“I’m American. I Hug” says Meghan – but for how long?

So the deed is done.  Prince Harry has married his beautiful, bi-racial, feminist American sweetheart and I’m here to say that I witnessed their tying the knot – even if it was on French TV with French being spoken over the English.  So terribly weird!

Of course, being a sentimental type, I, like Meghan’s mother and many others, spent a lot of the ceremony with tears in my eyes.  What could be more beautiful, more touching, more dreamlike than the enactment of a fairytale? How wonderful for Harry to have found the woman of his life – a compassionate, outgoing, nonconformist, modern woman who brings to mind his late mother, Princess Diana.

Yes, I’m happy for Meghan and Harry – but a little worried as well.

“I’m American. I Hug” was the headline of this morning’s front page article in the international edition of the New York Times. It  dealt with the (painful to some, especially in the monarchy -and welcome to others who aren’t) fact that Meghan is a hugger.

So, big deal, you’ll say.  All Americans are huggers.

And therein lies the problem.

Having lived abroad for more than forty years, I know for a fact that when not on home ground you’ve got to make compromises – every day and all the time.

Europeans, especially the reserved English,  do not hug each other.   The Spanish greet each other one way, the Polish another, the Italians yet another.

In France,  the bise  is the way you greet a friend and it’s not as easy as it looks. You lightly graze the cheek of the receiver twice (in Paris) and three and even four times in the provinces.  There are some people to whom you would never give a bise  (your boss, your kid’s teacher, someone you have just been introduced to) but of course, you, the foreigner, have to figure this out by watching people and making the effort to learn.

I try to imagine what would have happened if I had said “I’m American. I Hug” in France.   It’s almost an act of war!  It means, “I’ll do things my way. I’m superior. America is superior. Why would I bother to do what you guys do?”  My French family and friends would have been stupefied had I grabbed them and hugged them.  They don’t understand the hug anymore than I understood the bise in the beginning.

But I learned. You know why? Because I was living in their country. If I wanted to do things my way, I would have stayed in my country.

It’s good that Meghan brings a new perspective to the stilted and stuffy monarchy. If she feels like hugging an adorable little girl or a charity worker for the homeless (pictures below) from time to time, well, why not?

But the Palace Guards? Please, Meghan. You’re no longer in California.   Good luck!

Franco-American friendship at the Chateau de Blérancourt

Welcome to the Franco-American museum in the Chateau de Blérancourt (that’s yours truly in the picture above, standing at the entrance).    I’d been hearing about this museum which is a mere hour’s drive from Paris for quite some time.  Truth be told, and I don’t know why, it wasn’t on my list of priorities.

But fate took care of my lack of interest:  on our way to another French monument, the Abbaye de Royaumont, a road sign indicating “Blérancourt” suddenly loomed up on our right.

It was not just a sign but a “divine sign”, we laughed, as we happily changed our plans and our route.

We were happy with our decision but our GPS wasn’t.  According to its little pictogram, our car had veered off the road and into fields!  Given our precarious situation, we immediately decided to do something hardly anyone does these days: stop the car and ask directions of two locals lazily drinking their beers in a front of a café.

“Excusez moi,” I said, as I rolled down the window to peer up at our potential saviours..  “We are looking for the Chateau de Blérancourt but keep going around in circles.” (I didn’t mention the picture of our vehicle plowing through fields).

One of the fellows, a grizzled old-timer, glanced at the cell phone I was holding in my hand.

“It won’t tell you?” he asked, pointedly but with good humour.

Red-faced, I admitted that I hadn’t even thought of consulting it.  He and his friend grinned and pointed us in the right direction.  “You should stop here for lunch before you go,” they added.  We almost did, but it was time to be on our way (and reflect for a few seconds on how few and far between these informal exchanges are becoming now that we get our information from machines instead of humans).

