Saturday, May 27, 2017

Love Locks or Love Litter?

Source: AP

The City of Paris just auctioned off about a ton of scrap metal, raising $250,000 for charity.

This was no ordinary junk heap, but 165 parcels of “love locks” that the City of Love stripped from the Pont des Arts in 2015. (See the video here.)

The heavy metal, some 50 tons of it, threatened to ruin the Arts Bridge, a Unesco World Heritage site. City officials worried that lock-laden sheets of the bridge would fall onto the heads of tourists below on the bateaux mouches. That would have been a new kind of guillotine, for which France is also famous.

The love lock auction in Paris
It was a cruel fate for these symbols of eternal love to disappear before they had even had a chance to rust. The auction, however, was a twist of fate, a second life for some of the locks. The city, previously seen as heartless for tearing them down, received hearty publicity for the selling them off in an art-style sale.

The love-lock trend started about a decade ago, but has become a global phenomenon and metallurgical dilemma. Locks are found on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Great Wall of China, near the Millennium Bridge in London and on bridges in Stockholm.

Love locks have even made it to my hometown of Pittsburgh. The city takes a no-nonsense approach, routinely chopping off the locks as it carries out work on its bridges (see a story here).

How did it start? No one knows for sure. But in fact throughout history, it was common for travelers who visited ancient sites—like the Pyramids--to leave their mark. With graffiti.

More often than not today, tourists want to take something, which has led to the whole souvenir industry—itself a French word for memory or remembrance. 

Tourists are still leaving locks around Paris, for example at the Flame of Liberty at the end of the Pont de l’Alma. The weight of the metal threatens to ruin that monument too. The whole thing is making some people so love-lock-sick that they’ve formed an association: No Love Locks.

OK, I get it. Hanging tons of locks from historic sites isn’t exactly sustainable tourism. But, City of Paris, why not channel this romantic energy in the City of Locks by building a monument where tourists are officially encouraged to attest to their love?

Turn Love Litter into Love Art.

Who knows, if locks are recyclable, and recycled once a year through an auction, the whole project could even pay for itself (and then some).  Love Locks Forever!

The annual take-down of the locks isn’t so very romantic, but as we know the bits of metal do tend to get rusty if exposed to harsh conditions for too long. A lot like love.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

How To Say "Merci" To Mom

Whether you’re in France or the U.S., it’s that time of year again to give thanks to the mom of your life. Over 100 years into the holiday, is it time to think more universally about what it is to be a mother?

Mother’s Day is celebrated today in the U.S. and in most countries of the world. In France, where it’s known as fête des mères, it’s the last Sunday of the month.

The founder of Mother’s Day in the U.S. would be upset with the French version, which is Mothers’ Day in translation. (If you missed the difference, one is a singular “mother” with an apostrophe “s” and the other is a plural “mothers” with an apostrophe. End of grammar lesson!) That’s because Anna Jarvis, who started the commemoration in 1908, wanted us to celebrate our personal “mother,” not “mothers” or motherhood in general.

A typical pasta necklace.
Ms. Jarvis came to hate the commercialism of the day. Instead of buying flowers or presents, in her view people should honor their mothers with a handwritten letter. I personally like to be taken out to dinner, but I’m open to cleaning, laundry, and window-washing too!

In France, according to French blogger Clotilde Dusoulier, “children usually craft some kind of project at school for their maman — most iconically, un collier de pâtes, a necklace made of dried pasta — and graduate to buying her flowers, chocolates, or beauty products when they are older.” Hmm. Somehow my teenage daughter hasn’t yet graduated out of the dried pasta stage.

Sorry Ms. Jarvis, I see nothing wrong about using the holiday to reflect on what motherhood means in this day and age.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today is running a story about Christie Pham, who lost her mom at 17, and now commemorates Mother’s Day by performing random acts of kindness.

Source: Pinterest.
In “The Birth of The Mother,” The New York Times today published an article by Dr. Alexandra Sacks saying that the becoming a mother in medical terms is largely unexplored territory, and argues for greater understanding of post-partum depression, and other psychological issues that grip women.

That’s not to deflate the role of fathers or grandparents, or aunt and uncles—teachers too--who may not have children but devote countless hours to child care. Now that’s the way to build a “maternal" instinct. Happy Mother’s Day to you too!

Believe it or not, it’s become trendy to affectionately tag these people as “moms” on social media. If a handwritten note is not going to happen, why not log on and reach out each #mom or #mere in your life to say thank you.
Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After many years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." Want to follow this blog? Enter your email address into the “Follow me” box. Or find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+.

Monday, May 8, 2017

New President, New Era?

Macron supporter at last night's celebration in Paris.
Source: AP, Francois Mori.

Last night we hunkered down in front of the TV set at 7:45 p.m. in anticipation of the historic moment. At 8 p.m. sharp, the polls were going to close in France, and the name of the new president was going to be announced. (Until then, the country imposes a media blackout.)

