Sunday, August 26, 2007

Second Wind

Who would have thought that I would ever get into aerobic exercise? I remember back in high school there was a 600-yard walk/run. What torture that was for the couch potato I was then! I was almost dead by the time we arrived at the finish line. France has changed all that. Or rather, being unemployed in France has changed all that. When I arrived in France I had a job. Now I have a job. In between I was unemployed ("en chomage"). Which is a bummer. Maybe that is why the French government gives unemployed people ("chomeurs") bunches of benefits. (Sometimes you wonder if maybe you should stay unemployed to keep up all the benefits – but no, no! Don't listen to me. I'm still a good American who works, works, works). These include free admittance to most museums. And free entry to all the municipal swimming pools of Paris! For awhile, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I decided to try it. I got hooked on lap swimming.

Even now that I'm working again, I still go to the pool and swim for 30 minutes without stopping. When I begin the laps, I can swim about six strokes without breathing. Then it hits - heavy breathing, or having to breathe with each stroke. Then, breathing every other stroke. Finally, after about 20 to 25 minutes I get into what I call "second wind". My breathing slows down; I feel really centered; and I go even faster than before. Wow! I think of it as a reward for busting my gut and suffering. Justice! Long live second wind. If you'd like to find out more about swimming in Paris, take a look at my E-Book, "Life in Paris: The Real Thing".

Friday, August 10, 2007

Riding a Bike in Paris

I have just returned from riding my bike, and once again I thank my lucky stars that I am still alive. Riding a bike in Paris ain't for sissies. BB (Before Bike), I dreamed of floating along Parisian streets as I once did on the bike paths along the beach in Santa Monica and Venice, CA. About two years ago I got lucky, and a friend of mine actually gave me a mountain bike that had been used by one of his sons, now gone to university. "It just needs a bit of touching up" he said. Little did I know that this was the beginning of a whole series of challenges and obstacles to overcome in my life.

The first challenge was getting the bike from my friend's place to mine. He lives in the suburbs of Paris, about 45 minutes from the center by intra-city train. So, I took the train from the nearest train station back to Paris. The cars are pretty big, so getting a bike onto one wasn't a problem. I don't even remember how I got through the turnstiles, but obviously somehow I did. And managed to ride the bike home. This was my first introduction to riding a bike in the city. It was awful. Really awful. When there's no bike lane, the streets are often really narrow. This does not stop Parisian cars from winging by you with about 5 centimeters to spare (I may be exaggerating a bit here, but not much). And whoever designed the one-way street system should be time traveled back to 1789 and guillotined. You will often find yourself trying to turn off a main street to the right, and every street you cross is one-way to the left! Or you're going along peacefully, when suddenly your street becomes one way in the opposite direction!

I have finally discovered the way to go. Take major roads where the bus lane is also a bike lane. This is especially good when you're in a poorer part of Paris (which is where I am) because there won't be many busses to crush you along the bike path.

Since California (c. 15 years ago), I literally hadn't ridden a bike. "Just like riding a bike," they say. "Yeah, right."

First I had to replace both tires, and add a rear light. I figured that the best store for all that was Decathlon, a major sporting goods chain in France where in the past I've found great sports clothes. One of the first things I bought was a helmet, strictly for safety reasons. Unfortunately, the helmet makes me look like a "real biker", which I am not! Amazingly, most Parisians do not wear a helmet, so I really stand out. What I really need is a banner (in French) saying something to the effect of "I am wearing a helmet for safety reasons only. Do not be surprised if I go very slowly and I stop at red lights, since I'm not at all sure what I'm doing. Do not expect more of me."

I have to admit that gradually I am getting more comfortable on my bike. And I'm really luck that my apartment building has a "locaux des velos" which is an entire room on the ground floor to store bikes in bike racks. All you have to do is get a key made by the guardien and you're "in". Of course, nobody will tell you this outright. You have to know, as you do for most things in France.

