Saturday, May 31, 2008


I need to stop watching weather reports. After the météo predicted four days of rain in the south of France, I find myself already enjoying the third day of sun. Ok, so yesterday and today weren't quite the bright sun/blue sky days that Friday was, but the occassional breaks in the clouds have been enough to make eating on a terrace by the Mediterranean enjoyable, and really, what more could you ask for?

This weekend's good fortune aside, it's been a rough start to the season for those in the south who rely on tourism to earn a living. Today's newspaper ran a story entitled "Sale temps pour la plage," (Bad Beach Weather) in which tourism industry workers in Nice and Cannes decried the lower than average temperatures, higher than average cloud cover and nearly daily rainshowers that have caused many would-be vacationers to cancel their plans. Considering the nearly empty beaches I've been seeing here in Six-Fours-les-Plages, this phenomenon is touching everyone along the Côte d'Azur.

Clearly, France's tourist-starved coastal towns aren't getting any help from erroneous weather predictions. After seeing numerous pessimistic reports, we almost joined the masses by cancelling our own plans for a weekend getaway. Luckily, we decided against it. The weather reports for our area on numerous websites were so off the mark that at times they were calling for rain while, if they had taken the time to simply look out the window, they would have noticed that it was not, in fact, raining. That's the thing about the south of France: where weather is concerned, you can never lose hope. Even the "bad" days down here are better than some of the "good" ones elsewhere.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Back in March I did a story about an unusually friendly piece of graffitti that showed up in my neighborhood. Someone had painted the words "I love you" (substituting a heart for "love") on the little statue of Auguste Rodin located in the park across from my apartment. I thought it was cute; not my normal reaction to defacement, but who could resist such a sweet message?

Well, after months of searching, I finally found the French language equivalent. Right across for the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, written on a not-so-attractive protective barrier, some rogue artist wrote the same very attractive message. It made me wonder: Is there a band of spray-paint weilding do-gooders roaming the streets of Paris? Is someone trying to spread love all over the city? Or are these two occurances comletely unrelated? They are probably unrelated, but the idea of spray-paint weilding do-gooders is more fun to imagine.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Maybe I Should Just Play SimCity

I love living in France. I love living in the United States as well. When I'm here I want to be there and when I'm there I want to be here. Of course, there are things about both countries that I don't like, which is why I've always wished I could take the best of both and create and entirely new country. It would be part French, part USA, all good. My very own utopia, if you will. And I think I might even be able to convince a few others to join me there.

Just imagine the possibilities: good burgers and good baguettes, skim milk and crème fraiche, cheap beer and cheap rosé. Its citizens could enjoy free debit cards and free withdrawals from all ATMs, Target stores and Picard stores, a clothes dryer for every home and a rail system connecting every city. I'd take the large, user-friendly library at American University and combine it with the small, bank-account friendly tuition at Sciences Po. I'd be sure that every street corner had a come-as-you-are bar and a come-dressed-up café. The metro would be clean like in DC, but vast like in Paris. Fare hikes would never happen.

Some people might say that it's the little defaults that make life interesting and make a city endearing. Without them, everything would be sterile and boring. Maybe, but so far television consisting of incessant commercials hasn't endeared me to the US and having to use toilets with no toilet seats (multiple times!) hasn't endeared me to France either. No, I'd like my new country to be perfect, thank you very much. But since I don't envision a plot of land large enough for a country becoming available at a price I can afford anytime soon, I guess I'll just have to continue to travel between the two; enjoying what I like from each while I can and always longing to be where I'm not. And besides, if everything was perfect what would I have to write about?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


After spending a couple of months in France, you might start to get the feeling that Charles de Gaulle must have been the greatest Frenchman ever. It's not because you've been studying his rallying WWII speeches or his record as Président de la Republique. It's not because you know all about his personal life, his hobbies or his interests. It's not even because French people regularly tell you they admire him. No, it's simply because his name and likeness are everywhere, and I mean everywhere.

