Saturday, December 26, 2015

Getting And Giving For Grinches
For Americans, the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day is supercharged with giving and getting. It's no different for us Americans living in France.

But lest we forget, the year-end also brings the close to the dreaded tax year.

Faced with huge French tax bills, I asked my financial adviser friend out to lunch. What do we do? I asked, hoping she would make our bills disappear.

She didn't have an easy out. Instead, she talked “tax strategy”: Sock it away, and give it away.

To reduce our tax bill, she said, we had three choices: Take advantage of French tax breaks for investing in retirement funds, or another break for charitable donations. (So far, so familiar to U.S. tax breaks.)

Or, we could just pay the tax bill. 


So we made an appointment at our bank. This was no fun at all. Our bank took a 3% fee for taking our money, and offered very little in the way of return. Plus, our money was locked up until retirement day. For our bank, it is much better to receive than to give.

However, we had a lot of fun giving it away.

One charity we picked that is close to my heart as a journalist is Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF or Reporters Without Borders), which promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press, and helps journalists working in dangerous areas.

For example, RSF is currently campaigning to free from prison Can Dündar, the editor of the Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet. That's because the newspaper reported in May that Turkey's secret service was delivering arms to Islamic groups in Syria. Turkey has accused Dündar of espionage and terrorism.

I was happy to double my donation through my company's matching gift program, as part of their Giving Tuesday campaign. If you haven't heard of it, Giving Tuesday is the annual drive after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Which is right after Thanksgiving Thursday.

Death. Taxes. Matching Gifts. Giving Tuesday. There are so many reasons to give, whether it's from the bottom of your heart, or the bottom line of your tax bill. I'm one-half Grinch, so I need all the reasons I can get. I mean give.

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."

Sunday, December 20, 2015

My Books Of The Year

Here are my favorite books of 2015, ones that I actually started and finished, which means they stood the ultimate test of (bedtime reading) time. I hope you might enjoy them too.

“Tita,” by Marie Houzelle, in English, 1994. Category: books by friends.
The author writes a coming of age novel about a French girl southern France in the 1950s. Tita is very smart, hates to eat, and is puzzled by the world and why her mother forgets to kiss her goodnight. It's a girl version of “Petit Nicolas,” but with edge. Marie peppers her novel with some French, but always explains the terms, and there's an amusing glossary at the end. For example: “belle-mère, beautiful mother = mother-in-law or stepmother. The adjective beau or belle is used in French for all step and in-law family relationships, probably in order to encourage good feelings that might not arise naturally.” Great for anyone who is growing up and learning French, two things that have remained on my to-do list for decades.

“La vie devant soi,” in French by Romain Gary, 1975. Category: books on daughter's reading list.
This heart-wrenching story is about a Muslim boy, Momo, who is the favorite of babysitter Madame Rosa, an old Jewish woman, former prisoner at Auschwitz, retired prostitute in Paris. There are many themes in this book, community, the Holocaust, immigration, aging … which is why teachers like it. It won France's top Goncourt prize, and a film version, “Madame Rosa,” with Simone Signoret, won an Oscar in 1977 for best foreign film. The book is also available in English under the name, “The Life Before Us.”

“French Kisses,” by David R. Poe, 1994. Category: books by friends.
This a collection of 13 quirky stories about your usual normal but odd Americans living in Paris—people like me. One story, “Playing Above The Rim,” is about a weekly pickup basketball game in a city with few courts, except one in an American church basement. While the first dozen are fiction, the book ends with creative nonfiction, a truer than life look at the life a man built for himself, and a house that he rebuilt for his family, and reflections on what will last—my favorite!

Nous Sommes Charlie,” 2015. Category: Current events.
This book, published shortly after the terrorist attacks against the newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, brings together 60 writers on the subject of freedom of expression, tolerance, and much more. The essays are by contemporary writers like Bernard-Henri Lévy and also classic authors like Voltaire and Beaumarchais. Here, the French try to come to terms with the terrorists and their motives. 

