Saturday, 31 May 2008

Une fête des fées

Our baby girl turned seven today. To celebrate, we had a fairy party, which included (in case you’re in the dark about fairy parties) making floral headpieces, finding flower fairies that led to treasure, eating smallish foods, and dancing to music and freezing when DJ gnome stopped the music.

All went well until I pulled the scarf too tight on the birthday fairy’s head during pin-the-flower-on-the-fairy game, whereupon she ran screaming into the other room, accusing me of ruining her birthday. Oh, la, la …

Things turned around once the fairy finding began and the human fairies were all fairly giddy upon opening their treasure. Happiness truly is a treasure bag filled with magical surprises.

The fairies left a note stating that the seventh year is a special one. I hope they are aware that the sixth year is going to be hard to outdo. Notable events in our fairy’s sixth year include:
A summer of family reunion fun from Saugatuck, Michigan to Long Beach, California.

Saying goodbye to wonderful family, friends and neighbors and heading to Paris for a year. Or more. Or less.

Bravely entering a school where she knows no one except her brother down the hall, and doesn’t understand what the teacher is saying.

Going to school each day despite the fact that her teacher is physically (or psychologically) unable to smile, and en plus, she greets the children with the manner of an undertaker, and all this with nary a complaint.

Learning to ride a bike with no training wheels on the wide and smooth pavement below that we fondly call “our front yard”.

Eating all sorts of new dishes at the cantine every day.

Trekking on a camel and spending the night in the Moroccan desert.

Learning to comprehend, read, and finally speak French (when necessary).

Going to the Picard (a high-end frozen foods store) to get a dessert with her brother only- no parents! (It’s right below our apartment, so don’t call the authorities- yet.)

I suspect the fairies are right about the seventh year being special. Every year is unique with its own set of discoveries, challenges, disappointments, and joys. Here’s to the special seventh!

Wednesday, 28 May 2008


Another beautiful day at Parc Monceau.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Unlikely venue for a family reunion

Some may say that Paris is a crazy place to hold a family reunion. It's not the beach, it's not a state park, and it certainly doesn't have buffets or even seating for large numbers. However, as 3 out of 6 siblings in my husband's family are residing in Paris and Brussels, Paris became reunion central.

Paris has such great public places in which a big crowd can easily gather and the children can enjoy themselves. The Jardin de Tuileries was where the not yet teens would kick a ball and play army. The Jardin de Luxembourg allowed the older members to sit and have a chat, while the youngsters played with the boats and ducks in the fountain. The Palais Royal and its gardens allowed for silliness at all ages as family members would take turns jumping from post to post or posing on the columns.

Enjoying the sights of Paris was also doable as a group. The Musee Rodin and it's beautiful outside sculpture garden and cafe was a perfect place to see an incredible building with gorgeous art, while allowing time to relax under the big trees at the cafe. It also afforded the kids some mischievous time, whether it was feeding the birds some questionable food, or playing hide and seek from a fellow tourist who had her eye on one of the teen cousins.

Eating as a group also worked out, surprisingly. On one occasion we tried to have a late lunch at a bistro, L'Absinthe, and they said it was too late (and too early for dinner). But seeing so many hungry faces, the owner and waiter changed their minds and allowed us in for "lunch" (it was 4:00). Ten of us sat along the back wall in the back room. Most of the offferings of the day were still available and we ordered quickly. The service was nice, the food came shortly after ordering and it was quite tasty.

Thirteen of us had a three course dinner at le Petit Villiers in the 17th, which was quite delightful. This time, we had made reservations, and we all sat together in the back room. Despite a couple of misunderstandings, the waiter was quite cheerful and accomodating.

The Musee Jaquemart-Andre which was highly recommended by great Aunt K, turned out to be a spectacular showplace for art that the former inhabitants donated to France from their collection they had acquired over the years. We could all listen to the description of the house and the art at our own pace, and then meet for lunch at the cafe, also in the museum.

