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Barking up the wrong tree, or one of the pitfalls of urban living

2 Mar

A man and his dog in the Marais Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerEvery day, several times a day, I have to endure the sound of an Alsatian/German Sheppard and her owner going down the tiny, twisting communal stairs in my apartment building.

My apartment wraps around the stairwell so there is no escaping the sounds. Their tortured journey starts somewhere high above in the roof space. Scratch, scratch, draaag, scratch—the dog’s claws struggle to get a grip on the wood treads. Scraaaape, scrape, scraape—the dog is dragged towards the next flight of stairs around each tight landing. Yu yu yuuuu, woof, woof—the dog’s protest moans and whines get louder and harder and more painful to listen to as they descend the stairs. The dog continues her excruciating chorus, around each landing, down each flight, below me through the passage way and out on to the street.

It is very distressing to hear such an unhappy dog every day. I have often been driven to the point of having my hand on the door handle ready to fling it open to shout at the dog’s owner, “What are you doing to this poor dog? Why do you have such a large dog in such a small space?  How can you be so cruel? Make the scraping and the whining stop NOW!” But I never have.

Neighbourhood gossip is that the dog’s depressed owner jumped from the building a several years ago, but was—thankfully—saved by landing on the roof of a parked car below (It seems my building encourages downward flight). By the routine they keep, I know he must either work from home or not work at all. When the dog’s moans get to me I think about how it must be very tough for the owner to be in the house all day. Does the man feel lonely and isolated? Does the dog help him get over his depression? Is there anything I can do to help? In a city, misery can be hidden on the other side of a wall, only a few feet or even inches away.

The other day I happened to be building entryway when I heard the familiar whine and scratching. My heart jumped a little at the thought of seeing the owner face-to-face and witnessing their tumultuous decent. Could I stay quiet if I saw the dog in obvious distress? What would I say? What if the owner became aggressive? What if the dog became aggressive? Would I be able to phrase my intervention in a way that showed I understood that he might be hurting too? Did I want to get involved? Would he understand English?

I started up the stairs and coming to the first landing I spotted the dog, unleashed, running down the flight above, trying not to slip—scratch, scratch, draag, scratch. Where was the owner? I’d always imagined the owner pulling the reluctant animal down the stairs. The dog got to the landing, its tail wagging, and hopped in a little circle—scraaape, scrape, scrape—and then—yu yu yuuuu, “hurry up man”, woof woof, “I can’t wait to get outside”— another circle with more furious tail wagging. After several moments, at the instant the owner appeared at the bend in the flight above, the dog excitedly bolted from the landing past me and down— scratch, scratch, draag, scatch—towards the entry way. Yu yu yuuuuu, “come on, come on, let’s get outside.”

The owner passed me and gave me big smile. “Bonjour!” he said cheerfully and with a wink!

Oh dear, it looks like me and my imagination are the ones who need to get out more; we’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

What not to wear to the Conciergerie

13 Jan

Fifi and los vaqueros Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerI had mixed feelings about visiting the Conciergerie and what to wear had nothing to do with it. The imposing, turreted building on the Ile de la Cite near Notre Dame was originally built as a royal palace.  At the end of the 14th century, the king moved out and it became the Palace of Justice and a prison.  In the 1790s, so-called “enemies of the revolution” were incarcerated here before they went in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal for judgement and—for nearly 2600 of them in just 13 months— to the guillotine.

I knew it would be an excellent place to start to understand some of the terrors of the French Revolution and the legend that surrounds the Conciergerie’s most famous prisoner, cake-loving Marie Antoinette. However, based on my experiences of other sites of crimes against humanity, I was prepared for a distressing visit.

I was not prepared for modern art. The ancient and cavernous Hall of Men at Arms at the start of the visit was filled with paintings, sculptures and installations that appeared to have nothing to do with the palace or the revolution. I had been warned about the use of creepy mannequins in the cell reconstructions, but I was faced with a white plaster man on all fours who carried an 8-foot whale on his back, a bronze of a female dog with 6 silicon-enhanced human-like breasts, and a floor-to-ceiling fabric vessel full of live flies.

I needed some answers. The turgid brochure gave me this:

Bêtes off – Who are these other beings that inhabit the world along with us? What does their silence mean? What do they perceive when they look at us or beyond us? The animal question is gaining ground in contemporary thinking, and is also a theme which stimulates artists.”

It took me a few minutes to shift gears. I looked at some of the other pieces in the exhibition. There was a taxidermy deer with its neck buckled under the weight of its more than 30 points and 6 feet of antlers.  There was the skin of a unicorn on the wall. Through the slats of La sale des Trophies one saw wooden but clearly distressed horned animals and mounted heads.

Skin by Dimitri Tsykalov Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerOne piece did make me smile.  As I looked at it, I netted the most recent in my large collection of chatty Parisian museum guards.

After the ubiquitous pleasantries, he gestured towards the piece, “It is very interesting, no?”

“Yes. This one is one of the few that makes me smile.”

We both considered the clever, wooden representation of a bear skin rug on the wall. I’ve always had this thing for brown bears. The piece reminded me of the soft toy versions of bear skin rugs I’d seen for children’s rooms and my faithful ted, Bill Thomas, who I rescued last year from a box in my parent’s attic.

“I mean some of these pieces are pretty heavy,” I continued. “At least this one is a bit light-hearted .”

The previously talkative guard did not say anything and continued to look at the piece. I filled the slightly uncomfortable silence.

“I mean this one feels better.”

The guard turned and looked at my face. Then he looked at what I was wearing. I was hit by painful spasm of self-awareness. I was standing in an exhibition about animal rights and celebrating a dead bear while wearing a sable coat.  Oh god. I clutched my arms self-consciously around me and my fur.