“L'étrangère,” by Valerie Toranian. Category: Current events, commemoration
of the Armenian genocide of 1915. 
Written by a French woman of Armenian descent, the book delves into the life of Aravni, the author's grandmother, who survived the genocide to live and raise a family in France. The grandmother never told the complete story, so the writer beautifully pieces together the story of this “foreigner” in Turkey and “foreigner” in France. Which makes you wonder whether we are all not foreigners, no matter where we live.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Cops and COP21 in Paris

In the aftermath of the Nov. 13, terrorist attacks here in Paris, the city braced itself for the global climate change talks that began last week. What do these two things have in common? Security. Police, armed forces, and security guards are omnipresent.

Some commentators have questioned whether countries should focus on terrorism or the environment, but not France. The country is proceeding with its war on terrorism and its conference to combat climate change. However, the president has toned it down and scaled it down, for instance telling climate activists to stay at home (or else). COP21 is no longer a climate party, just a (yawn) Conference of the Parties.

Shoes placed on the Place de la Republique,
after a climate march was canceled.

In past weeks I have been guilty of contributing to the massive amount of information overload around COP21, helping my company to edit and produce a climate change report. You can see the report here.

"COP21 is no longer a climate party, just a (yawn) Conference of the Parties." 

For me, evidence that this is serious business is that big investors, who don't want to lose their shirts, are looking to put money in green ventures and pull money out of carbon businesses like coal, especially. Why? There's no future in it.

For a long time, especially in my home town of Pittsburgh, the debate was jobs versus the environment. My dad worked at one of the steel mills (and so did I, for one summer). My dad put food on the table at the same time the mill spewed pollution into the air we breathed. It was a cruel bargain.
Downtown Pittsburgh, 1940.

Today, though, we know how to build a greener economy offering cleaner jobs. We don't have to use the air as a garbage dump. We thought it was a free ride, but now the costs are mounting.

I'm still thinking of what I can do. Take fewer airplane trips, eat less beef, and buy less stuff—that's probably a good start. And I'll save some euros for the daughter's college fund, get some stay-cation sleep, and eat healthier. (To learn more or take action, you might want to see what Pope Francis has to say here.)

COP21 is not the party we wanted. But that's OK. We just need for everyone to get along, get something done, and have a safe trip home.

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."

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Thanksgiving in France: As Easy As 1-2-3

Hosting a Thanksgiving party in France is nearly impossible, but we Americans do try.

First of all, it's not a national holiday here, so the dinner is usually pushed to the weekend before or after. That's not such a big deal, but there's less time to digest, watch football, and do that Christmas shopping.

Second, we have to find substitutes for family. Again, this is not impossible, as there are always random Americans around without turkeys to go home to. We usually check the passports at the door.

Third, and this is the hard part, what about the turkey? Again, this is not impossible, because many a Parisian butcher has played this tune. They are very thankful for this holiday. You see, the French don't eat turkey this time of year, so a whole bird is not generally available. But if you're willing to pay double, a French butcher will sell you anything.

This year, we hosted a Thanksgiving party last night, finding only two stray Americans at our front door at the appointed time. But what guests! They brought a bird, fully cooked, flowers, and a box of chocolates.

As one of the guests unwrapped it, she told the story of the fowl's fate. A colleague has a farm, and every year offers me whatever she slaughters. “It's an organic farm, and the animals range free,” she explained. Wow, that's going to be one tasty bird, I thought.

We could nearly see the bird. “And she gives you whatever she has roaming around. You'll never know what you get.”

It looked small, the size of a chicken. “Yes, it is small,” my friend explained. “The farmer apologized, but she never knows how big they are going to be until the day she catches them.” 

Sounds like a very free range farm, I thought.

“I hope you don't mind having … duck for Thanksgiving?” she asked, as we all give it a gander. It looked naked, with its stubbly skin, as if it had just shaved. I had goosebumps. 

Carving the Thanksgiving duck.
So we carved the canard, and filled our plates with more of the usual Thanksgiving fare: sweet potatoes (though tossed with black beans to make a salad), a crazy cranberry sauce, and the best classic stuffing this side of the Atlantic, made better with a slab of French butter. 

We washed it down with an 8-euro Burgundy and polished it off with serial pieces of Jeff de Bruges chocolates.

How did the duck taste? Like Thanksgiving.

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."

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The French School System: When Will It Learn?

