Monthly Archives: April 2013

A love affair with Paris cafés

One of the things I love most about Paris is that anytime I get restless chez moi I can run out the door, cross the street, and go sit in a nearby café.  This is definitely something I did not do when growing up in a small town in Iowa (not exactly a café culture, although we did, believe it or not, have a real French restaurant run by real French people but that’s another story).  Just watching other people, imagining their lives, gets my mind off my own preoccupations.  But of course I don’t go to cafés solely for negative reasons: I go to meet friends, do some writing, see new faces, get new ideas.

People are always asking me what my favorite café is.   I invariably answer their question with another question:  What time of day are you talking about?  Some cafés are perfect for early morning coffee and writing, others for afternoon tea with a friend, yet others for a relaxing end of the day drink.  So many cafés (40,000 now down from 200,000 in the 60s but still…), so little time!  One of my favorite cafés is right at the entrance to Les Jardins du Palais Royal near that unusual metro station entrance that looks like colorful glass balls (some people hate it, I like it).  But strange phenomenon:  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve arranged to meet people there and can’t remember the name….ah, yes, it’s Le Nemours. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.

I don’t go to Le Flore or Les Deux Magots simply because I’m a reverse snob and avoid going where everyone else does.   I admit, though, that it’s easier to meet people in a landmark café simply because you can remember the name and everyone knows where it is (the Café Marly at the Louvre is a case in point – I mean, how can anyone not find the Louvre?).

We’re gifted with a plethora of cafés near our apartment in the 20th.  On the rue des Pyrenees there’s a popular one called “Les Ours” (The Bears). Very appropriate for the Pyrenees!  There’s the Rendez-vous des Amis which I frequented assiduously until its charming owners retired and a new guy came in, installed a TV set, and kept it on all day.  Au revoir, Rendez-Vous. I headed down the street to the Ramus (named after a sixteenth century French philosopher, no less) which doesn’t have a TV set, or at least one that’s turned on, for the good reason that it is located at the upper entrance to the Père Lachaise cemetery and is often the spot families and friends choose to repair to before or after funeral services.  You know they’ve come from, or are going to, a funeral because they’re generally in large groups and dressed in black.  Sometimes the people are very sad and silent, sometimes, like the other day, they’re drinking wine and exchanging banter and jokes (maybe they think the dear departed would not have appreciated long faces?).

Cafés are good for glad and sad and great for romance as well.   The real reason I love cafés?   I met Philippe in one – and yes, I can easily remember its name – Le Select on the Boulevard Montparnasse, the gathering place of writers and artists like Picasso and Hemingway. Très romantique!

Recently while having a drink there, we watched as a dark-haired young fellow made a play for an attractive sophisticated blond sitting alone.  They chatted a few minutes before her boyfriend walked in the door. The disappointed suitor immediately returned to his seat and left shortly afterwards. So why do I think that wasn’t the end of the story?

Because that’s what Paris cafés are all about – the “what might happen” factor.  Romance is in the air – and you never know.  You might just meet your future partner in a Paris café…. 






Bonsoir Lune – Teaching my French granddaughter Goodnight Moon

When our children were little, I delighted in reading to them in English –  in spite or because of the fact that they were immersed in a French speaking world.  Although my husband spoke very good English, he’s French, and his French family and most of his French friends did’t speak English. Our children attended French public schools and didn’t study English in school, opting for German, Russian, and Italian.

There was a good reason for that:  I decided that they’d learn English from me!  After all, I’m their mother and therefore English was their “mother tongue”.  Right?  Well, not necessarily.  When I would speak with them in English in the street, for example, one of the two would invariably tug on my arm and supplicate me, in French, to “parles comme tout le monde” (speak like everyone else, ie, speak French!).  Not to worry:  Their pre-school and elementary school embarrassment at their mother’s “funny” way of speaking ceased as they became teenagers. Now they  could boast that their mom knew or could at least figure out the words to some of those horrid hard rock songs they listened to (horrid in my opinion, not theirs).  Suddenly English became “cool” and although they still didn’t study it formally, they benefitted from trips to visit their American family in the States. (One of the reasons I absolutely wanted them to speak English was so they could communicate with their grandmother, their aunts and uncles, and my friends).

