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We’ll call it a vacation

November 7, 2009

As some of you know, I’ve left Paris for a while. I’m hoping it won’t be permanent, but until I return, I’ve decided to switch to another blog so that this one won’t jump horribly off-topic. If you’d like to continue reading about my life, you can check out Chenille, the plucky, inching-along-one-day-at-a-time blog.  Hope you all enjoy it, and until I write next, happy travels.

À bientôt.


Paris Post: the US edition

October 8, 2009

Hello to everyone. As some of you know, I’ve been taking a longer-than-planned stint in the U.S. Here’s to hoping I’ll soon be back in Paris, but meanwhile …

Coming back to the United States always makes me realize that a lot of what France has taught me isn’t about France at all; it’s about that home of mine the U.S. of A. — and even more about my hometown of K.C.K. (that’s Kansas City, Kansas to you out-of-towners). Here’s a few things I’ve realized over my time in Paris:

1. “Socialism” isn’t a dirty word everywhere. In KC, calling someone a socialist is almost like calling them an evil mastermind, but in France it’s more like calling someone a democrat. In fact, most of Europe’s politics are skewed a little further left than American ones. The French right-wing UMP (Popular Movement Party) is more equivalent to our democratic party, and their left-wing PS (or Socialist Party) falls even further left of center. But what did I learn from all of this? The “line” in politics that divides right from left isn’t immovable, which is good news for both sides.

2. Etiquette is relative. Growing up in a place where it’s perfectly acceptable (and I still think rightfully so) to eat fries with your hands, I was shocked to find that in France people eat nearly everything with a knife and fork. Adjusting to this rule was tougher than I expected. In fact, I still find myself realizing that I’ve eaten half my fries by hand and resignedly taking up my fork. Tant pis.

3. “Fast food” is both more universal and less so than I expected. Coming to France, Starbucks junkies will be relieved to discover that there is indeed at least one on nearly every corner (and I’ve seen as many as three). There are also McDonald’s and Subway. However, in fast-food battle, McDonald’s has beaten Burger King out of France (though the King is still live and well and hanging out with Dunkin’ Donuts in Germany. Go figure).

4. Compared to the rest of the world, we know very little geography, and not enough languages. It’s sad but true. I know that despite Sporcle’s countries of the world quiz, I cannot name much on the map.

But there’s a reason for this one. America is a lot bigger than most countries in Europe. Unlike France and Germany, it is divided into 50 distinguishable states — some larger than France herself (Holla, Texas and Alaska!). This puts us in a tough spot. While most little children in France were memorizing European countries and nearby African ones, we looked at those as a second priority because after all just mastering the U.S. was going to take awhile for a fifth grader.

5. When I attended Sciences Po in Paris, the first question was not, “What’s your major?” but, “How many languages do you speak?” Needless to say, my measly “two” wasn’t impressive compared to the threes, fours and fives (of which there were surprisingly several),

Here again, though, there is a small (if somewhat inadequate) explanation. Growing up in Poland, you realize fairly quickly that few people outside your country will understand what you’re saying. But wait, by learning French only France and parts of Belgium will begin to understand you, so why not pick up English as well? If every Kansan needed to know a different language to speak to Missourians and another for Nebraskans, I bet we’d all be at least trilingual.

I’m not saying that this should excuse us, though. Globalization is fast a-comin’, and learning another language can only make you more valuable (especially if it’s one like Chinese or Arabic).

Hope all of you are having a lovely autumn. Stay tuned for more adventures.

Ode to the baker down the street

August 28, 2009
My baker's bread. No artificial preservatives here!

My baker's bread. No artificial preservatives here!

Bread is just more important in France. (Period.) There really are bread shops everywhere (All the stories are true), and most people in Paris buy their bread fresh daily.

What people in the U.S. don’t realize is that there are a few tiers of bread-making in Paris.

3. There’s the Franprix / Monoprix breads, which are barely a cut above what you’ll find in American supermarket bakeries. (These are indeed supermarket brands of bread.)

2. Midorée at Paul breads. These are generally good, but often pricier than regular boulangers, and they don’t necessarily meet French bread standards.

1. Actually boulangeries. These are the breadmakers you’ve heard so much about. Their bread is aromatic, crusty (in a good way), and baked fresh at least three times a day.

The boulanger down our street belongs to tier #1. He’s a large man who always smiles when I ask for a baguette (which, incidentally, means “stick” — the word for bread is pain, but baguettes come in long wands, which is where they get their name). Mainly, I adore his bread because when I buy it, it is almost always warm, and has the perfect texture.

