Tidal Basin or the Lincoln Memorial, the vistas aren’t the same. And even though it may be gaudy (well, before the paint fades and dirt settles on the gold leaf), the monuments glistening when seen at a distance highlighted in gold are spectacular.

No matter how many times I leave Paris and return, my breath is invariably taken away when I pass Notre Dame, the Pont Neuf and the Grand Palais. And I know it’s crazy, but what really touches my heart and my soul are Paris’s florists. Some are more haut de gamme than chic and très cher. But there are so many other flower stands where you can buy a bouquet for three euros and it can’t help but make me feel cheerier, even on a very gray day.

It’s Paris for twelve reasons or more. But I’ll give you one perfect reason. Here I am chez moi.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


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Back at Home in Paris

Written by kvfawcett on November 19, 2010 – 1:12 pm -

I’m home and it feels so right. Yes, there are strikes and there are more to come. But, if you’re in the City of Light, it doesn’t feel as if it’s the end of the world.

Based on all the news reports and shows of violence being looped on television, who in their right minds would consider coming here now?  Ahh, hmmm… let me attest: plenty of people. When I arrived at Dulles airport, my first questions to the airline personnel were about the strikes. The what? No, there hadn’t been more cancellations than usual on the Paris-bound flight.

The plane from Washington, DC, was 80% full. After asking a few passengers if they were concerned about coming to France, they really didn’t know about the strikes. Or if they did, they weren’t concerned over being affected by them.

The flight took off on time and landed 40 minutes early. Getting into the city wasn’t substantially more difficult than usual although it did take a bit longer because some people, who might have taken mass transit, were driving. Gas stations were open and plenty of cars were waiting to receive their allotment of gas.

As angry as the French may be, they generally don’t lean on their cars’ horns to express their displeasure.

The French passengers with whom I spoke shrugged and said, “C’est normale. We strike first and hope we can negotiate later.”  Even they admitted they didn’t think the French government was going to back down from voting in France’s pension reforms.

The most cogent discussion I heard about the strikes in France was broadcast on The Diane Rehm Show, which is aired in Washington and networked by NPR to its member stations. Her guests explained a bit about the French mentality in addition to the economic necessity of the pension reform.

Alexander Chancellor, columnist for British newspaper The Guardian, had another explanation about the strikes.  “British resistance to government cuts will never match those in France. Some will certainly fight the cuts tooth and nail, but it is more in our national character to unite in shared suffering.” The famous British stiff upper lip seems to have been deployed, if perhaps with a crinkled nose and squinted eyes, while the French are out in the streets as they have been since before the Saint Bartholomew massacre.

The French feel they are defined by revolution, and look back with nostalgia to the events of May 1968. They are conditioned to distrust their ruling elite and think they are only living up to their finest national traditions when they are burning cars or throwing cobblestones at the police. If we find comfort—and we don’t always—in following our government’s calls for self-sacrifice in the national interest, the French find it in defying their government.

Brits are astonished the French are making such a fuss about the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 when it has already been raised to 67 in Germany and will soon be raised to 66 in the U.K. According to opinion polls, a majority of French people actually accepts that the retirement age must go up if the country is to be able to afford its generous pension system.

The French Senate officially adopted the reform bill and the final vote will likely take place during the week of Oct. 25, with the law expected to be enforced soon thereafter. We’ll see if the strikes continue, as unions and other strikers vow will happen.

But what am I seeing in Paris? People are walking, biking and when I went out last night for a dinner that made me know I was home, the #83 bus that’s always late came immediately. The patrons in the restaurant were enjoying their dinners and no one could be audibly heard complaining.

A trip to the grocery store was another indication that life is good. People are on the streets and in the shops and if there are any visible signs of striking in this area, it’s that the trash trucks haven’t been by for a couple of days. Some heavy trash bags have joined the trash bins but are placed just so because in spite of the strikes, the French maintain a sense of order.