One thing foreign parents (like me) love about the French public school system is the focus on the three Rs: Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. One thing we hate …. the focus on the three Rs. To the exclusion of much else—even a child's well-being.

It's tolerable for the academic types who fit into the “mould,” as the French say. If you don't, too bad. There is almost no tolerance for physical, learning, or other disabilities. Negative reinforcement is the norm. Learning is often by rote: Teacher writes on blackboard, pupils take notes and memorize them. Don't get me wrong, there are exceptional teachers and programs.

For those pupils who don't fit in, France has some “alternative schools.” They go by the name of Montessori, Steiner, or Freinet. The country even has a few charter schools. To many Americans, these schools are the best of educational options! But many French people view them with suspicion or even derision.

In his latest book about French education, “French School Without Tears,” journalist Peter Gumbel goes into these alternative schools and reports about what's going on. (I read the paperback version in French, “Ces écoles pas comme les autres: A la rencontre des dissidents de l'éducation.)

What's shocking is that even though these schools have been generally successful over the past decades (and I mean decades), the French education system doesn't take them seriously. Many of the schools or teachers take a low profile, saying modestly, “we're not here to give the French system lessons.” When French education inspectors visit the schools, the attitude is to find out what's wrong, not what's going right. That's a shame, because study after study is showing that the traditional French system is failing.

Is the French educational system such a bad pupil, unwilling to learn and improve? Not entirely, Mr. Gumbel told me:

“So far the 'official' reaction has been largely positive. The book has been widely reviewed in the French press, and one of the reviews was published online by the Académie de Créteil. (The reviewer didn’t love the book but highlighted some points that he or she agreed with.)

“I have been invited to speak at various official conferences, including in Menton, where the city authorities invited me, and at the universities of Perpignan and Nancy, on the invitation of the education departments, as well as to numerous events in Paris. Also, Alain Juppé wrote me a nice letter. I found with my 2010 book, 'On achève bien les écoliers,' that the political parties tend to take a little longer to get their act together but hope I’ll be invited to various party conferences as I was then--the point of writing the book being to feed into the national debate about educational reform.
The French minister of education,
Najat Vallaud Belkacem

“No word yet from the cabinet of the minister, Najat Vallaud Belkacem, but I know from having talked to her before publication that she is quite ideological (i.e. anti) on the issue of alternatives.”

And Mr. Gumbel knows a bit about teaching himself, as he has taught at the prestigious Sciences Po (the equivalent of the Harvard Kennedy School of government). When he tries to engage students, foreign students tend to take the bait, working in teams and participating in discussions. “The French ones, because of the culture of their primary and secondary school system, were far more reluctant to participate,” Mr. Gumbel said.

What can French education learn from the country's own alternative schools? The author counts four best practices: 1. The best teachers regularly call into question their methods. 2. Teachers work closely together in teams. 3. Schools are run by administrations devoted to continuous improvement. 4. Teachers are concerned about the personal development of students, each of whom has a teacher who acts as tutor.

It sounds so reasonable, but is so difficult for an establishment that is used to giving lessons, not learning them.

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." 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris Is Crying

Living out of harm's way in the south suburbs of Paris, I was spared by Friday night's terrorist attack in the eastern part of the city. Spared but deeply saddened.

The country has long been the target of terrorism. In December 1994, nine months after we arrived to live in Paris, seven were killed in the hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 by members of the Armed Islamic Group.

In July 1995, members of the same group killed eight people in the underground bombings of the Metro and RER commuter train in the heart of Paris at St. Michel. As a journalist freelancing for USA Today, I ventured down into the empty caverns of the subway to report on the story. The odor of destruction still haunts me.
By French graphic artist Jean Jullien, Nov. 14, 2015

Friday's attack was the deadliest ever, with more than 150 killed and counting. Suicide bombers did their dirty work on innocent Parisians and visitors out on a lovely November evening to hear music or have a meal together.

Yesterday, I was overcome with grief. For those who lost loved ones, the city that has been deeply scarred, and the nation that has for so long been my second home.

At the same time, I was overwhelmed with the kindness of dozens of you who messaged and called with your thoughts and prayers—and so many from my fellow Pittsburghers, yinz are the best! Merci beaucoup! Je vous aime! I am touched and blessed.

