Monday, April 29, 2013

Diet Aids and Pickpockets

Full moon over Pont Neuf as viewed at a"Full Moon" party
            What is French women’s secret to maintaining their svelte figures? It must be that potion whose magic of melting fat happens from just two sips, or that body-shaper that evaporates fat. Or could it be that pill or chocolate bar that make a whole female population lose four dress sizes in seconds? Illustrations and testimonies accompany these claims galore made on TV. The French don’t seem to have heard about “truth in advertising”—and for that matter, neither is tort law noticeable here, as witnessed by rickety staircases, broken sidewalks and teetering window planters. One windy morning, my friend was hit on the head by concrete debris that flew from the top of St. Sulpice church, restored a couple of years ago. The stone left a bump, but luckily did not knock her out….

            If high-end style has made French famous, the focus is not consumer oriented as we know it in the States. This shift in focus, this off-perspective that celebrates the decrepit and keeps the new off stage, is what makes Paris. Whole blocks around my apartment, which is adjacent to the Sorbonne, are overflowing with book stores. New books, literary works, used paperbacks, old manuscripts, science and liturgy tomes remind me that not only the literary world is alive and pulsating with accumulated and new knowledge, (albeit in elusive French,) but that the digital age has not swallowed it all up into its carnivorous belly—or onto its endless open clouds. My Metro station, which serves the Sorbonne, is decorated with mosaic signatures of writers, philosophers, poets and scientists.

            The patina of Paris is not wearing off. But life begins to bleed into the surface when charm becomes routine, when the paths I take each morning to class are not viewed with the newness of first blush. Like old love, it is there, always present, permitting me bit by bit to take some of it for granted. But then there is the surprise of discovery: Friday afternoon, instead of a classroom French lesson, the teacher—a lovely and smart young Frenchwoman—took us on a stroll of the Latin Quarter. And right there, merely a few blocks behind my apartment, I found an exotic neighborhood, hidden plazas, and charming alleys whose ancient walls buckled outward over cobblestoned pavement.

            Last Saturday morning, when Ron was here, we witnessed three separate events of potential pickpocketing, two of which were directed toward me. In one such incident on the Metro, a pretty young couple began to fight, she claiming he’d pushed her, he denied. The French student in me listened to the quick language, as I often do when trying to decipher the locals’ fast-tongue exchanges. The novelist in me heard a stilted dialogue that made me perplexed rather than suspicious that the incident was actually a planned distraction while someone tried to put his hand in my handbag. (It was zippered, but had an open side-pocket.) A passenger noticed, yelled, and the man ferreted away. In a second case, Ron was the one to notice a small man following me closely to peek into the same handbag. In a third case, we approached an ATM when we saw the customer at the machine being accosted by two clean-shaven travelers with backpacks, men I would not have suspected and might have been the one to get accosted (which is why I never use outside ATM machines in the USA.)

            Yet this past weekend, perhaps because of my being oblivious, still deliriously drunk on the notion of being in Paris, nothing like this has taken place. Starting at the Bastille, I walked along the gentrified canal St. Martin in the eastern part of Paris, a part of the 130 km waterway system. With trees shadowing the water, foot bridges, walkways and small parks, this was a fascinating place to stop for a Sunday brunch at the historical Hotel du Nord which is to Paris what the American Hotel is to Sag Harbor—except that here history is measured in centuries, not decades.

            In another memorable evening last week, I was invited to a “Full Moon” party, at the Pont des Arts. (That’s a pedestrian bridge where thousands of lovers have place locks on the chain-link railing and threw the keys into the water.) As the moon rose over Pont Neuf across from us, we drank wine, nibbled at the assorted covered dishes brought by the group members—mostly expats and their visiting friends—and listened to the many guitars and singers among the other groups spread all over the bridge.

            And I thought of Ernest Hemingway’s words that “Paris is a moveable feast.”



