Friday, June 28, 2013

The French Premiere of "It's a Girl!", a documentary examining gendercide in China and India

Twenty-six years ago today, I was pregnant. Stéphane and I didn't know if our first baby would be a girl or a boy. And, we didn't care. No matter the baby's sex, we planned to welcome him or her into our lives. It was a joyous time.

Fast forward. The baby who was in my belly has grown into an intelligent, resourceful and beautiful young woman. One whom I'm sure will make the world a better place. From the moment she wrapped her tiny fingers around mine shortly after she was born to the day when she walked across the stage to receive her master's degree in June, my daughter has continuously filled my life with wonder.

But this post isn't about my daughter. It's about all of the daughters who aren't alive today because of "gendercide", the act of systematically killing, aborting or abandoning babies simply because they're girls. According to estimates by the United Nations, 200 million girls are missing in the world because of gendercide. To put that number in perspective, that's more than all of the deaths in World War I and World War II combined. Just imagine what these girls would have achieved if they had been allowed to live.

Last night, I attended the French premiere of It's a Girl at the American Church in Paris. Knowing that gendercide could be a divisive topic between conservatives and liberals in the United States, the producer remained steadfastly focused on the issue. This isn't a pro-choice film or an anti-abortion film. Instead, it's a film that everyone should see.

Shot in India and China, countries where families prefer sons to daughters because sons inherit wealth, work in the field and carry on the family name, the documentary introduces us not only to women who murdered their daughters but also to women who fought against ancient cultural traditions to save their daughters.

When Dr. Mitu Khurana, a pediatrician in Delhi, discovered she was pregnant, her husband and mother-in-law forced her to undergo an illegal ultrasound test to determine the sex of the baby. After they learned that she was carrying twin girls, Khurana's husband and mother-in-law pleaded with her to have an abortion. She refused. Hoping to provoke a miscarriage, her husband pushed Khurana down a flight of stairs and locked her in a room. Bruised and bleeding, Khurana managed to escape to her parent's house where she gave birth to twin girls two months prematurely.

In the film, Khurana demands, "What should I do to save my daughters? Where do I go from here? ... If all this can happen to an educated woman like me, what is the guarantee my future generations, my daughters will not face the same harassment when they grow up?"

Please tell your friends about It's a Girl. If you would like to take action against gendercide, visit the website for It's a Girl.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"Do you speak touriste?" Paris's new campaign to be friendlier to tourists!

Flow Restaurant earned two thumbs up last night for the friendly staff, tasty food and superb view!

Paris isn't known for friendly waiters. Unlike those in the United States, they don't squat down next to your table, introduce themselves as "Josh" or "Tiffany" before telling you the specials for the day or interrupt your meal every couple of minutes to ask if you would like something else, such as the bill. Parisians waiters are professional. They've been taught to observe from afar and not hover. They wait to bring the check until after you ask for it because it would be rude to rush your meal.

Things, however, were remarkably different when Stéphane and I dined at the newly opened Flow Restaurant at the Berges de Seine last night. For starters, the smiling waitress warmly replied bien sûr after I asked for a carafe of water to go along with my wine. When our drinks took slightly longer than normal to arrive, she made a special trip to our table to apologize, again with a smile. The waitress explained that the kitchen staff was washing glasses as quickly as possible but that they had been caught off guard by the success of the ephemeral restaurant next to the Seine and were having a hard time keeping up with the orders. But it was only after the waitress glanced at my camera and asked if we had enjoyed our hamburger and meat plate that I understood. She thought that we were visitors from abroad and was doing her best to "speak touriste".

In an effort to maintain its position as the world's top destination for foreign tourists, 30,000 copies of a booklet entitled, "Do you speak touriste" have been distributed to taxi drivers, waiters, hotel managers and sales people in tourist areas. The six-page booklet focuses on French, Belgian, Dutch, British, German, Spanish, Italian, American, Japanese and Chinese tourists and gives suggestions for how these various nationalities prefer to be treated. Americans, for example, expect more personalized service and require access to wireless internet to use their smartphones and tablets. British tourists prefer to be called by their first names and like when cultural offerings are also entertaining. French visitors from the provinces don't want to be treated like tourists, while the Japanese never complain about anything while they're in Paris but do once they've returned home.

