Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday's picture and a song - "La Pluie" in Chartres

Chartres in the rain. Photo credit: Stephane

If you aren't familiar with the young French singer Zaz, please listen to "La pluie". "The Rain" is the song that has been playing in Paris all week. It traveled with us to Chartres yesterday and looks as if it plans to accompany us to the Loire Valley as well!

Le ciel est gris la pluie s'invite comme par surprise
elle est chez nous et comme un rite qui nous enlise
les parapluies s'ouvrent en cadence
comme une danse,
les gouttes tombent en abondance
sur douce France....

Chartres. Photo credit: Stephane.
Photo credit: Stephane

Friday, April 27, 2012

Before and after...feather pompoms on Louboutin shoes

Before -- May 17, 2011

When I saw these pink and black feather pompoms while visiting Legeron Flower and Feather Boutique last year, I was charmed by the idea that they were destined to decorate shoes designed by Christian Louboutin. After deciding that it wouldn't be ethical to post photos of the prototypes on the internet before the shoes were even in the stores, I promptly put them out of my mind. At least, I thought that I had forgotten about them until this morning when I spied these black shoes with the distinctive red sole. Look familiar?

After - April 27, 2012

Worried that the Russian woman who was trying on the shoes in Louboutin's flagship store would think that I have a foot fetish, I was relieved when she allowed me to take a couple of pictures without hitting me with her purse or calling the salesmen for help.

Even for a non-fashionista like myself, it was a real thrill to see the pompoms, both before and after.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Montreux Palace - wish you were here...

The view from room 301

Whenever people hear that Stephane is traveling to some exciting location for work, they frequently ask why I'm not going with him. The easy answer is that being in vacation mode while your husband is in work mode isn't conducive to a harmonious trip. Just imagine the reaction that I get when I interrupt Stephane, who is busy answering emails and poring over financial figures, to tell him about all the fun things that I plan to do while we're in X, Y or Z.

Circumstances were different, however, when he invited me to accompany him to Montreux for a conference because it's where we used to live. It's home! Plus, there was the added attraction of spending a couple of nights at the Montreux Palace, a hotel where we wouldn't stay if we were paying for it ourselves. I'm a bargain hunter when it comes to accommodation.

The hotel, which is where Sir Peter Ustinov filmed Lady L starring Sophia Loren and David Niven, also played a major role in my life when I returned to Switzerland after caring for my mother while she was dying from brain cancer. People react to grief in different ways. After months of feeling utterly and completely helpless in the face of death, I lost the joy in being alive. Fortunately, Stephane proposed that we join the health club at the Montreux Palace as a way of bringing me slowly back to myself.

The treadmill - a good spot for reflection

Studying the various shades of grey as clouds passed in front of the ancient mountains surrounding the Lake of Geneva, I used to spend hours contemplating the vagaries of life while walking on the treadmill and practicing yoga. Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why do the people we love have to leave us? What's the point of it all? Realizing that I would never find the answers to these timeless questions, I vowed to quietly enjoy the rest of my days in Montreux.

As so often happens, life had different plans. Stephane came home from work one day and told me that he had been offered a job in Paris. Now, I'm "Out and About", a phrase that my mother always used to describe her days away from home. In many ways, I think that Paris is a parting gift from her - exploring the city reminds me that life is good. We should enjoy it. I only wish that you were here...

And how is the hotel? Spectacular, particularly room number 301 because it's a corner room with 2 balconies and a veranda. But when we return for another conference in June, I'm bringing my own pillow because I don't like the overstuffed variety.

Fairmont Le Montreux Palace
Grand Rue 100
1820 Montreux

Room 301
The indoor pool, another place where I spent a lot of time searching for answers.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

La Butte aux Cailles - I can't wait to go back on a sunny day!

While there are many reasons why I wouldn't make a good tour guide, here are just a few that come immediately to mind:

1. Knowing that Nancy wanted to explore La Butte aux Cailles, a village in the 13th arrondissement, while she was in town, I suggested that we go there rather than the Espace Dali in Montmartre on Monday. As the sky was free of clouds when we made plans early in the morning, I thought it would be the perfect day to be outdoors. Shortly after we emerged from the Place d'Italie metro at 10:30 am, Mother Nature played a nasty trick on me by relentlessly pouring bucket after bucket of water on our heads. I didn't have an umbrella. Nancy did.