For starters, there is the Charles de Gaulle Airport; a busy and confusing 70s-era monstrosity on the outskirts of Paris. Once you find your way out of the airport and make it into the city you might come across Avenue de Charles de Gaulle or the Charles de Gaule - Etoile metro station. You will see his face on magazine covers and hear his contributions to France discussed on TV political shows. You will also start to notice the countless statues, busts, and plaques in Paris that are dedicated to the former general. Speaking of the military, France is one of the few countries to own an aircraft carrier, and yep, they named it the Charles de Gaulle.

After awhile, you sort of become immune to good ol' Charles. You might start to pass squares, buildings and bridges named after him without the slightest reaction. But even the most jaded of de Gaulle observers can't help admiring the Charles de Gaulle statue that stands near the entrance to the Grand Palais, right on the Champs-Elysées. High up on his pedestal, walking as if he is still on a mission to serve his beloved France, de Gaulle gives off an inspiring air of great importance. He's a man of action, a tireless crusader and a fearless leader. He looks as though any minute now he will step down from his perch, march up to the Assemblée Nationale, and start giving orders. Maybe he really is the greatest Frenchman ever. At the very least, he looks good in bronze.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Kind of Scary

Just like any other place on Earth, Paris is subject to the rhythms of human life. People are born in Paris, and people die in Paris. Some of those who die end up in one of the world's most famous final resting places: Le Cimitière du Père-Lachaise. With its monstrous mausoleums, winding paths and countless famous inhabitants, re-Lachaise is a morbid must-see for many tourists.

If you are among the many who visit this French cemetery, don't go on a really hot day. You will walk. A lot. re-Lachaise is enormous, with seemingly endless graves of all shapes and sizes. American visitors will notice a huge difference between this Parisian burial site and the cemeteries they're used to seeing at home. There's noticeably less open green space and more large above-ground memorials. Entire families are buried in some plots, and each site butts right up against its neighbor. The resident's list reads like a who's-who of French cultural society. Molière, Delacroix, Piaf, Balzac, Pissarro and countless other well-knowns are all buried here. There are some notable foreigners as well including Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein. But most people come to see the grave of Jim Morrison, the Doors' frontman who died in Paris in 1971. His grave is fairly simple, surrounded by a gate, and practically tucked away from sight. There were guards nearby keeping an eye on the the tourists as they lined up to get a picture. I mostly just felt sorry for the guy next to him on whose grave many a Morrison fan (unable to reach the singer's stone itself) has scribbled or etched a message to their fallen hero.

At first you might feel strange wandering around a cemetery as if it were just any other tourist site. It is, after all, filled with dead people. But once you get over the initial unease, strolling through re-Lachaise is a beautifully haunting experience. It's filled not only with graves but also with unique sculptures, amusing details and touching memorials to historic events. Plus, it's kind of fun to stumble upon the eternal home of someone you learned about in 10th grade history class.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Merci à Vous

A big thanks to my loyal readers for making my blog a success! After a featured interview on, Parisian Spring was recently included on Travel Hacker's 100 Best Travel Journal Blogs list. Check it out here, under the "Living Abroad" section.

Friday, May 23, 2008


I'd like to think of myself as a pretty good cook. I'm not sure I'd be able to put dinner on the table every night like my mom used to do, but I have a decent sized repertoire of memorized recipes and can even improvise with mostly edible results. I enjoy cooking as a hobby and have a weakness for buying tools, gadgets and decorations for the kitchen. Living in the world capital of cuisine, this both poses a problem and is a continuous source of amusement. On the one hand, I want to buy (at a great detriment to my bank account) every single utensil, pan and serving dish I come across. On the other hand, finding great ingredients, new recipe ideas and some expert local help is a breeze.