Just visiting with their cousins, aunts and uncles is what our kids liked most. Little M and G, both 6 years old, lost teeth the same week and got to have a Parisian sleep over. Hanging out at Gram and Grandad's apartment with their balcon overlooking the Comedie Francaise, and enjoying Monoprix gourmet pizza and salad was an activity our children looked forward to. They quite loved buskering on the street for passing change.

I always wonder, "Will the kids remember being together at the fountain at Tuileries? Will they remember eating at Angelina's with their grandparents? Will they recall the Guignol theatre with the littlest of French kids yelling out warnings to the puppets?. Will they remember drawing at the Louvre with their cousins? Or what about performing on the street for money?" I can't be sure they will.

But what the kids do carry with them is a fascination for the stories that are told at these family gatherings. They love to hear about dad's house catching fire when he was a kid, and the kids sleeping in the dining room, even when their four cousins from St. Louis came, making 10 kids sleeping in the dining room. The loved to hear almost any story or tips about secret languages from their Great Aunt K; they were mesmerized when she was at the table. When an uncle or aunt would begin a story, it seems our kids had a sixth sense that something good was going to take place, because they'd gather around. My son noticed that most of the great stories resulted from mishaps, accidents or even tragedies. He even said " I wish more accidents happened to us, so we would have more good stories." I'll try to keep in mind the future story value when going through an unpleasant event.

So Paris ended up being a fun place for a family reunion. It was a little more hectic than lying on a beach and catching up over a barbecue, but it had its own flavor which included chocolat chaud from Angelina's and watching the performers in front of the Pompidou. Not every family would be up for this, so I thank everyone for making it happen.

One stop short of a good show

We either entered too late or got off the metro too early, but I would sure like to have seen what this character was up to with his supporting cast of batman and the creepy life sized doll.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Transportation Strike Wednesday Evening

Attention all commuters, which is just about everyone in Paris, the metros and buses are calling for a strike tonight (Wednesday) at 20:00 lasting until Friday morning at 8:00. Have your rollerblades, trottinettes, velib' pass or walking shoes ready! Soyez prudent, however, because in October, the motor scooters took over the sidewalks, thus walking down the street became thrill seeking behaviour. Bon trajet!

Saturday, 17 May 2008

La Fête du Pain

A beret topped man bicycling down a tree lined street with baguettes peeking out of his basket is easily conjured up at the mention of France. This past week, the mysteries of the baguette have been exposed at the Fête du Pain, which is taking place in front of Notre Dame through May 18th.

At the Fête, boulangers can be seen combining the components of the bread: flour, water, yeast, salt; rolling dough that has been mixed in huge temperature-controlled mixing bowls, hand-stretching the dough out onto baking sheets, and cooking the dough for approximately 2o minutes, forming crispy, perfectly browned baguettes.

If the process wasn’t completely understood under the big tents where this was all being staged, there was a film in a nearby smaller tent, showing the entire process from the growing of the wheat, to the testing the composition of the wheat to ensure the proper makeup of proteins. Wheat that doesn’t meet the standard is rejected. Lastly, the techniques of making the designs on the bread were demonstrated, with a teacher scolding a student for not having the design properly lined up on the baguette. Oh, the standards. It was an interesting film.

Other agricultural products tried to catch some attention during the fête. There was a sugar booth where a video tracing the process of refined sugar was shown. There was a milk and a cheese booth. I scored at the cheese booth by finding a book that gives a cheese tour of France. For example, the fact that le Livarot was the most consumed cheese in Normandy in the 1800’s, and was considered the “poor man’s meat” is just one detail found in the book. It suggests sights to see while savoring a region’s cheeses. Detailed descriptions of how the cheeses are made and thus, their unique flavors are delightful to read.

My daughter’s and son’s classes had the privilege of rolling out, shaping and later eating their own bread at the Fête du Pain. The boulangers and helpers were very warm and animated with the students. It was a fun field trip for the two of them, especially with time at the park and the zoo to fill out the day. Lucky kids!

Breadmaking takes a lot of concentration!

Enjoying the end product.

The whole class in a section of the bus. They were so quiet!

Animal races at the park.

The hands were eager to build at this "U.N. sandbox".