2. Scurrying from Les Abeilles, a boutique selling 40 different types of honey, beeswax candles and other products made by bees, to L'Oisive-Thé, a tea salon where women gather to knit and chat over steaming cups of tea, Nancy peered through the windows and remarked that she would try to return later in the week. All of the interesting boutiques that we had wanted to visit were closed. Of course, they were. It was Monday morning in Paris! Naturally, the Espace Dali that Nancy had proposed to visit was open.

3. Taking refuge in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Butte-aux-Cailles, I spent about ten minutes fiddling around with my camera trying to get some atmospheric shots of the candles in front of the altar while Nancy, a talented photographer, patiently waited for me to finish. Not able to remember what was supposed to be so special about the church, I whipped out my iPhone to look at Patrimap, one of my favorite free apps for information about Paris. After reading a short bit about the history of the church, I reached the part I wanted:

Mosaics are everywhere (walls, tabernacles, altars, communion tables, floors), incorporating elements ranging in size from tiny glass tesserae to huge moulded glass cabochons.

Turning to Nancy, I asked, "Did you see any mosaics? I didn't." Looking around, she pointed to the altar and replied, "They're everywhere." And they really were. Had I not been so focused on the candles, I would have seen them. Dear God, please grant me the gift of sight!

Fortunately, I think that our lunch at Le Temps des Cerises, a co-operative restaurant run by a group of people who take turns doing different jobs, was a success. At least I didn't make the mistake of recommending the rognons de veau (calf kidneys) to Nancy. Watching the rain trickle down the windows and hoping for a respite from the torrential downpour, we gazed out the window like the two women in the above photo.

After visiting Little Alsace, a cluster of 40 timber framed houses that were built for workers on rue Daviel in 1913, not even the rain and faulty umbrellas purchased in haste could spoil the beauty of the wisteria adorning the homes on another quaint street, villa Daviel. Perhaps there is hope for me after all. Tour, anyone? I can't wait to return to La Butte aux Cailles on a sunny day!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Expat Blog Hop - Leave a comment and win a glass of champagne!

Welcome to "Out and About in Paris"!

In honor of today's Expat Blog Hop, I would like to share the recipe for Expat in Paris, a complex yet delightful dish. Our test kitchen is still fiddling with the key ingredients and measurements, so please let me know if you have any suggestions to ameliorate the recipe.

Expat in Paris

1 heaping cup adaptability and willingness to reinvent oneself.
3/4 cup readiness to learn French, especially excusez-moi and pardon, which you'll use whenever someone bumps into you. Don't necessarily expect "real" Parisians to employ these phrases.
1/3 cup understanding that you're considered a representative of your country and may be questioned mercilessly as to its policies, particularly while riding the bus so that all of the other passengers can eavesdrop on your response to whether you agree with the death penalty or not.
1 tablespoon realization that you'll need an entirely new wardrobe if you consistently eat buttery croissants for breakfast and baguettes for lunch and dinner.
1/8 teaspoon logic. While this may seem like a small quantity of an otherwise crucial ingredient, remember that what's logical to an Expat in Paris isn't always logical to the locals.
1/32 teaspoon ability to use grams and milliliters rather than cups and spoons to create a recipe. It will probably never happen!

Bake in a Parisian apartment for 3-5 years. Don't be surprised if you have some difficulty extracting Expat in Paris from its home at the end of this period because the dish frequently sticks to its environment and refuses to let go.

Expat in Paris is best when served with champagne or a glass of wine, preferably at a cafe with a view of the Eiffel Tower.

Please leave a brief comment if you would like to enter your name in the "Out and About in Paris" giveaway. Comments sent via email are not eligible. The winner will have the choice of one of the following three prizes:

  • One glass of champagne or a cup of coffee at Café de Flore or Café le Nemours with Mary Kay. Please note that this does not include airfare to Paris.
  • A one day self-guided itinerary for Paris prepared especially for you by Mary Kay. 
  • Five of the best "Out and About in Paris" photos that may be used as screen savers. They will be sent to you via email. 

The deadline to enter the drawing is 3:00 pm (CET), April 24, 2012. The winner will be announced later that day. Update: Congratulations to Deckage, the winner of the giveaway.

[Edit] With hindsight, I realize that I forgot to thank Steph at Blog in France for organizing the hop. In between welcoming lambs into the world, writing books and growing much of their own food on their farm, I don't know how she found the time. Merci, Steph!

