Archive for May, 2010

La Poste: Nemesis Numero Uno

Boîte aux lettres La Poste

Have I ever told you how much I hate La Poste? That it is the bane of my existence? (Well, that and laundry).

My virulent loathing of the institution might seem a bit overstated, but I think in some ways it’s a good solution for dealing with my frustrations living in France. I simply channel all my ill feelings into this one receptacle – no need to get upset about everything.

Sure, I suppose I could choose someplace with a bit more power – the prefecture, say- as the singular object of my wrath. (You’ve seen my absolute terror in facing the prefecture here).

However, the prefecture is not a place I have to deal with often (usually just the annual trial suffices).

La Poste, on the other hand, is a fact of daily life. Inefficiency, surly customer service, long lines – all of these traits find their way here. All of France’s woes in one convenient location, in other words.

What has set off this tirade?

Well, a small thing, really. (Isn’t it always?)

I went to make photocopies and then mail off my US taxes and some health forms to my Mutuelle (June 15 is the filing date for us folks abroad, for those of you who think I’ve woefully missed the April 15 tax deadline. A Mutuelle is a complimentary health insurance for you same US folks who might not know.)

Sounds like a simple task, right? Only in France, no small task goes unpunished.

Go to my nearest post office. Copier only takes exact change (10 centimes). Machine that makes changes is out of order. Postal workers will not give me change because, well, they don’t like giving change.

Exit post office and go to nearest photocopy place. Stand in line. My turn. First 2 pages copy. Then machine stops copying. The guy working there (very nice, I will say) tries to figure out the problem. To no avail. Woman behind me exclaims, “this place is worse than the post office!”

Ok, next post office. Great! Their change machine works! Many 10 cent coins in hand. Go to their photocopier. En panne. (Out of service).

Back to original post office. One of the copiers has managed to fall en panne, too, in the interceding time, but one still works. I make all of my copies. Hooray!

After I finish, the woman behind me tries the machine. “It doesn’t work!” she cries. Break out another en panne sign.

Not a huge deal, I know. Believe me, I still have perspective. But a quick errand (I had assumed – hah!) turned into half a day. While I’m pretty laid-back, sometimes you just want things to be straightforward. Like mailing an envelope could – in an ideal world – take about 30 seconds. (But then this blog post wouldn’t have happened).

I’m sure there were other ways. Should I have gone to corner café, ordered a glass of wine and gotten some change that way? Maybe. Might have been more fun.

But no harm done. So onto something more evil.

the kittening (crazy-eyes edition)

The post office steals my care packages. Yes. They steal.

It’s wrong to jump to conclusions, right? But after the third or fourth missing package, you start to wonder. Especially when you go inquiring after your missing package, witness their entirely haphazard tracking system (consisting of the postal worker scanning a crumpled sheet with names scrawled in horrible handwriting with no other identifying information) to then inform you that the package has never passed through. To also hear other people complaining of their missing packages. To also know this has happened at two of your Paris addresses already.

I’ve told friends and family back home to stop sending me care packages. Do you know how sad this is? Do any of you realize how vital small gifts from home are to the long-term expat? But I am a strong girl. No, it’s ok, I say, lips quivering. I’d rather you not send it. No need to waste your money, mom. It probably won’t get here.

So ok post office, you steal my stuff. Fine. Can you please at least install a working photocopier? Or give me change? Thanks.


This is how it should be:

Cartas de amor

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Sun Daze

I don’t always succeed, but usually I try to share a somewhat focused story with you here, more than simply a random list of what I’ve been up to.

However, with the long-anticipated return of sunny warm weather (I was beginning to think my winter coat might become year-round attire) I just had to go out EVERYWHERE during this past 3-day weekend; dive into the city that’s come alive. No structured theme for me.

Suddenly stripping down to small tank tops and short skirts felt a bit strange. Maybe everything just strikes me as strange these days, surreal elements popping up all over Paris:

Treehouses sprouting on modern art museums,

The Pompidou's been planted with treehouses!

whole animals roasted in front of the Town Hall,

Vegetarians beware! Big BBQ at the Hotel de Ville!

a (4 million euro!) garden covering the Champs Elysees.

Not actually that exciting

(I’m no expert, but I think someone should consult me about proper use of municipal funds).