I felt a hush fall over France as the countdown proceeded: 3 … 2 … 1 … 

It was like watching the countdown on New Year’s Eve, or a countdown to blast-off. Would this be the beginning of an era? Or a countdown to catastrophe? I wedged myself on the sofa between my daughter and husband for moral and physical support.
And then the winner was announced: Emmanuel Macron. The 39-year-old leader of the brand-new party, En Marche!, won by a wide margin with 66% of the votes against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. However, Macron was weak in rust-belt areas of France like Pittsburgh that have suffered from the decline of manufacturing. And a high number of voters didn't cast their ballots.

For us, as foreigners here in France, it was a relief. For me, who works in the world of finance, it was a relief. And for those who believe that the European Union is (generally) a good thing, it was a relief.

But it won’t be easy for the new president, who takes office in a few weeks. Macron has to build a cabinet and start campaigning for legislative elections. It’s uncertain whether the French people will give him a strong mandate to govern by electing En Marche! representatives.

Macron posters
in our neighborhood
I frankly don’t know much about Macron, but most people don't. He's new to the game and didn’t have much chance to win until the top candidate on the right became tainted by scandal. (Because Macron is so young, he doesn’t yet have a political past!) He’s by all accounts smart, reasonable, and likeable. Just a few days ago, one of his campaign workers handed me his program, a 32-page booklet of campaign promises. Many of them seem, again, reasonable. (By the way, all serious French candidates publish a “programme.” Good idea, U.S.!)

Regarding education, one area where I feel half-way competent to comment, Macron promises access to special needs assistants in schools to all children who need them, which is sorely needed. This in a country where special education is rare and where the educational system is in general denial about special needs. France is definitely behind the U.S. here, which made education a right for special needs children in 1975.

What I like most about Macron is his optimism and genuine love of France. It’s so refreshing in this great country that’s often mired in negativism.

With the election of Macron, I’m hoping that France will enter a new era of economic growth that lifts all boats. And I hope that last night’s blast-off won’t end in catastrophic failure but instead show the country new horizons.

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." Want to follow this blog? Enter your email address into the “Follow me” box. Or find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Ça Alors! Learning French Through Comic Books

I’m always on the lookout for a good book to read in French, but it can’t be too hard, too easy – just right s’il vous plait. And it’s even better if it’s actually interesting and fun, which makes finding the right book nearly an impossible task.

At my local French book store, I gravitated to a new section: a large table featuring comic books, or more correctly, ”graphic novels.”

I was lingering over two biographies about American dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927). I had just seen the biopic “The Dancer,” about the life of dancer Loie Fuller, who at one point hires Duncan. And I just saw the miniseries “Zelda,” about the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who knew the dancer. Bios about women and the 1920s were in the air.

So I picked up “Isadora,” by Julie Birmant and Clément Oubrerie (2017). Little did I know was how daring and unconventional this dancer was. She was enamored with ancient Greece, and danced in bare feet and a flowing tunic, improvising her way through music by the likes of Wagner and Stravinsky.

Isadora and later her students often went on tour—including
to Pittsburgh on Dec. 18, 1918, invited by The Art Society of Pittsburgh. In 1921, her leftist sympathies took her to the Soviet Union where she founded a school in Moscow, but the government did not support her work as promised. She died as dramatically as she lived, when in 1927 her long flowing scarf became entangled in the wheel of a sports car in the south of France. She is buried in Paris at the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Graphic novels have become seriously popular in France. Starting in the 2000s, nearly every big French publisher started a line of literary comic books. But then this is a country with a long history in quality hardback comic books such as “Babar” and “Tintin.”

What I liked about reading “Isadora” is that much of the writing is dialog, which is one of my weaknesses. How people speak in France is much different than how they write. Comic books are definitely an enjoyable way to learn some phrases I hear in conversation. And now trendy as well. Ça alors! (Well how about that?) One of the many very useful phrases to be found in a French comic book!

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." Want to follow this blog? Enter your email address into the “Follow me” box. Or find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Paris-Pittsburgh People: Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton in "Birdman"
I recently saw the movie star Michael Keaton – and native Pittsburgher – here in Paris, at the impressive new Paris Philharmonic concert hall.

Keaton was there, figuratively speaking, in a showing of the Oscar-winning film “Birdman” (2014) accompanied by live music. My daughter organized the evening, and I went along without knowing a thing about what I was going to see.

As I exited the nearby Métro, my eyes were stunned as the expansive site unfolded into view. It was more like going to a stadium, the size of PNC Park in Pittsburgh, than to a concert venue.
The new Philharmonic hall in Paris

Inside, I had expected a full symphonic orchestra, but all I saw on stage was a drum kit. My expectations sunk.

The drummer, Antonio Sanchez, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, told us his story and how he got involved in Birdman. The five-time Grammy Award winner who has worked with Chick Corea and was part of the Pat Metheny group happened to bump into Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu.