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Sorbonne revisited

Monday night, I happened to be in Amphitheatre Richelieu of the Sorbonne. This was very exciting for me as I just watched footage of both the police and the students "taking over" the Sorbonne in 1968. That night, the room was "occupied" by the jazz ensemble Belmondo and their special guest Milton Nascimento. This was held as part of the Jazz Festival in Saint-Germain-des-Pres which continues until May 23rd. There are so many choices of groups and venues, it can make a head spin.

Nascimento is a Brazilian singer/songwriter who had a vocal sound I had never heard before in my somewhat limited experience with Brazilian music. He entered with extremely high pitched vocal tones accompanying the horns, cello, piano and drums. The only thing I can liken his voice to is the high pitched calls in the songs of some Native American tribes. It was unusual and interesting. It was a mellow concert overall with great music and unbelievable vocals.

Salle Richelieu was an enchanting and intimate space in which to see a concert. The lights shone on the statues perched high on the walls in a very dramatic way. The walls were painted a soft greenish color with a beautiful mural/painting, and wooden benches rose up high along the walls.

And then it struck me, the second reason for my excitement. I had monitored clases in this same room 21 years ago, and my French classes met around the corner. Not quite the days of the Revolution, but I had been a young student in these same rooms. I felt very lucky to be able to come back and feel a bit of Paris' past along with my own.

Mai 1968

Here it is May 2008, 40 years after the student uprisings and labor movements in France. 1968 was a historic year throughout the world and here in France, it is referred to as Mai 68, as that is when most of the action happened. This date is being commemorated throughout Paris; the Figaro has put out a special edition, 1968 Révolutions: Paris Rome Prague États Unis Vietnam; Rolling Stone has a collector’s edition, 68 Les Révolutions: Rock Art Cinéma Literature. There is a photo exhibit appropriately near the Sorbonne showing scenes of burned cars, and students heaving bricks. There are debates and discussions taking place. There are also a number of films in town that portray or document the happenings.

One such film is Mai 68 by Lawaetz and Kanapa showing at the Filmothèque du Quartier Latin. (It is showing tonight at 18:20 in French). It is a three hour documentary which chronicles the events as they unfolded in the Spring of 1968. I caught the film Sunday night in an effort to have a better understanding of what went on 40 years ago.
Here’s my interpretation of what went on. Mind you, I did fade out at one point during the movie (I fell asleep during Star Wars), and I couldn’t follow the French at times. So what I may have missed, I may now misinterpret.

Taking note of what was going on at the university in Nanterre (not to mention the rest of the world), namely radicals (students speaking out against the government) were met with a taking over of the university by police. This is exactly what ensued at the Sorbonne. In a reaction to the police occupation of their university, students (and teachers) demonstrated and eventually took over the streets. The Latin Quarter became the battleground with the students using the grills around the trees to dig up the cobblestone bricks to then launch them at the police. Barricades were built using nearby cars, bricks and whatever was handy. The police responded by firing what looked like those long rubber bullets as well as hosing down the students with huge powerful currents of water. (Editiorial: after seeing the Eyes on the Prize, a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., it’s hard to take other protests as seriously. Just my opinion.)

Labor became agitated and strikes began taking place all over France at Renault and Citroen factories. The mostly female workers at Galleries Lafayette went on strike. Whereas the students were calling for a dramatic and idealistic demolition of the means of production, workers did not want to destroy the means of production, and thus their livelihood, and instead were calling for higher wages and better working conditions. While the students’ and workers’ ideas were not always the same, it seemed as a whole, both groups were able to send de Gaulle running for a few days, three to be exact.

Literally, de Gaulle disappeared, which really had the public and the media wondering. Here I get a little foggy. It could be that de Gaulle returned with tanks and was going to declare a state of military emergency and ordered everyone back to work/school. There was a pro de Gaulle demonstration. It also appeared that hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest de Gaulle. At one point the well organized students had brought transistor radios to listen to de Gaulle’s speech as tens if not hundreds of thousands had gathered in protest. The footage of all these people in the streets quietly listening to his speech was pretty powerful. At this point, de Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly and announced that there will be parliamentary elections soon. In response, the protestors took out white handkerchiefs and waved them in a sign that they would surrender (I believe).