We did end up eating before going to the museum, repairing to a  small town named Cuts (pronounced “coots” in French)  which featured all in one place, the Holy Trinity of almost all French villages:   the  church, the Mairie and the school.  It also boasted a Michelin starred restaurant but we opted for the town’s one and only simple little café  where we ordered up big tasty sandwiches and a couple of glasses of wine.   As we sat on the terrace enjoying the lovely spring weather, something odd happened.  Every single passer-by greeted us with a smile and a bonjour.  This was so astonishing that we almost choked on our wine.  Yes, we were definitely no longer in Paris.

Then it was on the museum,  a country residence built between 1612 and 1619 by the French architect Salomon de Brosse for the Potier de Gesvres family.  During the French Revolution, the  main building of the original residence was totally demolished.   Fortunately the portal and two pavilions remained.

The American connection started at the end of World War I when Anne Morgan, daughter and unique heiress of John Pierpoint Morgan,the richest man in the world, toured the devastated area of the Aisne region, staying at the Chateau de Blerancourt where she worked with the American Committee for Devastated France (CARD).

“The French Friends of Blérancourt Museum” was founded in 1923 and a year later the chateau became a museum  – and a continuing testimony to the French support of the American War of Independence and the American commitment to the French during the First World War.  The eclectic collection you can see today after a recent renovation of the buildings ranges from plaster casts of famous American leaders such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and the famous French friend of America, Lafayette (picture below), to posters depicting U.S. aid in World War I and an elaborate  costume of a Native American.

The beautifully and carefully landscaped gardens surrounding the chateau made us want to sit down with a book and stay all afternoon.

 

 

 

But it was time to go and make some other discoveries:  in the nearby town of Noyon we stumbled on the house in which Jean Calvin was born. (By the way, contrary to what I thought, Calvin was French, not Swiss).  Back to his birthplace:  who knew? (Well, I wasn’t all that surprised: everywhere you go in France, even in the least touristic regions, history is your constant partner and  monuments abound).

 

On this sunny Sunday morning the people sitting at the tables on the sidewalk cafés in Noyon were mostly men and mostly Arab or Turkish workers.  Many stores were closed – not just for the day, but seemingly forever.  Is it just a sleepy town, I wondered?  Or has it been hit by massive unemployment?

I don’t have the answer to that question but I do have one certitude: if you want to see France and know France, you’ve got to hightail it out of Paris.

And when you do, you’ll see how and how fast you leave the City of Light behind.  Under wide skies, you see enormous fields (like the one in the picture below of a yellow field of “colza” or rape, and farmers tilling the land.   You’ll see villagers leisurely stopping to talk to each other on the street – and oh, how those conversations can last (reminds me of the small town in which I grew up in the Midwest).  People are wary of newcomers, but if you don’t come on as a big city dude, you’ll be just fine.   Voilà –  et vive la différence.

As the famous American writer Henry James wrote in his book “A  Little Tour in France” : “France may be Paris, but Paris is not France.”

The people of Paris – one man survives and thrives among the multinationals

At first glance, the Maison Legeron  looks quirky, homey,  topsy turvy.   Hard to imagine that the charming, old-fashioned atelier houses the  last independent family firm that makes and supplies the exquisite handmade artificial flowers worn by top models strutting down the runways at haute couture shows (and also sold for astronomical prices in high fashion boutiques). 

 Bruno Legeron, whose great-grandfather bought the establishment in 1898, tells me that there was a time when hundreds of firms like his turned out handmade flowers and feathers for ladies’ hats.   Then came the automobile, more informal ways of dressing and notably, the demise of le chapeau.  The legions of small ateliers were snatched up and became part of  big fashion houses. Legeron is the last to hold out, fashioning his artificial flowers for designers from Dior to Jean-Paul Gaultier to Jimmy Choo and supplying feathers for the Lido and the Folies Bergères.

Times have changed, though, and Bruno admits that  “we used to make flowers – now we make profit margins”.     In spite of his words,  you can tell that he believes in what he does and that in his atelier there’s more to the process than profit margins.  There’s heart.