Sadly, I’m moving away from this boulanger. I’ll be in the U.S. for a while, and after that I’ll keep you all in touch, but in the meanwhile, I felt that I needed to memorialize the maker of the best bread I’ve ever tasted. Ever. So long boulangerie. I’ll miss you.

À la mode à grand Paris

August 24, 2009

There is nothing worse for fashion anxiety than a trip to Paris. As I said in a previous post, the “in style” bar is about 20 feet higher (so high that one of those pole vaulter sticks might come in handy).

A dress by Madeleine Vionnet, courtesy the Musée des Arts décoratifs

An evening dress by Madeleine Vionnet, 1936, courtesy the Musée des arts décoratifs. Robe du soir, hiver 1936, Les Arts Décoratifs,Union Française des Arts du Costume © Patrick Gries. See how the fabric wraps around to make such an amazing silhouette?

Fortunately, there is also a lot of inspiration. You can find it on the streets, where nearly every woman is sporting shirtdresses (which the New York Times talks about here), long empire-waist summer dresses and dramatic color pairings like deep indigo-purple with gray.

In France, people take fashion more seriously than just dressing nicely. They have whole museums dedicated to the practice. On that note, I recently visited one of them, the Musée des arts décoratifs, to see the exposition Madeleine Vionnet: Puriste de la mode. The exposition displays the creations of one Madeleine Vionnet, a couturier (or “fasion designer”) — just think as her as Yves Saint Laurent for the first half of the twentieth century (with a whole lot more wearable clothing).

This one makes me think of a Grecian princess. Dress by Madeleine Vionnet, courtesy the Musée des Arts décoratifs.

This one makes me think of a Grecian princess. Evening dress by Madeleine Vionnet, 1935, courtesy the Musée des arts décoratifs. Robe du soir, hiver 1935, Les Arts Décoratifs,Union Française des Arts du Costume © Patrick Gries

Vionnet, as far as I can tell, had an uncanny ability to take two or three pieces of fabric, fold them around in a clever way, and build a completely flattering dress out of it (as you can see int he first photo). Nowadays in haute couture, there are a lot of beautiful dresses I could admire as art, but very few that I would actually wear. This collection was full of things I would have killed (almost) to have in my closet.

We have Vionnet herself to thank for the dozens of dresses on display at Les Arts Décoratifs. She donated them to the Union Française des Arts du Costume in 1952, and they now are part of the museum’s fashion collection.

Vionnet’s dresses are displayed behind glass on black backgrounds, but usually they are arranged so that you can see all sides of the dress without too much neck bending. There are photos of women modeling different dresses, and videos show you the way some of the dresses were constructed. I was surprised to find that most of the time, Vionnet only used a few pieces of fabric to create seemingly complex designs.

The exhibit will be going on at 107, rue de Rivoli from now until January 31, 2010, so you have plenty of time if you’re planning a trip in the next few months. If you’d like more information about the exhibit, visit the site here. Ticket prices vary based on your age an where you come from (Sadly, there is no free entry for non-EU country natives, but there are some reduced price ticket options for young people).

If you’re in need of a fashion pick-me-up, this exhibit is definitely worth the entry fee.

I love the frills on this one! Dress by Madeleine Vionnet, courtesy the Musée des Arts décoratifs.

I love the frills on this one! Evening dress by Madeleine Vionnet, 1921, courtesy the Musée des Arts décoratifs. Robe du soir, hiver 1921, Les Arts Décoratifs,Union Française des Arts du Costume © Patrick Gries

Check out the travel notes

August 18, 2009

(Up there)

This squiggly arrow is trying to point out the new page Travel Notes on the top right-hand corner of the blog (just below the header). The page Travel Notes page is dedicated to odds and ends and interesting advice I’ve picked up during my visits to Europe and particularly Paris. I’d also love to hear your suggestions, so feel free to comment and let me know what you think or if you have something to add! Happy travels, everyone!

Vandalism at the Fondation Cartier

August 13, 2009
Courtesy the Fondation Cartier, Stalingrad, Paris © Henry Chalfant

Courtesy the Fondation Cartier, Stalingrad, Paris © Henry Chalfant

The other day, I went to the Fondation Cartier (which is, as far as I can tell, from the same organism that makes these), and to my shock and surprise, I discovered the walls covered in spray paint, tags written on the wall and a cartoonish character grimacing out at me.