Please don’t get me wrong and think I dismiss the strikes as nonsense. Anything but and it’s distressing that some students (in addition to probable thugs up to no good) have joined the strikers. Their activities seem self-defeating, especially in a debate which is over.

What is amazing to me that I returned home to find a sign on the main door announcing the one elevator in the building is not going to be operational for six weeks beginning January 3rd. Living on the fifth floor (U.S), that gave me pause. I immediately encountered my next-door neighbor who is well over 80 thinking she’d be upset.

Chère Mme Morin commented we’d better remember all of the groceries we needed so we wouldn’t have to make more than one trip to the grocery store each day. I was too tired to remind her that grocery stores deliver and wasn’t about to mention all of the Internet grocery sites where you can order everything including the kitchen sink.

If the same thing were to happen in the U.S., I assume the tenants would go ballistic and… there would not be a strike because what or whom would they be striking against? A dilapidated elevator? Yet, I’m not thrilled and can’t believe it’s going to take six weeks to repair. On the other hand, I need to lose some weight and will use the stairs as the way to do so. I try to take them once a day when I am in Paris.

Now, I’ll simply have to take them more frequently. And to be sure, no one in the building will go on strike although Mme Morin suggested we might want to put a chair on each floor so we could rest before continuing up. She’s absolutely right and I’d better inform some friends who’d planned to visit during that period that they might want to reconsider.

My guess is the lack of an elevator will be more of a deterrent to houseguests than the strikes. As the French would say, on verra.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


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In Washington D.C. and Paris Bound

Written by kvfawcett on November 19, 2010 – 1:11 pm -

I’m in Washington D.C., getting ready to head to Paris—and am I ever glad. I’ll miss my family, but we’ll resume our weekly Skype sessions. To tell you the truth, though, the girls are leading their own lives and becoming increasingly busy with school, birthday parties and things children do.

I’m looking at the clothes to be packed, gathering papers that seem to travel with me no matter where I go, and making mental notes of chores I need to do, such as alert my US phone carrier to reactivate roaming, so I won’t be hit with a mega bill when emails start rolling in the minute I arrive in France. My lists are beginning to multiply.

Electronics are sitting in one corner including a Kindle in addition to extra large jars of crunchy peanut butter, bars of pink Dove soap, bags of Hershey’s chocolate kisses and two bags of dark brown organic sugar which is probably available in France. Still on my to-do list: a run to a drug store that sells vitamins and other pills in super-size-me bottles.

I’m not living in fear over the current strikes. To be honest, I’m more concerned over the weather, so thank goodness for waterproof shoes, raincoats and umbrellas. For the past seventeen years, the Bonjour Paris mantra has been you don’t come to France for the climate.

Don’t get me wrong. I am following the strikes very carefully, reading the French news, watching France 24 and knowing the strikers are determined to strike and will do so until… well, until what always happens happens once again. They will stop because no one really believes the president and the legislature are going to cancel the retirement-reform legislation. And not everyone is happy: schools are closed, which the students may enjoy, but the parents of young ones do not. High school students are also protesting.

In case you’ve missed it, gasoline is beginning to run low in the tank farms—and the refineries are closed. But the French government is telling the gas companies to use their own reserves and don’t think they can tap into the government’s month-long reserve. Will the government force the lines to be open to supply fuel to Paris’s airports?

I am constantly querying friends in Paris as to whether or not they’re suffering and not being able to navigate within the city itself. Are grocery stores being raided? Are people stocking up on wine (this is as good an excuse as any) and has life come to a grinding halt? The answer has been no unless they are depending on trains; if so, there will more than likely be some inconvenience. One friend says she’s postponed her trips from the Loire to see her dentist in Paris, but it’s not the end of the world.

There are noises (and loud ones) about fuel supplies being cut off at Paris’s two airports. Will it mess up my flight? Time will tell and I may be fuming if my plane doesn’t depart much less arrive in Paris. However, this is a part (the worst part) of the travel experience and even though I’m eager to arrive home and walk through the Luxembourg Garden, if I don’t get home at the appointed hour, I’ll have something to write about next week.

