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.


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:…

Un hamburger, s’il vous plaît and no phone – pas de téléphone!

The other day I was in a Parisian restaurant with a longtime friend. We were having a good time and laughing, notably over the fact that we were eating hamburgers. They’re all the rage now in Paris, but we old-timers who have lived here for more than four decades remember when the French didn’t even know what a hamburger was, let alone make or eat them.

In my first book, French Toast, I describe making a hamburger for my traditional French father-in-law back in the 70s. It was a fun idea, but difficult.  In those olden days, there were no hamburger buns so the village baker consented to make a batch especially for me (after I had shown him a picture).   Neither of my in-laws had ever eaten a hamburger.  My belle-mère was intrigued – and my beau-père was horrified, mainly at the idea that you would eat that huge concoction with all its overlapping layers and sauces with your HANDS.  (As a matter of fact, still today, you see French people daintily eating those monsters with knives and forks).

Well, times have certainly changed in France. And not just hamburgers.  In the past, French people looked at each other while they ate. They had animated conversations – or romantic ones. They looked into each other’s eyes.  Now they are more likely to search their iPhone for their mail. They even (but less than Americans, I would say) take pictures of their food to post on Facebook or one of the other social media sites to show to their “followers”.

Mon Dieu !

We did indeed ask the waiter to take a couple of pictures of us with our hamburgers but I didn’t post them on Facebook on purpose. Why?  After watching people (of all nationalities)  in restaurants who superbly ignore their companion (s) while engaging with their phones, I made the firm decision not to follow their (bad) example.

I have decided to be more “in the moment”.  When I’m dining, in a restaurant, whether with a friend or family member, I want to concentrate on our conversation, on looking around me, on savoring the food, the ambiance.  On being where I am.  I want to de-connect my gadgets and re-connect with the food I’m relishing and the person who is with me.  No phone calls while I dine, no looking at email, no searching on Google.

Et voilà!  Un hamburger sans teléphone!


Sunday lunch – le déjeuner de dimanche

Le déjeuner de dimanche

Sunday lunch,  January 7 chez nous –  or “are we really eating all this holiday food again?”. Answer: yes. David, our writer son, and his family couldn’t make it for Christmas so we made up for it  with a late celebration and a sighting of Santa Claus (who made a special trip from the North Pole bearing loads of gifts.)

The picture above is of the  table with no one at it and before it became a total mess. On the menu: foie gras accompanied by Loupiac (sweet white wine, delicious), a tender pork fillet (filet mignon de port) and gratin dauphinois accompanied by a nice bottle of Julienas, a cheese plate with Munster and Reblochon and a galette des Rois.

The fellow in the background is a (formerly painted) wooden 16th century statue of Saint Anthony of Egypt. I remember the first time I saw this saint at my in-law’s apartment in Paris.To say I was intrigued is an understatement.  I don’t know much about saints and didn’t know which St. Anthony it was, and the first thing I learned about him was who he was not.

“Our” saint is not  St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost items.  He was born in Egypt in about 213 A.D., spent his entire life engaged in a struggle with the Devil and was the founder of Christian monasticism. His popularity reached its height in the Middle Ages; the black-robed Order of Hospitallers in Grenoble (France)  were a familiar sight as they went around collecting alms and were known by their bells and their pigs, which were given a special privilege to run free in the streets. You can’t see it in the photo but there is indeed a bell – and a pig at St. Anthony’s feet.

After Philippe’s parents died, we inherited the saint and he has been in our place ever since. I can’t even imagine what it was like when he wasn’t here. One day, though, I decided he looked sad. Then it occurred to me that when he was hanging on the walls of a church people looked at him from below. So I got down on my knees to see what they saw. His expression was totally different – contemplative but certainly not so sad!

Christian Dior, un talent extraordinaire

Christian Dior, un talent extraordinaire

On the windy, sunny last day of 2017 a friend and I attended the Dior retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

It was without a doubt one of the best museum displays I have seen in a long time: informative, complete, well-explained and….magical!