I think I worried some people by my silence. I wasn't thinking that anybody would be worried about me! I set my Facebook status as “safe,” and wrote back to everyone to say I was safe--sort of.

Safe is an overstatement. I was not harmed, but don't feel “safe.” I went to church today feeling vulnerable in the second row, and have to admit that I was half-listening for gunfire during the sermon. I quizzed my daughter about what to do in an attack, and she answered correctly (fall to the floor).

Words are failing me, but one thing is resonating. It's the “Paris for Peace” symbol that's gone viral, drawn by the Frenchman Jean Jullien in the hours after the attack. It shares my hope for Paris, for France, and everyone who wants to find a way forward—peacefully.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Our Green Home – On TV!

One of the buildings in our new
eco-neighborhood, Issy-Seine,
just outside of Paris.
(Since I first published this post on Nov. 8, 2015, the TV segment aired on Nov. 22. You can see it here, "How the French are burning garbage to heat homes.")

Last week a TV crew came to our place to do some taping about our new eco-friendly neighborhood, for a documentary to be aired in the U.S. later this month on Public Broadcasting Service's Newshour weekend program. This will be part of the network's coverage of the global Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris on Nov. 30-Dec. 22.

A few days before, I called battle stations to clean the apartment—I even ironed a bedspread for the first time in my life. But it wasn't the bedrooms, bathrooom, or living rooms they wanted to film. They wanted to see the garbage cans!

That's because the crew was excited about how our apartment and the water is heated—and our garbage plays a big role. 

We sort our garbage into recyclables and the rest, and take them downstairs to the apartment's garbage room. There, we throw them into separate shoots, and by the power of pneumatics, the garbage is whooshed away about a mile north to a plant. The incinerator burns the garbage that can't be recycled, and sends the energy back to our building in the form of steam—which heats the building and its hot water. (The recyclables are sorted and sold for reuse.)

Not many cities in the world take advantage of this form of energy, called “district heating” (DH), but two examples are New York—and Pittsburgh, believe it or not! The idea is to produce and consume energy in the area where it's consumed—like eating locally sourced food.

DH in Denmark, for example, currently heats over 60% of homes with that number rising to 95% in Copenhagen, according to Renewable Energy Focus. (Read here about a renewal of Pittsburgh's ancient district energy system.)

One good thing about our DH system is … no garbage trucks! Because of the underground delivery system, there is no need for noisy, smelly trucks to be making their rounds. In my old neighborhood, that was a nasty 6:30 a.m. wake-up call! And because there are no garbage trucks, there is no pollution from them, and reduced pollution from the cars who aren't backed up waiting for the trucks that clog the streets.
Plus, DH makes us less dependent on the electricity grid, which is expensive in France. Another good thing: we don't have to deal with water heaters or furnaces in our apartment, small by U.S. standards at 750 square feet, which take up valuable space and require annual upkeep.

“Waste not, want not,” as the old saying goes. The beauty of DH is that it turns waste into something we want. All around, it's a good deal for us … and the environment.

(I don't know the exact date when this documentary will air, but I'll let you know in a future post.)

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris at After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home."

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Visit Versailles Outside-In

What to do with mom when she comes to Paris to visit you for a day? Go to Versailles of course! Secretly, I think both of us were hesitant about the idea. Me: The crowds! My mom: All that walking!

The palace of Versailles is the No. 1 tourist attraction in the Paris area, with over 3 million visitors a year and counting! 

How to beat the crowds? The Versailles website suggests getting there at the opening, at 9 a.m. So that's what we tried to do—but failed. I was to meet mom at her hotel, and go directly to the palace. But mom had a heavy bag of presents to give us, so that meant going home first. By the time we got to Versailles, it was 11 a.m.

To buy our tickets, we headed into the very helpful Versailles Tourist Office, about two blocks in front of the palace. Unless we wanted to wait in line for an hour, the clerk strongly advised us to delay our visit until 3 p.m.! What to do?