When I posted a link to an article about Paris's new campaign on "Out and About's" Facebook page, it attracted some very interesting responses. Here are some of them:

Peter: I don't think I'm yet ready to hear "Have a nice day!" After buying my morning escargot.

Travel Fairy: This is the most ridiculous thing ever. If people want a homogenized home experience, stay home. Why go to another country if you don't want to experience it as it is.

Joseph: I can't imagine the waitresses at Le Petit Benoit would give a damn. Or the waiters, and one waitress, at Flore. Silly idea. Why the inferiority complex Paris?

Denise: The British like to be called by their first names"???? NOO! I just LOVE to be addressed as "Madame"!!

Paris Art Beyond the Louvre: I have not personally experienced the proverbial Parisian rudeness. Often, what American tourists experience as rudeness is just cultural misunderstanding.

Andrew: Shred this booklet.....Paris should be appreciated for what she is, not for what some chinless wonder well versed in corporate jargon thinks she should be....

Yvonne: Paris is perfect, we go in fact just so the French can ignore

Thérèse: Everyone has been lovely when I've been there. I despise it here in the States when I walk into a place and they shout hello across the room, refer to us as "guys" or say "no problem" instead of "you're welcome". Yes, I would rather shop and dine in France.

Please click here to view "Do you speak touriste" in French. With special thanks to Parisdise for tracking down the booklet on the internet!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday's Picture and a Song: J'ai Demandé à la Lune

Today's song and photo are in honor of the "supermoon", also known as a perigee moon, that will peak this evening. It will be as much as 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than other full moons of 2013.

One of the biggest celestial events of the year, the phenomenon is caused by the slightly asymmetrical orbit of the moon around the Earth. At its closest approach, the moon is 225,622 miles from Earth. At its farthest, the moon is 252,088 miles away. A supermoon is a full moon that happens within 12 hours of the lunar perigree, or the point in the lunar orbit that brings the moon closest to Earth.

J'ai Demandé à la Lune is a haunting song that will be the perfect accompaniment to tonight's supermoon. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Paris does it again! The newly opened Berges de Seine.

I've got a confession to make. I've always had an aversion to expats who rave about Paris as if it's the greatest city in the world. For many people, being posted here is like holding the ultimate trump card. Nothing, it seems, can beat the experience of living in the "City of Light". But over time, I've started to change my tune. And now, at the risk of sounding like one more overly enthusiastic expat, I've got to admit that I understand why everyone is so proud to live here. It's because when Paris does something, it almost always gets it right.

Paris inaugurated the Berges de Seine yesterday. With an archipelago of floating gardens on the banks of the river, entertaining play spaces for children and al fresco dining options for adults, it's an incredible public space stretching for 2.3 km from the Musée d'Orsay to the Pont de l'Alma. There are organized free yoga, tai chi, fitness and Zumba classes for people who would like to exercise. Alternatively, there are many hidden nooks and crannies with wooden chairs facing the Seine where people can relax while reading a book.

And, that's not all. There are teepees where children can celebrate their birthdays for free. Parents simply need to reserve them in advance. Reservations may be made at the information booth at Les Berges or online.

For adults, there are aptly named 4 Zzz. These shipping containers may be reserved for 90 minute periods on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. They provide a private spot along the river to take a nap, read a book, play cards or even get married. And they're free! If you would like to have a picnic, it's possible to order salads, sandwichs, soups and desserts from the nearby catering company, Omnivore. As with the teepees, reservations for the 4 Zzz may be made at the information booth at Les Berges or online. There is a maximum limit of 8 people and alcoholic beverages are not allowed. On the days when the containers are not reserved for personal use, they will host exhibitions, workshops and performances.

There are plenty of play spaces for children...

... as well as games for adults. Just ask one of the attendants wearing a white shirt for assistance.

But if you would rather watch the sun set while sipping a glass of wine, the Terrasse du Faust is a wonderful spot for riverside dining. It's open from 11 until 1am, Monday to Sunday.

