Tragedy in Paris: A Parent’s View

JE SUIS CHARLIE

Roberto Machado Noa via Getty Images

Like parents around the world last week, my husband and I found ourselves trying to explain the inexplicable to our children. The fact that we live in Paris made it all the harder.

“Why would those men kill innocent people?” they asked. “Do the men who did this think they’re bad guys, or do they think they’re good?” “Were those journalists right to make those cartoons?” And perhaps toughest of all, “Is it all over now? And, “Are we safe?”

Mostly, I found no easy answers.

Read the rest of the article here, on The Huffington Post.

My Son is “In Love” (I Blame Paris…)

The first signs came when I spotted my eight-year-old, comb in hand, staring at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He raked his hair slowly across his forehead, leaned in and smiled. I tried to duck before he spotted me. Too late.

“What’s up there, buddy?”

A shy grin in my direction. “Mommy, do you think I could borrow a little gel? You know, for my hair?”

I tried to act casual, not wanting to embarrass him in his first show of interest in his appearance. This is a kid who would happily wear the same T-shirt everyday, shuns jeans in favor of pull-on sweats or anything “comfortable.” He loves dragons, Legos, Nerf guns, Superheroes — the usual. A boy’s boy. And did I mention he’s eight?

“Sure, honey. Here you go.” I squirted a curl of gel into his palm and offered to help apply it. “But just on the front, ok?” Another shy grin.

Although I was surprised, I suspected I knew the reason behind this new found interest in his appearance.

He had a crush, big time.

IMG_2630

He’d been talking a lot about a certain girl, the daughter of friends and the only other American in his class. Weeks earlier, he had been deeply disturbed (or so it seemed at the time) by other kids teasing that he and M. were “amoureux.”

Now, it appeared, things had changed. He was ready to declare the true nature of his feelings.

He pulled a folded paper from his pocket and opened it slowly. It bore a series of hearts — nestled one inside the other. Their two names were written in swirling script with a few flowers and more hearts. It was the cutest thing I’d ever seen.

“Moira and I are amoreux,” he said, without a hint of irony and only a touch of shyness. He didn’t just like her or have a crush (terms that would have felt familiar from my own pre-tween days.) This was “love,” pure and simple. He would present her with his handmade declaration that day and see if she felt the same…

As it turned out — and to my great relief — she did. In the weeks since, they have exchanged sweet notes and little tokens of affection that he keeps in a special box by his bed. Mostly, they laugh and chase each other around like the two innocent kids they are. My son has started asking about “what girls like?” (good breath, nice manners, show genuine interest in her) and how he should act if another boy tries to “steal her away.” (play it cool, girls respond to confidence…)

And so my boy is “in love.” And for this, I blame France. Because to be “in love” in France is to experience life at its very fullest. Amour (and its various material incarnations) is everywhere in Paris: In the boxes of chocolate sold on every block, the ubiquitous florists peddling romantic bouquets wrapped specially “pour offrir,” the public embraces in every imaginable spot, the “locks of love” that decorate its bridges.

Paris is synonymous with the idea of love. And that, of course, is why we love Paris.

And so it seems that eight-year-olds are not immune. My son has fallen under the city’s romantic spell. Sooner than I might have thought? Absolutely. But at any age, is there anything better?

The lovebirds.

The lovebirds.

Busted by the Paris Poop Police

Picture this. It’s early morning in the 7th arrondissement. A light rain has fallen on the grass, mist hovers around the trees. It’s quiet. I hear only birdsong and the buzz of a distant scooter. The street is empty except for me and Rocky, the one-year-old Jack Russell we adopted a few months ago. Why are we out at this ungodly hour? Rocky has to go.

As we stroll, Rocky sniffs, searching for that perfect spot to christen. He finds it and starts circling, a sure sign he’s about to “faire quelque chose” (as they say here in Paris). He does his business, I scoop, bag and toss it. We continue. Soon, Rocky signals that the urge is upon him again. He goes a second time.

The crime scene.

The crime scene.

No sooner has Rocky relieved himself than I realize that it’s not — how shall I say this? — firm. This time, it’s a runny mess, clearly not something I can scoop up. I feel guilty leaving it but what can I do?