Visit the gardens! They are free of charge, and vast, stretching on for about 2,000 acres. I was tempted to rent a golf cart to get us around, but my teenage daughter was completely against such an embarrassing idea! I wonder what the French kings did to get around? Probably something like a golf cart, but pulled by horses.

The gardens are not just one garden, but is a group of individually designed and decorated areas. My favorite was “The King's Garden,” designed as an "English garden,” which is wilder and more natural than a manicured “French garden.” The French gardens at Versailles typically feature statues, and a pool or fountains—a high-tech flourish in the 17th century. My daughter and I wanted to see the gardens again after watching the excellent movie about their creation, “A Little Chaos” (2014).

The walking worked up our appetites. We saw a sign near the Apollo Fountains for a restaurant called La Petite Venise. That might just work, I thought, as it was off the beaten tourist trail. The white tablecloths gave us a fright, but we found a copious antipasti dish--Italian cold cuts, cheese, and vegetables--to share among the three of us at 31 euros. Perfect!

Fortified, we went to check out the lines for admission to the inside of the palace. To our surprise, the lines had completely disappeared. Or so it would seem. Once inside, tour groups flagging their selfie sticks choked the rooms. No fun at all! So after we saw the main sights--the queen and king's bedrooms, the chapel, and the Hall of Mirrors--we made a run for the exit.

Want to really enjoy Versailles? See it from the outside. When the French kings tired of being suffocated by life inside the palace, they found refuge in the gardens. Today's tourists can do the same. Use your admission fee to instead eat like royalty at one of the garden's restaurants. And don't be shy about renting a carriage, I mean a golf cart!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Martin Luther King Jr. In Paris

Nearly 50 years ago to this day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was visiting Paris, raising awareness for the civil rights movement in the U.S.

He was already world-famous. A year before, on Oct. 14, 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for using nonviolent action to combat racial inequality.

And then in March of 1965, he participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights. The peaceful marchers were met with a cruelty that many Americans across the country were able to view for the first time on television. Good came out of it: the landmark Voting Rights Act was passed just five months later.

So it was on Sunday, Oct. 24, 1965, that King preached at the American Church of Paris. The title of the sermon was “The New Jerusalem,” but nothing else is know about what he said in the pulpit. 

One can imagine that it was an early draft of his “I Have A Dream” speech. In the Bible, New Jerusalem is a place where “the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21).

The top thing on people's minds on that October day, however, was the Vietnam War. The preacher “encountered an intense debate about the America war in the former French colony. King conducted himself, reported the Paris press, with 'extreme discretion.'” (Richard Lentz, 1990) Only in 1967 did the preacher come out against the Vietnam War in an extremely controversial speech at the Riverside Church in New York.

In a sermon today at the American Church of Paris, commemorating King's speech, Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery, Dean of Duke University Chapel, reminded us that we are not yet living in the New Jerusalem--naming the black victims of the recent shootings in the U.S.

For that to happen, Powery said we have to “Speak and declare, 'injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' Speak because someone has to declare, 'Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.' Speak and declare, 'Guns are not Gods!'”

No one knew exactly what King said in Paris that day, 50 years ago, but I imagine that it was very much something like that.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Madrid: Drink, Eat, and Be Merry

Did I mean to say "eat, drink, and be merry"? Not in the case of Madrid, where my husband and I took a short break last week. In Spain, the drinks come first. The rest falls naturally into place.

In one eatery that we lucked into, El Paladar 24, I spotted a man at a counter eating a bowl of potato soup. I asked the server, can I have that? Yes of course, she said, we bring you that for free if you order a drink! 

So we ordered our drinks, and out came the soup—and four spoons. You see, food is meant to be shared in Spain. I like this country! 

Spain was a surprise for me. How can the people seem so happy? In a country that has suffered so much, most recently from the financial crisis, with an unemployment rate about 20%?

I think part of the answer is that they are more than ready to go out for a drink—whether it's a coffee, a glass of wine, or a beer—with friends or family, and have a good time. Around a plate of inexpensive food. 

Let me share some of the ways that we had a great time:

Breakfast, for us between 10 and 11 a.m., was at Pannus, a chain of 24-hour bakeries with a bustling but cheery staff and more pastries than in Paris. And cheap! Get the whole wheat mini elephant ears, 5 for 1 1/5 euros.