Please click here for the official website for the Berges de Seine and here to see more photos.

Terrasse de Faust

Monday, June 17, 2013

Journée Grand Siècle at Château de Vaux le Vicomte

On a normal Sunday morning, Stéphane and I like to ease into the day. We linger in bed, savor pastries from the bakery and check the weather before making any plans. Last Sunday, however, was different. There was a flurry of early morning excitement because we were finally going to the Journée Grand Siècle at Château de Vaux le Vicomte. As I packed my white Marie Antoinette wig and heavy brocade dress into a large cardboard box, I caught sight of Stéphane twirling about our bedroom like a whirling dervish. Barely able to stifle my laughter, I offered words of advice that heretofore had been unimaginable: "Perhaps it would be better to wait until after we arrive at the castle to put on your stockings." Turning his attention from the one flexed foot that he had somehow managed to squeeze into the waist-high silky white hose, Stéphane wholeheartedly agreed. We left Paris in our usual twenty-first century attire and traveled back in time.

If you haven't been to the seventeenth or eighteenth century, they're destinations that I highly recommend. The garden of Vaux le Vicomte was full of charming ladies and dashing men, many of whom had spent an entire year designing and hand-stitching their own costumes. After a graceful curtsy or an elegant bow before the panel of judges, they described their clothes in minute detail during the pre-selection for the costume show. While taking photos of the applicants, I couldn't help but eavesdrop and wonder what I would have said about my rental costume. "Bonjour! My name is Mary Kay and ... um... my dress is made out of some kind of heavy cloth that's embroidered with gold thread. I believe that the style is authentic for the 17th century, at least that's what the man at the costume store told me. My shoes? Well, they're not really accurate for the period. I only wore them because they're comfortable and I didn't think that anyone would notice them under my dress."

Acutely aware of how little I know about 17th and 18th century attire, I was grateful for the explanations given by the master of ceremonies during the fashion show. When he presented a dignified man wearing red stockings with red-heeled shoes, he told the assembled crowd that this was a privilege reserved for the French nobility. The fashion originated when Louis XIV, who was rather short, started wearing shoes with platform soles and heels made out of cork covered with red leather. For the time being, it looks as if Stéphane de famille pas royale (plain ol' Stéphane) is going to have to stick with white stockings.

If you go to the Journée Grand Siècle next year, be sure to pack a picnic and spend the afternoon in the lovely gardens of Château de Vaux le Vicomte. King Louis XIV assured me that he was having a royal time, even after his wife ordered him to clear away the dishes! With a gleam in his eye, he confided that I was witnessing the beginning of the real revolution.

Thanks to all of the people who responded to my plea on Facebook for advice on how to discretely carry my camera while wearing 17th century attire, I was able to take lots and lots of photos. Please click here to view them. And, just to clarify, the only thing nestled in my decolleté was a tube of lipstick, 50 euros and my "Les Amis de Vaux le Vicomte card.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sunday's Picture and a Song: Que Je t'aime.

Stéphane and I see eye-to-eye on most things, with the exception of music. The vast disparity in our tastes could be attributable to the fact that he's Swiss and I'm American. Or, perhaps it's because he's a man and I'm a woman. Whatever the reason, we have two very different playlists on our iPods and often negotiate whose music we'll play during long road trips, his or mine. If it's his, I know that there will be lots of Eddy Mitchell, who I like, and some Johnny Hallyday songs that I'll ask to skip.

If you're not familiar with Johnny Hallyday, the French Elvis Presley, you're not alone. Even though he's a superstar in France, he has earned the nickname "the biggest rockstar you've never heard of" in English speaking countries.

Johnny turned 70 years old yesterday and celebrated by playing for a huge crowd at Bercy. Throughout the day, Stéphane bemoaned the fact that we hadn't gotten tickets for the celebration. I was secretly relieved. When we went for a walk in the evening, Stéphane peered in the windows of the bars we passed to get glimpses of Johnny's concert playing live on all the television screens. Even though he's not my cup of tea, Johnny's a big deal to a lot of people! So, in honor of his 70th birthday, here's a clip from Johnny's 2009 performance in front of the Eiffel Tower.