Sunday, April 21, 2013

"Licking the Windows"

             Lèche-vitrine is a French word for window shopping. Lick the window. How wonderfully these words embody the desire, the sense of the urge when it fills one's mouth. I prefer, though, the descriptive Hebrew expression, “rinse the eyes.” It offers the experience of enjoying the beauty without the overwhelming desire to own it, so clearly implied by the French word.
            But the stores are safe from me. In two weeks here, I haven’t had the time. Always running to classes, to French conversations held all over the city, and back home in between to catch some rest of which I don’t seem to get enough. When I finally had a free Sunday afternoon and set on the mission to check the better fashion stores, I discovered that they were closed on Sunday!
            The birds-and-flower market was more than a great compensation. So many chirping birds were ready to be adopted into families where they would welcome spring, and so many flower pots ready to be planted—the majority, it seems, are in window sills, which cannot be imagined in urban New York.  
           This week, the famous Hotel Carillon, shut down for major renovations, allowed the public a couple of days of viewing the contents to be auctioned. Rooms filled with antique furniture, art, concierge uniforms, Baccarat china, and wine and rare liqueurs displayed in their natural settings, in decorated suites with their sumptuous gilded ceilings. This is was a world where honored guests made history since the mid-1750. One bedroom showed a photo of young, beautiful Claudia Cardinale sitting on the same bed I was looking at. 
            On Friday, hubby Ron arrived for a few days—as did my cousin Michel and his wife Bernadette from Besançon (a town southwest of Paris,) and his sister Gaby and husband Hubert from Nice. While Ron’s visit takes me back to English, Bernadette and Hubert who speak only French provide me with long hours of French conversation that more than make up for the classes I miss. They’ve all commented on my French improvement, even though I feel that my vocabulary still needs a major pumping of new words. But I do chat along, catching up on our lives in as quick a French as I can muster.
 (Photo: Restaurant La Fermette Marbeuf)
            In what is either French tradition or this family’s practice, each couple has treated us to sumptuous dinners at magnificent restaurants. Walking around all day has not balanced the calories consumed at these Parisian establishments whose chefs are dedicated to preserving the reputation of French cuisine down to its rich sauces, which we in the States have long put behind.
            And then there are the potatoes. I am unable to order a salad anywhere without this staple. Yesterday, though, it was replaced with rice. Potatoes also appear routinely on the side of main dishes, and servers are surprised when I ask for a replacement. The standard café’s kitchen is too busy for adjustments.
            Spring has finally showed its warm face for a couple of days this past week, only to shy away and let the cold replace it this weekend. No matter. I am taking three days off from classes for sightseeing.
            Or to lick the windows still from distance, as once again, I have no time to savor the merchandize….


Saturday, April 13, 2013

“Paris is always a good idea.”

With Linda Rubin at The Editeurs cafe
You will be the same person in five years except for the books you’ve read, the places you’ve visited, and the people you’ve met.” – Peter Legge  (An unknown motivational speaker who reads books, visits places and meets people.)
            While I certainly don’t have time to read a book, my third full day in Paris already embodied the two parts about places and people one meets. I started my morning with my daily four hours of French classes, which wouldn’t be significant except for the make up of the students in class: they were all very young and came from all corners of the earth. My study partner that day was a Saudi woman wearing jihab, (Muslim women’s full head covering.) Our assignment was to analyze the writing voice and grammatical forms in newspaper articles. I was relieved that the publication was a Parisian Left Bank circular with local news that did not include international news…. After working together for a while, I relaxed.
            Later in the afternoon, I attended a mixed conversation group of French and English speakers (half the meeting people chatted in English, half in French, so each got to practice.) I met Brigitte, a former French teacher who wanted to practice her English, and after the formal meeting, the two of us continued at a café. We developed a rhythm in which I spoke French and she responded in English, and we corrected one another.  
            Other French conversations groups—of which there are quite a lot here—select different cafés around town, and each new destination makes that street or intersection my flitting home. One afternoon, I was enchanted by the fabulously designed Metro station of Arts et Métiers, its brass ceiling and the dramatization of machinery wheels peeking through celebrate the skills of mechanics and engineers that brought industrialization. Every day, my walk both ways to Alliance Francaise classes has taken me through the Jardins de Luxemburg. One late night, walking away from my second Toastmasters’ group I looked at the lit Louvre across the rue Rivoli. Glistening after the rain, the road reflected the many yellow lights, and had it not been for the late hour and the possibility of more rain, I would have crossed it and walked back home. Instead, I ambled on rue Rivoli under a portico housing art galleries. Devoid of tourists this late, it was my own yet again. 
            At an expats soirée, I met Linda, a retired veterinarian from Florida on the same one-month visit as I am, and whose joke-telling skills about the animals she’d treated would qualify her to become a stand-up comedienne. The next evening she invited me to dinner at her place and we’ve been sharing resources and fun places—last night as “Shabbat welcome” at the traditional French chansonniere Au Lapin Agile. Tonight, I was invited to dinner at friends of a friend of my late cousin Sharon. Talking about six-degrees of separation! I couldn’t have imagined a warmer welcome from this very lovely couple, with whom, it turned out, I had a lot in common.
            The point of reporting these new acquaintances is that in one week in Paris, I’ve never been alone or out of things to do. In fact I am exhausted…. But rest? Tomorrow there will be more conversation groups to attend and I will be a guest speaker at Patricia’s soirée.
            Also, finally today, with no French morning classes over the weekend, I carved a window of time to exercise. I located on the internet a Zumba studio nearby. However, when I arrived, it turns out that the website was not current, and the class scheduled was an advanced choreographed dance. Whatever we think of the French, the instructor was terrific in making sure that I became familiar with the steps. He did so in the fastest French possible, not realizing that I wasn’t a native. It felt great to know that I could already fake it. After class came a Parisian moment: The single dressing room had one shower. As I was gathering my stuff, the instructor came out of the shower in his turquoise-colored briefs and casually got dressed while chatting with the disrobed female students….
            As Audrey Hepburn said, “Paris is always a good idea.”