The process looks deceptively simple – the silk  (or leather or latex) is stretched on wooden frames to stiffen and dry all night, then the petals are cut with dies and wax heated so that each petal can be individually shaped with a special instrument solely for that purpose.  Some of the tools date back to from Bruno’s  great-grandfather’s days. Bruno personally takes care of finding and mixing exactly the right colour for the petals.

“The only thing we don’t do”, Bruno joked, as he showed me around the picturesque  atelier  only steps away from the Palais Royal and its gardens –  which are filled with “real” flowers  –  “is raise our ostriches down in the basement.”    There are no birds in the basement, for sure, but there are bird feathers galore, whether from pheasants, black guinea fowls,  swans or others,  carefully stored in plain oblong cardboard boxes lining the walls from floor to ceiling.  Ostrich feathers notably, are classified according to quality and labelled  “très très belle”,  “très belle”, and “belle”.    Those feathers are used on everything from boas to accessories on shoes like the gorgeous bright blue pair in the picture below.

 

On the day I visited the atelier, Bruno was dressed in jeans and a tracksuit top over which he wore a black apron adorned with huge safety pins with various roses and feathers. He certainly looked “modern”, but he’s proud of  doing things the old-fashioned and collegial way (workers in the atelier all have specialities but pitch in to help each other when there’s a rush, he says).  Pointing at an antiquated cash register where the amounts are still in French francs, Bruno joked:  “That’s my computer”.   

I cast a glance at the “computer”, then gazed up at the ceiling.  Hanging over our heads were rows and rows of enormous silk white peonies which Legeron had created for a Cartier window display.

I was filled with admiration for the exquisite craftmanship I had witnessed during the visit  – as well as a fleeting but powerful desire to own a drop dead gorgeous 2 meter black and white boa made of top quality ostrich feathers that  I gently fingered on my way out the door….But then, who wouldn’t want to possess a handmade creation with more than a century of French savoir-faire behind it?

 

This article was adapted from a passage in the chapter “Savoir-Vivre: Life as an Art Form” in my latest book, Joie de Vivre.

Paris Beauty – Paris Blight

I love the 5th arrondissement of Paris.   When I arrived in Paris in my early twenties, I discovered the rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest market streets in Paris. I rented a small studio with a toilet on the landing – and in spite of that inconvenience thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  I loved leaning out my sole window on the third floor to sniff the smells of the market and rejoice in the noise and the hustle and bustle and the cries of the vendors as they  rushed to place their stalls and their wares.

Years and years have passed since then. I’ve gone from being a carefree, adventurous twenty- something-year-old single woman to being a I-won’t-tell-you-how-old grandmother!  I’ve lived in other spots in Paris  – the upscale 16th and Neuilly where we practically lived in the Bois de Boulogne and now the 20th, near the Père Lachaise cemetery.

I still love the 5th best of all.

As a matter or fact, it took me a long time to bid good-bye to the 5th. After I left the rue Mouffetard, I moved up the street, first to the rue Descartes and then to the rue de l’Ecole Polytechnique;  I married my French husband at the “Mairie” of the 5th arrondissement right across the street from the Pantheon;  after he retired, my husband got his doctoral degree in History at the Sorbonne.

Maybe one reason my husband and I both like the 5th so much is that it is filled with great institutions of learning – the Sorbonne, of course, but also Le Collège de France and L’Ecole Normale Supérieure.  Unlike certain parts of Paris, the 5th doesn’t put on airs but is comfortable just being itself. And while it’s lively, sometimes, rather eerily, you’ll find yourself on a street that is as quiet is if you were in the country.  The picture above of the officers on horseback was taken on Easter Monday when my husband and I were walking down the rue Aymot,  not far from the Place de la Contrescarpe and the Institut Curie. There was not a soul or a sound – until a clip clop, clip clop reached our ears.    We turned to look and voilà in our line of vision,  two handsome horses mounted by officers of the Gendarmerie Nationale who kindly stopped to pose for the picture before moving on at a leisurely pace.

