Archive for March, 2010

Some Lighter Quotes

After the overly angsty and dramatic quotes from a couple days ago, I decided to set the record straight: yes, I love angsty literature. I really like sad stories, songs, movies that make you cry, and perfectly happy endings make me feel a little miffed because they just aren’t real.  But, in reality, my life is not in fact angst ridden, and I like it that way because it provides a contrast for my literary escapes.  So, here are some actual quotes/ events from the past several weeks of my life to share my reality with you.

•One of the girls I babysit, age 10, upon watching me spread a generous, but by no means excessive amount of Nutella on my crêpe:  “Now Hannah, don’t you think you have had enough Nutella already?”  I hung my head in shame and made some lame excuse about accidently taking too much. Then we she went to bed, I hit the kitchen again for one dripping in chocolate goodness.

•Same child: “Hannah, I am at the age where I have to start watching my figure, you know?”  News flash to perfectly shaped Parisians:  No 10 year old should need to prendre soin de ma ligne— literally, “take care of my line.”

•I did get a pencil case finally, thanks to my dear friend Megan, and it was greeted by my students with applause.  I have nothing to put in it, but I wanted to shake it for emphases, so I filled it with my chapstick, nail file, and 2 lonesome pens.  Must buy full multi-colored set complete with that erasable double tipped blue pen these kids love so much.

•One of the other girls I babysit, age 5: “Spring is the season when young ladies put on pretty dresses and sit on park benches like this [ demonstrates damsel in distress sidesaddle pose]. Hannah, please try to pretty dress and wear it tomorrow.”

•I am doing a body part unit with my kids.  Unfortunately, the English word “face” sounds very close to the french word for butt, fesses.  This took “Simon Says” in a direction unintended unintended.

•Same 5 year old, trying to convince me that I too should be on facebook’s “Farmville” because, “It teaches valuable skills like how to collect your apples so that someday you can have a real garden.”


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I grew up reading so much, and going to so many historical monuments, that somewhere along the way I think I just started mixing the two. The result is that I now want to go to places where books happened, the way that some people like to visit famous battlefields. I love authors that anchor their story to an actual address, rather than letting it just float in our imagination. My friend Jonathan loaned me a book a while back where the entire novel takes place in one building here in Paris, 7 rue de Grenelle. One of the best books I have read lately, I already shared one of its best quotes when I blogged about Paris’ beautiful tearooms. Last week I wandered over to see 7 rue de Grenelle myself. It is in fact, a Prada store, but I can’t help but think that this is intentional, as I just started another book by the author that takes place in the same location. I stood pondering what it could signify for awhile, before giving up and deciding that some symbols are best left unstudied. I love good quotes, and Muriel Barbery’s L’élégance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) is packed with perfect ones, so I want to share a few. (For the non-sentimental readers, the ones who don’t treasure quote journals and reread them, just skip this post.) I apologize that they won’t be as perfect as the originals, as I am translating them.

“In these days, you desperately need Art. . . You passionately wish that something rescue from your terminal biological destiny, that all poetry and beauty not be erased from this world.”

“Camellias against the moss on a temple, violet mountain tops, a perfect blue porcelain cup, this emergence of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passions – isn’t this what we all crave?”

“Art is life, but lived in another rhythm . . . Art is emotion without desire.”

“What does Art do for us? It puts into form and renders visible our emotions.”

“What is beautiful is what one can seize as it passes. It is the transient configuration of things at the moment when one sees simultaneously beauty and death.”

“The peace that we feel when we are alone, this certitude of ourselves in the serenity of solitude is nothing compared to the freedom we feel when with kindred company.”

“I will never again see those I love and if dying is this, it is very much the tragedy we have always claimed.”

“I think that finally, this is life: much unhappiness and disappointment, but also moments of beauty where time seems different. It is like the musical notes make a sort of parentheses in time, a suspension, something beyond this life, a forever in the never. Yes that is it, a forever in the never. And so, I will seek from this point on to find the eternal in a world of temporality, the forever in the never, the beauty in this world.”