This was no ordinary drummer, but perhaps the world’s greatest living jazz musician. He was touring the world playing in concert with the film. The drums took us inside Birdman’s disturbed mind as he moved around the backstage maze that was the setting for most of the movie.
Drummer Antonio Sanchez

Although Michael Keaton didn’t win one of the Oscars, I think he should have (but won many other awards). He played an aging movie star known for his superhero films, longing to be taken seriously as a stage actor. Eerily, Keaton himself is an aging movie star perhaps best known for “Batman.” (1989)

Keaton is also a hometown acting hero as well. He first appeared on TV in several episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" (1968). Keaton also worked as an actor in Pittsburgh theatre; he played the role of Rick in the Pittsburgh premiere of David Rabe's "Sticks and Bones" with the Pittsburgh Poor Players. Keaton is reportedly an avid Pittsburgh Pirates fan, and has been seen at seen at Steelers and Pirates games as well, but these days called Montana home. (Thanks Wikipedia!)

Michael Keaton, I hope to see you again in Paris, or perhaps at a game in Pittsburgh? For real?

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." Want to follow this blog? Enter your email address into the “Follow me” box. Or find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+.

Friday, February 24, 2017

My “Secret” French Recipe For Chocolate Cake

Stashed in my suitcase en route to Pittsburgh this week was a tattered and torn French recipe for what I think is the world’s best chocolate cake. And it’s so easy.

The dense layer, somewhere between brownie and lava cake, is called a “Reine de Saba” or a “Queen of Sheba” cake.

The recipe came my way via Eve Bark (merci!), at an orientation session to life in Paris called Bloom Where You're Planted. She not only gave us the recipe, but baked enough cake to give everyone in the audience a bite. Oh la la!

If this cake was any clue, life in Paris was going to be sweet.

For the longest time, I thought the cake was Eve’s invention and my personal secret weapon for dessert, even as France fell in love with le brownie, le muffin, and most recently, le cupcake.

Finally, I thought, I’ll bring this recipe to Pittsburgh – to America!

But in converting the recipe to U.S. measures and in Goggling around this past week, I realized that SOMEONE ELSE brought the Queen of Sheba to America a long time ago.

Julia Child in 1961.

She beat me by 56 years!

Julia included the cake in her book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” And she featured it on her TV show "The French Chef." See the vintage video here.

You’ll also see the cake in the film “Julie & Julia,” about Julia Child’s foodie experience in Paris, and Julie’s experience following in the master’s foodsteps, er, footsteps.

Respectfully speaking, Julia’s cake complicates things. You really don’t need the rum and almond extract, or the chocolate-butter frosting, or the slivered almonds decorating the whole thing.

The cake itself is amazing, and if you must, a dusting of powdered sugar or vanilla ice cream will do the trick. It doesn’t have to be difficult. Eve’s variation, and my variation on hers, is a one-bowl one-layer wonder. So here we go. Done the apron, and get to work:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour one 8-inch or 9-inch cake pan. In a large microwavable bowl, melt 4 ounces of dark chocolate (or semi-sweet chocolate chips) in a microwave on medium power. Whisk in 1 stick of butter (or margarine or canola oil), 2/3 cup plus one tablespoon of sugar, three eggs, one-third cup almonds ground in a food processor, and ½ cup flour. Bake only 20 minutes for a 9-inch cake or 30 min for an 8-inch cake--until barely done. Cool for 10 minutes. Eat warm.

Bon Appetit!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The United States Of Pittsburgh?


In a week I’ll be flying home to my native Pittsburgh for a week’s visit. Take me home city roads! They say you can never truly go home again, but I'll try.

Tens of thousands of us Pittsburghers left home in the 1980s, mostly for job reasons in what's called the Pittsburgh diaspora. It’s an almost biblical story of exodus.

One measure of the sheer size of this migration is the reach of The Pittsburgh Steelers. Via SteelerNation, the city is known to have the broadest fan-base of any football team in the U.S. That aside, the Internet and social media have made it easier for ex-yinzers to keep in touch.

Apart from seeing family, of course, I hope to check out some new sites. I especially want to see places with Paris-Pittsburgh connections. Like the birthplace of writer Gertrude Stein, who lived in Paris and cultivated artists like Picasso. And the birthplace of Mary Cassatt, the American Impressionist painter who joined a circle of artists in Paris including the Manets and Berthe Morisot.

I’m also curious to see the up-and-coming neighborhood of Allentown, which was spiraling down when I was growing up. My high school, Hilltop Catholic, now closed, had one of its buildings there. Allentown is also home to magnificent St. George church, recently closed as well.

My favorite neighborhood is under-rated Brookline, just a walk from my parent’s place. There I find authentic and amazing donuts for breakfast, Greek sandwiches for lunch, and Mexican sidewalk tacos for dinner. In between bites, I like to stop at the Carnegie Library branch to grab a book or a DVD.

The good news is that the exodus of of Pittsburgh has stopped. The city’s vibrant culture and affordability is attracting millennials, a new generation of workers who are digging in. The Lost Generation of natives that left Pittsburgh can never go home again to exactly the place we remember, but perhaps to a better place, which has become less blue and more white around the collar.

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Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog,, about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." You can also find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+.