Just yesterday I learned how to make five new delicious French desserts. My visiting DC friend is herself a bit of a foodie, with an exceptional weakness for baking, so I readily accepted her suggestion that we take a cooking class together while she is in town. We were not disappointed. The menu included pears simmered in red wine, vanilla-flavored raspberry crème brulée, gâteau au chocolat, almond paste tarts and the classic French madelines. After our gracious and patient chef walked us through the recipes, he poured us some white wine as we proceeded to devour each of them in succession. Except the madelines. Apparently four is the maximum number of desserts that can be consumed in less than thirty minutes.

When you see cakes and tarts and various other French desserts in a restaurant or a pâtisserie, it's easy to think that the chef slaved over them for hours. More than once I've found myself thinking that I could never do what I've seen done by the experts. It looks like it would be so complicated! But the wonderful truth is that they're not difficult to make at all. The sweets we created needed only a few ingredients and took mere minutes to prepare. I'm looking forward to getting the recipes by email so I can try them myself at home. What a good excuse to go out and buy that tart pan I've had my eyes on...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Best Way to Kill Time

No trip to Paris would be complete without spending some quality time sitting on a sunny café terrace. I have a friend in town visiting from DC, and yesterday we decided that this would be the perfect late afternoon event after an exhausting day of market browsing, beignet eating and clothes shopping. We found a perfect spot on the Ile Saint-Louis, took the traditional side-by-side seating arrangement, ordered two glasses of red and watched the world go by.

There are countless reasons why sitting at a café in Paris is such an enjoyable activity. If you like people-watching, there is no better vantage point than a front-row table on a busy (but not too busy) street. The corner of a mainly pedestrian and bike thoroughfare is the best. If the weather is sunny and warm you can work on your tan; if it's cloudy and cold you can cuddle up to your chéri under a warmer. French waiters are never anxious to shoo you away to make room for the next customer. Being able to take your time and not feel rushed is a welcome change from the turnover maximizing atmosphere that plagues many American establishments. What's more, even though the dollar is low, with many glasses of wine costing less than 5 euros a glass, sitting at a café is an affordable way to pass away an afternoon.

As the official pastime of Paris, settling in at a café is a relaxing and enjoyable way to feel like a local. Your only difficulty might be finding that perfect table. At certain times of the day (lunchtime) and in certain areas (touristy) finding a good spot can be tricky. Try wandering down a side street, or in an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood. There it is, over there in the sun, calling your name. Go ahead, answer it!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Feeling the Heat

As citizens of a wealthy, industrialized country, Parisians enjoy above-average levels of comfort and convenience in their daily lives. Bountiful electricity, modern appliances and the latest electronic technologies are all around. But spend a few hot days in this city and you will quickly realize what's missing from their repertoire of 21st century conveniences: air conditioning.

That's right, this staple of American summers very nearly does not exist in Paris. It's not in apartments, it's not in my gym (yuck), and, despite a very large sign proclaiming that it is, it's not on the bus I rode last week. As far as I can tell, it doesn't exist anywhere on the Sciences Po campus. It's not in the library, not in the career center, not in the classroom of my French class that gets the hot afternoon sun, and it's certainly not in the crowded computer lab located at the top of a very long, tiring flight of stairs. I haven't noticed it in boutiques or restaurants, although you sometimes see signs on stores that advertise the fact that their establishment is air conditioned as if this was some newfangled contraption whose novelty could attract the masses.

Now, I've never been a huge fan of air-conditioning. I'm almost always cold, so I love the long, hot days of summer. It seems like such a shame to wait all winter long for warm temperatures only to have them blasted away by central air run amok. Not to mention the energy that is wasted by cooling everything down to the freezing point. But a reasonable amount of fresh air at critical moments of the day would be nice. I mean, transforming complex sentences and conjugating the subjunctive form of the verb in French is all good and well, but when the room is a roasting 90 degrees Fahrenheit it becomes a little trickier. Or when you're getting ready to go out (ladies, I know you understand me here) or when you're cooking a hot meal or trying on clothes at a store; these are times when you just would like a little climate control in your life. Scoff if you will, but trust me, one sweaty ride on the line 1 from Concorde to La Defense and you'll be begging for the max cool setting.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Between today's morning and evening rain showers, thousands of people took to the streets of Paris to enjoy another sunny Sunday. With my trusty bike, I happily joined in the fun and spent the entire afternoon crisscrossing the map. Zipping up the Champs-Élysées and navigating crowds in the Marais got me thinking about how great of a biking city Paris really is. Despite some of the obvious inconveniences (the occasional bumpy cobblestone street, enormous and confusing intersections), bikers will find it relatively easy and immensely fun to navigate Paris on two wheels.

