Christmas in Paris

Christmas Tree at Notre Dame Cathedral

Christmas Tree at Notre Dame Cathedral

The year is winding down – it’s Christmas time in Paris. We’ve just returned from a couple weeks in the US. I visited my mom and brothers in Illinois, and Brenda visited her mom in Spokane. My brother Chris organized an early Christmas dinner at his house in Pekin, Illinois – we even had some snow. Then we looked at more Christmas lights than most towns have – many many lights. Back in Poulsbo we visited as many friends as we could fit into a weekend and saw lots of Christmas decorations. We also saw the dentist. Now we’re back in Paris and it feels like home.

Perhaps you want to know what Christmas in Paris is like. Our apartment looks pretty Spartan. We have a 6 inch paper Christmas tree with LED lights that flicker like candles and some snow flakes pasted to the window panes. There’s a light strip in the corner that we can turn different colors, and perhaps we can light a bunch of candles to create more atmosphere. I personally don’t know about any presents – maybe some will turn up. Though our apartment decorations may not sound festive, we’ve been doing most of our celebrating outside of our home.

Christmas dinner at La Cuisine

Christmas dinner at La Cuisine

The day after our return from the US, we went to a cooking class to learn to prepare some traditional French Christmas fare – Carpaccio de Saint-Jacques à l’Huile de Truffe, Caille farcie au Foie Gras with Sauce au Porto, Purée de Panais et Poêlée de Champignons Sauvages, and Mousse Chocolat Blanc et Citron Vert with Mangue Rôti and Biscuit Cacao. So that’s sliced scallops, a deboned quail stuffed with foie gras and port reduction sauce, a mixture of wild mushrooms in a sauce and a parsnip puree, and dessert of white chocolate mousse served in a chocolate biscuit with roasted mango. After dinner was prepared, we got to eat it, and was it good! Every event we’ve been to a La Cuisine has been a hit – we always look forward to it.

Buche de Noel cake, a traditional chocolate roll cake for Christmas

Buche de Noel cake, a traditional chocolate roll cake for Christmas

Brenda went back the following day to learn how to make Bûche de Noël, a traditional French chocolate roll cake. The cake included meringue mushrooms as decoration, chocolate génoise for rolling, cherry syrup for soaking, chocolate cream for filling, and chocolate ganache for frosting. She brought her completed cake home, and we just finished eating it. Yum!

Tomorrow we have an invitation to celebrate Christmas Eve with the family of our good friend Catherine, who lives outside the city in Nogent Sur-Marne. She already let us know that we would need to take a cab home early Christmas morning. We are excited to be able to celebrate with her, her husband Jacques, and their family in this normally family only dinner and party.

Paris is a city of neighborhoods, so there isn’t a single downtown area with a mass concentration of decorations. Instead there are many areas with a few streets of decoration clumped together. We’ve put together a photo slide show of some of the decorations we’ve seen over the past month or so.

That’s our Christmas for this year. We hope that wherever you are, you have a happy and wonderful holiday. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Hugh Nelson and Brenda Prowse

See our slide show of Paris Christmas Decorations.

Thanksgiving in Paris

Canard we prepared at La Cuisine

Canard we prepared at La Cuisine

What do the Parisians do on Thanksgiving? Actually this very American holiday hasn’t caught on. There’s a shop called Thanksgiving in the Marais that serves American expatriate needs by providing turkey, cranberries, stuffing, and pies, as well as other American ingredients that are just plain missing in France – things like measuring spoons and brown sugar. This morning Brenda prepared a little speech in French to explain Thanksgiving to the dairy products vendor at our local market-now he knows! Word is spreading.

Here's our dry run cooking the canard at home (earlier this week)

Here’s our dry run cooking the canard at home (earlier this week)

For us, well we aren’t having Turkey this year, though dinde (turkey) is sold at the market. We don’t have an oven so we have to find something different that fits the occasion. On Halloween we went to a cooking school, La Cuisine, and found that the main course from that menu, Magret de Canard with Sauce au Vin, is easily prepared in our little kitchen (even though we have to open the windows and ventilate the apartment during preparation). Along with the main dish, we’re having Chanterelle Mushrooms with Herbs and Pine Nuts, Butternut Squash Gratin with Crème Fresh, Nutmeg, and Compté Cheese, Cranberry Sauce with Red Wine and Figs (Thank you David Lebovitz for the recipe !) Pour les dessert, we’re having a raspberry tort framboise. Our wine is a 2010 Hecht and Bannier Syrah from Minervois, where we were earlier this year with friends from Poulsbo on the Canal du Midi.