Ok, so I was actually expecting this. In fact, it was what I had come to see. The Fondation Cartier is currently holding “Né dans la rue” (“Born in the streets”), an exposition about graffiti. It including information about its history as well as work and interviews from some of today’s most interesting artists. For the occasion, Cartier had every surface of the place painted, right down to the snack stand in the back yard. Even the glass façade of the building was painted over in red and silver letters.

Courtesy the Fondation Cartier, Redbird in the Bronx, 1973 Photo by Jon Naar © Jon Naar, 2009.

Courtesy the Fondation Cartier, Redbird in the Bronx, 1973 Photo by Jon Naar © Jon Naar, 2009.

The reason this exposition is worth my letting you know about it is because graffiti challenges some definitions of art (and let’s face it; there are about as many definitions of art as there are people who exist). In many of the taped interviews, artists or “writers” expressed admiration at others who could paint a whole subway car before the cops came. One artist said that now he’s become well-known and no longer goes on midnight painting sprees, he misses one of the fundamental elements of tagging: It is illegal.

One document displayed at the Fondation named young taggers who had died at a young age, one because he’d been smashed by a subway train while tagging another stopped car; one was shot while in the process of a robbery. It’s clear that these artists were not the from the upper class. Their art is clandestine and even fame-seeking. It is a hard urban art that was developed by 14-year-olds looking for a way to make their voices heard. In fact, it’s an art that pushes so far past art’s safe boundaries that some people call it vandalism.

And sometimes, I admit that I’d have to agree. There were moments as I looked at the exposition when I wondered if I could consider a small tag as art. After all, if I owned the shop it had been written on, I might not be so thrilled by “Tiki 141” sitting smack dab in the center of my clean window. But the movement’s undeniable force has brought it up to Cartier’s polished establishment at Raspail, and there is no question that the exposition has breathed colorful, vibrant life into the building. Consider the envelope pushed, punctured and unsealed. Graffiti has invaded Paris.

Courtesy the Fondation Cartier, art by Seen, Hand of Doom,  New York, 1980.  Photo Henry Chalfant. Exhibition Born in the streets - Graffiti  Fondation Cartier pour l’art Contemporain, Paris,  july 7 –  november 29, 2009

Courtesy the Fondation Cartier, art by Seen, Hand of Doom, New York, 1980. Photo Henry Chalfant. Exhibition Born in the streets - Graffiti Fondation Cartier pour l’art Contemporain, Paris, july 7 – november 29, 2009

The museum you never knew existed

August 9, 2009

So last Sunday was free museum day in Paris. (This would be the first Sunday of every month, and  on this day every national museum is 100 percent free for tourists, children, Paris natives — everybody). I had decided to hit up Musée Rodin, but fate had other things in mind …

That day, I met Mme Gaudouen on her way to the Musée d’Orsay. She explained to me that the Musée Rodin was better on a clear day (it was cloudy) because of the gardens at Rodin. I sighed and started to go back to the apartment when …

Mme Gaudouen came walking up the stairs to tell me that we should go instead to the Musée Moreau, a little Musée near métro stops Blanche and Pigalle in Montmartre. Happy to follow, I strapped on my latest pair of heels and headed out.

Only to find myself walking gingerly and concentrating on stepping first on my heels as we walked down the giant mount that is Montmartre. (I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. The name does mean “Mount of Martyrs” after all.) Trying not to look bothered, I followed in line as we wandered around the district looking at addresses and the handy-dandy pocket map that all Parisians carry at all times and trying to avoid the stares of women inside the little pleasure shops that litter the area.

And then, as I walked behind Mme Gaudouen, she took a sharp turn. My first instinct was to stop her from entering someone’s home, but after a minute I realized that this was the museum.

Musée Moreau is named for Gustave Moreau, a painter who lived from 1826 – 1898. Upon his death he donated his house to be used as a museum for his own paintings — a pretty good scheme if you want to stay a well-known painter, if you ask me. Either way, the place is magnificent. There are two large rooms which hold nothing but his paintings and various drawings hidden away in cupboards that guests can snoop through at any time. Meanwhile, lower rooms show the artists’ furniture and bedchambers.

Moreau’s paintings are a strangely satisfying mixture of Pollock-esque paint splatterings and almost photograph-like accuracy. His subjects are mainly mythological or Biblical and yield darkly dramatic results. After the visit, I must admit that he is likely my new favorite painter.

So if you can, never pass up a visit to the museum you never knew existed. It might just be the best thing you’ve seen yet.