Yes, I suppose I could scrape it off the damp ground but doesn’t that seem just a little…excessive? He’s gone by a tree after all, a safe distance from the sidewalk where a shoe would be likely to encounter it. Plus it’s guaranteed to be washed away by the next Spring shower which, by the look of the sky, is coming any minute. And hey, this is Paris! The city’s famous for the dog poop on its streets. Real Parisians don’t pick up poop! I’m reminded of a neighbor who theatrically pretends to pick up her doggy’s doodies (without ever touching a thing); she even fakes plopping the package in a nearby poubelle. I, on the other hand, am a habitual poop picker-upper. Surely I’m entitled to one tiny lapse. And who’s watching, anyway? Sufficiently reassured, Rocky and I move on, his business behind us, home now firmly in our sights.

Then, out of nowhere, a small, unmarked car pulls up. A bespectacled man steps out. His bushy mustache hides his upper lip, his thinning hair is raked across his scalp. He’s wearing plain clothes — a light rain jacket, jeans, the usual. Nothing remarkable or sinister about him. Then he whips out a pad and pen and starts scribbling.

“Bonjour Madame,” he says, peering at me over the top of his glasses. “I ‘zee you did not clean up after your dog.”

“Um, pardon?”

“Your dog a fait quelque chose and you did not clean it up. In Paris, you must clean up les crottes no matter where he goes, even if it is near a tree.”

cluzo

What’s going on here? Is he a concerned neighbor? A park maintenance guy? A gendarme? Then, as I watch him write what appears to be an official ticket, it dawns on me: It’s the Paris Poop Police, often rumored to exist but never before encountered by anyone I actually know. My throat goes dry, my heart beats faster. (I’d make a lousy criminal.) But then I remember: This is France! Rules are meant to be broken. You can always get your way if you just fight back, flirt, tell a story — anything! — just don’t give in and never show weakness.

Bien sur, Monsieur,” I say.But you see, the poop was much too, too…(what’s the word, what’s the word?)…soft to pick up. I assure you I toujours clean up after my dog. Toujours!”

Ah, bon?” He eyes me with suspicion. “Then you must show me zee bag you have to clean up.”

The bag, Paige, the bag. Show him your dog poop bag! But I already used the bag on the first poop. Surely, I brought a second. I dig inside one pocket, then the other. Nothing. “But sir, I already used my bag. He went twice! And I usually carry a spare but I changed coats at the last minute when I saw it was raining and my spare dog poop bags are in my other coat and I always carry them and did you know I even adopted this dog who had been found wandering the streets alone and I’ve given him a home and I make a real effort to take good care of him and I even pick up trash in the neighborhood and–”

He’s still writing. He pushes his glasses up on his nose and asks for my name and address. He’s really going to give me a ticket! For 35 euros. That’s like 50 bucks! For dog poop. Keep fighting, Paige! You can do it. I try to give myself a pep talk but feel my resolve (and language skills) beginning to wobble.

All else has failed. And so — to both our surprise — I start to cry, realizing suddenly that I am no longer a 20-something ingenue who can talk (never mind flirt) her way out of a ticket. No, I am a just-rolled-out-of-bed, under-caffeinated, 40-something mom in baggy sweat pants and no makeup. I am not, at this moment, going to charm anyone, least of all a man who is paid for his ability to sniff out dog poop violators in the streets of Paris.

Sigh.

What are you doing, you idiot?! You’re crying over a dog poop ticket? I quickly gather myself and hold my head high.

“This is an injustice, Monsieur! There are people in this quartier who have never picked up a single crotte! I care for this dog and this city. You have made a grave mistake today!” I grab my ticket and stride away, determined to salvage what’s left of my pride.

When we get home, I look down at Rocky whose innocent expression seems to say both, “Who, me?” and “Sorry, Mom.”

The suspect.

The suspect.

The proof. (Yes, this really happened.)

The proof. (Yes, this really happened.)

In the end, the Paris poop police may have had a point. From now on, I’ll be sure to carry not just one doggy bag but two.

The warning for would-be law breakers.

The warning for would-be law breakers.