Their learning of English was a natural process, no stress, and although French is their mother tongue in the sense of being the language they grew up using the most, they are totally at ease in English.

If it’s not exactly their “mother” tongue, it’s definitely their “other” tongue.

 I never had any doubt about that because I was with them every single day and “on the job”. And now for a confession:   I admit I have doubts about their children, though.  Both sons married French women (who speak English) and in both households French is spoken 99 per cent of the time.  They all encourage me to speak English to the grandchildren – and although I’m happy to do so, even thrilled, I hesitate to tell them that it doesn’t come naturally the way it did for them.

But I try.  And although I didn’t have much hope, trying was all it took.  Three-year-old Hannah, on every visit, makes a beeline for “her” books, especially and above all, Margaret Wise Brown’s famous classic, Goodnight Moon, her absolute favorite.  She pronounces  “mouse” and  “house” perfectly and pores over every page.  She says “goodnight bears” and “goodnight chairs” with nary an accent (well, maybe a teeny one).

One evening when her parents were here and putting her to bed, she kissed us all good-bye, as all little French children do, and as she passed through the living room in her mother’s arms, held up her little hand and waved goodnight to the room with a gay and resounding  “Bonsoir salon“.  It wasn’t in English but I liked her instant translation.  I was proud of her.

Like my sons, English won’t be her mother tongue. But, like them, it will definitely be her “other” tongue.




Good Food, Good Mood! French chefs go back to the kitchen

I’m in a really good mood today. Objectively I shouldn’t be. Our Paris apartment looks like it was hit by a major orage (storm) which in a way it was.  Why? A rash New Year’s resolution (maybe we’d had too much champagne):    We decided to get two small bathrooms and our bedroom renovated.  After six weeks of dust and pounding and barely being able to get at my computer, I’ve decided I should have had my head examined before embarking on this little life adventure.  I’d feel much better if I’d decided to write about it like Peter Mayle did about his house in Provence and laugh all the way to the bank.   But I didn’t – and I’m not laughing or experiencing any particular “joie de vivre” about the pickle we’re in.

So what managed to put me in a good mood?  Very simply, an interview on last night’s news in which 9-star French chef Alain Ducasse announced that he and a bevy of fellow top chefs have created a label for restaurants serving food cooked on their premises by the cook.

Now this may sound self-evident.  I mean, if you go to a restaurant, it’s because you want to eat food made by a the cook.  Unfortunately, even in France, the country of gastronomy par excellence, restaurant food has fallen into the hands of “managers”.  I write about this in “Joie de Vivre” and I quote:  “One out of two restaurants in France no longer serves food made in the kitchen.”  That boeuf bourguignon you are eagerly digging into more often than not has been delivered to the restaurant in vaccum packed containers and re-heated (you may be faked out:  the kitchen “manager” will sprinkle on a bit of parsley to make it look homemade).

Since I was fortunate enough to have a French mother-in-law who made one of the best boeuf bourguignons I’ve ever eaten, I can tell the difference between the real thing and second best – and have, more often than I like.  And not just boeuf bourguignon.  In restaurants French fries (frites) are invariably frozen, salads come not from fields, but plastic bags, and sauces from tubes or cans.

Years ago baguettes were bad – the outside was either too cooked or not enough and the inside was like cotton. Someone “up there” decided that customers should be able to differentiate between real bakeries where the bread was baked on the spot, and places that merely sold bread that was deposited there. Only the former can call themselves “boulangeries“.  I don’t know if it’s a result but the quality of bread in France has improved immensely since the epoch of the Bad Baguette.

I’m sure that is what will happen with this current movement.     I’ll get back to you on what the label says and looks like so you’ll know what to look for.  As tourists, you should be able to eat the best of what France has to offer.    In the meantime, chapeau (hat’s off!)  to France’s top chefs for putting the cooks back in the kitchen.