“It’s vintage,” I wanted tell him. “These animals died a long time ago.”

He just looked at me.

“It’s not my fault!” I wanted to yell.

My face burned. I put my eyes back on the bear. I noticed something else. Some of the wooden crates that made the piece had writing on them.  “WINCHESTER” one said in red capital letters.  “AK-47” was stamped across the bear’s right shoulder. OH GOD, this “light-hearted” bear was constructed with gun boxes.

I had to get out of there. I started to try to make my way to the door and to the rest of the museum, but thanks to the layout of this “wild space [where] the visiting public will experience some strange encounters”, I ran into a dead tree whose branches were full of snakes hanging limp from their necks.  I looked down at my snake-skin cowboy boots.

“They said they were ethically sourced,” said a pleading voice inside my head.

Alright, maybe one might argue that the Reign of Terror has a connection with the way we treat animals. Was that what the curators were trying to say with this exhibition here at the Conciergerie or was it just a display space?  Either way, I had to get out of there. Bring on the prison and Marie Antoinette.  

As I anticipated, the tour of the prison cells and video presentation were difficult and thought-provoking. An examination of how the ideals of a revolution can be so perverted in practice has a lot of current relevance.

The last stop on the tour was a reconstruction of Marie Antoinette’s cell.  I looked at the slightly distracting mannequin that was supposed to represent the much maligned queen. I wondered what she might have thought about in those days before she was killed.

She was, of course, most famous for responding to the news that the poor did not have enough bread to eat with, “Let them eat cake.” I wondered what she regretted. I wondered if she ever wished she’d been a bit more observant or thoughtful before she opened her mouth. I know I sure wish I had been.

Christmas dinner in Paris – The buck stops for the duck

6 Jan

Confit de Canard, the buck stops for the duck at G.Detou Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerVoulez-vous ceci . . . ,” the woman to the side of the counter put her hand in her armpit and waved her elbow around like she was trying to fly.

 “. . .ou cela?” She balanced on one leg and shook the other.

People in the long queue behind me were enjoying the show.

“We don’t need to speak French to provide good service,” she said—or probably something like it—and took a little bow.

I shook my leg and held up 5 fingers, “Pour cinq personnes, s’il vous plait.”

More giggles from the crowd.

My parents and I were at G. Detou (58, rue Tiquetonne), stop number two on a culinary walking tour of Paris drawn up by a good foodie friend. The store’s name is a pun, according to Paris food author and writer Clotilde Dusoulier. “G. Detou” sounds like “J’ai de tout“, meaning “I have everything” and I believe it.

Friendly service at G.Detou Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThe store is divided into two parts. One was packed to the rafters with weird and wonderful foodstuff and ingredients from all over France. Some of it I recognised: chocolate, mustards, teas, large bags of fresh nuts, fruit in jars, and sardines. Much I did not know existed or how  it might be used: flavoured essences, metallic edible balls, flower petals, a multitude of different sugars and honeys. Fresh food like meat and fish were in the second section located in the store front next door.  

After 15 minutes in the queue, I was finally in front of the counter and, with the help of a few charades, had just ordered the main event of our Christmas dinner: Confit de Canard.

My first exposure to Duck Confit was at my landlady’s house in May. She graciously offered to loan me a scarf for a wedding and make me dinner.

“I think the first one is the best: the white one with the small flowers,” she said.  I looked at the 6 scarves laid across the bed.

“Which one?” I asked.

Sardines at G.Detou Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger“The one with the tiny flowers . . . ,” she said and picked up one of the scarves. “This one.” She handed it to me. It was white, but the blue flowers on the scarf were the size of volleyballs. My landlady functioned so well I often forgot she was almost totally blind.

Misidentifying the scarf was no big deal but I was very concerned about dinner.  Before we went to her room to choose a scarf, she arranged white, frozen duck legs in a pan and said they would only take 10-15 minutes to heat through in the oven. Frozen to cooked in 10-15 minutes? Had she taken the wrong pan out of the fridge and not noticed? Clutching the large patterned scarf to my chest, I was anxious about how to politely handle a situation where we all cut into raw, cold duck legs.

However, they weren’t raw and were steaming hot.  The duck legs hadn’t been frozen at all. The white film I saw as she arranged the legs in the pan was duck fat, not ice crystals. To make Duck Confit, duck legs are salt cured and then slow cooked. To preserve the legs, they are submerged in duck fat and stored in a can/tin. The fat, solid at room temperature, clings to the skin, and melts while the legs heat.

Ahh, my first duck confit—the tender, tender meat and the rich, salty, plumy taste—where had it been all of my life?

Despite my description of heaven, I had a bit of convincing to do when I suggested duck confit to my husband a few months ago. 

“Meat from a tin?” he asked.

It did feel so wrong to venture into a foodWindow at G. Detou Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger area also populated by Spam, corned beef and Vienna sausages, but I had tasted the truth. I knew I needed to be brave and bought a tin of Confit de Canard from Monoprix, an upmarket supermarket. I reasoned that if I paid mre for it, it would have to be good.

I put the tin in a bath of warm water to melt the fat.  I removed the legs and put them skin side down in frying pan. I threw in some sliced potatoes to let them cook in the duck fat.  When the skin was crispy, I served the legs with the fried potatoes and green beans. After one bite, my husband declared with a big smile, “This is Christmas dinner.”

And so it was, and mighty tasty, too! 

I would like to say a special thank you to my parents and  friend who helped make Christmas dinner such a treat.

Mom, Dad and the shop that has everything Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

Pooped in Paris

2 Dec

Pooped in Paris Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger

I’ve not been here around lately. Some of you may have even noticed.

I’ve been feeling a bit like my friend in the picture up there. I‘ve been feeling pooped in Paris.

