You probably don’t like looking at that picture above. And I hear ya. But that’s what some of the streets look like in Paris. It’s something that’s become such a problem that the mayor of Paris has decided to try to tackle the issue, and I share his concerns, although progress is evidentially slow-going. But what confounds me, as well as others, is why do so many people in Paris smoke? And why is the number of smokers increasing in France, when the US and other countries are seeing a decline?
Recently in Parisian Culture category
I suppose I’m doing all those things the diet-police are advising against – namely having fat and carbohydrates for breakfast in lieu of “healthier” options, like having a bowl of kale-flecked quinoa or downing a cilantro smoothie. But as much as I like fruits and vegetables (and herbs), the only thing I am able to face first thing in the morning is something a little less threatening – namely bread, salted butter, and coffee. And that’s all.
For a while I was adding a swipe of chestnut or buckwheat honey to my butter-smeared morning ritual, but since deciding that one seemed to be fighting the other on my plate (and who wants to referee their breakfast?), salted butter won out over the honey. Which has also been easier since I’ve been getting regular deliveries of salted butter from Normandy (thanks Jennifer!), which is so good that adding anything to it, like honey or jam, is the equivalent of putting herbs in a perfectly good smoothie.
Years ago I wrote about my crack baguette, the bread that I could never get enough of. Whose disappearance I still haven’t recovered from, even though it’s been probably five years since it was mercilessly snatched from my breakfast plate. At one point, someone tried to pin the demise of the bakery on me, for not giving up their address. (Because like cable television and mobile phone service in France, if something is working for you, you don’t touch it. You leave it alone.) But since living in a culture of c’est pas ma faute, I think I could hardly be blamed when the elderly couple that ran the bakery finally decided on retirement. And believe me, if I had sway over who could retire, I’d be working on that list at this very moment.
The most common bottle of crisp white that you’ll find in any Parisian apartment isn’t a musky Muscadet from the Loire, or a Petit Chablis from Burgundy. This one comes in a plastic bottle, has a screw top with a little opening just underneath so you can squeeze out a stream as needed, and costs less than a buck. It’s le vinaigre blanc, and it’s obligatoire to keep a squeezable plastic liter bottle handy in your kitchen.
(Not to say the other kinds of whites aren’t obligatory as well. Each just help hurdle different kinds of obstacles.)
Before I moved to France, I rarely paid white vinegar a second thought. My pantry was stocked with red wine and sherry vinegar, and a little bottle of fancy balsamic. But their importance is secondary to white vinegar, which does everything from keeping your wine glasses spotless to making sure your dishwasher doesn’t seize up on you mid-load, completely clogged by the infamous calcaire, never to wash another dish again.
I arrived completely unaware of it, and in my first apartment, apparently neither did the person before me because right after I moved in, one day, my dishwasher simply ground to a permanent halt. However I was fortunate regarding the laundry machine because a friend confided in me over lunch in a café shortly after I arrived, as if it was some big unspoken secret in Paris that you can’t just wash clothes or dishes without adding a little something “extra” to the load. (And now you can stop wondering what all those French people are talking about in Parisian cafés, if you don’t speak French.)
She advised Calgon, but a well-meaning friend from California came to visit and reprimanded me for having a box, saying it was an environmental catastrophe. Apparently the word hasn’t made it six thousand miles away because I see it in almost every household I visit, tucked under the kitchen or bathroom sink. But it was then that I made the switch to 100% white vinegar.
There is one thing that strikes fear in the hearts of all Parisians. It’s not a letter from the tax office, being body-checked by those seemingly fragile little old ladies pulling their shopping carts at the market, or learning that a model for Christian Louboutin moving in upstairs from you and installing brand-new hardwood floors: It’s getting a notification that there is a package, somewhere for you – that’s got your name on it.
If I had a bag of dried sour cherries of California dried apricots for everyone that offered to send me something that I was craving from abroad, I’d be knee-deep in sticky, shriveled up dried fruits. (Which is possibly a good thing, come to think about it.) My Inbox and social media streams are filled with helpful folks offering to send me everything from San Francisco coffee to felt-tip pens. So much so that I’m considering doing a post about my fondness for gold buillon, but am concerned that in spite of the value of the cavalcade of gold ingots that will be coming my way, that I’ll be spending an inordinate amount of time wrangling with the shipping company to get them to me. And it’s just not worth it.