For me, I’m thankful to be here and that Brenda is doing the cooking. Happy Thanksgiving from Brenda and Hugh!

Paris Plages!

Part Paris Plages on the roadway beside the Seine.

Part of Paris Plages runs along the roadway beside the Seine.

Since July 20th the City of Paris has transformed the Seine and the front of Hotel de Ville (city hall) into Paris-Plages (Paris beaches). Truckloads of sand were brought in to form beaches along portions of the Seine. Roads along the river, normally heavily trafficked, are closed as part of the event. There is beach volleyball in front of City Hall. There are beach chairs, misters to help you cool off, a floating swimming pool, areas for dancing, snack and beverage stands, even an air conditioned trailer for the first aid people to hang out. A couple prohibitions – no topless bathing and no swimming in the Seine. The event is funded by local sponsors, but sponsorship signage is unobtrusive (and I don’t know who sponsored the event – how effective is that?).

Paris-Plages was started in 2002 by Bertrand Delanoë, the Mayor of Paris. At first it was criticized for being a costly waste, but the populace has since warmed up to it, and the beaches are now packed every day. Many citizens of Paris leave town for vacation in August because the city is often hot and humid and the town center is packed with tourists. Paris-Plages was a way to provide something for those who are left behind.

The Mayor has goals improve the quality of life, reduce pollution, and cut down on vehicle traffic within the city and pedestrian malls. Paris-Plages is just one effort to achieve these goals. We’ve seen the front square of Hotel de Ville transformed continually this year. First it was an ice rink, then a garden area, then a tennis court with big screen TV for the French Open, then a rock concert stage, now a beach volleyball court. Another popular program has been Vélib’ (combination of the French “vélo” and “libre” meaning “free bicycles”) which gives Parisians access to inexpensive rental bicycles available in stations all around Paris. Our Paris friends keep urging us to try these – we’ll have to report back.

See more photos of Paris-Plages.

Visitors!

We have had quite a few visitors lately. The best part for me and Hugh is that each guest has interests that lead to new explorations and adventures for us. A recent guest whose first ever visit to Paris had a few things on his agenda: visit Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Rodin museum, the Musée d’Orsay, a boat ride under the bridges of the Seine, a visit to the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, dining at the Grand Colbert (the restaurant made famous by the Diane Keaton-Jack Nicholson movie “Something’s Gotta Give”), a cooking class at La Cuisine cooking school, and a modern Architectural walking tour.

Even though our apartment is right next to the Seine, and we walk along it and cross the many bridges with regularity, we had not previously taken a boat ride. We found the hour long trip most enjoyable and now plan to take one at night too. Seeing the historical buildings lining the Seine from the boat perspective was exciting and so much easier than walking! There is a boarding point within a block of our apartment too-how great is that!

The visit to the Rodin museum was a first for us too. The gardens and outdoor and indoor sculptures were awe inspiring. I had not known that “The Thinker” would be mounted high on a pedestal nor that it was so large. Our friend was moved to tears by the sculpture of “The Kiss” which was truly beautiful. The day we visited, a wedding event was being staged in the gardens. We wished we could be guests for that enchanting event.

I organized a special private Louvre Tour through an excellent tour company, Paris Walks. Even though Hugh and I had a previous Louvre Tour, this one was even better. Our guide was passionate about art history and because we were so interested and she was having such a wonderful time our tour was extended almost an hour. Having a guide for the Louvre in my opinion is a must- it is just too overwhelming to do on your own. With a guide you can skip the waiting lines, go directly to the best areas and get an extensive history lesson.

Musée d’Orsay is a magical place. Just being inside the bulding and seeing the light stream through the high celings gives me a euphoric feeling. Then there is the artwork-Monet, Van Gogh, Gaugin just a few favorites, the art nouveau furniture, the sculptures, the dining area. I am so happy visitors want to experience this museum.

Cooking class is a blast! La Cuisine is a wonderful small cooking school only about half a mile north of our apartment. It offers a myriad of classes from cutting up a whole chicken and using all the parts to create a divine dinner (french onion soup with broth from the carcass, ailles de poulets from the wings, paupiettes de volaille-pounded flattened chicken breasts stuffed with herbes and mushrooms,) to making the perfect french baugette, or shopping at the local market for the best ingredients to make a sumptuous lunch. Our recent guest put the baugette making class high up on the enjoyment list.