This city is wonderfully inspiring. It allows many people to reinvent themselves and do things they did not feel able to do before they arrived. I am part of this group and I am a different person for living here.

However, in the excitement of my Parisian life I forgot for a moment that I am still me and that my body is still mine.

Some of you know this, but a little over 10 years ago I started to feel terrible.  I eventually had to quit my job and most normal activities, and was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  I worked very hard at getting better and 4 years ago this week I was able to resume work and two years ago to start to coach soccer/football. 

Coming to Paris has been a treat for me. I feel like it is a little reward for the several years I was in bed. I know it’s cliché but we only live once and I understand that what you have today can be taken away tomorrow. I want to make the most of my luck and opportunities.

I have done that. However, I have to understand that upon entry to the magical island that is Paris, no one is handed a “Super-suit” that makes them impervious to fatigue and illness. I have to understand that, like the several years before coming here, I will have days–and sometimes weeks–where I have to lie low for a while. I have to remember that getting upset about the fact that I am not feeling my best doesn’t do any good. I have to understand that if I take care of myself, I will have good and great days again.

I have a lot of fun writing these posts. If I am absent for a little while it is because I am taking care of myself so I can share more of my Parisian adventures. I am looking forward to it!

Louis’s queue – A chance to see the Louis Vuitton workshops

18 Oct

Louis Vuitton Workshops Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThis weekend I got yet another reminder of the accidental Parisienne I am. On Thursday a good friend tipped me off on a wonderful only-in-Paris-and-free-can-you-believe-it event. The Dior, Givenchy, Kenzo, Guerlain, Louis Vuitton workshops and haute couture salons all opened their doors to the public for two days over the weekend.  These tours promised rare behind-the-scenes access to these iconic fashion houses and their historic locations. Even if I had the money I would probably never own a Louis Vuitton handbag or a Dior dress (well, maybe a Dior dress).  However, the lure of seeing how these works of art are made seemed irresistible.

So on Saturday midmorning, off we went to the suburbs where the LV workshops are located. We felt pretty proud of ourselves for actually leaving the city and buying a metro card that took us out of Zone 1.  It felt adventurous that the location of the workshops was off my Paris Moleskin map and that I had to draw a little map to get us there.  We had a vague idea that we wouldn’t be the only ones to find this opportunity interesting, but figured this site was out-of-town and was less likely to be as popular as some of the other sites involved in the open day.

Oh dear, I hear you saying. Yes, the innocence of those not in the know.  The worst part is that I had enough evidence to point to the inevitable conclusion.  I had seen the daily, yes, daily queue of the legions of LV fans outside of the store on the Champs Elysees.  I had seen the 41,604+ likes on the open day Louis's queue Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerFacebook page.  I read clearly (well, with the help of about 3 translation programmes) that all the free tickets for accessing the workshop had been taken. The website also said something like, “come along anyway, you might get lucky and get in”, or I think that’s what it said.  And that’s what I chose to see. You can’t say I’m not an optomist.

I was in denial even when the security guard around the block from the entrance said the wait would be 3 hours. It was a beautiful, sunny autumn day and I’d learned that sometimes when they say 3 hours they didn’t really mean it.  In this case he didn’t mean it, after about an hour waiting we heard that it would be another 4 hours, if we were lucky.

The bad news - Louis Vuitton Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerNeedless to say we left Louis’s long queue when we heard this announcement.  However, the other hopefuls, the true fans, were undeterred by this news.  This group of diehards were interestingly mostly French and looked, well, kind of boring.  They were not fashion-types  in all-black. Nor were they LV fetishists, decked head-to-toe in the label and anxious to show anyone and everyone the famous interlocking LV they had tattooed across their butts. No, our fellow queuers were a group of nondescript, casually dressed people of mixed ages.

The closest our fellow queuers got to fanatic was the man who brought out a “look book” of all of LV bags he owned to share with the security guard. He leafed through the small glossy pages of amateur snaps stopping at the of one or two of his favourites: a yellow leather suitcase, a vintage trunk. I suspect he was trying to convince the guard of his allegiance and a possible promotion in the queue.  It didn’t work.

Maybe the absence of the fashionistas, fetishists and other stereotypical fans was because they had gotten their act together, reserved tickets and thus, walked right past the want-to-be queue. However, if the want-to-bes were all Johnny-come-latelys like us, they would have left with us. And this crowd looked dug in.  A group or two in front of us brought a picnic.  The man behind had his Kindle. Rodin's queue Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerA rare chance to see behind the scenes of such an iconic place must focus minds. Maybe people who love excellent craftmanship and design come in all shapes and sizes. Of course they do, it’s only the ads for the products that suggest a certain lifestyle. I hope they did eventually see the no-doubt fascinating LV atelier.

After deserting, we nipped off to salvage the beautiful day and go to the Rodin Museum. We got there only to find out that Rodin’s queue was long too. Too long. So eventually we had some food in a cafe in the autumn sun and walked home along the Seine – by accident, another only-in-Paris-and-free-can-you-believe-it day.

The fall

11 Oct

Paris Windows Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerSometime between 5.30 and 6 am last Sunday, the doorbell woke me up. My husband was surprisingly already out of bed and went to get it.

I heard talking. I heard the door close and my husband make his way back to the bedroom.

“What’s going on? What did they want?” I was really tired and really wanted to go back to sleep.  “What time is it?”

“There’s been an accident next door and they needed a broom.”

“An accident? A broom? Who needed a broom?”

“He kept saying something in French, then did some rowing movements. I finally figured out he needed a broom.”

“Why did he need a broom? What’s happened? What time is it?”

My husband had a serious look on his face. “Ah … I think someone fell out of a window and into the flat next door. They need to sweep up the broken glass.”