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Crépescule: Sunset

I love sunsets.  I love that fleeting moment before the day goes to sleep when everything is color and has that slightly pink haze.  So many sunsets in Paris are marred by clouds and smog, but recently, spring breezes and clear days have given two especially breathtaking ones. Their are two French words for sunset, one is le coucher du soleil, literally, the sun going to sleep, and the other is le crépescule, twilight.   I found this poem by Guillame Apollinaire entitled Crépescule. I am trying to read more French poetry, inspired by the fact that French school children memorize the great poems of the French authors beginning at about the age where I was mastering tying my shoes.  Here it is, in translation (not my own, and for the record, poetry and songs really just always lose something in translation. To truly understand this, take any boy band song from the nineties, and imagine how stupid it would sound if you had to explain the translation a phrase like “I want it that way”):


Brushed by shadows of the dead

On the grass where day expires

Columbine strips bare admires

her body in the pond instead

A charlatan of twilight formed

Boasts of the tricks to be performed

The sky without a stain unmarred

Is studded with the milk-white stars

From the boards pale Harlequin

First salutes the spectators

Sorcerers from Bohemia

Fairies sundry enchanters

Having unhooked a star

He proffers it with outstretched hand

While with his feet a hanging man

Sounds the cymbals bar by bar

The blind man rocks a pretty child

The doe with all her fauns slips by

The dwarf observes with saddened pose

How Harlequin magically grows

*See another really amazing sunset picture by going here: http://www.alumbraphotoblog.com/2010/03/22/that-sweet-salty-air/

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If you were to randomly pick any 3 of my blog posts at random, chances are good that at least one of them would reference macarons.  Today’s post gets to indulge all my macaron fantasies, as yesterday was March 20th, or “Le jour du Macaron” at Pierre Hermé.   About a month ago, a friend told me I need to stop by a little store on the Rue Bonaparte to try their macarons as they were supposedly better than Ladurée.  Now, I am pretty loyal, but even I had to admit that the odd flavors of PH were just about perfect.

Several months ago, my friend Emma’s cousin Sarah told me about le jour du macaron, where stores all over Paris give away free macarons.  Pierre Hermé started the trend, giving you three free macarons.  We have been planning on getting some freebies since then, but recently Sarah found out even better news. This year Pierre Hermé issued a challenge – or so my competitive American self likes to term it.  If you got your PH map validated in all 6 stores on March 20th, not only would you get 18 free macarons, they would give you a box of 40. Please let that sink in.  However the offer lasts only as long as the stocks held out. And if there is one thing Parisians love, it is aggressively waiting in lines.  Thus Emma, Sarah, and I resolved to start early to ensure winning. Yes that’s right, we (ok, so I might have been a little more aggressive at first, but they caught the fever) wanted to win. True, there could be more than one winner, but until we had those boxes in our hands, everyone else was competition.

We dubbed it the Macaronanathon 2010, because we did run the whole way.   I really do mean ran, and we were not alone with women in Gucci sunglasses and Prada purses right beside us elbowing Japanese tourists with big cameras.  I give you the play by play, following a plan outlined by Sarah, who had figured the path with the quickest commutes.

8:45- Meet at Galleries LaFayette.  At first, it was just me and a homeless woman with her cat, but soon after Emma, her brother Daniel, and Sarah showed up and then a crowd quickly amassed near the doors.  Initially, we were half way joking about running towards the counter. Then the doors opened.  Something snapped in my macaron driven psyche, and I was SPRINTING through Galleries LaFayette. And I was not alone.  Despite sprinting, we were second in line behind a woman and her two children.

9:58-  After a metro and dead sprint, we arrive at Pierre Hermé #2, the second people in line.  Macaron Mom and her kids are now three people behind us.  Emma is declaring that she is ashamed to be sprinting down the Rue de Rivoli, but is doing it anyways.  We see two well-dressed and poised women in line, who had their husbands to drive them to each store.

10:15- Running through Charles De Gaulle Etoile, the longest metro station ever.  A brief worry over the Line 1’s efficiency almost derailed our plans, but we recovered by eating macrons that got smashed in the first round of sprints.

10:20-  PH #3, in which Emma is trapped into talking with the representative of the charity present in each store ( the idea being that you make a donation as you are snacking on free yummies).  Like the true friends we are, we left her. Someone had to wait in line at the next place (don’t worry, she made it out and caught up).

10:39- FOREVER long run to PH #4. As we are jogging to the next metro, we pass Macaron Mom and her exhausted kids. Macaronathon isn’t for everyone.

11- At PH #5 we received much needed encouragement as the clerk exclaimed that we were the first group she had seen with 5 stores.  By this point, we look pretty bad.  Sweaty, disheveled, and with a slightly manic expression, all shame has evaporated.