The heat made some people batty, characters came out in full force.

Put those clothes back on!

Get a load of that!

(Confession: These were actually actors in a play I ran across in front of Saint Sulpice. If you couldn’t tell from the photos, overacting was in full display).

Lobby of the Odeon Theater

I spied a few higher brow things, too, including the inside of the Odeon Theater. I just happened to be strolling with a theater historian at this moment (funny how that happens) whose specialty was theater from the ’68 era. The Odeon had been taken over in ’68 and became something of the protest’s headquarters in Paris, she explained. (Who knew?)

I had never even noticed the building before. I have this kind of Paris blindness sometimes. Though I never grow weary of the beauty of Paris, there are just so many famous historical buildings that I can’t even keep track. What’s that? A visitor might ask. Um, another gorgeous landmark, I reply.

As I lunched in front of Beaubourg, a man on a bike rode up and wished me ‘bon appetit.’

Thanks, I said.

You’re very pretty, too.

Thanks. (I’m very polite you see).

Ah, les hommes sont penibles, non?. Men are tiresome right?

Un peu. A little.

But you should take it as a compliment.

I went to hear honky tonk, also a surreal scene in Paris

Thanks. I did.

Parisians, we’re flirters.

Yes, you are.

He asked me for coffee, but I kindly declined. (I thought about asking him to offer me ice cream instead, but thought better of it).

It was a nice enough encounter – he did not insist (je ne insiste pas? he had asked hopefully before riding off).

Even the draguers seem charming with such beautiful weather. Everything, really, becomes a real pick-me-up. The city shines anew.

The Sweet Life

David Lebovitz is such an amazing pastry chef, that he can bake even with a vanishing left arm! (Or, erm, that's just a blurry photo)

Last night, pastry chef, cookbook author, and blogger extraordinaire David Lebovitz spoke to the largest crowd WH Smith has ever seen. Chairs were dispensed with, the crowd simply standing in any available space on the ground floor while David spoke from the stairs.

It was my favorite kind of author event – the writer speaking off the cuff, relating stories and anecdotes as they arise. Of course, as he himself noted, you can’t exactly read a cookbook aloud. But more than that, the format fit his personality: informal, funny, and not afraid to tell it like it is.

I won’t give a blow-by-blow of the evening. Frankly, I like Lebovitz, but I’m not a devotee (of which there were many in attendance). I don’t even own an oven, for heaven’s sake! His recipes are something I scroll through, intimations of sweet dreams that have nothing to do with my reality (plus, I can just go to the patisserie).

The crowd waiting for their just desserts (Lebovitz's new book is called 'Ready for Dessert')

I did meet up with two other Paris bloggers, Res I(p)sa and Karin, An Alien Parisienne. It’s always fun to match a face to the writing (and in Res’ case, a real name to the writer!)

One seemingly unrelated tidbit I learned is that Cafe Etienne Marcel will host two weeks of ‘Sex and the City 2’ launch events starting next Monday for any of you fans out there. Why do I know this? WH Smith is a partner and hosting several author events. The bookstore’s marketing director explained that there would be classes on ‘mixology’ (the perfect cosmopolitan, anyone?), making cupcakes, and walking gracefully in heels. Lebovitz seemed surprised to learn that he was programmed for an event there, too.

After the book talk/signing I joined Karin for a birthday drink (hers, not mine. I’m a Scorpio, baby!) I tried a ‘violette’ kir which I had never even heard of before. (The basic kir is white wine and cassis liqueur.) Seemed a propos to sample something new – we had stumbled onto the Carpe Diem cafe.

Me + kir in matching colors! Faux sexy edition! (Be careful: the violet kir causes controversy. Love it or hate it). Thanks, Karin, for the photo.

All in all, it was a great evening, with elements I imagine people populate in any dream of Paris: pastries, posh drinks, hours passed in classy cafes.

The fact that I don’t actually bake, wear sneakers instead of heels, and am more shabby than chic doesn’t change the fact that all of these things could be a part of my life. On certain warm May evenings like last night, I find myself drinking pretty cocktails that a cute waiter has just delivered with a smile. Sometimes it’s fun to pretend.