Having lived in France for the past 22 years, I’ve learned unions (declining in membership) strike first and then negotiate. Actually, it’s a bit funnier than that. First, they issue a préavis, a notice that they intend to strike on a certain day. Then they strike, issue several more préavis, do it again, and then they negotiate or, as I suspect in this case, they simply go back to work. How much inconvenience they cause is another story. But here’s a précis: The flights that have been canceled (although not long-haul ones) cause havoc. The Eiffel Tower was closed for one day. If I’d only had one day in Paris, I might have been upset.

French postal workers are now making noises about striking. Yes, that would be an inconvenience. But nothing like it was when there wasn’t any mail the first winter I moved to Paris. Nor were there many faxes and who’d heard of the internet? That was the winter of major discontent (plus my being homesick) and a telephone bill that precipitated some very heated conversations between my husband and me.

I have attended so many strikes that feel more like a 4th of July parade—where people sing, chant, and naturally eat. Note that in France, attending strikes is similar to going to the movies: you don’t participate, but you do watch—and incidentally get counted as part of the manifestation. There are always food trucks and strikers stop before dinner because most French wouldn’t consider missing their evening meal.

People form a type of solidarity during strikes. I’ve hitchhiked, ridden on the back of motor scooters, biked and confined my projects to places I can walk. I cyber-commute no matter where I am, so I have a definite advantage.

The key point is the government is not going to cave in over the pension reform. As an American, the idea of retiring at 62 sounds pretty good to me. France has the lowest retirement age in the EU except for Greece, where the government—good luck to them!—is trying to raise the retirement age for women from 50 and for men from 57 to 60 and 62. Germany’s retirement age is 65 and it’s being upped to 67.

One thing I do want to weigh in over is the fact that CNN, France 24 and other media outlets can cause things to look worse than the reality. As I’ve said, no one I know—or have read about—is actually suffering anything more than inconvenience so far. And it worth noting that even some of the students who are protesting have conceded that life expectancy is much longer than it was when the current pension system was established.

Strikes to worry about: dock strikes, fuel strikes, truckers because of the movement of goods (e.g., food), etc. Would my bet be this will be the last strike? No. Do I think there will be more days of disruption? Yes! And, for the record, striking or attending a strike beats working. And the poor French Socialists think they’ve got a lock on the presidency in 2012. They also think Galileo was wrong and the sun revolves around la belle France.

My worries are more centered on France’s long-term economy, the euro zone and the fact that too much bread is being pre-made in factories. In spite of these problems, and given my druthers, I wouldn’t live anyplace else.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


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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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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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Posted in Paris |

Going Green in the City of Light

Written by kvfawcett on September 6, 2010 – 11:08 am -

Most people are all for going green until it costs them something or limits their freedom, merci beaucoup. Yes, here’s to a more sustainable environment—but what’s the price we’ll have to pay.

For a third year now, National Geographic has assembled a Green Guide to make living a more environmentally aware life easier and to help create some ways of achieving it. With GlobeScan, the Geographic is looking to develop an international research approach to measure and monitor consumer progress towards environmentally sustainable consumption. Sounds good? Sounds right? You bet and the 2006 carbon dioxide emissions results prove that the poorer the country, the less impact it has on the environment.  Not surprising: the poor have less—and less to waste, to burn or to throw away.

Most developed countries are recycling glass and paper, promoting alternative forms of energy, trying to cut down on water usage, utilizing recyclable building and storage materials, and screwing in light bulbs that are longer lasting and consume less energy.  But this is just the beginning.  We need to utilize cleaning materials that are ecologically friendly and not throw out things because they’ve been used once, substitute paper or cotton for plastic and use “green” products because we care about future.

But living a green life—even a pale shade of green life—isn’t easy and doesn’t come naturally to us, (especially Americans) any more. Europeans have always been more energy conscious since electricity is expensive and why pay for lights and heat that aren’t needed? Until relatively recently, many of my French friends didn’t have dishwashers and would hang just-washed clothes outside or use an indoor clothesline. Most Europeans drive smaller cars. It’s not only a question of gas but also finding a parking space.