Living a Dream: Our Search for an Old Stone House in the French Countryside

Bonjour! Thought I’d share my latest post for HipParis. Follow ParisDejaVu to see what happens next in our adventure to find the perfect country house…


 

Living A Dream: Our Search For An Old Stone House In the French Countryside

Buying a House in Burgundy, HiP Paris Blog, Photo by Paige Frost 3It started on a whim. We were vacationing in the South of France near the idyllic medieval town of Roquebrun, about an hour’s drive from Montpellier.  Its sun-baked stone facades are built up into a cascading hillside; a smattering of cafes and merchants dot its central tree-lined street. At the foot of the village, the Orb River meanders through the densely green valley, inviting swimmers, fishermen and kayakers to partake. It’s a hidden gem in the Herault region of Languedoc-Roussillon, affectionately known to locals as Le Petit Nice.

Buying a House in Burgundy, HiP Paris Blog, Photo by Nebojsa Mladjenovic

Nebojsa Mladjenovic

Glancing up the hillside at Rocquebrun’s ancient buildings — from my perch on a sunny cafe terrace — it was impossible to miss the sign hanging on a nearby iron balcony: A Vendre. The house faced the river offering what appeared to be an unbroken view of its lazy waters, arched stone bridge and the rugged valley beyond. It looked too good to be true. I had to see inside. Nebojsa Mladjenovic

Buying a House in Burgundy, HiP Paris Blog, Photo by Andree & Edward

Andree & Edward

One phone call and two hours later, my family and I were standing on that balcony, gazing at the sun-dappled Orb River and those dramatic hills that carry on to the Mediterranean. The house was small; just two bedrooms, a living room and tidy corner kitchen packed into three tight stories. There was no garden, no place for an outdoor table. Still, I was falling hard. Andree & Edward

The house had been lovingly renovated by an Irish family who’d spent their summers there. Their kids were grown now; they were ready to sell. It was such a happy, cheerful home. In its sunny yellow walls and crisp interior, you could almost hear the laughter that had filled it each season. I looked at my husband and through a barely suppressed giggle, mouthed the words we were both thinking. “Coup de coeur,” as the French say, that handy phrase employed to justify all manner of passionate — perhaps unreasoned — choices.

Buying a House in Burgundy, HiP Paris Blog, Photo by Paige Frost 4And yet few impulse-driven whims make for good life decisions. We’re an American family in Paris on a five-year contract! Roquebrun was a good seven hours away and virtually shuts down for nine months of the year. As much as we loved it — enough to begin crunching numbers and mulling a possible offer — buying a house in the South was, perhaps, not the most logical of choices. And so we walked away from Roquebrun, tanned and happy, our sunny memories intact, and returned to Paris with a new mission: to find a country house with a more reasonable, if no less enchanting, set of attributes….

Read the rest of the story here on the HipParis blog.

Paris Blooms on rue Cler

Despite a rainy week in Paris, the city is in bloom. And since no one can resist a peonie, I thought I’d share a few shots that capture the Spring-like mood here, rain or shine. These were snapped on rue Cler, a pedestrian market street frequented by expats, visitors and locals in the 7th arrondissement not far from the Eiffel Tower. Go on a Sunday morning, grab a seat at one of the many cafes and watch the world go by…

Bon dimanche!

How to Avoid a Bad Meal in Paris

It’s easy to find a great meal in Paris. It’s also easy to eat a bad one. Surprised? So was I. But after one too many soggy croque monsieurs and stomach turning plates of confit de canard (a personal favorite when it’s done right), I started to get suspicious. What was going on in those well-hidden kitchens? Was French cuisine not all I had imagined it to be?

                                                                       What’s going on back in the kitchen?
                                                           
You see, I’d long nursed a fantasy about French food. The ingredients were always fresh and seasonal, the chefs well-trained and meticulous in their methods. Alas, non. There’s a dirty little secret hiding in many Paris cuisines: the food often isn’t prepared fresh by a trained chef at all. It can be pre-made en masse then frozen and delivered in bags to restaurants and cafes all over the city. That tough-as-cardboard blanquette de veau? Most likely defrosted and slid onto your plate. How about that dry pave de saumon au beurre blanc? Boiled in a bag, I can almost guarantee it. Concerns about restaurant quality have even sparked a movement to publicly identify restaurants where meals are indeed prepared on site. But until that leads to a foodie revolution (or at least some helpful signs in restaurant windows), here are a few tips to help you avoid a bad meal in Paris.