P.S. That would have been a nice place to stop, right? I can’t help myself, though. As I sat writing this, a group of teenagers walked by and started laughing at me maniacally for no reason I can discern. And so my new persona – Sex and the City, City of Light version – evaporates in a fury of self-consciousness. Just like that 🙂

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Statue in the Sky

Flying statue at Nation

Today the sun is shining and statues hang suspended in the sky. If that sounds like hyperbole, believe me, I speak the truth.

For the first time in awhile the clouds have parted and full warmth can be found in the sun. Paris has always struck me as a bit of a cruel lover with her weather. After a long, hard winter, we were teased with signs of spring. Quickly enough, however, the frost returned, wool coats brought back out of the closet. For no other city would we put up with such shenanigans. Paris is beautiful even when it’s gray; you swear allegiance to her even as you shiver. But by mid-May, enough is enough.

Saint Louis' rightful place

So out for a walk in all this glory. It’s market day near Place de la Nation and another happy surprise awaited. Nation is not one of those places people think much about when they conjure images of Paris. True, it’s not exactly a happening part of town – you certainly wouldn’t come out of your way to see it – but I like the wide roundabout, the residential neighborhoods surrounding, no tourists for miles around. Two tall statues welcome you from the Cours de Vincennes.

Only these striking statues of Saint Louis have been under renovation for quite some time now – taken off the tops of their columns, the columns hidden behind scaffolding.

Today as I walked by, however, I saw this situation finally finding its remedy. Saint Louis dangled in the sky, the gallant green (from age) figure being airlifted to its high resting place. I hold out hope we can finally move on to the business of enjoying Paris in all her (summer) glory. These things have been missing too long – the sun, these statues – but now they have returned.

An oasis in the center of the roundabout, Place de la Nation

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Do Something

My first week of college (gosh, THIRTEEN years ago now) we were treated to a whole host of bonding experiences. I met the girl who would become my best friend for the next four years in a canoe (I signed up for the ‘adventure’ orientation); we formed a little crew with a few other similarly-minded gals by confessing that none of us had much (read any) experience with boys (this was a sore point with us at the time. If only we’d known to count ourselves lucky!)

One of the organized activities during the week was a talent show in Dana Auditorium. I didn’t sign up to perform because I have no demonstrable talent. Instead, I watched.

I don’t remember any act except one. A beautiful girl with an acoustic guitar came onstage and started strumming. Then she opened her mouth and sang a song she had written. “Shake Me.” She had us trembling within seconds. Her voice was gorgeous; the whole auditorium fell silent as if all of us had stopped breathing in unison. That night a thousand crushes were born. I was convinced my girl crush would prove stronger than anyone else’s. Thereafter I always referred to her by her full name, Mary Johnson* – famous people/crushes/etc, always the full name, right?

Mary had another song, not one of my favorites, but even her less than earth-shattering numbers were good. “Do Something,” it was called. The chorus was pretty straightforward: “do something, do something, do something, because you can.” (With a voice like Mary’s you could get away with such lyrics).

Last night this song came rushing back to me. My friend Dani called at 7:05 to see if I could meet her at 7:45 for an 8 PM performance. That left about 30 seconds to decide before I had to dart out the door.

I heard Mary’s song in my head. Do Something. Do Something. I’ve revealed here that I’ve been a bit out of sorts lately: going out less, moping around more. I know well enough that the way out of this is to just, well, go out and do something about it.

So I did. I knew it didn’t matter what I did, I just had to join the city again. Dani said it was an opera-slash-comedie musicale, neither my cup of tea. But then she said the magic word: “free.”

The Theatre du Chatelet is “a l’italienne,” all red coloring and rounded balconies (be careful when choosing your seats – many have obstructed views).

So what are we actually seeing, I wondered? “Magdalena: A Musical Adventure,” the program told me. New York cast.

I won’t go into the plot because, frankly, it’s absurd. Though it was obviously a professional show, I can’t help but think of high school when I see musicals. The 2-dimensional characters, the silly storyline, the random breaking into song and dance that adds up to little.

The set was nice

Still, I was glad to be out of the house. And the decorations and costumes were quite nice (we got the free tickets from Dani’s roommate who worked on the decor. 200 hand-painted lanterns – beautiful!)

Parisians continue to impress me with their cultured ways. Here we were, an unexceptional Monday night, and it’s a packed house at the theater. I love that such cultural outings are simply a way of life.