Now, I should study the label on every detergent I buy. Do I even know if the chemicals in this product or that are harmful?  Where am I supposed to store the dead batteries and the defunct smoke detector and all the other dangerous junk (who knew it was dangerous?) before I throw them out? And where did I put all that stuff, anyway.

Some may have hybrid cars, use High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, but other people can’t adopt the entire kit and caboodle—and hybrids still use gasoline and only gasoline over 40 miles per hour. As much as I chastise myself over my carbon footprint, I’m not going to stop traveling by plane. Nor am I going to unplug my modems each night to save some electricity. I will wear a sweater when the apartment’s temperature is colder than I like and even a pair of socks or furry slippers in the house. So I’m pale green at best.

And now there’s a huge hoopla in Paris courtesy of Paris’s Mayor Bertrand Delanoë. First, he narrowed some major streets by adding bike lanes. He was a big proponent of closing off others and turning them into pedestrian walkways. Many people loved it while some vendors are still cursing this move has ruined businesses.

When the mayor mandated in 2002 that Paris was going to have a plage (beach) for four weeks on the Right bank of the Seine, some drivers may not have been happy, but figured that not everyone could go to the country so they’d grin and bear it.

But now, the Mayor is adamant that he wants to close the Left Bank expressway that goes from the Musée d’Orsay to near the Eiffel Tower. That’s a total of 1.2 miles. Paris’s City Council will vote on the ban this July and, if passed, that part of the city will have a new look and feel in 2012 when there would be 35 acres of new cafés, parks, permanent foot and bike paths, sports facilities and floating islands complete with palm trees. Parisians would be able to pretend they were someplace exotic—if they’re not seeing red.

Taxi drivers and people who use the Quai de Branly are ballistic. Closing this area would displace approximately 30,000 cars each day. It’s been the fastest way to get from here to there. Here’s an example. A friend staying in the 11e arrondissement had an appointment with a doctor in the 16e—that is, point A and point B are both on the Right Bank.  The métro was having a problem, so he grabbed a cab.  The driver asked which way he wanted to go.  He said, take the Left Bank then cross the river again. The driver, from Senegal, beamed, saying, “You really know Paris, don’t you?”  The trip took twelve minutes—and the driver only ran one light.

Bonjour Paris readers were polled about closing the road by the river. Some think this will be great and a boon to tourism and make the city more livable. Others are more than annoyed, saying that traffic is already a mess in Paris and this will only exacerbate the problem. Not everyone agrees you don’t need a car in Paris, especially if they’re in a service business and don’t want to be dragging things on the métro or waiting for buses. Many say they don’t live near a convenient métro and don’t want to be jam-packed in with other riders.

David Tussman, a frequent Paris visitor, who lives in Berkeley, CA, said, “This is a fabulous idea. How many people really need to DRIVE in Paris? Tearing down the Embarcadero freeway in San Francisco after the earthquake in 1989 totally transformed the waterfront and remade the city. The area along the Seine is horrific now with all the traffic and this will be a gigantic change for the better.”

Some Bonjour Paris readers think Delanoë should have his head examined. What do you think? Is this too much a theme-park notion or really a green idea?

© Paris New Media, LLC


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Posted in Paris |

Getting Legal

Written by kvfawcett on July 12, 2010 – 4:35 pm -

Mention the phrase “French bureaucracy,” and most residents tend to break out in a sweat. Navigating the system feels more daunting than it should be, could be and frequently is. Talk about wanting to get a carte de séjour, you will hear horror stories, arguments about whether it’s even worth applying for one, and a year’s supply of misinformation—enough to drive you to drink, provided it’s decent French wine. But for that matter, it could be Plonk. When desperate, people aren’t necessarily selective.