Try lunch at the traditional but quirky Los Gatos, a recommendation from the Rick Steves guidebook, and where I'd recommend the tuna salad, which came on a big platter for the four of us to share. After a glass of wine, of course!

On a tip from a former food guide in Spain, we ate at Taberna del Chato, for a modern take on classic tapas. The melon-colored, lightly creamy gazpacho, topped with crisped bacon bits, was my favorite. 

We discovered the El Paladar 24 on our own, wanting to have a bite to eat before watching some flamenco dancing at the nearby Tablao La Quimera, an authentic and small place off the beaten path. The cover includes a drink. Thanks to my colleague Alicia for the tip!

Source: La Chocolatería San Ginés
One day we had such a big, late lunch we decided to skip dinner altogether. Instead, we finished the day with a hot mug of chocolate at the historic La Chocolatería San Ginés, another recommendation from Rick. The dark liquid chocolate has the density of pudding, just right for the dunking with freshly fried churros.

Another discovery, and an easy one if you're visiting the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, is its cafeteria, where for my last meal I finally had what is the national dish, Iberian ham, served with slices of bread topped with diced fresh tomato. My husband had a stunning pasta dish, a shrimp blue cheese carbonara made with inky black noodles.

The Spanish people are the closest I've come in Europe to the friendliness of the people in my home town of Pittsburgh, itself the home of many a saloon. But sorry, Pittsburgh. Madrid wins, tapas down, when it comes to the bar ... food!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Growing A Life In Paris

I get a kick out of meeting Americans and others who are moving to Paris. They are so excited about living the dream. But at the same time, they’re worried. What about health care? Where do I find Cheerios for my two-year-old? A school for my teen? How do I fill this hole in my life—no friends, family, or language?
Last weekend, I met about 150 transplants at a day-long orientation program called “Bloom Where You Are Planted,” now in its 45th year.
I saw myself in their faces. Nearly 18 year ago, I was newly married, following my spouse who had secured his dream job. It was a French honeymoon! We thought we would be here for just 18 months.
See original image
A still from the movie "An American in Paris" (1951)
Except this time, I was volunteering for the program instead of taking part. I was reminded that moving abroad is more than an airplane ticket and a temporary rental apartment. It’s about making a happy life for yourself.
And how to do that? The speakers at Bloom were long on advice—sometimes conflicting. “Don’t mingle with English speakers,” said Simone Zanoni, the Italian executive chef at the Trianon Restaurant at Versailles. He came to Paris barely speaking little French, and it took time for him to win acceptance and acclaim.
Another speaker Melissa Dalton-Bradford, author of “Global Mom,” embraced whatever was in her house or next door. She learned her foreign languages via the friends of her four children, and built her community around a massive dinner table!
As for myself? Immersion is great, if your spouse is French, you’re going to French university or diving into a Franco-French workplace. But, that wasn’t me.
As a “trailing spouse” to a American working in an international organization where English was the working language, I met amazing people from all over the world. Why avoid that? Love the one you’re with!
I didn’t have an opening into the French world until I started working—in an American multinational where the house language is “Franglais”! Here’s a typical conversation: “Tu vas à la huddle sur le way we work?”
After 18 years, my French is horrible (which is English for not too bad) but I am happy.
Happy to have so many American friends that have become family—gros bisous to Shellie, Karen, Helen and so many others!
Happy to belong to American and other Englishy groups for immigrants, exiles, escapees, whatever you call us. Merci beaucoup to Toastmasters, WICE, the American Church, AAWE, etc. where I have learned so much and have met so many amazing English-speaking transplants--and so many fantastic French people!
Call it Bloom Where You Are Planted!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Female French Resistance: Truth Or Fiction?

Simone Segouin, a woman combatant in the French Resistance, near Chartres, August 23, 1944.
The Nightingale,” by Kristin Hannah, is about how ordinary French women summoned up extraordinary courage during the German occupation of their country in WWII. I wasn't expecting much from this New York Times best-selling author, but about half-way into the novel, I was hooked. How could things become worse? They did.