But these same sophisticated audiences also surprise me with their sometimes naivete. Most of the story took place in Colombia, but there was a short scene in a cardboard cutout Paris. The audience seemed to love the song about “Crepes Suzette” the best. (Really?)

The biggest laugh of the night came in a scene when a Colombian cook tried to open an oyster with a hammer. The dismayed Parisian swooped in and said no! You have to flirt with the oyster, it’s love that coaxes the oyster to open its shell. This had the audience in stitches. (I remind myself that the French supposedly loved Jerry Lewis at some point – sometimes I’m just not going to understand their taste).

I’m not sure I’m on the road to recovery yet, but I’ve made a good start. I’ve done something. I guess I’ll just keep doing things.

By the time I return to the Theatre du Chatelet in a month’s time to see Mikhail Baryshnikov (I paid for that one; I’m dying to see him!), I just might be back to full speed.

And hopefully Misha will show the Parisians something that actually warrants appreciation. Though I guess high school musicals were fun, too.

Mary Johnson’s married name is now Mary Johnson Rockers, which is just such a cool name for a musician, no?

So friends, what are y’all doing these days?

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Trick or Treat

Thanks, everyone, for your supportive comments and amusing stories. An extra special shout-out to fellow blogger/writer and faithful reader Lydia who shared one of the funniest faux pas I’ve heard in awhile. Enjoy!


“It was Halloween. An English lady (near here) decided to decorate a pumpkin. She cut it out and lit tea lights inside it; it glowed and looked lovely. Very soon the doorbell rang and a small group of village children stood on the doorstep calling for a trick or treat.

She opened the door.

‘Ahh, les enfants, viens voir ma *poitrine*’ she cried.

The children backed off, confusion on their little faces.

‘Mais viens, ma poitrine, elle est tres belle, elle est tres grande!’ she insisted, beckoning them in, holding out a basket of sweets as a further incentive.

The children turned and fled.”

Can’t blame them, now can you? For those who need a little translation assistance:

Poitrine=chest (breasts)

Easy to see how she mixed them up, but boy, does it make a difference!

“Come little children and look at my boobs! But come on, my breasts are very beautiful, and very big!”

Trick or treat indeed. As Lydia, said, “can’t imagine what the village parents thought when their children came home that night.”

Keep the faux pas coming, folks. Bon weekend!

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Feeling vs Smelling

Friends, I’ll be honest: I’ve hit a rocky patch recently. I prefer to keep the happy public face because it’s more fun for you and certainly better for me. I can’t tell you how much I love getting your comments; they brighten even bad days.

One upside to my personal struggles is that I’ve found my way back to a more conventional “Faux Pas” to share with you this Friday.

Hard times call for long conversations (at least in my book). So I’ve been doing a lot of emoting of late. You know, talking about feelings.

Only since this talk is in French, it’s inevitably garbled.

Sentir means both to smell and to feel. I confess I have no idea if there’s a correct way to structure sentences to make the difference clear. I’m pretty sure there’s been some confusion in some of my conversations. I thought the difference might lie in that one was reflexive and the other not, but even that hasn’t seemed to help.

So [insert deep discussion], then: “But what do you smell?” I insist.
[Questioning look].

“I mean, what do you feel?”

An actual bar in the 20th. Looks like I am not the only one having trouble with the word feel!

This faux pas series has helped me transform my once humiliating errors into something pretty humorous. Why, I almost look forward to making mistakes now! The only thing is, I realize I’m not the best guide for you. I mean, I know when I’ve said something off (or I find out years later!), but my form of French is so…um, let’s say, interesting….that the correct explanation often eludes me.

I learned French in guerrilla fashion, remember. Heavy on the “sink or swim” model, light on actual grammar classes. Grammar pointers from you experts out there are always welcome!

So, hope you’re smelling the roses and feeling great. If someone wants to translate that into French, go right ahead. (You know I’d screw it up). Bon weekend! (And please excuse me if I need to take a little blog break, though I’ll try not to!)

TIP: Talk to Strangers (Butte Bergeyre)

Not your typical Paris apartment

A few weeks ago when I was traipsing around the 19th to make sure my favorite places were still my favorite places for a guest post, I stumbled upon a neighborhood I’d never been to before.

