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