For starters, there are countless bike lanes and paths throughout the city so bikers don't have to always be fighting traffic. You can bike along the Seine, up the Boulevard St. Germain, and even along the Rue de Rivoli on specially marked bike or bike/bus lanes. What's more, on Sundays between 9am and 5pm they city closes a large stretch of road that goes underground near the Louvre and comes above ground at the Pont Neuf (looking exceptionally beautiful today). Bikers, rollerbladers and pedestrians alike can enjoy a long, wide path set aside especially for them. Even when you do have to join the traffic, Parisian drivers are extremely cautious and courteous around bikes. They might tear through the streets like madmen the majority of the time, but when you are in street on your bike they will gladly give you the priority, maintain their distance, and patiently drive behind you until they're able to pass. There's also the question of pure enjoyability; biking through Paris is just plain fun! In fact, the only thing more exciting that driving through the Arc de Triomphe roundabout is biking through the Arc de Triomphe roundabout. Just hug the far right edge of the circle and enjoy the view.

If you decide to bike through Paris you won't be alone. Proving that they city is truly made for two-wheel exploration, bikers of all shapes, sizes and ages are everywhere. Next time you're in town, be sure to come up out of the dark metro and take to the glorious, sunny streets with the rest of between downpours at least.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Adventures in Dairy

When it comes to cheese, Americans have a simple choice: swiss or cheddar. For French people, deciding which cheese to serve with dinner is a bit more complicated. Walk into any French Fromagerie and you'll see what I mean. The options seem endless! In fact, it has been said that in France there are as many variety of cheeses as there are days in the year. And you know what? I believe it. What's more, I think I might be well on my way to tasting each and every one of them.

I've eaten more varieties of cheese in the three months I've been in Paris than I had previously seen in my entire life. There have been creamy cheeses, dry cheeses, hard cheeses, soft cheeses and smelly cheeses. I've enjoyed cheese made from goat's milk, cow's milk and sheep's milk. I've tasted blue cheeses, yellow cheeses, white cheeses and cheeses that are bright orange. And of course there were the round cheeses, crumbly cheeses, cheeses cut into cubes and cheeses shaped like a slice of pie. I've seen it all; nothing shocks me anymore. If someone were to show me a neon pink cheese in the shape of the Eiffel Tower made from the milk of an elephant I wouldn't even blink.

I'm not a terribly picky eater, and I'll try any cheese at least once. This sense of adventure when it comes to tasting aged dairy products has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion. Take last night for example, when, despite the smell, I tried a soft, yellow cheese with an orange casing that goes by the name of Langres. I wish I could have seen the look on my face after taking the first bite; this cheese was strong! I mean, burns-the-roof-of-your-mouth strong. It literally hurt to eat it. Well, it hurt me at least. The Frenchmen in our group didn't seem affected, but the other foreigner at the table reacted much in the same way I did. It's true that a lot of French cheeses are strong, but we both agreed that this one had gotten a little out of hand. Cheddar, anyone?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Random Kindness in Paris

When you live in a big city, you sometimes lose faith in humanity. Homelessness, crime, unfriendly faces, stress...they can all conspire to bring down your spirits. But every once in a while we city-dwellers witness an event that gives us hope; restores our faith in the goodness of man (and woman!). Yesterday, in need of a morale boost, I was lucky enough to find myself in two such situations, both while riding the Paris Metro.