Thanks for reading! Please click on any of the following to hop to another expat blog and participate in their giveaways.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sunday's picture and a song - Quelle Coquine!

What makes a Coquine?

If you haven't had the pleasure of reading Ella Coquine's blog, Tales from the Chambre de Bonne, where she shares her adventures as a single gal in Paris, it's probably helpful to know that my French/English dictionary defines "coquine" as 1) mischievous and 2) naughty, risqué. Mlle Ella is all of that and more - she's a 30 year old Italian New Yorker in Paris who is starting over after a broken engagement. She's funny, irreverent, thoughtful, honest and extremely enterprising because she just opened her very own Etsy shop.

Featuring limited edition prints of Paris, Ella Coquine has come up with a clever idea that's sure to please any Francophile. Take a look - Quelle Coquine!

To start your Sunday with a sizzle, Mlle Ella suggests "Tu veux ou tu veux pas" by the ultimate French coquette, Brigitte Bardot.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Stop, Look, Listen, Think! - Please be careful when crossing the street in Paris.

5:27:52 pm on April 14, 2012

While watching the news on Thursday evening, I was saddened to hear the report about an eleven year old boy who had been hit by a car while crossing avenue Gambetta in the 20th arrondissement. He was on his way to a fencing class with a friend and lost his life in the process.

For some inexplicable reason, I've gotten into the fast-paced Parisian habit of crossing the street as soon as the light turns red for the cars, even though it's still red for the pedestrians. Since I look like I know what I'm doing, people who have been patiently waiting for the light to turn green often follow my lead. Please don't!

Last Saturday evening, Stéphane and I were hurrying to meet the other Boston University Global Day of Service volunteers at Quai de Jemmapes. As the light had just turned red for the cars, we were preparing to cross the street like the man in the first photo. Fortunately, we weren't talking on our cell phones or otherwise distracted because we noticed that a car was approaching the intersection at a rapid pace. Realizing that it was going to hit the car in front of it that had already stopped for the red light, Stéphane and I pushed each other back onto the sidewalk away from the street. BAM!

5:28:21 pm
It happened in the blink of an eye. The dark blue car seen in the right of the photo hit the first car and the force of the collision hurtled it past the crosswalk. Had Stéphane and I stepped into the street without looking, we would have been just another story on the evening news.  Looking at the times entered on my camera for each of these events, I was stunned to see that only 1:09 minutes had elapsed since the first photo. The policeman was able to arrive on the scene so quickly because he had been across the street caring for a man who had been beaten senseless by ten other men. There's a good chance that the driver in the second car was distracted by the crowd gathered around the victim and wasn't watching the road.

Needless to say, the driver of the first car, wearing the brown leather jacket, wasn't pleased to have been hit from behind while sitting at a red light. Please remember to stop, look, listen and think before crossing the street in Paris. Your life may depend upon it!

According to official police statistics, 27 pedestrians were killed in Paris in 2011. 45% of them were crossing the street when the light wasn't green or were crossing in the middle of the road rather than at a crosswalk.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Henri 2, Paw de Deux - the perfect antidote to the miserable weather in Paris

Curled up with the fruit at the Marché aux Enfants Rouge.

Weather report for Paris: Cold and raining...again! If you could use a laugh on this miserable day, please watch this tragically hilarious video about Henri 2, Paw de Deux. Thank you, Joseph, for telling me about it!

Cats or dogs? I prefer cats. Stéphane prefers dogs. We don't have any pets.

Ever since my daughter told me about Dog Diary vs. Cat Diary, I've been trying to think of a way to work it into a blog about Paris. Now, thanks to Henri, I have the perfect excuse. Enjoy!

The Dog's Diary

  8:00 am - Dog food! My favorite thing!
  9:30 am - A car ride! My favorite thing!
  9:40 am - A walk in the park! My favorite thing!
10:30 am - Got rubbed and petted! My favorite thing!
12:00 pm - Milk bones! My favorite thing!
  1:00 pm - Played in the yard! My favorite thing!
  3:00 pm - Wagged my tail! My favorite thing!
  5:00 pm - Dinner! My favorite thing!
  7:00 pm - Got to play ball! My favorite thing!
  8:00 pm - Wow! Watched TV with the people! My favorite thing!
11:00 pm - Sleeping on the bed! My favorite thing!