When I moved to Paris, a Frenchwoman who works for an appliance company told me; “Daveed, you need to be standing at the door, with the door wide open, and your name written across your forehead” for something to be delivered. And I didn’t believe her until I was leaving my apartment a few times shortly afterward and found a missed delivery sticker on my door, with nary a knock or ring of the doorbell to announce its previous presence, just a few centimeters away. Yet so far, so very, very far from my grasp, as the next few weeks would prove to me.
Sometimes I think it’s a vast conspiracy by brick & mortar stores to sway folks away from online shopping. However those shifty folks have set up ‘relais’ points, shops and drop-off spots in various neighborhoods that accept your packages so you just go in and get it. Those work great, but they’re quite limited as just a few merchants work with them. And the guy who runs the store near me, which is such a mess it’s hard to tell what exactly he does sell in there, doesn’t even ask for ID. So I’m not sure I can trust him with all the precious metals and gold Rolex watches that I am anticipating after this post goes viral.
Someone told me that the English language has more words than the French language, which I don’t believe – although to be honest, I’ve never counted. I know English can be kind of kooky at at times, but I don’t think we have multiple words for the same things, from a dozen different words for sinks, to a panoply of words for helmets, depending on what vehicle one is sitting on when wearing it.
However I can attest that there are, indeed, fourteen verb tenses in French versus six in English, which is why I always get my derrière whooped when I play Scrabble in French. According to my handy book of French verbs, many of the verb conjugations are ‘mood related’, to express how someone feels. So je suis (I am) becomes je sois, because you or more to the point – I just absolutely, positively, have to be.
And then there’s the fact that even in one particular tense, like when talking about the present, each verb is spelled differently. Whereas in English, we say I think, You think, We think, They think – spelling the word “think” exactly the same way – in French, each pronoun determines the way the verb is spelled, which changes each time. So it’s Je pense, Vouz pensez, Nous pensons. And yes, I did have to consult my book of French verbs to make sure I got those write. Er, I mean, right. (Gotcha! And you were about to pull that “grammar police” alarm. I told you English can be kooky, too.) So if you want to know why the French are nervously pulling drags off cigarettes, it’s because of the stress of conjugating all those dang verbs.
Most people probably don’t think of hard liquor when they think of France. But nowadays it’s hard to pass one of the many cafés in Paris which features les happy hours and not see a round of mojitos on just about every table. From the looks of things, they’ve become more popular than wine or beer. Unfortunately most are not very well made and as cocktail fans know – and even those of us that only occasionally imbibe – that there’s a definite art to making mixed drinks. And it’s curious that many of the world’s great spirits, such as Lillet and Noilly Pratt vermouth, are French. Yet few people in Paris know what they are and I recounted the mix-up that happened when I ordered a Lillet at a café in Paris in TSLIP.
On the other end of the cocktail spectrum in Paris are places like the Hemingway Bar at The Ritz, famous for its Martini (as well as its hefty price!) and the myriad of excellent cocktail places that have sprung up in the last few years. Although my days of being able to drink four or five martinis and still be able the function the following day are in my past, with all the talk about the terrific cocktails being poured around Paris, I’ve been finding myself craving cocktails like I used to, albeit in more prudent quantities.
Like New Yorkers, Parisians swear they would never live anywhere else. But once the summer – or the weekend – rolls around, everyone can’t wait to make a sortie toward the nearest exit.
After fighting the usual traffic to get out of the périphérique, we took an exit and were shortly in the countryside, where the skies are big and clear, you’re surround by wheat fields and rows of sugar beets, and you can feel yourself unwinding as soon as you roll down your window and catch a whiff of the fresh air.
We wanted to extract every last bit from summer, before the fall weather kicked in. And figured it was our last chance to put on casual garb, sit around while watching the leaves getting ready to drop, and to catch up on some reading. And, of course, eat.
One of the great things about living in Paris is that it’s a pretty good city for bicycling. It’s relatively flat, the city has installed a network of bike paths, many one-way streets have been accommodated with a special lane off to the side for bicyclist going the other way (provided you don’t mind the terror of seeing a car coming at you full-speed, head on), and in spite of what’s between those previous parentheses, Parisians actually respect bicyclists. Even though pedestrians n’existe pas, I think that comes from the fact that a lot of drivers are actually cyclists themselves, or were in the past.
But unlike America, where people like to do things like see how close they can sideswipe cyclists, just for fun (often with a “Hey, the road is for cars!” – before speeding off, chuckling at how clever they are), bicycles are just a natural part of the streets and roads in Paris. One does need to be careful, though, because people in Paris drive like they walk, and there doesn’t always seem to be much sense of order to it and spatial relationships are…well, sometimes those n’existe pas as well.