                                                                  Keeping it simple: scrambled eggs & salad.

Check the menu. A restaurant’s menu offers your best clue whether your meal was cooked by an actual live chef. If it’s long (like multiple laminated pages) and looks like it’s been around since the Mitterrand era, be wary. If it looks like the same menu you saw at the cafe down the street, it probably is (and that supreme de volaille has been supplied by the very same mass vendor.) Yuck.

                                                                             Crispy confit, done just right.  
 
English spoken here. Or German. Or Dutch. You get the idea. Any resto that offers pre-printed menus in multiple languages is to be viewed with suspicion. Ditto, international flags out front (or on the menu or stickered on the windows). Worse yet, a friendly “greeter” who stands outside and invites you in to dine. You know this, right? Of course you do. But still, it bears repeating. These places can be tempting after a day of sightseeing. (Oh, he seems so friendly! And he’s smiling!) But just don’t do it. These restaurants may look “charming” or even seem authentically French. They’re not. They’re just tourist traps and the food will be awful. Trust me, you can do better.

Service continue. This is a tough one. Visitors are often surprised (and deeply frustrated) by the limited dining hours in French restaurants. Lunch is usually served from 12 noon until about three o’clock at the latest. After that, there can be precious little to be found (if you’re looking for a real meal) until restaurants begin dinner service at 7:30pm. Hence, the popularity of the boulangerie sandwich or sidewalk crepe. Increasingly, however, you will find restaurants that offer “service continue.” Unfortunately, the food is often lacking. The reasons are obvious. If there’s a trained chef working the kitchen, he or she needs a break after lunch to eat, rest and prepare for dinner. If it just needs to be thawed and plated, why anyone can do that! Opt for a crepe to tide you over and eat like the locals do at 8:30 or 9 o’clock.

                                                Salad with foie gras and artichoke hearts. Yum.

Look for a chalkboard. A chalkboard menu says two things: 1) The menu changes often and seasonally, reflecting what was fresh at the market that day, and 2) Someone took the time to develop the offerings and will likely present them to you with care. Now, not all chalkboard menus are created equal. I’m not talking here about the enormous printed chalkboards you find tented on sidewalks outside cafes. I’m referring to the little ones (that are often barely legible) propped up on your table by a server who knows their stuff. Brevity is your friend here. I always trust a menu with just a few items. Maybe three entree, plat and dessert selections each. The longer the menu, the more suspicious I get. A chalkboard menu won’t guarantee you a great meal, but it does increase your chances.

Famous sights and excellent food don’t mix. If there’s one thing you should almost never, ever do, it’s eat in a restaurant adjacent to a world-famous monument. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule (Le Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower being the most obvious) but generally speaking, it’s a bad idea. Seek out your dining experiences in the lesser known parts of the city. Young, exciting chefs in Paris are opening restaurants away from the sky-high rents in the most visited areas. Get off the beaten path and try a little neighborhood gem. And if you must eat as you gaze at Notre Dame Cathedral, opt for dessert. After all, even mediocre mousse au chocolat is still pretty delicious.

                                                       Fondant au chocolat…with warm, oozing center. Divine!

My "Best Of" Paris: Ten Fab French Bistros

I recently asked Greg what he loves most about living in Paris. “The food,” he replied, without hesitation. No big surprise there. Because he also lived here as a child, he’s especially fond of places that recall the Paris of his youth — aging bistros, the ancient cobbler’s shop with a wall of French celeb photos from the 70’s, the knife sharpener who still plies his trade from an old cart he wheels through the streets. (He rings a bell to bring neighbors out bearing their dull knives).

Most of our favorite Paris bistros have also been around for a while. (Or at least feel like they have.) These are frequented more by locals than Michelin star-seekers (of course we love those, too), and won’t let you down next time you’re seeking classic French food in Paris. So, in no particular order, here goes…

Le Taxi Jaune, 3ème: When Greg and I lived in the Marais, Le Taxi Jaune was our neighborhood go-to. With its vintage bar and cracked tile floors, it still feels slightly under the radar despite its location in the ever popular 3ème. The food is authentic French with a twist that keeps it fresh; the vibe is Paris bourgeois-boheme. Reserve ahead. 