We continued our stroll until we reached the Place de Pantheon.  With its impressive dome and intricately decorated Corinthian columns, this beloved neoClassical monument modelled after the Pantheon of Rome is the collective resting place of France’s greatest men and women from Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas to Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Simone Veil. On its pediment you’ll see the motto:  aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante  (to the great men, the gratitude of the country).    Hard to change the writing on a pediment but, as mentioned, the Pantheon is home to the remains of some of France’s greatest women as well as men.  A stately building, it dominates one of the most beautiful “places” in Paris. With your back to its front, you look straight down to the Luxembourg Garden. Facing it, you see behind it on the left the ancient Eglise Sainte-Genevieve.  It is a very special historic place in the heart of the city.

Imagine my consternation, then, when I spied a series of ugly horizontal blocks on either side of the monument making the entire esplanade look like a work site.  I couldn’t figure out what they were or imagine they could be “benches”  – but they are, just as the platforms of wooden slats are a place for skateboarders or budding actors to declaim their texts.   What a scandalous shame, I thought, and laughed when I saw that some impish soul had placed a mask on the nose of the statue of the famous 17th century French dramatist and tragedian Pierre Corneille.  I imagined him saying “this new idea stinks”! Or “speaking of tragedies” !

A planned tragedy, at that.  As you’ll see on the sign below which explains the desecration,  the benches are  part of a comprehensive project of the City of Paris and its Mayor Anne Hidalgo to make several Paris “places” more user friendly. The idea, I can only assume, is that all these boring age-old “places” should be fun-filled.   That means smoking and eating sandwiches and skate boarding and sitting back and relaxing on the backless granite benches (if you can relax on a backless bench) instead of doing what people used to do which was take a stroll, stop in front of the monument, appreciate its beauty while standing and move on. The idea is to “re-invent” the places mentioned in the poster.

I’ve got a better idea.  Just leave them alone.  Give people a chance to enjoy beauty without the noise of skateboards, music blaring from earphones, constant flap and flutter.

If there’s silence, they might even hear the surprising sound of horses hooves!

 

 

April in Paris – almost

Wednesday, March 21:  the sun actually came out so I wandered around the streets of Paris and marvelled at the flower displays outside shops. It was as if every owner of every flower shop in Paris suddenly decided winter was over, enough was enough,  and hauled out every single plant to put on the sidewalk.  In one place I smelled the flower before actually seeing it:  the scent of jasmin was so overpowering I thought I’d faint. All this gave me the feeling that spring might actually come….

But it’s all so strange – my first photo, snapped from the car on my way to my book club at the American Library in the 7th, is of the “bulbs” of the Russian Cathedral (also known as the “Holy Trinity Cathedral and The Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center”) decorated in snow. Then only a couple of days later the snow melted, the temperatures rose slightly,  and the flower vendors displayed their beautiful wares – as only the French can do with such artistry –  out in the streets in front of their shops. Go figure!

By the way, the book we discussed at the American Library was “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton.  If you want to learn about social strictures and the way it was in New York “society” pre World War I, this is an excellent start. When Wharton lived in Paris, it was in the oh so respectable 7th arrondissement.  One can hardly imagine her anywhere else.

As for me, I’m all over Paris.  My joy is constant discovery – and I’m happy to invite you, dear reader, to come along with me.  A bientôt!

 

The uniqueness of France and the French

Can you imagine being all of nineteen years old and in Paris for a week with a group of students?  Some have been to Paris before, but most have never left the United States. And from one day to the next, there they are, on the streets of one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

That’s what goes on every year for the lucky students enrolled in the International Media Seminar organised by the  Center for the Study of International Communication, Paris and The School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. The program allows young people in various participating universities to spend a week in Paris – and what a week.

Looking at their schedule, I see that their first day in Paris consisted of a boat cruise on the Seine, followed by a talk by the Paris Bureau Chief of the New York Times.  The rest of the week they were treated to a veritable who’s who of experts representing important institutions (a sampling includes a conversation with Alan Riding, formerly Chief European Cultural Correspondent and Chief Latin American Correspondent for the New York Times,  a talk by Jim Bittermann, Senior European Correspondent, CNN,  a visit to the influential French daily newspaper Le Monde, lunch with Dominique Moisi, Founding Scholar at the French Institute of International Relations and Professor at Kings College, London – and the list goes on.)