The Cat's Diary

Day 983 of My Captivity

My captors continue to taunt me with bizarre little dangling objects. They dine lavishly on fresh meat, while the other inmates and I are fed hash or some sort of dry nuggets. Although I make my contempt for the rations perfectly clear, I nevertheless must eat something in order to keep up my strength.

The only thing that keeps me going is my dream of escape. In an attempt to disgust them, I once again vomit on the carpet. Today I decapitated a mouse and dropped its headless body at their feet. I had hoped this would strike fear into their hearts, since it clearly demonstrates my capabilities. However, they merely made condescending comments about what a "good little hunter" I am. Bastards!

There was some sort of assembly of their accomplices tonight. I was placed in solitary confinement for the duration of the event. However, I could hear the noises and smell the food. I overheard that my confinement was due to the power of "allergies." I must learn what this means, and how to use it to my advantage.

Today I was almost successful in an attempt to assassinate one of my tormentors by weaving around his feet as he was walking. I must try this again tomorrow, but at the top of the stairs.

I am convinced that the other prisoners here are flunkies and snitches. The dog receives special privileges. He is regularly released, and seems to be more than willing to return. He is obviously retarded. The bird must be an informant. I observe him communicate with the guards regularly. I am certain that he reports my every move. My captors have arranged protective custody for him in an elevated cell, so he is safe. For now ...

From the Good Eats Humor Page.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Discovering the secrets of Paris with a Paris Greeter

If you live in a small town in Ohio, how do you find out about the secret places in Paris? Well, if you're my friend Candy, you buy a copy of Parisian Chic: A Style Guide by Ines de la Fressange and highlight all of the interesting boutiques, art galleries and museums that you would like to visit. If you're me, you have stacks of dogeared books, including the aptly named Paris: Secrets de Parisians, scattered around your apartment to flip through whenever you have a spare moment. But if you're really clever, you sign up for a walk with you very own Paris Greeter.

As I've mentioned before, Paris Greeters are volunteers who want to share their favorite spots in Paris with you. And trust me, no matter how well you think that you know an area, the 2-3 hour walk will most probably include some surprises. At least that's what happened when Christiane offered to take us on a tour of the 5th and 6th arrondissements. After meeting outside the Odeon metro stop, Christiane, who received her Master's Degree from the University of Pittsburgh and taught English at the Sorbonne, guided us to one of the area's oldest cobblestone streets, the Cour du Commerce St. Andre. Pointing out Le Procope, an old literary haunt dating back to 1686 that was frequented by Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones and Thomas Jefferson, as well as some fairly important Frenchmen, Christian took us to the charming Cour de Rohan where the noise of the city disappeared as we stepped back in time.

Candy, Bob and Christiane exploring secret courtyards in Paris.

While strolling from Brasserie Lipp to the tranquil place de Furstenberg and from the Place de l'Odeon to the Luxembourg Gardens, Christian told us about Haussmann's renovation of Paris, answered questions about French politics and delighted us with her knowledge of the city and its citizens. If you haven't done a walk with a Paris Greeter yet, you're missing out on one of the best secrets of Paris!

Please visit the Paris Greeter website for additional information. If you would prefer to explore further afield, Greeters in Versailles will show you their favorite places in the city they love.

Temporary art installation at the place de Furstenberg or a prank? We came up with several ideas as to why plastic wrap adorns the lampost and trees in this charming square. After mentioning the place de Furstenberg on the TA Paris forum, Maddietravel told me that it's where the emotional conclusion of the movie Age of Innocence was filmed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

French people don't pack - the important lesson I learned from our friends from Ohio

French people don't pack. At least that's what my friends learned when Candy fell in love with a paper mache horse during a recent trip to Saint-Ouen Flea Market. Starting with an asking price of 380 euros, merchant Mme de la Vallee bid an emotional adieu to the former mascot of an equestrian center and wished it bon voyage for 250 euros. What a deal!

Surprised by their unwieldy acquisition and wondering if Candy and Bob were planning to ride the horse back to Ohio, Candy assured me that she had recently used UPS to send purchases from the tiny little town of Oaxaca, Mexico without any hitches. Therefore, it shouldn't be a problem to ship something from an international city like Paris, right?