I have also discovered a better place to repair and upkeep my bike. Fairly near my place is "Oh Velos" – a one-man bike repair stop. The guy who runs it is really good, really French (if he's in a bad mood, he doesn’t hide it), and totally obsessive about one thing: YOU MAY NOT KEEP YOUR BIKE THERE OVERNIGHT. Forbidden. Nada. Interdit. But I can live with that. I just had him replace the rear inner tube because there was a leak. There's now a slight difference that makes all the difference. The drag is gone. I'm free. I can now peddle at medium speed instead of dragging behind everyone. I'm getting more comfortable gliding in and out of traffic. I'm sticking to those bus-bike paths where I feel a bit less threatened. So, it's better. I'm biking in Paris.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


It all started with my sister's birthday. I live in Paris. She lives in The Hague in Holland. Her daughter, my niece, lives in Canterbury in England where she just graduated from university with a degree in theater arts and literature. Yeah, yeah – we're kind of an international family. (My parents and brother still live in New Jersey.)

I emailed my niece in Canterbury for suggestions for my sister's gift. In the past she has been very helpful, and she was yet again.

"She wants a rain hat."

"Hmm. I'm not really sure what that means, but I accept the challenge."

And challenge it was. I started looking, first in my own neighborhood in Paris. Nada. Then in other stores. All too expensive for my budget. I hate to admit this, but her birthday came and went. I did, however, phone her to sing happy birthday and let her know that her present would come when I found it. That was cool and ironic at the same time since she is the professional jazz singer in the family.

Finally came the flash. H&M. (Hennes and Mauritz), the Ikea of clothing stores. I went to the most convenient branch. In fact, it was something of a treat to be in the store during the week so you could actually walk through the aisles without bumping into 50 teenagers shoveling through tee-shirts. And I found the birthday hat for my sister. I'm not revealing the price, but suffice it to say even I on my restricted budget could afford it.

But, just before I found the birthday hat, there was something else. Another hat was waiting there just for me. It was a black fedora, also affordable, that was oh so stylish, like the hats they used to wear in those black and white films from the 30s. On a whim I bought it too. (Both hats were made in China, so at least I know the country whose slave labor I am supporting.)

I then thought of all my other hats stuffed inside my closet where I have hidden them and never wear them. Hey – maybe I'll start to wear my hats!

This is NOT a decision inspired by Parisian fashion. French women do not wear hats. Muslim women wear their headscarves and some African women wear hats. French women do not, or very rarely. In fact, my true inspiration is an expat friend of mine from Alabama. SHE wears hats and looks stunning. And, I am inspired by my new sense of style, not based on what others wear, but on what looks good, and dramatic, on me. This is definitely inspired by the French. After all, I have the right to design how I look in terms of color and shapes just as an interior designer designs a room. So, why not take the hats "out of the closet", and adorn myself?

I hope my sister likes her new hat. Mine is fabulous.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Red Dress

Allow me tell you the tale of "The Red Dress". It began the other day when I needed to buy thread, and I decided to visit my favorite notions store on the Place Saint-Pierre, within sight of Sacré Coeur. I guess it's something left over from the Middle Ages, but Paris often has the same kinds of stores all grouped together along one or two streets. This is definitely the case for sewing material and notions stores. There are scads of them on Rue de Steinkerque, leading up from the Metro Anvers towards Sacré Coeur and onto the Place Saint Pierre, within sight of the cathedral. This was my goal – thread. However, as we all know life sometimes presents us with surprises along the way.

Just as I exited the Metro Anvers, opposite the Rue de Steinkerque, I noticed Sympa. Sympa in French is the familiar form of "sympathique", or nice. When you say, "C'est très sympa," what you're really saying is something like, "Hey, that's really cool." In this vein, Sympa, the store, is the discount store of discount stores. We're talkin' bins, baby. Piles of French ready-to-wear clothing heaped in containers along the sidewalk. And low prices. But – brands. You gotta know them French brands. I do because I am the "Best Buys and Bargains in Paris" lady (for more info you can look up my shopping guide on Amazon). I gladly take on the duty – and challenge – of maintaining my Best Buy skills in Paris.

As I said, I was on my way to buy a spool of thread, but given my status as Paris Best Buy Shopper, I thought I'd give the piles a go through (protecting my face from the protruding elbows of all the other ladies madly sorting through the bins at the same time). Suddenly, in the second Sympa store along the block, in the last bin, I saw it. The Red Dress. One of the sexiest red dresses I have ever seen in my life. Another lady and I saw it at the same time and we both fell under its spell. Fortunately, she was a larger size than me. It turned out to be her lucky day too. After I pounced on mine, she grabbed the only other red dress – 5 sizes larger. We both had been blessed by the Best Buy Fairy, and we were grateful.