“What?”

“The police and fire brigade are here. I think they’re going to try to lift him out of a window.”

“What?” I got up and looked out the window and saw a fire truck and ambulance.  There were police, fire fighters and ambulance workers running in and out of the building.  It was all strangely quiet – no sirens, no police radios, no running engines, no talking.  There were just people moving up and down our stairs, in and out of our building, doing their jobs, quietly.   If something terrible has happened shouldn’t there be noise?

“A man fell out of a window and into the flat next door? How is that possible?” I demanded. I was still asleep and crabby.

“I don’t know,” my husband said. He was tired and confused himself, “But I think that’s what’s happened.”

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know,” he said. “But, that’s what’s happened.”

“He fell into next door? How could that work? Our building is straight up and down with no balconies. If you fall out of a window, you end up on the ground.  Not in the flat next door.”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Oh, my god. Is there anything we can do?”

“I think stay out their way and let them do their jobs.”

“But I don’t understand what happened,” I said.

My husband shrugged.

Neither of us could go back to sleep. My husband started to clean the kitchen. He had to be busy and I don’t think he knew what else to do.

What the hell was going on? I went to the door and tentatively looked out through the peep-hole. I saw emergency workers move past the door. I grew a bit bolder and opened the door a crack.  A view into the flat next door was reflected in the hall window.  I could see people moving inside the flat and quite close to the door.  Apparently they were working on someone in the middle of the flat.  The middle of the flat?  How did he fall into the middle of the flat so far away from the windows?

Emergency workers passed, met my eyes but did not say anything.  One female police officer kept walking to the door of the flat next door, then back across the hall to the top of the stairs, and then back to the door.  A fellow officer came up and looked at her. “You ok?” he quietly seemed to ask. She shrugged.  He grabbed her hand quickly and gave it a little squeeze. I thought, they must see some awful things. The quietness added to the tension.  I wanted to yell, “What the hell happened here?”

I stopped a police officer in the hall but could only whisper, “What happened?”

“A man fell out of a 4th floor kitchen window to the 2nd floor,” he said quietly and straightforwardly.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Neither do I.”

Then I heard some noise in the flat next door. Then a voice, “What are you doing to me?”

Oh my god, the man who fell was American.

“What are you doing to me?” he said again, confused but loud and clear.

“Monsieur, you are in Paris, Monsieur. You are sick. We need to take you to the hospital,” replied the quiet, calming French female voice.

“I’m not sick. I’m not that sick. What are you doing to me?”

“Monsieur, we have to take you to the hospital,” she replied, again quietly.

“But I don’t want to go to the hospital,”

“Monsieur, do you live alone?”

“Yes, I am alone. I don’t want to go to the hospital. I’m fine,” he said loudly and defiantly.

“We have to take you. We have to take care of you.”

Then he whispered, “I am scared.” All his force had gone.

“I know,” she said softly. “Monsieur, we will take care of you.”

Everything was quiet again.

It’s been a week since the fall and, despite speaking to several neighbours and the concierge who lives in and looks after the building, I don’t know much more about what happened. No one is clear about the story. Some did not even hear anything happening. I even  had a cheeky look into the vacant apartment next door while the builders repaired the broken window.  I know that the man who fell is named John and he is from New York. I know he was only visiting Paris for the weekend but will be in hospital for a long time. 

I also found out that John has friends in Paris who are looking after him. I did not find this out until Wednesday. Until I got this information I kept hearing him say in his clear American accent that he was alone and that he was scared. I also kept finding myself imagining what it would feel like to break through a window – the impact with the glass on my head and back just before the glass gave way, my arm hitting the frame, my head and back landing on the bed of broken pieces and these pieces imbedding into my skin. I kept thinking that the medic spoke English, but what if she hadn’t. I kept thinking about the fact that until Sunday morning, neither I nor my husband knew the emergency number here in France.

I feel better knowing that he is not by himself so far away from home. I still don’t understand what happened, but whatever happened I wish John a speedy recovery.

Paris Fashion Week Critique

3 Oct

Fashionista with Fone Photo By Jennifer Flueckiger

Editors Note:  I, the accidental parisienne, am now back in Paris after a wonderful holiday. Special thanks to my guest contributors Elizabeth and Richard for their great posts!

It’s Paris Fashion Week. The town is even more crowded with beautiful people wanting to see and be seen.  Bars and restaurants are closed for exclusive private functions.  Spaces all over the city have been appropriated for shows – Grand Palais, Jeu de Paume, Musee Rodin, the Ritz, Hotel InterContinental and even the School of Medicine and interestingly, a convent

Enough with the legs 2 Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerHowever, the Tuileries Gardens is the epicentre of the activity and thus, the fashion world. Valentino, Chloe, Lanvin and many others will use the Espace Ephemere Tuileries for their shows. A three block-long temporary structure on the North side of the gardens is the home to accessory dealers hoping for big orders. Leggy models and women carrying notebooks and in high-heels are crawling all over the usually relaxed space.

You can imagine I was really excited to receive my unexpected and exclusive invitation to the Tuileries on Friday. I was invited for lunch and a game of soccer/football with my friend’s 4 year old son and his pals at the playground.  I arrived in my t-shirt, sweats and soccer shoes and we had a grand time playing in the unexpected late September sunshine until it was time for go back to school for the afternoon. 

The mother of one of my little team mates is a buyer for a big department store in Paris and we stopped by the big sales exhibition tent to say hello.  She could not leave the exhibition and we arranged a meeting at an outside fenced area.  Other fashionistas from inside the tent also gathered in the fenced area to take a break, have a cigarette or enjoy the sunshine.