After French class at Sciences Po I hopped on the line 12 at Rue du Bac headed towards the line 1 transfer at Concorde. Two stops into the ride a man seated near me in the front of the train began foaming at the mouth, fell to the floor, and proceeded to go into convulsions. His companion sprang into action, and, much to my amazement, so did a number of nearby passengers. There was the guy who ran out to tell the train conductor to keep the train at the station, the two men who helped stabilize the man and tell him everything would be ok, and the woman who ran for additional help. Most of the passengers, myself included, exited the train or at least cleared the area to give them some room. After the shock of seeing such a scene had passed, I was left in awe of how complete strangers had acted with such speed, efficiency and kindness in order to help a fellow human being in need. I smiled.

Because of the emergency, the line 12 was stopped for an undetermined amount of time. No bother; I was within walking distance to Concorde. Like they are every day in the late afternoon, the line 1 trains were packed. As we pulled into Georges V I didn't think that anyone else would be able to squeeze in, but they did. There was an old, fragile-looking man with a cane who was left standing in the crowd when the doors closed. Noticing him standing there, a woman politely asked if he would like to sit down. His face lit up and he said yes. She asked a young college-aged man if he could give up his seat. The young man agreed without hesitation and even held out his hand to the old man to help him to the seat. The three of them struck up a conversation for the rest of their journey together. I smiled again.

Sometimes you wonder if anyone cares, if people think about others, if politeness still exists. Sometimes you can start to convince yourself that everyone in a city is only looking out for themselves, too consumed with their own lives to notice when others are in need. But sometimes the world lets you think otherwise. Sometimes, even while riding the Paris metro, your faith in humanity can be restored.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Happy Feet

Possibly the most ubiquitous sign of summer fashion in the U.S. is the classic pair of flip-flops. Worn by men, women and children alike, these simple, comfortable shoes sprout up everywhere as soon as the temperatures start to rise out of their winter slump. Americans have flip-flops for all occasions. There are sporty ones for the beach, dressy ones for weddings and dinners out on the town, basic ones for running errands and jeweled ones that pair nicely with your new summer dress.

When I came to France with my own such extensive collection, I was prepared to stand out like a sore thumb in this city of chic rather than comfy clothing. I had noticed on previous visits that flip-flops were not a big seller in France, and while there are some things I'm willing to do to fit in over here, wearing high-fashion Parisian footwear in the middle of a heatwave is not one of them. Donning my blue and yellow decidedly un-French moose-motif flip-flops on the first warm day of the season, I shamelessly stepped out into society, ready to confront the masses as a proud, comfort-loving American. Much to my surprise, things had changed. Flip-flops were everywhere, and not just on the tired feet of tourists. They were being worn by Parisians as well! Rather than feeling like an out-of-place foreigner, I now felt like a fashion forward Frenchwoman enjoying the latest trend in summer shoes.

Not everyone will be happy about the growing visibility of flip-flops on the streets of Paris. Even Americans have been known to lament this basic choice in footwear. A couple of years ago the scandale du jour in Washington was that the city's interns - kids, these days! - were wearing flip-flops to the office. Like the DC newspapers that mourned the loss of respect in the workplace, I'm sure somewhere in the pages of French fashion magazines a fashion purist is mourning the loss of proper French style. But I for one am happy to see flip-flops take hold in France. Spend one day walking on uneven cobblestone streets, sweating on the crowded metro, or lugging your groceries home in the midday sun and you'll see why.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Not All Castles are Created Equal

Word to the wise: don't go to the Château de Versailles on a holiday weekend. Last Thursday was a national holiday as is today, which means that a lot of French people took off Friday and made a nice long vaction of it. With the absolutely gorgeous weather we've been having, many Parisians have fled the noise and crowds of the city to join the noise and crowds of the beach. Many are also playing tourist in their own county, visiting sites and cities along with foreigners from all over the world. Guessing from the impossibly long and slow-moving line at the entrance of the famous home of Louis XIV, Versailles is one the top of many of their must-see lists.