I suppose, apart from the slit up to thigh level, it was the color. Bright red. We've all got all kinds of emotional reactions to bright red. And there it was, in a size that normally is one size too small. I decided to buy it, even though I didn't try it on. There are, in fact, two dressing rooms at the back of the store, if you can manage to slip through the store aisle the width of one person, with one person standing in it grabbing at clothes. But I had good reason to take a chance on that dress. The price. Would you believe that the price was exactly ONE EURO! Including tax. Heck, if it didn't fit, I'd give it away to a friend. It was at this point that the "look through the bins" feeling stopped. I had found what I was meant to find (or put it another way, it was my Best Buy fix of the month).

Now the challenge is where to wear the dress. Teaching one of my university classes in front of 18 twenty-year old students, more than half male? Nope – don't think so. Business Seminar Breakfast at the British Embassy? Don't think so either. This is the challenge of bargain shopping! You've simply got to wear the item at an appropriate time and place in order to justify its purchase. Hard work, but this is what makes the difference between the red dress I bought for one euro and the wool skirt I found in the trash bin of my building. (see my blog "I can't believe it!").

I will let you know when I wear the dress, and how it went!

Monday, June 11, 2007


When I first arrived in Paris, it was to fulfill a job offer working in non-fiction video distribution. That job did not work out, (they dumped me), and as many expats do, I fell into teaching English as a second language. It's a hard road to follow. Low pay, unreliable hours, intense work that sucks up all your energy. After a couple of years, I simply became tired of being a zombie – and a low paid zombie to boot. Which is why I am now writing about life in Paris and training French executives in communication skills (what do you do once you know English, but have to actually work with it?). I suppose it must have been some sense of desperation that convinced me to join TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), an international non-profit association. It's supposed to help us (no – them!) grow professionally and to distribute information about English teaching and research.

I must admit that occasionally, they do come up with interesting workshops. Last Saturday was one of them. They had a fantastic speaker on Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), a method that teaches the theory and practice of communications – not English per se. And the most important thing was – it was free for members! A done deal for me.

As is often the case, I got the biggest "flash" during lunch in a local restaurant. I ended up eating with three other trainers, one of whom was French and who teaches English within the French university system (actually, I do too now – but it's only to get my foot in the door and teach French-American Intercultural Communication next October!). She spoke about grammar. (Sorry, but please keep reading). She reminded me that in French, you use the subjunctive tense quite a bit. Without boring you about the details from the grammar books, the most pertinent description says:

"The subjunctive is the name of a special group of verb forms which are used in a few cases to talk about events which are not certain to happen." * It goes on to say that "The subjunctive is not very common in modern British English…" (or American I might add). As a matter of fact, out of four English grammar books that I have hoarded from the old days, only two mentioned it at all. And only one in depth.

So what does this all mean? The other trainer continued: In languages such as English where you don't have the subjunctive tense, the tendency is to believe that you're either right or wrong, good or bad – that there's a basic conflict between two extremes. One is light and good, and the other is dark and evil. Latin languages such as French, Italian and Spanish, which all have the subjunctive tense, see the world as more good and bad mixed together.

Have you seen the movie Spiderman Three? I think she's right.

Vive subjunctivity!

*Practical English Usage by Michael Swan

Monday, May 28, 2007

Pumpernickel in Paris

Imagine my surprise. One day I'm doing my weekly shopping in the local Chinese supermarket. It's really great because they not only sell Chinese specialties such as fresh tofu, but most foods you could imagine in a regular supermarket. I was buying my soymilk that I drink for breakfast and which is placed at the end of the aisle on the lowest shelf. I suddenly realized that just next to the soymilk, also hidden away on the bottom shelf where you can't really see it, was a pile of pumpernickel bread. REAL German pumpernickel bread – actually made in Germany!