Tidy piles in the Tuileries Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerWhile mother and son talked through the fence, my other team mates were much more interested in the large tidy piles of autumn leaves assembled by ground keepers.  They were having a ball throwing the leaves all around and in the air.  But they were making a huge mess that the long suffering ground keepers would have to clean up.  Earlier in the afternoon, I heard my friend talk her son out of throwing dirt by reasoning with him that if he took the dirt away there would be no place for the flowers to grow.  He seemed to think this made sense and put dirt back.  I thought I’d give this reasoned approach a try.

“Hey guys, a man has spent a really long time raking these leaves together into nice tidy piles.  If you throw the leaves around and make a mess he is going to have to do it all over again.  So don’t you think you should stop throwing leaves?”

The three boys and a girl were up to their necks in fall foliage. They did all stop to listen to what I said.  They did all take a few seconds to seriously consider my suggestion and then simultaneously they did all decide to throw their big, wet arm load of leaves at me. Apparently, this was even more fun than throwing leaves in the air.  Squeals of delight.  Hilarious laughter.  Leaves down my top. Leaves in my socks. Leaves in my hair.  I know I got what I deserved.

“Who thought children were a good idea,” one of the fenced in fashionistas was clearly disturbed by all the commotion. She looked though the fence with a screwed up face and then at me and my friend, and then of course, at what we were wearing.

I heard my friend’s son come up beside me and I saw he had another huge armful of leaves.  I protected my face as I thought these were destined for me but he had other ideas.  He marched right past me with his load and headed towards the fence.

“No, No, No,” we all cried as he got closer to the wire grid.  He looked so determined but then paused and lowered his load of ammunition.  Some of the fashionistas made faces and backed away. 

He drew his pile back up again.“No, No,” we shouted. And again he stopped but kept staring intently at his intended targets.

He is a very cute kid. The smears of apricot compote on his back would not have been visible to the fashionistas and he looked especially cute with his armful of autumn and leaves all over his hair and clothes. Always with an eye for a good visual, several of the fashionistas came closer with their phones. His picture is probably linked from “Cute Parisian boy at Tuileries! Loving #ParisFashionWeek #pfw!” on Twitter. However, this was the moment of weakness for which he was waiting.  His face was sheer determination, his jaw set.

Fashionistas saved by the fence Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger“No,” we yelled. Pow! No restraint this time. Leaves everywhere. There were a few shrieks but the fence saved the Louboutins, fancy designer shoes. No damage done, but the verdict was clear. He’d made his critique of Paris Fashion Week.

The pigeon gets what it deserves

21 Sep

D*mn pigeon Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerGuest Contributor:  American Richard Resnick is CEO of genomic software company GenomeQuest, a TED speaker and a regular business visitor to Paris.  The day before the incident below, one of Paris’s bountiful pigeon population emptied its guts on Richard’s suit and shirt while he was on his way to a meeting.

Work is over for the night, I’m having a couple of beers with my colleague JJ in the suburb of Rueil before heading back to Paris by train. It is about a 15 minute walk to the train station. It is the same walk I do every night, and I must say, I do believe I’m really quite good at it. You know, you put one foot in front of the other, etc., and so on, until you have arrive at your destination.

And indeed, like any other night, I execute this plan successfully, and arrive at the station. I put my ticket through the machine, ascend the stairs, and voila, there is a train, standing right there. No waiting. So, I board, no problem. I turn my headphones on. I close my eyes. And we’re off.

But it’s a slow ride. And, after about 5 minutes, we stop. I decide to open my eyes.

The train is empty.

I didn’t notice that before.

And we’re not in between stations. But we’re not really at a station either. We’re in a train yard. There are trains on either side of me. None is moving.

It’s suddenly becomes clear to me that every train, mine included, is parked for the evening, waiting for the morning rush hour. I’m alone in a stopped train, my French is marginal at best, and after two beers with JJ, I really need to pee.

Shit.

The “RER” as it is known in Paris is a major set of train lines that run the length (or width) of Paris, from end to end, including the adjacent suburbs. It’s a bit nicer than a regular subway train – larger seats, larger cars, etc. And it has these doors that don’t automatically open; instead you have to either push a button – in the new ones – or turn a rusty crank counter-clockwise – in mine.

So I get up, move toward the door, and turn the crank, hoping it will open. It does. And suddenly I’m standing at the ledge of the train, and there is about a six-foot drop to the ground. No looking back, I jump.

The safety of the stopped train thoroughly behind me, I realize I am now walking on tracks with three rails. That third rail is the nasty one, but I really have no choice. I carefully maneuver across three different sets of tracks towards a very large fortress-like building on one side of the yard. There are fences with barbed wire, and signs saying things like “Caméras vous observant” (You are being watched) which I think could be the greatest thing that ever happened to me because I clearly need help.

But none of the gates open, no sirens wail, and all of the doors of the building – locked.

The urge to pee is overwhelming but I remember my mother telling me something about peeing near highly electrified metal.

“Ok,” I tell myself. “This isn’t that bad. I have my wallet.” (Frantically I drop my bag to find my wallet. I finger my passport while I am there, just for added comfort.)

“I have my phone.” Checking my phone, I am terrified to see the “Battery 20%” warning pop up. But the iPhone gives you no choice but to press OK, even though it really isn’t ok at all. (I make a mental note to Apple.)

I can do this.

I walk the length of the trains down to the other end. It’s a long train, and I have plenty of time to squint at the far end and panic about whether it is simply a closed pathway or whether there is a way out. When I arrive at the gate, it is locked. But there is a door into this fortress of a building on my right. I listen, and hear footsteps. Running through obvious things to ask in French, I turn the doorknob and go in.