As Candy's a resourceful woman well-versed in the ways of the world, I had no qualms directing her to the nearest UPS affiliate, Office Depot. Cheerful as always, she waved goodbye and started down the five flights of stairs with the cumbersome horse tucked under her arm. If you're wondering why she didn't take the elevator, imagine squeezing a large paper mache mascot into a space the size of a miniature closet. Without amputation, it's impossible.

Moments later, Candy returned huffing and puffing with the animal. In between trying to catch her breath and answer our questions, she replied that the UPS agents had adamantly refused to pack the horse. Frustrated by the lack of customer service, I called UPS and explained what had happened. After measuring the height, width and breadth of the horse and thinking of the right words to accurately describe it in French, the agent assured us that the Office Depot located on Avenue de Versailles would take care of everything. No problem!

Feeling as apprehensive as a mother sending her child off for the first day of school in a strange land, I waved goodbye to Candy and wished her luck. I really shouldn't have worried though because it wasn't long before she reappeared guessed it...the horse! It turns out that UPS will only ship something after it has been packed. They will not wrap it and box it for you. Neither will Fed Ex. But do you think that the UPS agent could have told Candy before she was forced to hold the horse high above her head to make room for the cheek-to-cheek crowds on the bus during rush hour? No way! The good news is that Candy discovered the key to making Parisians smile. Paper mache horse, anyone?

The last time I saw the animal it was being stuffed, rather indecorously, into the trunk of the taxi bearing Candy and Bob to the Gare du Nord for their trip to London. For some reason, they decided against taking the metro.

Bob, a talented artist, did the above sketch as a memento for Stephane and me. Take a peek inside Bob's travel journal to see what else we did while they were in Paris. It may inspire you to start a journal of your own!

In spite of my recent post about not hanging curtains, I promise that they were some during Candy and Bob's stay!

Bob's rendition of the view from our balcony!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Volunteering for the Salvation Army's "Soupe de Nuit" in Paris - Boston University Global Day of Service

Turkey curry and pasta with vegetables for eight people.

Scanning the faces of the hungry men who have been standing in line for the past ninety minutes, Simone tells us to give each of them two spoons of pasta with vegetables and one piece of meat. When we remove the lids and discover that the main course is turkey curry, she rapidly reassesses the situation and says to serve two to three pieces of meat. Before leaving us for her post at the entrance of the enclosure, Simone reminds us to smile and offer a kind word to the men because we're not only feeding their bodies, we're also feeding their spirits.

Bowls in hands, the first group enters the fenced-off area. "Bonsoir, madame." "Merci, madame.", "No sauce for me." "Madame, can you please give me some more meat. I haven't eaten in two days!" Looking up from my job of ladling food as rapidly as possible, I gaze into two soulful brown eyes and add another piece of meat with some more sauce. As group after group of men of all ages pass in front of our table, Simone gently reminds me not to be overly generous. There has to be enough to feed all of the 360-400 men who have gathered at Quai de Jemmapes for what very well may be their only meal of the day.

Halfway through, Simone whispers that we have to reduce the amount to one spoon of pasta and one to two pieces of meat. Regretting my earlier generosity, I explain to the men that we can't give them more because we need to have enough food for everyone. Their grumbles and complaints make my heart heavy, but I remind myself that this is France, the home of the three-course meal. In addition to the main course, each man receives a container of pasta salad,  a roll with cheese, a container of chocolate mousse, a bottle of water and tea or coffee. I hope that it's enough to sustain them for the next 24 hours.

Distribution Center on the Quai de Jemmapes in the 10th arrondissement

As part of the annual Boston University Global Day of Service, Stéphane and I joined a small group of BU alumni and students to distribute hot meals in the 10th arrondissement on Saturday evening. While donning our  fluorescent yellow vests, Simone explained that the Salvation Army serves 350-600 meals on the street every day of the year, with the exception of Christmas Eve when they host a sit-down dinner with entertainment. In order to operate efficiently, they need 10-12 volunteers each evening. They have, however, had to make do with teams of four when volunteers have failed to show up at the designated time. As we were a group of about 12, I don't know how they managed with fewer people because we were busy the entire time setting up tables, unloading the truck, serving the food and picking up the garbage from the ground after the men were finished eating.

If you are in Paris and would like to volunteer, consider distributing meals on the Quai de Jemmapes by calling the Salvation Army at, you can make a monetary donation on the their website. I can attest that the money is used for a good cause - I only wish that we would have been able to give the men more food!