11:34-  We arrive at the last store, Rue Bonaparte.  The line is long here, and Macaron Mom is nowhere in sight.  The husbands drop the same non-sweaty and poised wives right at the door. After about 30 minutes in line, we enter and have that moment of pure joy when we turned over our full cards.   I think the clerks thought we were insane because we were so giddy.  Between the freebies and boxes for the four of us, we had accumulated 224 macarons in odd flavors like chocolate foie gras, green tea, Jasmine blossom, and wasabi and raspberry.

They told us that we were the first to get the box, which in hindsight means we probably could have slept in, walked slowly, and arrived at the final destination with hair and make-up intact.  But would it have been as fun?  Climbing onto my roof to eat our macarons in the spring sunshine, I don’t think anyone could have been happier.

Thus when I say we won the Macaronathon 2010, I don’t just mean we finished first (even though we did!).  I also mean we finished loudest, sweatiest, and giddiest.  We finished happiest, and sometimes that is what winning is all about.

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My Tuesday was very stressful.  I guess it would be more correct to specify that the whole day wasn’t stressful, just the critical 45 minutes of commute from Aulnay to pick up the girls I babysit in Paris.  On Tuesdays I teach late, and so it is a mad dash to the train station then a dash to the girls’ school to get there just in time.   This week, the teacher whose class I had for English was late returning, giving me 5 minutes to sprint the distance that usually takes 15 minutes to speed walk.  As I charged across the plaza in front of the station, I could see that my train was pulling in, and I truly thought I could make it down into the station, then up the stairs onto the platform.  I want to pause and say that my friend Sarah has been teasing me that most of my stories climax in me dramatically hurling myself into the train and just barely making it after prying the doors open.  This story did not end that way.  As I was bolting up the stairs to the platform, I heard the door buzz, and so I lunged forward.  I don’t know what said lunge was supposed to accomplish, as I was still close to the bottom of the steps.  In a truly graceful spread eagle fashion, I instead face planted into the steps, taking two chic French women out as well.

Therefore, by the time I showed up [late] to get the girls, I was sweaty, looking disheveled, and tired.  But thankfully, it’s spring. And spring means that I can once again squire the girls over to the Luxembourg garden where I happily sit on a chair and listen to laughter echo through the trees.  The garden was perfect, bursting at the seams with people happy to finally be out in the sun.  I lost one of my favorite gloves in my mad dash to the train, but symbolically, I don’t think I will need them any more.  This week has brought sun, flowers, and promises of spring actually staying around for good.  Popping out of the wintery brown dirt there are flowers and little buds hanging on to bear branches.  Behind where the kids play at the garden, there is an especially perfect patch of flowers.  Purple and yellow crocuses cover a space between two towering trees, and unlike ever other surface in Luxembourg, they bloom freely, defying neat rows and trim plots.

One of the girls told me that everyone was a little crazy because it was spring, and I explained to her that in English we give that the name “spring fever.”  What is it about spring that makes everyone a little giddy every year?  I think that even though we know it isn’t true, winter makes us believe that spring will never come.  When we see the first flowers shoot up, the first signs of life coming from death, we feel almost giddy with anticipation of what is to come.  This is my first spring not in the country, and the signs of the seasons come more subtly in the city.  Yet on Tuesday in Luxembourg, surrounded by crocuses of violet and gold, I could see spring’s perennial triumph.

Sarah, on a walk through Luxembourg over the weekend, before the yellow was filled in with purple

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“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” – Charles De Gaulle

I live in an apartment that is 10 square meters. I have no wifi, the bathroom is in the hall, and I walk 8 flights of stairs.  And yet, I currently have nine different types of cheese in my mini fridge.  Thus goes life in France.

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I think I have mentioned before the penchant that French school children have for school supplies.  Despite their love of rebellion, French schools are strongholds of graph paper, rulers, perfect penmanship, and color-coded grading systems.  Every student has at least 2 different pencil cases, one for daily class work and one for artistic endeavors.  No kid comes to class without pens in every color, white out, glue stick, ruler, compass, and colored pencils.  One time I asked if anyone had a tissue, and suddenly 30 personal packs of Kleenex were removed from backpacks and handed forward.