Bonjour Paris receives so many emails about these subjects that I wish I’d been admitted to the French bar. But the reality is that even if I were, the laws, regulations, what’s needed and what’s not seem to change every few months and certainly when there’s a new administration.

And that’s not taking into consideration which clerk is reviewing your paperwork and whether or not he or she is in a good mood that day. Some friends have been asked to furnish supplemental documents only to return to the local préfecture and not be asked for them. Go figure.

Obtaining a French driver’s license for an American is a major undertaking and who cares if you’ve been driving in the U.S. for 25 years. Unless you come from one of the fifteen (Texans are now eligitable) states with which France has reciprocity, there are definite rules and regulations about how long you may be in France without obtaining a permis de conduire.

Don’t think you can set up house with a friend or a relative who lives in one of those states because, unless you did so more than a year before entering France, trading that license for a French one is a no go. I was going to try that route until I read the fine print.

If you import a car from the U.S. or any other country where taxes are lower, don’t fantasize you won’t have to pay the French taxman and be sure the car conforms to E.U. standards.

I’ll never forget the hours I spent in Paris’s préfecture de Police on Île de la Cité, watching a French executive nearly self-destruct because he’d purchased a Volvo station wagon when he was posted in the U.S.

He had to jump through hoops (not to mention spending a substantial number of euros having the car’s headlights and emission controls regulated to conform to E.U. standards). Since I was obviously an American, we struck up an instant and intense (albeit brief) relationship since we didn’t exchange business cards. For that matter, I’m not sure we knew the other’s name.

We were both frustrated, and he was so happy to have someone to whom he could vent. Did I realize how many hours he was having to take off from work and wasn’t this ridiculous? Plus, his dilemma was further complicated because he’d bought a Swedish car in the U.S. and had it outfitted so he could bring it back to France without having to have the car inspected yet again by yet another government entity.

I was simply trying to have my car’s registration changed from Provence to Paris but even though I thought this would be a no-brainer, I was missing some paperwork. We sat and waited for our numbers to be called (and called again) because we’d have to go to anotherguichet to collect more papers and instructions and please sign everything in triplicate. I do remember that I was able to exit the offices before him—all I had to do was pay a hefty tax and advise the insurance company that my car would be housed in Paris. Oh yes, then there was the cost of having new license plates made. C’est la vie and it’s only money—in this case, mine. When I sold the car (who needs a car in Paris, merci?) I had to supply additional papers.

Well, life goes on. It’s time to renew my ten-year carte de séjour and my lawyer is assembling all of the papers so I won’t spend weeks trying to accomplish something that I could easily mess up by not including one required document. Paris is my chosen home and it’s essential that mon statut juridique est en ordre (meaning I’m legal, please).

I’m also going to be dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Washington, DC next week. I keep a car here and was shocked the first time I pulled into the parking space adjacent to mine in the apartment building where I was staying, to see a car with the license plates “Bonjour.” The tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet” echoed in my brain.

The owner and I became friends and he promised that when he decided to give up driving or sell the car, those plates would be mine. I’ve spent hours on the DMV website, called the insurance company here and no one has been able to supply the information as precisely what’s needed to transfer the plates. I’ll spend half a day in that office next week so I may return with the needed data. But, why isn’t there a phone number for that department? I feel pretty confident my English is good enough to understand!

Let’s face it, no matter where you go, there are bureaucratic irritations and sometimes you simply have to bite the bullet. But, they do feel more daunting when you’re in a different country. Well kinda.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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Cultural Differences Abound

Written by kvfawcett on June 22, 2010 – 10:30 am -

After living in another country for years, people tend to lose touch with what’s really happening at ‘home,’ no matter how tuned in they think they are to what’s current and what’s not.

I was taken aback by an article that recently appeared in the New York Times, still considered the paper of record in the U.S.  After reading Etiquette in New York City, I found myself having to do a reality check.  Have I missed something by living in France so long?