Easy to see why. You have to stumble up 100 meters to find it. Butte Bergeyre might just be the most secret hill in Paris.

Luckily I had my walking shoes on and I climbed the many steps to arrive on Rue George Lardennois, the main street of this micro-village. I couldn’t believe what I found: calm, cuteness, and a clear view of the Sacre Coeur.

I passed a community garden, but it was padlocked. I couldn’t tell whether it was still open to the public or not; the sign was so faded it seemed from another era. I wanted to ask the one gardener I saw milling around, but then I noticed he was taking a leak. Hmm. And moving on. (The garden is apparently open from 2:30 to 5:30 PM Wednesdays-Sundays, I later found out).

Community garden of Butte Bergeyre

Right next to the garden stood a small vineyard on a steep hill. Wow! I knew there were vineyards in Montmartre, but not here! There didn’t appear to be any entrance to the vineyard accessible.

Few people were out on the street, giving it that surreal feeling. In due time, however, an older gentleman walking his dog ambled by. Finally! Someone to accost! I just had to know in what magical place I had found myself.

The vineyard and view

“Excuse me, sir, do you know if this is open to the public?” I asked him, waving my arm expansively to encompass all that was before me.

“Ah,” he said, “this vineyard belongs to the City of Paris. They closed it because otherwise it would be overrun with sunbathers.”

No kidding, I thought. A quiet place in the sun overlooking a vineyard with a straight view to the Sacre Coeur. Lots of people would probably be here if this were open.

The kindly gentleman sat down on the bench next to me. I, of course, began peppering him with questions. In turn, he regaled me with a wonderful history.

“See that building?” he said, pointing to a slightly run down square block of a place to the right of the vineyard. “Corbusier’s son designed that.” (Well, that’s what I *thought* he said. Thanks to reader Adam for correcting me. The building is actually the Maison Zilvelli, designed by Jean Welz, who worked with Le Corbusier for a time. Le Corbusier didn’t have any kids!)

The Maison Zilvelli. When I walked to the other side later on, I saw two people working with some sort of sound/video system. Definitely intriguing this neighborhood!

“The most famous designer in the world has a house here, too. [The Australian designer] Newson,” he said.

“And Jean-Paul Goude? You know him?” (Goude is a photographer perhaps best known for his relationship with Grace Jones and a decade-long campaign for Galeries Lafayette).

“Wow, there are a lot of famous people here,” I said.

“Yes, it’s a quartier aussi privilige.”

Who else lives in these houses?

It wasn’t always that way, he assured me. Built in the 1920s, “it used to be a simple neighborhood, but then the Swiss and the Russians started renovating.”

Early in our conversation, he had asked what I did besides wandering around Paris. I told him I was a writer, though wandering around Paris seems as apt a description of what I do as any.

He talked about books. How there were so many out there now. Were they any good? We talked of the difference between New York and Paris. Why do people love that city so much? he wanted to know. I always hear about it, New York this, New York that, but I’ve never been.

“Can you talk to people in New York? People don’t talk to each other any more in Paris,” he said.

“Yes! I know!” I said. “That’s one of the things I miss about New York. The diversity, the energy. I talked to so many different people there. It’s not as easy in Paris.”

Yet here we were, two strangers on a bench, talking.

“You haven’t told me what you do,” I said. Given all he had told me about the neighborhood and its residents, it wasn’t lost on me that he might be renowned, too.

He cupped his hand around his mouth and leaned towards me like he had a secret. “Peintre/sculpteur.”

“I bet you’re famous, too!” I blurted out before I could stop myself.

“Me,” he said, waving me off. “I’m nobody.”

I can’t say I believed him, but I let it go. Did it matter, really? On a bench high above the city, we had given each other a gift. For me, serendipity and good stories. And the friendly anonymous artist? What did I give him? Maybe a reminder of old Paris, where you could stop a stranger on the street then sit talking to them for awhile like there was nothing in the whole world either of us would rather be doing.

My friendly painter/sculptor stranger wouldn't give me his name or let me take his picture. But his dog was willing to pose. Meet Paddy, named for the Irish whisky.

What’s the best conversation you’ve ever had with a stranger? P.S. You know I almost didn’t want to reveal this spot, right?

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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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