Another new discovery for me and Hugh was made on the Modern Architecture Walk sponsored by Paris Walks. The Arab World Institute, which is less than half a mile east of our apartment, has a world class view of Paris from atop the sun terrace, and it is a free elevator ride to the top. While climbing to the top of Notre Dame can’t be beat, the Arab Institue elevator is a wonderful device ensuring that less nimble guests can view Paris from above. The walking tour also led us past the ebullient Frank Gehry cinematique, the controversial National Library which is designed like four open books, the brand new Cité de la Mode (les Docks) and the stunning Simone de Beauvoir footbridge.

Another dear friend arrived in Paris today. We will have many different experiences as she loves gardens!

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Staying Fit in Paris

Hugh in front of Health City

Hugh in front of Health City on Boulevard Saint Germain

When we left the US, I belonged to the Poulsbo Athletic Club and Brenda used our Nordic Track and took pilates classes from Jo Carter. We were relatively fit and were interested in staying fit in Paris. At first we had a fitness center at our hotel, but once we moved into our apartment we needed a place to work out.

We ended up joining a chain of health clubs called Health City. We needed to have a local bank account before we could join. That’s a winter photo of me – the weather is getting warmer believe it or not. Every other day we head off to the club, about 5 blocks from our apartment. As you might expect, Health City costs more – a little more than twice as much as Poulsbo Athletic Club. It has more machines and types of machines, as well as free weights and more treadmills and eliptical machines. It doesn’t have an exercise pool, a physical therapy center, or racquetball courts. It does have free exercise classes, sauna and steam room. On good days I can run outside – Paris is great for that – of course so is Poulsbo. The staff is professional – everyone there is really into fitness. Our orientation one day was by a member of the French national water polo team. Many people use personal trainers. It seems like most people working out are training for something, not just trying to stave off old age like us. The place is often very busy.

We haven’t met too many new friends at the club. One trainer who was from Iran speaks pretty good English and always talks to us when we see her. Her core fitness class was a killer, by the way. Along with walking more and eating a better diet here (it helps to have more time to focus on these things), the health club has made a difference. I can’t say exactly how much weight I’ve lost, but I have to buy a waist size 3 inches smaller now, so it must be making some difference.

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Our French lesson this week is about World War II

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Arc de Triomphe

In our French lesson this week we are reading a short but true story. The purpose is for us to learn French, but the story is about recounting in a child’s eyes the outbreak of World War II in France. How it started when they returned from a family vacation. How she noticed that her parents were worried for some unstated reason. How it was for the father when he learned the news. How is was for the child when she wondered about how the family would exist when her father was mobilized to go to the front. How her father reassured her that he would be back by Christmas. How confusing it was when the Germans and the French armies lined up at the border but no one fought. How the school teacher reassured her class that all was well because France had the Maginot Line (a fortress of guns along the border) and a network of underground tunnels. How important it was for her to have her best friend in the apartment downstairs. How the father did not return as promised at Christmas. How the Germans suddenly and unexpectedly attacked through the Ardennes forest, driving their tanks through the mountains and bypassing the Maginot Line. How the family was told to flee Paris. The mother didn’t even have a driver’s license, but she loaded the family into the car and fled anyway. How the roads were clogged with people doing the same thing. How horrifying it was when the bombers attacked and a person nearby them was killed. How they ran out of gas and had to abandon their car. How they were invited by a family to sleep in their nearby barn. How it was to wake up after a night sleeping in the hay. How the country turned to Marshall Pétain, 84 year old hero of World War I, to take charge and keep everything safe.

Hooked yet? This happened to people here, and the German attackers were perhaps our relatives, and only a few hundred miles away. The disturbing story described here still happens in many parts of our world today. More to follow.

May Day – Labor Day in France

May Day - Labor Day in France

Flower stand selling lilly of the valley and other May Day flowers

This morning we are on our way to our usual mid week visit to the gym when – they are closed! Why would that be? They’re selling some kind of flowers on every street corner – what are they and why? After I went for a compensatory run along the Seine, I came home to investigate. I knew it was Labor Day in France, but didn’t think that would have much impact on commercial enterprises. Turns out that it does, and that May Day – Labor Day in France are closely linked together. La Fête du Muguet, La Fête du Travail.