Don’t' get me wrong. I love French bread. Sometimes I even stand in line at the best bakery in our neighborhood, behind at least 15 other Parisians (if I'm idiot enough to shop in Saturday). But this is different. I remember when I was a kid in New Jersey that my Mom bought real dark pumpernickel bread at the deli counter of the supermarket. It was almost black, moist, with a sort of sourdough taste. I suppose it reminded her of HER childhood since she grew up in Vienna, Austria and ate German bread while she was growing up.

I'm still trying to figure out why they put it there. Because, the next week, all 5 loaves disappeared! (Are there other pumpernickel lovers in the neighborhood? Would love to meet them!) It was replaced by German brown bread, ALMOST as good as pumpernickel, but not quite. So far those loaves are still there. Which proves that I am probably the only person in Paris who has discovered the German bread hidden on the lowest shelf where you can't see if of the Chinese supermarket, next to the soymilk.

Life continues to be amazing in Paris.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Public Service

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"Hey, what's that?"

It's 4:30 in the morning, and my telephone is making a funny beep. I reach over to switch on the light to see what's going on.

It was at that point I discovered there was no electricity in the entire apartment! We had had outages in the past, quickly repaired. But this was different. No lights in the hallway, no elevator. The whole building was down

"Oh brother, why does this always happen on the weekend!"

I finally managed to get back to sleep, but when I woke up, still no electricity. It was at that point that it hit me how much we rely on electricity in our daily lives. It's like an invisible thread woven everywhere. We simply don't notice it until it disappears! What this means in reality was that I couldn't take a bath (no hot water). Couldn't listen to the radio. Couldn’t drink tea or coffee for breakfast (no stove). Couldn't go into my bathroom without a flashlight (no windows or outside source of light in the bathroom and you can't see worth diddly squat even if it's bright and sunny outside). Couldn't use the telephone (the cordless phone bases didn't work). Couldn't check my emails on the computer. Plus, insult added to injury, I ended up leaving a flashlight on in the bathroom and burned out both double D batteries. Goodbye flashlight.

At 8:30 that morning (at least my battery operated watches were still telling time), I went down (i.e. climbed down the stairs) to check out what was going on with the couple who are the "guardians" or building managers. Just as I arrived, they were phoning EDF (Electricité de France) which manages all the electricity for private residences. It seems that some major cable somewhere had blown out. Not only was our building down, but the entire block was without electricity! At 9 am I had my breakfast, or what you can call assembled room temperature items. I tried not to open the fridge door.

"Don’t even think about what's in the freezer."

I was real glad that I'm a regular swimmer at the local neighborhood pool where at least I could take a shower and wash my hair. And get away from the complete and utter silence of my apartment. "Ugh."

Just as I returned from the swimming pool, EDF arrived in force. An entire team disembarked with their trucks and tools and then proceeded literally to rip open the sidewalk to get to the cable. And they fixed it. Right there on Sunday morning they repaired a cable five feet underground in front of our building. When they left, they even had to leave a few team members behind to act as guards to make sure nobody fell into the hole or jumped in and sabotaged the repairs. But they did it. Electricity back on. Modern life back to normal.

That, my friends, is public service. How it's going to be affected by our new President Nicholas Sarkozy, I don’t' know. But at least we've got it now. Vive EDF!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I can't believe it!

I can't believe it! Yesterday I went down to empty the trash - I took the elevator down to the basement as usual. Down in the basement, to the left of the elevator are two garbage bins and to the right are two recycle bins. I lifted the lid of one of the garbage bins. To my astonishment I saw – a pile of women's clothing – I mean the whole garbage bin was stuffed with skirts, blouses, a coat and pants. How do I know this list? I was so astonished that I pulled it all out. And it was all in perfect condition. Incredible! In the NOT to be recycled bin meant for rotten bananas I found fabulous French women's clothes. All in my size. Fortunately there are two garbage bins. The one to the left gets filled up right away. The one to the right, where the clothing was, does not. They weren't even dirty! So I pulled all the clothing out and took it back up to my apartment. I kept two 100% wool skirts (!) and bagged the rest which I took to the Emmaüs bin. (Emmaüs is the French equivalent of the Salvation Army.) Then I took the two skirts to the Cambodian dry cleaners. When I got the skirts back, I had to admit that one really didn't look good on me, so I took that to the bin as well. But the one I kept is adorable. Totally.