Many thanks to Caroline for organizing the Boston University Global Day of Service in Paris.

Caroline, BU alumna and current BU employee, and Catherine, BU sophomore enrolled in the study abroad program.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday's picture and a song - Catherine Deneuve, Café de Flore and Finding Noon

Ever since my friend, Finding Noon, sent a text message suggesting that I go to the Café de Flore after a wintry walk in the Luxembourg Gardens last January, I've been hooked. It's the kind of spot where if you hang around long enough somebody interesting will walk through the door, perhaps even Catherine Deneuve.

Do you like people watching in Paris? Then join Finding Noon for her weekly "Friday at Flore" series, where she features photos of tourists, chic Parisiennes and the international jetset. In between Friday afternoons at Café de Flore, Finding Noon writes about the latest art exhibitions, hot restaurants, trendy boutiques and life with Mr. French, bien sûr! With a little black book stuffed full of the best addresses, she's my "go-to-girl" for any and all questions about Paris and Parisians.

Café de Flore (metro Saint-Germain-des-Prés‎ and Mabillon)
172 Boulevard Saint-Germain
75006 Paris
tel: 01 45 48 55 26 

Many thanks to Joseph for supplying me with the perfect song for today's post.  I'm fairly sure that the café scenes were shot at Café de Flore. After passing many delightful afternoons there with Finding Noon, I think that I recognize the table and chairs.

[Edit] Please be forewarned, there is some nudity in the video. My apologies if the sultriness of it surprised/shocked anyone, including Joseph and Mlle Ella (see comment section), on a Sunday. The champagne must have affected my judgement!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Just another day in PAR(ad)IS(e) - the life of an expat

I'm an expat, but we all aren't created equal. Some are long-term expats who are frequently married to locals, others are one-time expats who are transferred abroad for a single assignment and then there are the ones who have lived in different countries and for whom Paris is just another posting.

While we're all lumped in the same category by outsiders, within our ranks there is some dissent. Long-term expats generally feel superior to the other two groups because they're integrated into the local society, single-term expats believe they've got the best of both worlds because they can experience life in France for a couple of years before returning to their "real" lives and professional expats are pleased to be in Paris but don't necessarily believe that it's the best city in the world because they were happiest in Kuala Lumpur, Buenos Aires or wherever...

Category 3 expats can usually be identified by their reluctance to buy curtains and hang pictures in their new home because there's a widespread superstition belief that we'll be transferred as soon as we're settled. As evidence of this, I was unpacking the last box in a longed for apartment overlooking the lake in Montreux when Stephane returned from work and demanded, "What are you doing?". Baffled as to why he was so brusque, I replied, "Unpacking. Why?". No answer. It was only later that evening that he revealed that we were being transferred to Paris. Saying that I wasn't pleased is putting it mildly.

That's why I'm happy to say that I threw caution to the wind on Wednesday and bought a couple of pictures for our apartment that will serve as good reminders of our time in Paris. Let's hope I'm not tempting fate!

As soon as I spied the print of an umbrella salesman in the Apprentis d'Auteuil vintage store, I knew that I had to get it for Stephane because he's so proud of his made-to-order umbrella from Parasolerie Hertault. And then I found a little something for me - a picture of a hot chocolate salesman to remind me of the days that I dedicated to hot chocolate research. Isn't it a shame that these vendors have disappeared from the streets of Paris?

Feeling pleased with my purchases, I headed to the post office and filled out form after form to send our tax returns to the USA via registered mail. When I presented the five envelopes at the counter, the postal employee kept sighing about having to complete the official portion of the forms while the woman behind me sighed because it was taking so long. Caught in between the two, I bit my tongue to prevent myself from informing them that the French postal system is one of the most complicated that I've ever experienced and that it's not my fault that there are so many forms in their country. I'm just an expat after all!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Planning a trip to the Loire Valley and Workaway, a unique idea for those who would like to spend some time abroad

Looking out the window at Versailles

Whew! Who knew that there are so many castles to visit and so many different places to stay in the Loire Valley? I certainly didn't until I started looking for a destination for Stephane's and my romantic weekend getaway at the end of April. Perusing website after website of castles with interesting histories, charming rooms and blazing fires, my eyes glazed over with châteaux fatigue. For those of you who are blissfully unfamiliar with this condition, it occurs when you've seen too many photos of turrets, moats and deer. For some reason there are an astonishing number of deer on castle websites! Deer amongst the flowers, fawns hiding in the forest and deer rambling about the fields. If we hadn't had deer traipsing through our yard and destroying our plants in Ohio, I might be more enthusiastic about the possibility of spotting one. But I digress...