In any event, the students were able to move society and government in a more liberal direction with more focus on equality and human rights. Workers' wages were increased and the majority of people returned to work and school.

Overall the film was interesting, especially when the shopkeepers in the Latin Quarter were interviewed, and were seemingly unfazed by the cars and streets being torn apart around them. There was also reference to the protests going on worldwide, and some German protest footage was included in the film. If three hours is too much, as it was almost for me, I recommend the first half which covers a lot of the history of Mai 68.

*Picture from

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Naughty Velib' ?

In this nice weather, it's hard not to pass a Velib' station and impulsively ride off somewhere, anywhere. That's just what I did on the way back from dropping the kids off at school. On passing the Velib's glimmering in the sunlight, I set free a bike and was heading off when I realized the seat was all funky, which is usually an indication that something else is not right. Sure enough, there was a pedal missing on the right side of the bike. Thankfully, there were more docked at the station, and I chose a bike that was in good form.

I rode merely 10 minutes to the station near our apartment. This is the beauty of the Velib', just hopping on and back off again for short jaunts.

Two days later, my husband and I were headed to the Musée Jaquemart André, which is a personal collection of art in a beautiful setting that was donated to France, building and all. A must see.

Wanting to hop on a Velib' and cruise downhill to the museum, I scanned my Navigo which also contains my Velib' pass. The scanner emitted a nasty "you're wrong" noise as well as a red light. I tried my pass on several other bikes, all with the same results. Hmmmm. I've only had a happy relationship with Velib'- what could be wrong?

I slid my card on the main Velib' database, and after entering my secret code, the screen showed that I owed 35,00 Euros! What! How can that be? My last ride was nearly 10 minutes long, I couldn't possibly owe anything. A closer look at my "history" showed that on the day of my 10 minute ride, the bike was checked out for 8 hours and 35 minutes. Uh oh...

This was the first time I felt that Velib' had let me down. A bit saddened, I waited for bus #84 to come by to take me near the museum.

Later in the day, I called the Velib' team to inquire about my situation. The man on the phone grilled me. "What day was your last trip on a Velib'? Where did you pick up the bike? Where did you drop it off?" He explained that after I thought I was finished with my trip, my velib carried on with travels unbeknownst to me, eight hours of secret travels to be exact, ending up only a few kilometers away, as if to mock me.

I felt slightly betrayed by my Velib', even though I knew the wrong wasn't the bike's. What bike wouldn't take advantage of the fact that the last traveler hadn't fully locked it in? I imagined where my Velib' had gone. Had it gotten lonely and searched for other Velib’s which were hard to find on such a nice day? Was it fraternizing with those capitalist, individually owned bikes that were not to be trusted? Did it merely want to go for a long journey, having tired of so many short trips? I could only wonder.

Fortunately, the interrogator on the other line said that they'll take care of the fine this time, since it hasn't happened before. I was relieved and yet a bit nervous, knowing that if I hadn't locked it in properly once, I'm likely to do it again. After all, I'm no newcomer to the Velib', and still can't believe that I left it "unleashed". I was happy that the bike was actually returned and didn't become someone's personal Velib' (shudder the thought) which certainly could have happened.
I can’t wait to go and scan my card again. Hopefully this time, the happy beep will sound along with the green, everything’s cool, light. I will think about my next Velib’s potential for mischief as I ride off.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Jemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech at night

Even though he had much disdain for the heart of Marrakech and its people, Hassan dropped us off at Jemaa el Fna Square where we entered the throngs of people. We were among families passing through, snake charmers, outside cafes, scooters, men fishing for Coke and many various merchants. It was quite the scene. The square at night was magical.

Our approach to the center.

Negotiating with the fellas for M's necklace.

Fishing for Coke?

Scenes from the restaurant patio overlooking the square.

Return to Marrakech

The scenery between Ouarzazate and Marrakech is just as breathtaking on our return trip.

As we left Ouarzazate, we stopped in a Berber pharmacy and picked up some black cumin seed, damask, argan oil and saffron.

This is Matt getting his "Keith Richard's" look.