There’s no question I’ve lost some language fluency because I’m continually surprised by how frequently expressions, such as “How great is that?” are sentence structures I’ve never heard. Is it correct English?  I’d guess not, but evidently a question can be a declarative statement.  Excuse me?

No wonder foreigners doing business in France tend to be baffled. They encounter an entirely different set of do’s and dont’s. Until a few years ago, it was considered impolite to conduct businss at lunch. People toasted the signing of a ‘deal’ with good food, bottles of good wine and perhaps, a cigar. Few French are drinking much wine at lunch and forget lingering over cigars since it’s illegal to smoke in France in enclosed spaces.

It’s been years since I’ve wondered how and where people chew gum, mainly because it’s done so infrequently in France. There must be gum chewers since it’s for sale, but not in 122 flavors, shapes and sizes. The French may smoke (and yes, the numbers are edging up), but I rarely see many actually chewing gum—unless they’re desperate to stop smoking. In all of my years in France, I can’t recall anyone popping bubble gum.

I know some must chew gum, because on rare occasions, it’s been stuck to the sole of a shoe. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. Even though most dog owners really do observe the clean up after your pooch rule, if I step into anything, it’s invariably—well, gum doesn’t come in that color.

The Times article also discussed appropriate decorum when it comes to questioning over-30-year-old couples, if they plan to have children. In France, that’s the type of question you don’t ask unless you’re a very best friend or a mother or mother-in-law who’s looking for trouble.

In Europe, one learns not to question marital status and certainly doesn’t pry into something as intimate as a person’s breeding habits.  Thank you very much, but people simply don’t go there, anymore than they ask how much a colleague makes. They may surmise or even know, but salaries among executives are rarely lunchtime conversation.

Other differences in protocol: people shake hands in France, and it’s not up to either the man or the woman to initiate the action. When I go across the street to the café to grab a coffee, the barman and I shake hands.  Who opens the door for whom isn’t necessarily a feminist matter or a crime against women. I open doors for women who are older than I. Ditto for men if they appear either frail, weak, or are carrying bundles of groceries.

Robin Worrall, who lives in Copenhagen and was raised in the open doors for women school of manners, admits he had to get used Danish customs. “Perhaps some Danish women have come to believe that having the door opened for them somehow implies they’re being thrown back into the mire of inequality by having a man behave in this ‘old fashioned way’ … or perhaps they’re just saying ‘hey guys we can open the door ourselves thanks’. Either way because the picture is rather confused, Danish men (mostly) appear to have given up on the courtesy front. On the other hand, a Brit in Denmark can still get away with opening the odd door or two … and get a smile for his trouble!”

The gate to the building where I live in Paris is so heavy that anyone who opens it more than twice a day doesn’t need to go to the gym. All of the residents open it for other inhabitants and it has nothing to do with whether or not you’re polite.  It’s more about brute strength.

When it comes to who exits elevators first, few Parisians who live in old buildings have much choice. Elevators are miniscule, so who gets in last, exits first. If not, people may live and die together or be squished to death in the process.  The hell with gallantry. It’s called survival.

As polite as the French may be most of the time, Métro or subway etiquette appears to be universal. Who wants to be stuck in a car that pulls out of the station where they want to exit? People do push and then push some more.

“Je veux sortir, s’il vous plaît,” is invariably replaced by “Je pars,” forcefully said. People want out when they want out and who cares if neighbors are pushed in the process?

I was raised reading the © 1955 version of my mother’s bible, “Emily Post’s Etiquette” (it’s very much the worse for wear) and learned all of the must-do’s and don’ts. Then I proceeded to break most of the sacred rules. Come to think of it, I did the same thing when I moved to France. Manners are very important – but manner dictums do change.

The longer I live in France and the more I travel, the more I understand about other cultures. Conversely, I’m always a bit confused. But, there’s one thing that’s certain: cultural mores are an endless source of fascination. The puzzle is never precisely solved.  And that’s OK.  It makes life more interesting.  Please feel free to chime in as to what you perceive to be correct etiquette and what’s not.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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Posted in Around the World, Paris |