I’m obviously in some kind of a Paris Metro control center, although it is totally deserted. Open boxes of pastries, fully consumed, a room full of uniforms and mops, and a stairwell, down. I take it and enter into a dingy, windowless kitchen occupied by a large table, a sink, a microwave, and a man.

Ou je suis?” Where am I? I ask, having practiced this one in my head on the way down the stairs.

The man, making his tea, looks up. Then looks down at his tea. Then shakes his head.

Parlez-vous anglais?” I pray.

Non,” he says bluntly.

Shit.

Ok, here comes Richard’s broken French.

J’ai parti de la gare Ruiel Malmaison, et maintenant, je suis ici…” I left the train station at Rueil, and here I am …

Vous etes un anglophone?” he asks.

Oui, je suis.” Yes, I am.

De quel pays?” From which country?

Des Etats-Unis.” From the US.

Ahhh … d’accord …” Ahhh … now I see …

After this proper French verdict from the train driver, he goes back to steeping his tea. I watch. I wait. The urge to pee is horrendous. Finally, I try something new:

Je veux aller a Paris, il y a un taxi, ou quelque chose….” This roughly translates in broken French as, “I’d like to go to Paris, is there a taxi or something?

He looks up. It’s really the first time he actually uses his eyes to look at me. He takes me in. Up, down, up. Finally, he decides that he is going to have to help. I’m just not going to go away.

Vous voulez un taxi ou RER?” You want the taxi or the train?

Oui, l’RER serait le mieux….” The RER would be best…

D’accord. Suivez moi.”  Alright. Follow me.

He leaves his tea behind and walks up the stairs. I follow, running behind him. He weaves us through the train yard, over tracks, on paths, around gates, and pulls out a huge set of keys which he uses to unlock a mighty gate far too tall to climb.

Now, I’ve been listening to these French CDs called Pimsleur which give you a strong basis in basic conversational French. Thankfully, the very last CD I had listened to in America taught me directions, for instance:

lá-bas: over there

ici: here

tout droit: straight

et puis: and then

á gauche: left

á droite: right

So with a combination of his pointing and saying the above words in strange combinations with many additional French words thrown in, I am freed from the train yard and put out onto the street, no worse for wear, with only a 10 minute walk back to the train station where I had so recently been. The second train I board gets me safely home completely incident-free.

I do admit to peeing on a pigeon outside a Rueil hotel on the walk back to the station.

They’re back – La Rentrée

2 Sep

Packed Metro Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerI had to wait in long queues everywhere this week. At the supermarket, the boulangerie, the fruit stand, the health food store.  The number of parents and children seemed to double. “What’s going on here?” I thought, as I pushed my way on to the way-too-crowded Metro.  I haven’t had to wait or deal with these crowds for a while, since … aha, it became clear. I haven’t had to deal with this since mid-July, since the Parisians left the city.

From the start of July, everyone seemed to be getting a bit touchy – a bit like caged animals before feeding time. The end-of-the-school-year feeling was in the air. “Get us out, we need our summer vacation,” sounded the collective howl.

This tension built through the month and at the end of July the notices started to go up.  The bakery shut first – closed 22 July to 22 August.  The other bakery – closed until 29 Aug. Then the butcher – back 29 August. All the little shops and a lot of restaurants in my neighbourhood went dark. Some shops looked like they had gone out of business.  White butcher paper filled the front window, but a little sign said, “Fermé jusqu’au 22 août.” As businesses closed and Parisians left for the country, the tension slowly started to go away.

I was warned about the exodus, but I didn’t think that it would be so widespread. Initially, I worried the town might shut. However they do leave a skeleton crew in Paris to deal with those left and I slowly found the bakeries, markets, etc. that were still open.  I never did find an open butcher near my flat and, more than once, went to restaurants only to find little notices on the closed door and a dark dining room. However, despite being a little unseasonably cool, August in Paris was very pleasant.

The mass return from vacation at the start of September, just in time for the national first day of school, has its own word – La Rentrée. Now that the Parisians are coming back it will be interesting to see if things just pick up as they were before they left. Everyone is back with a nice deep tan but will the vacationed Parisians come back with smiles on their faces? For example, will they remember all of my pre-break hard work at Maison Hilaire, my local boulangerie/patisserie? 

As in all places in French life there are rules to be followed at Maison Hilaire.  You have to instinctively know to queue ONLY on the left side of the counter to place your order. The woman behind the counter writes your order down and passes it to another woman who fills the order, who then passes it to the woman at the till.  DO NOT speak to the woman who fills the order. When it is your turn at the till, the till woman places your receipt on a little tray, and you are to put the money on top of the receipt. DO NOT hand the money to the woman directly. She takes the money from the tray and places any change on the receipt. Then you take both change, receipt and, oh yes, your baguette, which she now hands you.  Stick to this procedure and there is no yelling. Deviate, even in the slightest way, and be prepared to be shouted at and humiliated in front of the other customers.

The friendliest bakery in Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerI’d basically been doing as I was supposed to for a number of months leading up to the start of August. I persevered because my husband loved an éclair from Maison Hilaire and I had a secret mission to get the grumpy woman behind the till to reward my rule-following diligence with a bit of kindness.  I’d seen her be lovely with other customers, why not me?

The day before they closed for the August break I finally got a little love back. Well, not love exactly, but she did actually smile and said, “Bon Journée”. Was this mission accomplished? When I go back to buy an éclair and baguette will I get that hard-earned smile again or will there be special post-August procedures that everyone French knows but will take me weeks of humiliation to figure out? I’ll have to wait and see.