Dior was more than a designer: he was a visionary, an architect, a lover of nature.  His creations,  in the words of Yves Saint Laurent, captured ” post-war insouciance, discreet luxury and stunning beauty.”

As I traveled through the well-appointed exhibition, I found myself gasping at the attention to the cut, the detail, the colour and the combination of conservatism and frivolity.  The creations vary, depending on the designer – first Dior, then Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and currently, Maria Grazia Chiuri.  They imprint their own originality but all adhere to the love of and strict standards of haute couture.

Perhaps they had Dior’s words in mind while designing:    “Respect tradition and dare insolence: you cannot have one without the other.”

The show, which ends January 7 and has attracted more than 6000 visitors a day,  is an appropriate and  stunning tribute to one man’s genius and talent and seven decades of the House of Dior.

A beautiful way to end the year!

The photos show Dior’s “New Look” which scandalized traditionalists after the War, an exuberant red gown I’d kill to have,  a collection of flowered motifs (Dior loved gardens and flowers – as a boy, he compulsively consulted garden catalogues), accessories and details in white, and a bottle of Miss Dior, his first perfume which he launched the same year as his fashion house in 1947. 

Paris Delights

Paris Delights

Now here’s what I love about Paris and why it has a reputation as a romantic city: there are so many pleasurable surprises – even when you’ve lived here as long as I have and that’s a good long time. I knew that master chocolate maker and 9-star chef Alain Ducasse had a chocolate “manufacture” place built on the site of a Renault garage near the Bastille but today I literally stumbled upon it as I took my almost daily walk. This is a place where high quality chocolate is sold but also where it is made. Fascinating! The chocolate, being of extremely high quality, is expensive but you can buy a bar at a reasonable price. I abstained – today. I continued my walk and was amused to see, in front of the top pastry shop Le Nôtre, four giant macaroons. People – including me – were practically pasted to the display windows oohing and aahing over the exquisite desserts and hors d’oeuvres. They say that pastry is an art form and nowhere is that more true than in France where top chefs create desserts that are both wonderful to look at and wonderful to eat, light AND tasty. After an eyeful of chocolate and desserts, I sat down in a café and did what I always do: drink a tiny espresso and watch the people. That’s the delight of Paris.


Un Joyeux Noël chez les Rocheforts

Pictures top row: Tiny but pretty Peruvian crèche, our dinner menu, one for each guest with place card.

Pictures bottom row, The Christmas table and Harriet and Philippe posing in front of it.

Christmas Eve chez les Rocheforts. I was in charge of the turkey, wild rice, sweet potatoes, cheese plate etc. Philippe took care of the aperitif, drinks, foie gras, accompanying wines and everything else including making the place cards and the menu. I forgot to suggest that we name the cheeses on the menu but here they are:  a Mont d’Or from the mountainous Jura region, a Soumaintrain (from Burgundy), a Montbrison (a mild blue from Auvergne), a chèvre, a Swiss Emmenthal and for variety, a Shropshire (bleu cheese with a startling yellow colour, from the U.K. ). In case you didn’t know, I have a real passion for cheese and always try to introduce ones that even my French family aren’t acquainted with.

My brother-in-law brought and opened the delicious oysters, the Marseilles family offered us beautiful roses in a rare colour (pale coral-pale pink and the grandchildren pitched in to help me set the table and serve. Santa did not appear this year because the youngest grandchildren – the believers – were elsewhere. We regretted their absence – it’s always such fun to watch my oyster-toting brother-in-law sneak out of the room and return in his Santa suit.  (He’s a man of many talents).  

Right before Christmas, I realised my last year’s Peruvian crèche was on the missing list so I hurriedly crossed town on the metro in search of new figurines which I found at the Boutique d’Amérique Latine. My daughter-in-law brought me some moss to set them in.  A lovely Christmas!