Have a wonderful Sunday! We're about to don our 18th century costumes for the Journée Grand Siècle. We may even listen to some of Johnny's tunes on our way to Château de Vaux le Vicomte.

While Stéphane commented on how beautiful Notre Dame looked in the golden sunlight last night, his enthusiasm for the cathedral paled in comparison to his excitement about Johnny's birthday concert.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Crossing one off the bucket list: Dîner en Blanc (White Dinner) at the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower

Excerpt from My list of ten things to do during the next months in Paris (April 5, 2012) 

Dinner in White (Dîner en blanc) is a flash mob of thousands of elegantly dressed Parisians in white clothes who descend on a famous landmark for dinner. As they reduced the guest list from 14,000 to 8,000 last June, I'm trying to figure out how to get an invitation for this year. Any ideas?

Not that I'm counting, but Stéphane and I have lived in Paris for two years, three months and fifteen days. We're at the stage of our expat assignment when friends are starting to ask where we'll be moving next. Will it be Switzerland, somewhere else in Europe, perhaps a country in Asia or will we still be in Paris next year? "I don't know" is my standard answer. It's true. I really don't have a clue. The only thing that I know for certain is that I've still got a lot of things that I want to do before we pack our bags. Fortunately, I was able to cross one of them off my bucket list because I finally made it to the annual Dîner en blanc (White Dinner) last Thursday. Even though I went as a photographer (aka "party crasher") dressed in white and not an official guest, it was a magical evening.

The excitement began when I received a text message from Sylvia and Ella Coquine saying that large groups of people conspicuously dressed in white were starting to congregate in front of Le Fumoir, the exact place where we had agreed to meet for a drink while waiting for news about the venue of the world's most exclusive dinner party. Part of the cachet of the Dîner en Blanc is that not anyone, not even the official guests, are told the location of the dinner until a mere thirty minutes before the event. Waiting patiently with bags full of champagne, china dinner services, white floral arrangements, candelabras, tables and white chairs, all of the elegant Parisians were on stand-by. Just like us. Suddenly, there was a buzz of conversation and a river of white flowed towards the Louvre. Incorrectly thinking that the invitees were on their way to yet another location, Sylvia and I hugged Mlle Ella goodbye and followed hot on their trail.

Imagine walking into the courtyard of the Louvre and suddenly spotting thousands of people busily preparing for one of the world's largest al fresco dinner parties. You would think that it would be chaotic, but it's not. All of the guests are familiar with the rules governing the event and know exactly what must be done before the celebration can begin. For example, invitees must arrive and depart by bus or organized public transportation, allocate seats in a very specific manner, with men on one side and women on the other, and take all of their trash away with them when they leave. The diners must enhance the value of the public space by charming passersby with the unexpected rather than detracting from it. And, most incredibly, it works.

While snapping photos of the Dîner en Blanc at the Louvre, I received a text message saying that there was another dinner happening simultaneously at Trocadero. Unbeknownst to me, the organizers had started dividing the group into two a couple of years ago to accommodate the more than 11,000 participants. After confirming that Sylvia was up for another adventure, we hopped on the nearest metro and headed towards the Eiffel Tower.

As the timing of the entire evening is carefully orchestrated to produce an extraordinary visual event, all of the diners were still seated at their tables when we arrived at Trocadero. Shortly before 11:00 pm, thousands of people stood in unison and raised sparklers towards the sky just as the Eiffel Tower started to sparkle. It was an amazing sight.

While miniature hot air balloons with candles were released into the night sky, music from one of the three bands had the Parisians kicking up their heels in an impromptu chorus line. Pointing at each other as we sang along with Aretha Franklin's R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Sylvia and I agreed that it was a wonderful night, even though we had to crash the party. With any luck, we'll make the official guest list next year!

If you would like to see more photos of the Dîner en Blanc, please click here for the dinner at the Louvre and here for the one at the Eiffel Tower.