La Laiterie Saint Clotilde, 7ème: This is our new neighborhood favorite (new to us, that is). Run by a mother and son duo, the menu is happily limited and everything is delicious. At a recent dinner with friends, I had a memorable curried veg soup and way-better-than-average magret de canard. (Can you tell I like duck?) Greg devoured his meal so fast, I didn‘t even get to sample it. Always a good sign. 
 
Au Pied de Fouet, 7ème: The perfect neighborhood spot for lunch where the welcome is convivial (the owner treats everyone like his personal guest) and the food has a home-cooked appeal. It’s not refined cuisine but a great, budget-friendly choice between visits to bigger name restos. The confit de canard is solid and there’s usually a nice fresh fish option. Take your post-meal coffee (or digestif) at the bar and enjoy the bustle of this lively spot. Sitting cheek to jowl with neighboring diners keeps things toasty. Go for fun, not romance. 

Le Casse Noix (15ème): When a foodie friend came to town for a night, he delivered strict instructions for our meal: “Think great food and he’s paying.”(I replied that this is always how I think…😉. After remembering it was fashion week and discovering all the “it” tables were impossible (Le Frenchie, Septime, Chateaubriand), we decided on Le Casse Noix for a meal that put food way ahead of fashion. Greg swears it’s the best boudin noir he’s ever had (On principle alone, I can’t eat the stuff but my fresh cèpes in butter thing-y was to die). Fans of the creamy, whipped egg white dessert, ile flottante, will also be rewarded. A good choice for lunch if you’re visiting the Eiffel Tower. Book ahead.

L’Ourcine (13ème): You can read my full review of this terrific bistro on the HiP Paris blog. It’s off the beaten path in the 13eme and well worth the trip for a fab meal and to wander the village-like streets of les Buttes aux Cailles neighborhood.

Cafe des Musees (3ème): Always well-reviewed and popular for its reliably good food and great Marais location. I love this one for an unhurried lunch when visiting the boutiques and museums in the neighborhood. It’s open daily and filled with locals and a smattering of visitors. Fun and yummy, a good combination.

Le Chemise (11ème): I loved this bistro because it brings together two favorite things: updated classic French cooking in a sleekly designed but cozy space. The service was attentive and cool crowd was what you’d expect for the location between Oberkampf and Republique. Helmed by a young chef who trained at La Tour d’Argent, this is a fun find that’s on my “must return” list. (And yes, it’s Le Chemise, not “La…”, my French grammarian friends.)

Josephine “Chez Dumonet” (6ème): A favorite haunt of French icon Gerard Depardieu, this classic Parisian bistro offers superb service and an excellent meal in a timelessly lovely, art-nouveau setting. I went recently to celebrate a friend’s birthday and we were treated to complimentary glasses of wine and a gateau (to share) large enough for a group twice our size. We ate like queens (and were treated like them, too). All this loveliness comes at a price so plan to splurge. Located on one of my favorite Left Bank shopping streets, rue Cherche-Midi. 

Le Bistro Paul Bert (11ème): Everyone knows that the Paris food scene is focused in the 11ème. Drawn by affordable rents, a central location and hip vibe, young chefs are opening new restos here seemingly daily. Bistro Paul Bert isn’t new (the new Le 6 Paul Bert is just down the street) but it’s truly a classic (and not in a stuffy, un-fun way). We had a late dinner there recently and were pleased to find it bustling with a cool clientele of all ages. The food was delicious and the service attentive but unhurried. Go, you’ll be happy you did.

Le Comptoir du Relais (6ème): And last but not least, my still-reigning favorite. The beloved outpost of star chef Yves Camdeborde has never failed me. We go (early) for dinner with the kids, bring visiting friends, and enjoy lunches a deux. The key is to go right as they open (12 noon for lunch or before 7pm for dinner) to avoid the inevitable queue out front. The people watching and the food are both consistently superb. 

As I wrap up this list, I realize I could go on and on. Any favorites you’d care to share? Stay tuned for more recommendations to come. A bientot!