I am the weak link in this world of scholastic perfection.  I have no pencil case, thus I am forever losing my red pen, leaving me to grade in green, which throws all the students into a frenzy as teachers grade in red.  I just recently got a ruler, and my slanted lines puzzled my pupils. Every time I have to borrow someone’s glue, scissors, or red pen, my students shake their heads and someone will pipe up with advice that I should buy a pencil case.  Eventually, I will probably cave.  I think I want one of the ones that has all the cursive letters on the outside, because the French make theirs differently than I learned . . . and I haven’t written in cursive since 6th grade.  I have finally mastered most of the letters, but a couple still elude me, leading to the occasional mockery by a pack of 7 year olds.  The other day one of the girls I babysit for forgot her homework. This led to me sitting on he phone scribbling madly while a mother dictated to me 2 full pages of a reading assignment.  I was then forced to copy over multiple lines by the 10 year old tyrant who recommended that I used graph paper next time to make it neater.  I also gave a quiz last week, cautioning students that anyone who talked during class would receive a check on their paper and when I graded them I would see it and remove a half point.  One especially chatty kid received a check.  When I passed by shortly after I saw that he had used white out to cover it up.  When I demanded why, he said very politely that I hadn’t made it neatly and it made his whole paper look messy.

Someday, all of my pupils will grow up to be typical French citizens. They will go on strike at the drop of a hat, they will cut in line, they will smoke flagrantly next to the no smoking signs.  Yet I have seen French adults pull pencil cases from their bags and their handwriting still bears witness of years spent on graph paper with ruler close at hand.

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Calla Lilies

The other day I visited my favorite florist in Aulnay to pick up some sketching flowers.   Nothing improves the RER ride home like holding a crisply wrapped bunch of  calla lilies! After photographing the life out of their perfect secondary triad selves, I did some sketches.  I always feel so artsy sketching flowers in my little garret high above the city.  The only thing that ruins the image is that I sometimes watch movies while I sketch, and my selection is limited. How artsy can you be while you are watching Dirty Dancing in French?

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Maman et Moi à Paris

If it seems that I fell off the face of the blogging universe, it was due to the fact that my mom has been in Paris for the past week, and blogging hasn’t fit into our schedule of sites, long walks, museums, the ballet, and good meals. Besides a 2 hour layover in Paris some 30 years ago, my mom has never been to France, thus I packed as much into our time as possible.  We spent a day in Versailles marveling at the gaudy grandeur of Lois XIV, then another day in Chartres soaking in the tranquil cathedral, but the bulk of our time was spent enjoying Paris.

Besides the fact that we look alike, my mom and I are linked by a simple truth: we are both foodies.  We love finding cute restaurants, dainty desserts, and culinary oddities.  I honestly feel that many cultures can be studied through the lens of what and how they eat, or at least, that was the rationale we continued to employ at each snack break.  Every person who comes to see me has some particular French treat that they can’t get enough of (if you have read more than 2 or 3 of my posts picked at random, you probably know that mine is macarons).  For my mom, we rarely passed on an almond pastry or chocolat chaud à l’ancienne.  Far superior to regular hot chocolate, the French version consists of a pitcher of straight melted chocolate and a bowl of fluffy whipped cream, which you mix to your liking.  As someone who feels that the more superfluous and lovely items you can use to eat something the better, I never tire of the ritual.  And as France is a country that I rarely see choosing efficiency and practicality over beauty, they usually supply enough extra kitchen and table trinkets to make me happy. Why have just a cup for hot chocolate when you could have a cup, saucer, pitcher of chocolate, bowl of cream, bowl of sugar cubes (brown and white), at least 2 spoons, wafer to dip in the chocolate, and lovely tray to hold it all?

By far our most “cultural” dining experience was at a restaurant we found off the beaten path late one night.  Here is the exchange I had with the waiter, who was also the owner and busboy, beginning by me asking if they happened to have a menu in English for my mom:

Fernand (Waiter/owner/busboy):  Of course not! Do they give me menus in French when I go to the states?

Hannah:  Oh well, ok (translating for mom and then ordering).  She’ll have the lamb and a diet coke.

Fernand: (calmly, and nicely, but unflinching in his resolve) Absolutely not.  She can not drink Coke with my lamb! It would be an insult.  How would you like the lamb cooked?

Hannah: She would like it well down.

Fernand: (throwing his hands up) Impossible! You will massacre the whole meal!  Well done?  You might as well eat this table! (raps table to emphasize point while my mom just stares and smiles, not understanding any of the French exchange)

Hannah: I know, I know, but she likes it that way. I’ll have mine medium (trying to placate him)

Fernand: Americans! You must civilize her.  Hers will be medium too and she will like it.

Despite his bossiness, our food was perfect, and Fernand was a delight, later telling us about his taste in country music.  As we left, my mom and I were jok

ing that no waiter would ever discourage you from ordering anything extra in the US, even if it would “massacre the meal.”  Pushy, Fernand was, but it was also comforting to have someone proud of what he does and more interested in the perfection of the product then the price he could charge us for it.

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