After starting in Paris 25 years ago, there are White Dinners in cities around the world. Click here if you would like more information about one near you.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Giant Drive-in Movie Theater with Fiat 500s at the Grand Palais in Paris

The world's first drive-in movie theater opened in Camden, New Jersey 80 years ago this month. And while it has taken quite a long time for Paris to adopt this iconic American innovation, the film company MK2 certainly outdid itself with Cinéma Paradiso, a temporary drive-in movie theater installed under the enormous nave of the Grand Palais. From June 10 until June 21, those who were lucky enough to purchase tickets in advance will have the opportunity to watch classic movies, such as Grease, Taxi Driver, The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction, Psycho, or Annie Hall, from the front (or perhaps the back!) seat of a Fiat 500L or Fiat 500 convertible. With rows of traditional theater seating, deck chairs and mattresses with pillows, there are 900 places per screening. Due to the overwhelming success of Cinéma Paradiso, however, seats for almost all of the movies were sold out shortly after they became available online. As of this posting, there are still tickets available at FNAC for the 11:55 pm showing of Sugarman on June 21 and the 2:00 am showing of Hair on June 22.

But the good news is that even if you can't snuggle up with your sweetheart in a Fiat 500, there's still an exciting array of other activities for adults and children at the Grand Palais. In keeping with the retro-theme, there's an American diner serving amazingly delicious cheeseburgers, a roller skating rink that turns into a hip nightclub in the evening, vintage arcade machines, foosball and champagne bars serving flutes of Moët and Chandon. It's still Paris, after all!

An intense game of foosball in the Grand Palais.
Determined to escape all of the work that requires my attention after being away from Paris for two weeks, I was thankful when Sylvia agreed to play hooky with me this afternoon. We posed for photos with silly props at the Velib' stand, drooled over the American junk food at Colette and agreed that the organizers had done a very good job of transporting us back to our childhood in the USA.

If you would like to experience a bit of Americana in Paris, regular entrance tickets for Cinéma Paradiso are available at FNAC for 11.50€ for adults and 6.50€ for children and at the entrance of the Grand Palais for 13.50€ for adults and 8.50€ for children.

Please click here to see additional photos of Cinéma Paradiso on "Out and About's" Facebook page.

Cheers and congratulations to actor David Atrakchi and actress Sophie Meister who were celebrating their second wedding anniversary in a Fiat 500 at Cinéma Paradiso!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Two books that will take you off the beaten track: "Paris by Bike" and "Discover Paris by Metro"

I haven't done a lot of cycling in Paris, mainly because I'm afraid of all the crazy drivers, but one of my best memories is of a magical afternoon when Joseph the Butler, Stéphane and I biked to the Bois de Boulogne for a picnic. Circling around the Lac Inférieur with a backpack full of cheese, foie gras, champagne and a baguette, we paused for a moment to watch a small boy diligently rowing his father across the placid lake and a family playing croquet on the shore. It felt as if we were a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets.

Following Joseph's rapid lead, we continued down a tree lined path until we reached the Jardin du Pré Catelan, a lush botanical garden right in the middle of the Bois de Boulogne. After agreeing to put some distance between ourselves and the hordes of enthusiastic children at play, we walked our bikes to a large meadow that was miraculously free of people. No sooner had we spread our blanket on the grass, popped open the champagne and taken our first sip of bubbly than a security guard appeared out of nowhere and told us that we would have to move. The grass was resting. Not wanting to argue with the kindly guard, who had indicated that he wouldn't confiscate our bottle of champagne as long as we kept it concealed, we moved to another spot near a gurgling stream. To this day, I don't know if it was the intoxicating smell of foie gras or Joseph's camouflage pants, but something made a female duck take to Joseph like... well... like a duck to water. Much to Stephane's and my amusement, the duck was all over Joseph, nibbling his fingers and nudging his legs with her bill. It was an unforgettable afternoon.

If you would like to create your own memories of cycling in Paris, the English version of Paris by Bike will be available in bookstores and on the internet from July 17, 2013. After purchasing the French version, Paris à Velib' at FNAC yesterday afternoon, Stéphane almost missed our metro stop on the way home because he was so busy planning our next ride. With seven different itineraries and 144 pages full of suggestions for cultural visits, restaurants, shops, bars and cafés along the way, this guide is sure to be one of the best additions to our Paris book collection.