I found an article that explains the tradition. Lillies of the valley were first presented to King Charles IX in 1561 and, liking this gift, he started presenting lilies of the valley to the ladies of his court on May 1st. By about 1900, it was common for men to present lilies of the valley on May 1st as a sign of their affection, and in modern times flowers are more commonly presented to family and friends. The government permits the sale of these flowers (and dog rose flowers) by individuals and organizations on May 1st without need to pay tax or conform to retail sales rules. People will respond to economic incentives, so you see flowers being sold in many places along the street.

In 1919, the government legalized the 8 hour work day and made May 1st the official Labor Day holiday for France. It also turns out to be Labor Day for most of the rest of the World, except in the US. From the linked article:

Trade unions and other organizations organize parades and demonstrations to campaign for workers rights on May 1. People may also use these events to campaign for human rights in general, to demonstrate against racism or highlight current social issues.

This year’s Labor Day activities follow close on the heels of a report that Eurozone unemployment has risen to a record 12.1% overall, and the French government recently reported record numbers of unemployed. Unemployment in Spain and Greece is at levels above 27%, more than in the US during the Great Depression. Labor Day should have some interesting commentary.

So we think that Labor Day is different in France than in the US, where mostly it seems we get ready to shop the Labor Day sales and many businesses do not close. Then I read today’s Seattle Times – the police are hoping they will be better prepared for potential protests during this year’s 13th annual May Day march for worker and immigrant rights in Seattle. Ten thousand are expected to participate. Living in France is helping us to better know our local community at home.

Phones in France

Phones in France
When we left for France we really didn’t know how we were going to keep in contact with people in the US or how we would communicate by phone with each other and others in France after we got here. This article describes our rambling, imperfect process. We use Apple’s iPhone, but if you have a different phone, the process with your US and European carrier should be similar. We wanted our friends and business clients in the US to still be able to contact us on our US phones while at the same time be able to use the French mobile phone system to call around France and to provide a more reliable way to reach us should someone really need to do so.

With those goals in mind, and also that to start with we had two US iphones, we decided to keep one and unlock the other to use in Europe. My phone had been in our AT&T plan for long enough to allow unlocking. The linked article from AT&T provides the unlock request form and instructions from Apple regarding unlocking. Basically you need to back up your iPhone just prior to unlocking because you’re going to erase the entire contents of the phone. I unlocked my iphone when we were still in the US.

We had heard about an Iphone application called LIne 2 that could run on Brenda’s still working iphone and have a 2nd phone number set up as a 2nd line. The application is marketed as a way to have both your home phone and business phone on the same line, but it also works in our situation to have both our old cell phone numbers on a single US phone in Europe, with the ability in Line 2 to make IP only calls from that phone to the US and to receive calls and voicemail on both phones still. So to be clear, Brenda’s US cell phone doesn’t work at all over the European cell network, but with Line 2 either of us can use it to call the US for free, and people in the US can call us if we are in a wireless network such as we have at home in Paris.

Our idea with line 2 was to keep both of our US cell phone numbers so that anyone trying to reach us would still be able to at least leave a message that we would receive. To make this work, we decided to port my old cell phone number to line 2 installed on Brenda’s cell phone. Part of the Line 2 set up lets you port a cell phone number from another phone to your phone with Line 2 (rather than just picking a new number that you like). You’ll need your carrier’s permission to transfer the old number, but it was not a problem in our case. If I recall the process took about a week. The other major consideration for using line 2 in Europe is that we needed to forward Brenda’s working US cell phone to the line 2 number (my old cell phone number) prior to leaving the US. You need to tell the US network to forward all calls to the number that can receive calls over ip since the US cell phone can’t connect once you arrive in Europe. We forgot and had to call the US for technical assistance to get this done after arriving here.

So we arrived in Europe with my cell phone unlocked and not working at all, Brenda’s cell phone with line 2 installed and able to call the US over the internet. Both old cell phone numbers could receive messages and sometimes ring Brenda’s phone with calls from the US. When we moved into the Adagio Vincennes apartment hotel, our home for the first month here, we found that the free Internet service was also very slow. It also dropped the Internet connection whenever it was idle for a few minutes. That pretty much messed up our ability to receive phone calls on Line 2. Still people could leave voicemails which would also be emailed to us (as an audio file attachment), so we had a good way to know when people were trying to reach us.We had 2 iphones, 2 ipads, and a laptop computer. Each device could be upgraded to a higher speed internet, but still very slow compared to what we had in our home in the US, for a cost. We didn’t want to upgrade speed on all our devices, and at that point we were still trying to figure out how best to use Line 2 and how to get Brenda’s US number forwarded. So at that point we also got a Skype account.