Amongst all the castles, the website that caught my attention was Workaway, an organization that matches hosts with people willing to work abroad in exchange for room and board. While Stephane and I hope to have a relaxing trip to the Loire Valley, I couldn't help but think that we could stay for free if we were ready to devote a certain numbers of hours a day to gardening, teaching English, painting or helping with tourists (oh, that would be us!). It's a great idea that provides owners of organic farms, bed and breakfasts, castles, dog hotels, etc. with extra help. There are even a couple of offers for positions in Paris.

If you're intrigued by the idea of working abroad, learning a new language and integrating in the local culture, take a look at the Workaway website. Alternatively, if you own a castle in the Loire Valley and need a bit of help, I'm very handy with a paintbrush! In the meantime, I've booked a room at the Château de la Villaine.

For native English speakers who like to talk, Pueblo Inglés offers volunteers free room, board and Spanish wine in various locations in Spain and Germany. In exchange, "Anglos" are asked to speak with guests so that they improve their language skills in real-life situations. They also have a teen program.

Do you have a suggestion for our visit to the Loire Valley or know of an interesting idea for travel abroad? I would love to hear about it!

One job that I wouldn't want - cleaning the chandeliers in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles! Yes, it's possible to take a photo without tourists. You just have to wait until the very end of the day when the guards escort you out the door!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Horses of the French Republican Guard and the answer to the riddle!

This rather unflattering shot is to remind you of the riddle that I asked last Saturday concerning the purpose of a metal template used while grooming horses during Napoleonic times. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you'll see the checkerboard pattern on the horses' haunches that created an optical illusion to mislead enemy scouts. Evidently, horses that are tired, sick or old have sunken croups, the indented area between the two haunches, so this dappled effect made it difficult for opposing forces to determine the condition of Napoleon's cavalry when viewed from afar.

When I stumbled across this procession last September, I didn't have a clue as to who or what they were. I just snapped some pictures because it's not every day that you see horses walking down the rue de Rivoli. Now, I'm rather pleased to say that I know that this was the first squadron of the French Republican Guard because all of the horses are light brown with light brown manes and tails. If all of the horses were dark brown with black manes and tails, it would have been the second squadron, whereas the horses of the third squadron are almost completely black. The only variations are the drummers, who ride grey horses chosen for their strength, and officers, who may select the color of their horses. You can test yourself by looking at the following photo. How many horses are from the second squadron?

Something else that you'll notice by looking at the procession in the first photo is that all of the horses are approximately the same size. That's one of the three criteria that the Republican Guard use to select horses from farms in Normandy. The other two are color and age.

The 200 horses assigned to Les Célestins barracks are exercised every day, either outdoors or in the largest indoor arena in Paris. Built at approximately the same time as the Eiffel Tower, the ironwork is impressive. Evidently, it's possible to watch twelve members of the Republican Guard demonstrate the principles of French riding at a performance given on one Thursday every month. I'm currently trying to find more information about how to get tickets.

Even though there were more than 100,000 horses in Paris prior to World War I, hearing the clippity-clop of hooves on the Champs-Élysées is more unusual now that there are only 400 horses left in the city. Just like me, horses go through a lot of shoes and need to have new ones every forty days. Unlike me, the Republican Guard horses have designers, also known as blacksmiths, who create shoes especially for them!

To illustrate how well the horses are trained, just as our guide was explaining that the stalls in the large stable were previously reserved for officers' horses but are now used for sick horses or those who are a bit naughty, I caught sight of this horse giving us a lively demonstration. I love his expression - he seems to be saying, "No, I don't know how this tail got in my mouth...but I'm certainly not the naughty horse to whom he is referring!".

Caught in the act!

Edit: It turns out that designs on horses' haunches aren't unique to France. Using the same sort of template and back brushing, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police decorate their horses with maple leaves. I wonder if American horses put maple leaves on their haunches while traveling around Europe like the American backpackers who don't want to be recognized as being from the United States? Many thanks to Christine for sending the following photo that she found online!