Monthly Archives: March 2018

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.


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.