While Stéphane was reading Paris à Velib', I was thoroughly engrossed by my latest acquisition, Discover Paris by Metro. Using the 14 different metro lines as a starting point, this unique guidebook explains the history of each station, offers nearby sightseeing suggestions and gives insider's tips for restaurants, boutiques and entertainment. Checking their recommendations for restaurants near my metro stop, I was somewhat dismayed to see the name of one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants. Perhaps that explains why it has become so difficult to reserve a table!

Here's a short excerpt from Discover Paris by Metro about the history of the Hôtel de Ville metro station:

This is where French history has often played out its dénouement. Previously called Place de la Grève, labourers and others looking for work would come here to get hired. This went on until workers gathered here and challenged their wages and conditions. This gave rise to the French term 'faire la grève', to go on strike. Nothing remains of the original Hôtel de Ville building as it was burnt to the ground in 1871. It was rebuilt after the Paris Commune in 1883 in a pure Renaissance style. This is where Alphonse de Lamartine, politician, poet and founder of the Second Republic, made his appeal to the people , saying: 'Together we will create the most sublime poetry.' It was also here that De Gaulle gave his famous speech on the liberation of Paris, saying: 'Paris! Paris the oppressed, Paris the downtrodden, Paris the martyr! But now Paris is liberated.'

I wish that I had a photo of Joseph and the duck but I only have a picture of the Lac Inférieur in the Bois de Boulogne 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sunday's Picture and a Song: C'est si bon!

Just in case you missed seeing this photo on "Out and About's" Facebook page, I decided to post it here.

C'est si bon (it's so good)! That's what I was thinking while gazing at the Eiffel Tower in the distance on Sara's and my last evening in Paris.

Today's video was created by a language school that encourages students to "live the language". It features some beautiful shots of Paris and helpful French words accompanied by Louis Armstrong's C'est si bon.

Je vous souhaite un bon dimanche (I wish you a good Sunday) ... wherever you are. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The miracle of flight ...

"Were you made to feel like a valued and special customer during Air France flight 0012 from Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG), to New York, John F. Kennedy (JFK) on 05/28/2013?"

After reading the above question in the Air France Customer Satisfaction online survey, I let out a snort of disbelief. A valued and special customer!? Were we talking about the same flight, the one with the chaotic boarding process at Charles de Gaulle Airport that resulted in the economy class passengers snapping and snarling at each other out of frustration? Or perhaps the survey was referring to the opportunity that I had to interact with the Air France ground staff in Boston while filing a lost baggage form. After all, who wants to go immediately to their hotel and drop into bed after a long flight? Certainly not me!

As an expat who has lived in far-flung countries around the world, I've developed a love-hate relationship with air travel. For years, planes have carried me across time zones. They've delivered me into the warm embrace of my family. After my father's unexpected death, being cocooned in a plane for eight hours offered a welcome respite from reality. The noise of the jet engines muffled the sounds of my tears as I came to grips with the finality of his death and realized that for the first time in my life he wouldn't be waiting at the airport to greet me. Planes were even more important when we lived on islands. Physically cut off from the rest of the world, they represented freedom. Other than a boat, planes were the only way to escape the island if there was a coup, something which used to be a valid concern when we lived on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

Hoping to regain my appreciation for air travel, I was happy to have a window seat during my flight from Boston to Washington DC on Thursday afternoon. Gazing at the puffy cloud formations and the green and blue tapestry far below, I realized that it's a miracle to be able to soar through the clouds. The sensation was so strong that I didn't even mind waiting an hour and forty-five minutes for Stéphane to clear immigration. All of the joyous reunions at Dulles Airport reminded me that a little bit of discomfort is a small price to pay in exchange for the joy you feel when you're welcomed home by the ones you love.

The relative ease with which we can now travel from one country to another has been on my mind ever since Thomas Stumpner sent the link for an account of a woman's journey from Chicago to France to visit her son's grave shortly after World War II. Please click here to read "Silver Wings to Europe".

Waiting in the international arrivals hall at Dulles Airport in Washington DC