Our neighbours across the road were absent for most of August.  We don’t know them but it feels like they came to visit almost every night when they were in town.  Their balcony looks down at the street below and right into our living room. They are a couple, probably 35-40-ish. She likes to stand seductively on the balcony having a glass of wine and a cigarette several times a night. When they have people over they all like to stand and smoke by the balcony doors.  Usually we both pretend that we don’t see each other.  We’ve had several by-chance street-level encounters, which were a bit strange. I gave a weak smile, as I am culturally programmed to do, and they ignored us, as they culturally programmed to do. Fine.

One Friday evening they had a party. They and several of their guests, made a bit more confident by their cocktails, actually pointed and laughed at my husband and me having a rare evening sitting on our sofa in our PJs watching a DVD. Nice.

Needless to say I was enjoying our August privacy. Then last week I saw him stretching on the balcony in nothing but his flimsy boxers. There was something post-coital about his smug expression and the wet spot on the front of his shorts. YUCK! My guard was down as we hadn’t seen them in weeks and there he was in all of his glory. I ran into the other room and wanted to escape. I think he liked that I saw. YIKES! She was on the balcony again last night while we were having dinner. I’m sure in a couple of weeks I’ll be used to our seeing-but-pretending-we-don’t-see routine again.

My neighbours and the rest are all coming back to the city that did not exist for them for the entire month of August. Many of them will have not promenaded down the lovely Paris Plage, or Paris Beach, along the Seine, will not have benefited from the smaller than normal queues at the museums and attractions or have enjoyed less crowded parks, streets and Metro.  Maybe if they had, they might not leave next August and we can’t have that.

Note:  I, the accidentalparisienne, am now on holiday for two weeks. For your and my pleasure, I’ve invited a number of guest contributors to post their unique points of view of Paris over the weeks I am away. Enjoy! I look forward to getting back in touch when I return.

Le Bar Brigadoon – an enchanted birthday on rue de Lappe

25 Aug

neverending happy hour photo by Elizabeth DownhowerTwo drunken Australian early twenty-somethings got on board the Metro a couple of weeks ago.  You could hear and smell them at the other end of the carriage. They scanned the Metro riders for people to talk to and finally found a 20-something French couple.

Bonjour,” one Aussie said with obvious discomfort. His face contorted and his mouth did not want to cooperate with the foreign word. “Do you guys speak English?”

The French couple looked at each other as if for reassurance. “Yes,” the French woman answered.

“Excellent,” the Aussies gave each other high-five. “We’re staying by the Bastille. Where should we go for a bit of a party? You know, a few beers, some girls and some fun.”

The French man and woman looked at each other, looked back at the Aussies and said in unison, “Rue de Lappe.”

Every town has a street like rue de Lappe and everyone has at least one under-age, alcohol-impaired, half-memory of an evening there.  Bar after bar, lurid neon advertising cheap drinks and seedy bouncers lounging at the doors. Stale beer and urine are the overwhelming smells during the day.  Eager hormones and the smell of spilt pitchers of sickly sweet cocktails fill the air at night. Large groups of young men or women stumble out of one bar and fall into the next.

Rue de Lappe was not where I thought we’d end up on Saturday night.  When we entered the street I was certain we would pass through it on our way somewhere else. My husband and I were with one of my best friends in the world who had come to Paris to celebrate a big birthday.  While my friend and I had shared a few buckets of beer (yes, literally buckets) in the Ohio version of rue de Lappe many years ago, I think we had something a little more grown-up in mind for Saturday night.

However, about half way down the street, my husband and friend both stopped in front of a bar and looked in.  In between the other large-fronted, loud establishments there was a little slip of a place. As you looked in, there was just enough room for the long bar down the left side, a row of stools and a bit of space for people to squeeze past to get to the few tables in the back. In contrast to its crowded neighbours, this little bar only had a few punters. It was a dive and I can’t explain it any other way than to say something about it called to us.

“Do you want to go in for one?” my husband asked in disbelief. My friend and I both nodded yes and then shrugged at each other because we didn’t know why we didn’t march on.

My friend led the way to the end of the bar. We sat and they ordered beers. This was not a place that would serve my favourite tipple, fizz, so I asked the barman if he had a cocktail de la maison. The barman was a slim man with a mop of curly grey hair, boyish eyes and a deeply creased face. He could have been anywhere from 45 to 65 years old. He nodded and smiled causing his thin lips to part and reveal the three remaining teeth that clung to his top gums. He assured me that he would make me something, “très spécial”.

I could see him set to work in the tarnished mirror above the bar.  A tiny workspace was squeezed into the gap between the till and a turntable.  The turntable propped up a large collection of vintage vinyl. Solid Gold Soul was the sleeve facing outwards. A woman with brassy cropped hair appeared behind the bar and inquired what the barman was doing. Clearly cocktails were not the norm. He gestured to me, she looked over and saw me looking at the records. “We have a CD player but don’t really use it. There’s nothing like the sound of a needle on vinyl.” She arrived from London for the weekend 35 years ago. I couldn’t help but wonder if she had landed in this bar that very first day and never left.

The barman proudly put my drink down in front of me. It consisted of one thin slice of lime quartered, a little sugar and overproof rum, and was served in a glass a little larger than a shot.  I tasted it. It nearly blew my head off. I asked for a little water and the barman looked wounded. He never gave me water, but did give me a tall glass and a few ice cubes.

While I sipped my toxic drink I had a look at the other occupants in the bar.  A couple of stools down from me on my left was a black man about 60 with snow-white hair. It was cropped close on the sides and in the back but rose like a cliff a full 4 inches over his wrinkled forehead. He had a large gold hooped earring and wore a red silk cravat, dark blue collared shirt and bright yellow waist coat.  The man next to him had a shiny round bald head, a round face and round, aviator-shaped, thick gold and white plastic 80’s style glasses.  He had a thick gold bracelet and necklace to match and white track suit with green Adidas stripes that looked more pimp than athlete.