The story is about how two rivalrous sisters of Carriveau, a fictional town somewhere in the Loire Valley, play out their roles during the war. Courageous Isabelle becomes a member of the resistance. She's a runner, leading fallen British aviators out of France across the Pyrenees mountains into Spain and out of danger. Her sister Vianne seems more like the typical woman of her time. A mother. A teacher. And dependent on her husband, who is forced to enlist and leave. We fear she will betray all and become a collaborator--in order to survive.

Through this book, I learned much about how women coped in wartime France, thanks to the author's research. Women queuing for hours to buy very little with their ration coupons. Wearing shoes with wooden soles when the leather ran out. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a bomb hit, or a when German soldier decided it was time to maintain order at a border crossing. Or being rounded up as a Jew, a spy, or for breaking curfew. It left me in tears.

In this book, you'll find only heroines, however, no female “collabos.” As if to say that all French women faced ambiguous situations where it may have “looked like” they helped the enemy in some small degree or other, but, in the end, they all slayed their occupiers. I'm not underestimating how difficult it must have been for French women to survive under occupation. But there were certainly other women, like Coco Chanel, who found it convenient and lucrative to become very close to the enemy (read Hal Vaughan’s “Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War”).

Ms. Hannah gives us the happy ending we all want. And the version of history that France desperately reaches for. In May 2015, France interred Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, two female heroes of the resistance in the Panthéon, the resting place of the nation’s great, in addition to two male members. It's no doubt that these women were brave. But was there a French Resistance, or more or less acts of resistance? The latest book about the WWII resistance, "Fighters in the Shadows," by Robert Gildea, sets out to answer that question.

(More resistance reading: “The Secret Ministry of AG. & Fish: My Life in Churchill's School for Spies,” by the British author Noreen Riols, who helped support French Resistance fighters.)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

If You Can't Go To Versailles … Go Here


On my lunch break one day this week, I dove into a little-known museum called the Jacquemart-André in the 8th arrondissement. (If my boss happens to be reading, I did in fact accomplish this feat and eat a salad at Jour within my 1.25 hour official Paris lunchtime.) 

I felt victorious, because I vowed (oh so many years ago) to become a member of the museum, just so I could pop in and out for a short visit. Without buying a 12 euro ticket and feeling that strange need to ''get my money's worth'' and stay the whole day.

You see, this Versailles-like mansion is just two blocks from work. There's no reason in Paris why I should whine about not having time to enjoy the city's treasures, with this museum on my office's doorstep.

To see why I say it's like Versailles, just look at milady’s bedroom. The lady was artist Nélie Jacquemart, who married French banker Edouard André, and together they built this home, and traveled the world collecting art to fill it. To decorate her room, Mme. Jacquement took inspiration from the rococo style of Louis XV, who was born and reigned at Versailles in the previous century.

It's a style we Americans think as “typically French.” And yet, the French were heavily influenced by Italian culture.

I clearly saw that influence in the museum's latest exhibition, “Florence, Portraits of the Court of Médicis,” that just opened Sept. 11. It was my first just glance at this exquisite exhibit spanning from 1492 to about 1600.

Most of the portraits in the first room were like Mona Lisas: They were Italians dressed in black, eyes staring at the onlooker, thin hints of smiles. (Eerily, the ID photo on my museum pass looks a lot like that.) The exhibit is not all like that. One hundred years later, the Medicis are definitely into wearing their wealth.

The Florentines commissioned portraits of themselves to basically tell others (and remind themselves) of their superior place in the world. Their family bred dukes, kings, and popes—and a lot of rivalry and war. The Medicis would've loved today's selfies.

Mr. and Mrs. Jacquemart-André continued the tradition of pomp and circumstance, but it ended with them. They had no children. Faithful to the plan agreed with her husband, Mrs. Jacquemart bequeathed the mansion and its collections to the Institut de France as a museum, and it opened to the public in 1913.

I hope you'll get to enjoy this gift from Mr. and Mrs. Jacquemart-André. Especially if you don't manage to get to Versailles. You'll also appreciate this: no lines at the door, and a restaurant with some of the lightest lunches and densest desserts in town in a lavish, gilt setting. You'll eat like royalty.
Photo: Jacquemart-André Museum.

Saturday, September 19, 2015