Skype is free as long as you are talking to a friend computer to computer. Skype also provides very low cost calling to multiple countries from your computer to landlines or mobile phone numbers. To use the free part of Skype, all you do is enter your friend’s Skype name in the application and send a request to them. Once they acknowledge your request the 2 accounts are paired and you can use your computer to contact them. If they see your call and acknowledge on their computer, you can talk with or without video. I opened a Skype pay account for unlimited calling to US landlines and cell phones, but in fact we haven’t needed to use that very much. We use the free part of Skpe to make scheduled calls with family and friends and use line 2 to call voice only for most other needs.

Once we had a French bank account, we were able to convert my old cell phone to a French cell phone. We use the French mobile carrier Orange. For €29/month we have unlimited calling, texting, 2GB of data downloads, music downloads and a bunch of other stuff I don’t use. Most people staying shorter times in France don’t opt for a plan like we did, but instead just get a cheap phone that can purchase blocks of minutes and other options like texting. Orange offers these types of plans too. The Orange store activated my old iPhone by installing a new sim card compatible with their system. Then all I had to do was synchronize my phone with the saved download in my computer and everything from before was restored. Voilà!

As an aside, every time I turn off or reboot my cell phone, the Sim card locks and when the phone next starts up it asks me to enter the unlock code. Below the message to enter the code, it says I have 3 tries remaining. Knowing that my phone would no doubt be turned off again more than 3 times, I was worried how I would make the phone useable after 3 more times. We went to the Orange store, where the sales person explained to me that the message means I have 3 tries to get the code right, not 3 more tries to use the phone before it goes dead. If you fail after 3 tries, there is another code to revive your ability to try entering the code again.

When we moved into our apartment, the landlord provided a landline from Free.com, a French company. Free.com provides Internet, TV, and phone service for one low price, and part of the plan selected by the landlord was unlimited free calling to the US – again that’s an IP phone call. The Internet service is reliable and of comparable speed to what we had in the US – much better than at the hotel. The TV is not so good – it’s hard to connect without rebooting all the devices. We don’t use the land line much because we have so many other ways to call.

IP phone calls are generally great – the audio is as if the person you are speaking with was in the room with you – better than the regular phone. IP phone calls also drop the line unexpectedly so you can plan on occasionally having to reconnect with the other person during phone calls. The last thing is that the French phone carriers are on to all this money they are losing with international IP phone calls, so recently the French Government filed charges against Skype for not being a telephone operator in France. This could throw a monkey wrench into all the IP calling so you need to remain aware of it.

April Fool’s Day

April Poissons

April Poissons on the door of a local chocolate shop in the Marais

Credit to Wikipedia for the information in this post about April Fool’s Day in Paris. In France as in Belgium and Italy, children and adults traditionally tack paper fishes on each other’s back as a trick and shout “April fish!” (in French. “poisson d’avril!”). Such fish feature prominently on many late 19th to early 20th century French April Fools’ Day postcards. Try this on your boss next April first to see if he/she has a sense of humor.

Some Comments about the French Economy

We are here struggling to learn the language and understand French on the TV. We have no close contacts who keep us in tune with the pulse of the French economy. Everything seems OK to us living inside this bubble of foreignness. The French people have personally been wonderful to us. Still we are aware that the economy is struggling. This editorial in the Wall Street Journal by Romain Hatchuel, a French citizen working for a New York asset management firm, pushes hard on some of the economic anomalies confronting the French government. Among them:

  • unemployment at 10.6%, a 13 year high
  • public debt at 90% of economic output
  • failure to meet current year deficit reduction targets
  • government expenditures are 56% of GDP, more than 15% higher than in the US
  • consumer spending, the main economic driver, fell last year and continues to fall for the first time since 1984.
  • real compensation for public employees has grown the most of any euro zone country since 2009

The article notes that the electorate hoped that a coalition backing the Socialist candidate would have more success negotiating economic concessions than the center right administration of Nicolas Sarkozy. So far they have raised taxes on the wealthy and… not much else. Sounds a bit like the political impasse in the US, except without the strength of the US economic recovery. Last night President François Hollande was on national television asking that austerity programs be put on hold and promising not to raise taxes. As in the US, politics drives politicians to support programs that seem contrary to good economic principles. From our perspective, we are wishing for the French (and for the US) a speedy economic recovery.

Romain Hatchuel: Whats French for Economic Nonsense? – WSJ.com.