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Wiggling my toes


     Waking up my first morning, I wiggle my toes and examine my bedroom in the apartment I’ve rented for the month. The bold pink flowered print of the wallpaper repeats itself in the full curtains and in the chair’s upholstery. Yet with the antique dresses and armoire, the effect is warm, old-world French. Outside the window, in the small public garden facing the apartment, the trees and shrubs give no hint that spring has materialized overnight. Pedestrians are wearing heavy coats, hats and gloves. No matter. Paris is staring at me in that little garden. It is supposedly a city square, but it is in fact a triangle, and the name “city square” conjures an urban, asphalt-paved intersection, while this is a lovely oasis of  unpaved paths, groomed flower beds awaiting bloom, benches and an ancient fountain. Stylized stone buildings edging the garden, with very small cars parked in front of them. My corner apartment has many windows that let in light. To the far left is the Sorbonne university, to the far right the Museum of Middle Ages. Most importantly, yesterday, upon my arrival, I glimpsed the back of a garden next to the museum, and to my delighted surprise I realized that this is the herbal garden I so often like to visit when in Paris. 
            Jetlagged I’ve permitted myself to sleep late. I think it is 3 pm, but am surprised to discover that it is only 10:15.  Tomorrow I must leave 8:15 to start my first French classes. I turn on the TV. Since yesterday, as part of my language immersion, I’ve been keeping it on, half-listening—rather than watching—a fashion show, news of military upheaval in Central Africa, a Hawaiian dance lesson, and a documentary about elephants. Forgotten words return, contractions are broken down back to their original words to make them comprehensible.
            Tonight, I will meet a group of expats for dinner. Next Sunday, I will be their featured speaker. Having made my research and contacted groups of interest to me, my calendar is already filled with lessons, French conversations, lectures and programs—sometimes five a day. When I visit the gym around the corner to inquire about exercise classes, I realize that I won’t be able to participate in any.
            Later in the afternoon:
Taking a four-hour walk through the Latin Quarter, my temporary home, and into Le Marais, the area I researched a few years ago for my novel Jerusalem Maiden, I find it hard to avoid stepping back in time to 1924 into the days my protagonist, Esther, visited here. In my mind’s eye I strip off the dozens of souvenirs and T-shirt stores overflowing into the sidewalks in these tourist areas and I try to ignore the restaurants that are an insult to French cuisine. (I tried one last night for dinner and another today for lunch.) But then there are the patisseries, the French bakeries whose aroma of baking butter may cause one to cross the line into serious sinning, and the crêperies, with their carmelized sugar and hazlenut cream—all competing for my passion….
            Instead, I diverted my attention to the refurbished buildings with their ornamental metal works and roof-dormer windows. Gentrification has preserved whole city blocks that otherwise would have been grazed down, like Montparnasse, but the pricy boutiques have also stripped Le Marais from its Jewish character. Or perhaps, the Jewish refugees of WWI that crowded this neighborhood learned during WWII the hard lesson that they weren’t safe among their French neighbors. The memorial day for Ha'shoah, as the French call the Holocaust--adapted from Hebrew--will start tonight. One could not feel it in the Sunday bustling Le Marais, teeming with shoppers, long lines for the Falafel store, and street musicians. But then there was the Holocuast museum, guarded by security, a reminder that all is not behind us.
           As I light a candle for the victims of  the Holocuast, I turn my thoughts toward French Jews who were rounded up for deportation during the Vichy regime not by a single Nazi, but by French gendermes.
            My candle filickers. What is one candle when compared to the lives of six million Jews?