I’m one of those “experts”, having taught journalism at Sciences Po in Paris, written numerous articles on French business, culture and lifestyle for Time and other publications, plus three books on the French (French Toast, French Fried and Joie de Vivre). Add to that dual French-American citizenship and more than forty years of living in France with a French husband and Franco-American children –  which in itself would make me some kind of unofficial specialist in de-coding the French and their ways.

But how to impart all that you have learned in four decades in a one hour speech? In the end, it’s not as daunting as it might seem.  My reasoning is that these young people only really need to know one thing:  the French are different.  I begin my speech by telling them that the French are NOT like the Americans, that the mindset is different, that our educational system and our histories and traditions  are different, that the values we hold, while sometimes similar, are often diametrically different.  The rest of the speech is a veritable catalogue of what those differences are, specifically, and would be much too long to go into here (read my books!).

What I want to impress upon these young minds is that “different” is not bad or good. Different is different!  I tell the visiting students that once they’ve seen a few important sites and museums, they should do something “really French” which is to take a place on the terrace of a café, order a little expresso and watch the people go by. Look at the way people dress, I say.  Look at how engaged they are in theIr conversations.  Look at the hour at which they are having their before dinner drink, at what hour they start going to dinner.  I  tell them to look up as they walk and to note the architectural details of the buildings, to search for the year of construction often engraved in the stone near the entrance door.  I tell them that in France history is in the books, of course, but history is also living,  surrounding you in the streets and the stones and the age-old edifices.

I tell them not to be upset if they feel they’ve been snubbed by a salesperson – Parisians are not known for their amiability (although people frequently contradict me on that and tell me how “nice” the Parisians have become.)

Most of all, I tell these young visitors to shut down their cell phones and open their eyes.  Hemingway called Paris “A Moveable Feast” – it was then, is now, and ever shall be.

But how would you know that if you’re staring at your cell phone?

Take it from me: Paris is one huge visual delight.  There is something to learn in every single street.  After more than forty years in France, I still stumble on something new every day.

I tell them this and one more thing. I tell them that it doesn’t take forty years and that in the short time they are here  I hope that they too will discover many new things – perhaps things that will change their lives  On ne sait jamais.

Link

Disinheriting your children – a “non” “non” in France!

Even beyond the grave, Johnny Hallyday  – France’s “Elvis” to Americans who failed to grasp the appeal of the man or his music –  continues to surprise.

Throughout his long career as a singer and actor, Johnny, who died at his mansion in a Paris suburb on Dec. 5, 2017,  thumbed his nose at conventional society.  Fans loved his tight fitting leather pants and heavy chains, his tumultuous love life, his motorcycles – and accompanied him throughout his ups and downs.  Johnny just did his thing and managed along the way  to gain the admiration of a few French intellectuals among his throes of more ordinary admirers.

His funeral services were national, held at the beautiful and prestigious Church of the Madeleine.  The family, composed of Johnny’s present wife Laetitia and their two adopted children, Johnny’s ex-wives and two children from previous marriages, Laura Smet and David Hallyday, stood together in apparent unity. It quickly became clear, though, that there was a split.  In a portentous detail,  Laetitia, accompanied by the couple’s two adopted children, Jade and Joy, followed the hearse while Laura and David were relegated to waiting in front of the church for them to arrive.

That was just a taste of what was to come.

When the will was read and made public, even Johnny’s fastest supporters and fans were shocked.   In it, he left all his earthly possessions to his wife Laetitia – disinheriting his oldest children.

Nothing scandalous about this to an American.   After all, in the U.S. if you want to leave millions of dollars to a charity or to your dog, it is your perfect right.