My friend’s voice brought me back to our end of the bar.  “Merci beaucoup,” she enthused and I saw she was petting something green, yellow and furry on her finger. “Look, the barman gave me a birthday present!” She put her hand in front of me so that I could see the little knitted turtle finger puppet she proudly wore on her finger. “Wow, what a present,” was all I could think of saying. It looked like it had been chewed by a dog. The barman beamed a shy, three-toothed grin.

Little Seb Photo by Elizabeth DownhowerYou have to understand that most places we go with my good friend we get special attention. She is tall, blond and beautiful. This combined with her chatty, flirty French encouraged by the bottle of bubbles we had before we left our flat made her a star attraction. A small man in a Converse t-shirt was the first to try to get her attention. Then two students made an attempt, and then another guy.

While I watched all the drama, two men appeared at the end of the bar.  They were regulars and greeted the barman with kisses, as the French do. The older, smaller one had dark eyes, chiselled features and silver/white well-groomed hair that was tidy on the sides but longer on top. He also had a chiselled body that was shown off by a tight, but not too tight, t-shirt and well-fitting jeans. The younger, tall one had short dark black hair and a Roman nose. His body was also well-defined.  If the older man looked like he took care of himself, the younger man’s fitness looked more natural or rather acquired by a labour of love.

The older man was the only one, other than the barman who managed to engage my friend in conversation and the younger man sat quietly by his side.  My husband and I could not figure out the connection between the two men. The barman put us out of our misery – they were father and son. The barman also said that the older man was a magician. The younger man rolled his eyes and shook his head. Excellent, I thought, my husband is stuntman and I am a spy.

Magician and turtle photo by Elizabeth DownhowerThen the magician took the knitted turtle and proceeded to do 5 minutes of slight-of-hand tricks with it.  The turtle was in his hand, and then it was gone. It was back in his hand, then put in his mouth and then pulled from behind the barman’s ear.  He appeared to throw it into the air, and then he pulled it out of his pocket. Then up in the air again to be caught behind his back and then gone completely.  Over, up, down, gone, pulled out and then finally, produced on a business card that said he was, in fact, a magician.  Wow.  The card had a photograph of the man in a tuxedo and black bow tie and detailed that he was not only a magician but a “Gentleman Magician”. The son, we found out, played volleyball for Italy, hence the well-toned physique, and was an industrial designer. 

Both men were a little put out when my friend said to me that she was trying to get the attention of another young man sitting at the table behind the bar.  “What should I do?” she asked. “Go talk to him,” I said.  The father-son team gave me simultaneous look of despair, what did they have to do to get her favour, they’d literally been doing magic after all.

While my friend went over to try to chat to the only man in bar who hadn’t been trying to get her attention, I got some of my own.  Didier pulled up a stool next to mine and sat down.

Bon soir,” he said. “Le blah blah blah, blah blah.”

“I am sorry I don’t speak French,” I said and this was one of the few times I was glad of it. Didier was not my type.  This did not deter Didier, “Le blah blah blah.  Blah blah blah.” The English woman behind the bar caught my eye and said, “That’s Didier. He has a bit of a reputation as a lady’s man, a bit of a Casanova.” The magician and his son both nodded in agreement.

I looked back at Didier. He was about 5ft 2in tall and wide.  He was bald, pie eyed and pie-faced. I looked back at the woman behind the bar, the magician and the son, and asked, “This man is a Casanova?” They all nodded vigorously in agreement and in all seriousness. The woman behind the bar said, “He is and he’ll sit there as long as he thinks it’ll take.”

Didier raised his glass to me and gave me what he probably thought was his sexiest smile.  “Blah blah le blah.”

For a second, I was intrigued. Had I been a bit too harsh in my assessment of Didier? This was France after all, maybe he had some secrets.  I looked into his eyes. “Blah blah. Le blah blah,” he said spitting a little and struggling to keep me in focus. He then spilled a little beer.

“Didier, I’d like you to meet my husband.” The woman behind the bar translated this and Didier smiled and raised his glass to me and my husband but remained firmly seated next to me. “Blah le blah blah. Blah blah, blah blah, le blah blah.”

ED, beer and birthday pressie Photo by Barrie WestIt was then that the magician decided to make his move.  I imagine that he saw the geeky, spectacled young man my friend decided to chat up and figured he still had a good chance.  Him or the pipsqueak? Everyone in the bar would have put money on the hot magician. He went over to their table, sat down and joined the conversation.  My friend’s original pursuant in the Converse t-shirt strangely took the magician’s move as a cue to try again also and started to do a little po-go dancing around their table.

The son looked even more forlorn. “Why wasn’t she interested in me?” he asked. I suspected that he’d had a lifetime of being overshadowed by his father. I wanted to tell him that his volleyball body would have been more than enough for me, but I am happily married after all.

After a while, my friend came back to the bar and said that Sebastian, the specky boy at the table, was a German student. She petted her turtle gift and said it was maybe time to go home.  I asked if she was sure she did not want to talk to the magician and the volleyball player again, after all a father/son team is what a million big-birthday daydreams are made of. But she said no, it was time to go home.

We said our goodbyes and the cast assembled to send us on our way.  Arm in arm, my husband, my friend and I walked down rue de Lappe and my friend christened the turtle finger puppet, Sebastian. I looked back over my shoulder to see our new friends waving goodbye and they seemed to be disappearing in the 2am mist. I wanted to remember this night and looked above the door, but could not see a sign or the name of the bar. I looked down again for the crowd and they had all disappeared. I remembered the story of  Brigadoon, an enchanted Scottish village that only appeared once every hundred years, and wondered if I came back to rue de Lappe I’d be able to find our little enchanted bar.

Happy birthday ED!

The birthday girl and me Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger