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Is Le Corbusier’s “box in the air” all hot air?

20 Jan

Villa Savoye Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger“All of the bathrooms would have to be replaced.”

“Yeah,” my husband agreed. “We’d also have to do something with the kitchen.”

We sat on two chairs left behind in the large living room of the house we went to see a few Sundays ago.  My husband and I have renovated 5 flats in the last 10 years and we are always looking for new projects and ideas. 

“I am not sure about this colour,” my husband gestured to the salmon-pink wall. He then turned and nodded a greeting to another couple who entered the living room, also looking at the house. The place was crawling with couples under 40. These types of homes always were.

I took another look around.  The giant glass wall that invisibly separated inside and out could be slid back to unite the huge living/dining area with a beautiful landscaped roof garden. It was a dream space; a template for modern living.

“There are the issues with the leaks,” I said, trying to be practical.

“It’s too much work,” my husband said. 

The divine Mr W at the Savoye's Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger“Yeah, you’re right,” I looked admired him reclining comfortably on a Le Corbusier chaise lounge and then looked at our brochure to see where the tour took us next.

“To the solarium?” I asked.

“To the solarium.”

The house, built between 1928 and 1931 in the village of Poissy just outside of Paris, was commissioned by the Savoye family to be their weekend home.  Their architect, Swiss-born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret and also known as Le Corbusier, designed it to be the model of his philosophy of Modernist architecture.

The conflicting aims of the parties meant that the house was dogged with problems from the start.

A letter from Madam Savoye to Le Corbusier in Sept 1937:

“It’s raining in the hall, it’s raining in the ramp, the wall of the garage is absolutely soaked. What’s more, it’s still raining in my bathroom, which floods every time it rains.”

Le Corbusier largely ignored this and other pleas to fix the many mechanical and structural problems with the house while aggressively promoting the house internationally as a manifesto of his ideas.

The family never really moved in and eventually had to leave it altogether. Legal proceedings between the Savoye family and Le Corbusier were stopped by the onset of WWII. Abandoned, the house went into steep decline and was forced to suffer indignities such as abuse by the German’s after their occupation, being shot at by Allied troops, and finally, its use as a barn.

The village of Poissy bought the house from the Savoye family in 1958 with theDown the drive at Villa Savoye Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger intention of demolishing. It  gifted the property to the French state after an international campaign to save the house. It was declared a National Monument and underwent extensive restoration between 1963 and 1997.

Despite its problems and the fact that the French Government would not let me, it is a house I would love live in.

The Savoye family named the house les Heures Claires or “the box in the air”. It does float in the centre of the large wooded plot on Le Corbusier trademark stilts.  The views from the windows that cover every wall of the living areas on the 1st European/ 2nd American floor make you feel like you are hovering over the beautiful Seine valley countryside.  The seamless boundaries between the open plan living areas and the huge roof garden inspire daydreams of lazy sunny Sunday afternoon entertaining. 

We won’t live in this house but my husband and I sent a postcard from Villa Savoye to our architect telling him that we were getting ideas for our next project.

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.

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.

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.

Paris flea market – A photo essay

10 Sep

puce1 Photo by Elizabeth DownhowerGuest Contributor – Photographer and vegan food blogger (www.littleredradish.com) Elizabeth Downhower shares photos and thoughts on a trip to the Saint-Ouen Flea Market on the outskirts of Paris.

On a rainy Saturday in mid-August, two lifelong friends, The Accidental Parisienne and myself, A Deliberate San Franciscan, visited the Paris Flea Market (Le Marche aux Puce de Saint-Ouen).  Our journey began with a half-hour metro ride through Paris with lovely above-ground stretches, followed by a brisk walk down shop-lined city blocks, where we dodged street-side vendors offering D&G emblazoned belts and knock-off watches.  We continued past the open-air stalls overflowing with Rasta-themed t-shirts, bedazzled cell phone cases and cheap jewelry – for this was not the market we were after! Our destination lay just beyond, where a small side street leads to the entrance of a labyrinth of garage-sized shops filled with vintage treasures. Here you will find everything you need to decorate a Parisian flat with gorgeous antique furniture, lighting, linens and housewares. Vintage Chanel jackets.  Western wear?! Old postcards of Paris, organized by Arrondissement. From books, fabrics and trims to much larger items; spiral staircases, piles of doors and other architectural salvage. We even stumbled upon stacks – no a mountain! – of hot water heaters. If you can dream it up, they have it.

  
We spent the afternoon wandering aimlessly through the lanes, trying to stay dry from the intermittent showers, and of course, taking photos.  I’d love to go back and photograph the proprietors of the varied stalls, each of which fit seamlessly into the backdrop of their particular wares. The tall, sharp-featured man selling antique books who first kindly joked about my picture-taking but then, as I continued, turned into a finger shaking librarian chasing us out. The elderly, well-appointed woman sitting on a divan outside of her overflowing shop of classical antique lamps, staring off into the distance. She smoked a cigarette in her right hand while the left hand stroked a small cat who sat next to her on the sofa.  Alas, those pictures are for another day. In the meantime, I hope this gives you a good sense of the market as we experienced it. Enjoy! Et Bonnes Vacances, Mlle Accidental Parisienne! Can’t wait for more of your posts upon your return! xoxo

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puce2 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce9 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce10 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce11 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce12 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce13 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce14 Photo by Elizabeth Downhowerpuce15 Photo by Elizabeth Downhower

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.