Not so in France where the Napoleonic “Code Civil” guarantees that children must inherit what is called a “reserved share” of the parents’ inheritance.    How much depends on how many children – obviously there’s a greater share for an only child than for eight siblings. But the point is that  it is strictly unthinkable – and undoable – for a French parent to disinherit children.  And that is why David and Laura, Johnny’s children, have taken the matter to court.

Now the battle rages and will continue to rage for months and perhaps years between battalions of French lawyers and American lawyers.  (Johnny is French and died in France, but he was also a resident of California where he lived and where the will was made).

Most everyone has an opinion on the subject but for the moment one thing is sure: the only ones making any money out of the controversy are the lawyers.

As usual.

Thousands of Johnny’s biker fans descend the Champs-Elysées.

An Iowa winter in Paris

 

An Iowa winter in Paris

I have lived in Paris for more than forty years and cannot remember snow sticking on the ground for more than a few hours, let alone a day. But this morning when I entered the living room (photo above with curtains shut), I felt like I was right back in my native state of Iowa where snow covered the trees, the bushes, the ground, the streets under a big white blanket all winter long.

Although Paris is a northern city, it is unequipped for snow so the sidewalks and roads are dangerously slippery and there are 700 kilometres of traffic jams all around the city as drivers struggle to get into the city to work.

We snuggle up in our apartment, looking outside at our yard, knowing that the bakery and the butcher shop, the newsstand and the metro are only a short walk away.

And of course the snow is not the only that’s falling.  Waves of nostalgia for real winters fall upon my mind as well. Those Iowa winters!  Sledding, skating, snowballs outside, warm fires and fresh baked cookies inside.   Nostalgia is the keyword here: do I really miss those long winters? Those winters that are so pristine and beautiful the first days and then gradually turn to slush and seem (and are) interminable?

Not really.  But how I love this special treat of an Iowa winter in Paris.

Rising sun? No, the rising Seine….

Rising sun? No, the rising Seine….

Rain, rain, go away. Remember that little ditty we used to sing when children? Well, the rain has not gone away over the past month or two in France and the result, while not as spectacular as in June 2016 when the city was on high alert and objects were carted out of the Louvre for protection, is visible.   Yesterday I walked from my high and dry apartment near the Place Gambetta which is “up” a hill in the northeast of Paris “down” to the banks of the Seine to meet a friend for coffee.  Along the way, I – and hundreds of others – contemplated the rushing, rising waters, hoping they would subside soon  – and for the moment that’s what it’s starting to look like.  Who is hurt most by nature’s rebellion?  The tourists are hurt because they can’t board the magic Bateau Mouche to take a tour and feast their eyes on the city’s monuments from the river. The owners of the Bateaux Mouche  are hurt because they lose money every single day their boats can’t navigate.  Owners of restaurants and shops along the Seine are affected when their basement storage areas are flooded. People who are lucky enough to live on houseboats suddenly wonder just how lucky they are…  So here’s to a bit more “rising sun” in this steadily grey Parisian ambiance and a lot less of the “rising Seine”.

Paris notions

Paris notions

What do a gas station and a notions shop, both in Paris, have in common? There are hardly any of them left! On a recent stroll, I saw, and snapped a picture of, a gas station, thinking it would be nice to have a trace of this part of the Parisian scene which is fast becoming a relic. Why?  There are only one hundred or so gas stations in Paris now! On a different walk on a different day, while accompanying a friend who sews and knits (I do neither, unfortunately) to a “mercerie” (French word for notions shop)I took pictures of another fast disappearing “service”.  This particular notions shop was  located inside a charming courtyard on the Francs-Bourgeois in the trendy Marais.  There used to be hundreds of these little stores all over France. In small villages, they were often tended by a lone woman with a cat to keep her company. In them, you find needles and thread, buttons and ribbons and zippers and bolts of material.  The upscale store in the Marais, my friend told me, is one of the few that remain in Paris. You can still find them though.   Should you find yourself in need of pretty French ribbons or bows, here’s a link to the 84 notions shops  in Paris, classified by neighbourhood:  https://www.yelp.fr/search…