I went to Versailles early Saturday morning with a friend from Minneapolis who just wrapped up a 12 day stint in France. Upon seeing the line (and lack thereof for the gardens), and remarking on the tragedy of being inside when the sun is shining, we decided to forgo the castle for the gardens. This was undoubtedly the right decision. Filled with manicured hedges, rare trees, blooming flowers and magnificent fountains, the royal gardens were a sight to behold. Even better were the properties that make up la Domaine de Marie-Antoinette. Located on the opposite side of the gardens from the castle, France's most famous queen had her own little vacation destination only a short carriage ride away from home. Best of all was the Queen's Hameau; a series of quaint little country cottages where she could get away from it all and enjoy the simpler life of a peasant.

Versailles is definitely the most well-known château in France, but I don't think it is the most worthy of a visit. The crowds were incredible, the line for the ladies' room was ridiculous and the whole operation felt very commercialized, like a 16th century Disneyland. I was much more impressed by the castles that I visited in the Loire Valley. Versailles is right on the edge of Paris, so the area around it is bustling with roads and the activity of a busy suburb. The Loire castles are isolated and quiet and give you feeling of being in a entering a different world. Even those that are not in the county are in cute little villages rather than unimaginative commuter towns. We enjoyed the gardens and I'm glad I saw the castle if only because it's something you should do while in Paris, but I'm not sure I'll go back to see the interior. In this city with so many amazing things to do and see, one cannot afford to waste time waiting in lines.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Just Like Home

I miss lakes. I've missed lakes ever since I moved to Washington, DC in the summer of 2006. Growing up in Minnesota (or, The Land of 10,000 Lakes, as it is often called) instills in you a love for the sight of open water. We might not have an ocean, but nearly everyone can walk to the beach just the same. Lakes are everywhere. They freeze in the winter, making suitable spots for ice fishing, ice skating or ice hockey, and they are sparkling blue in the summer, perfect for picnics, boating and sunbathing. I didn't go to the beach at all when I lived in Washington, refusing on principle to drive two hours in order to find the nearest sandy spot.

Paris isn't known for it's lakes either, but as I discovered last night, ex-pat Minnesotans need not despair. Instead, they should simply head north out of Paris to the small town of Enghien-les-Bains. There, nestled between the odd combination of luxury hotels and a run-down suburban landscape is where you'll find the beautiful Lac d'Enghien. Its paddle boat rentals, wide promenade and lake front homes were a sight for sore eyes. While eating dinner on the terrace of the Pavillon du Lac restaurant, I snapped this photo of the sunset, almost forgetting that Paris, not Minneapolis, was just a short distance away.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Summer in the City

Parisians are in a state of shock. After nearly two months of nothing but rain and clouds and the occasional teaser five minutes of blue sky, we've had almost an entire week of nothing but bright sunshine and warm temperatures. The summer clothes have come out, the metro feels like a sauna, and I think I've even seen one or two normally straight-faced Parisians crack a smile. Summer has finally come to the City of Light.

Evidence of summer's arrival is all around. Many cafés have extended their outdoor seating capabilities in an attempt to accommodate all the additional customers who want a suntan with their espresso. Parks are filled with Parisians no longer tempted to stay inside the office on their lunch break. The blue sky makes the cityscape even more beautiful than usual, and the sunsets are simply breathtaking. But I think that my favorite sign of summer is the sudden appearance of an ice cream stand at my local boulangerie. Two euros and 30 cents will get you a large cup of the most delicious homemade ice cream you've ever tried. Vanilla and mango are to die for.

When summer comes to Paris it's important to spend as much time outside as possible: wander the Marais, eat a picnic lunch down by the Seine, or settle in for some excellent people-watching at an outdoor terrace. You have to enjoy every minute of the sun because you never know if it will last. We've lived through March and April; we know what kind of weather is possible in this city. We're not taking any chances.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Vive la Différence!

There are a lot of things about Paris that I did not miss while in Belgium. For starters, my unemployed-and-living-on-a-fixed-budget wallet noticed that everything was cheaper up north. Beer for 2 euros a pint, a hearty main dish for 7 and museum entrance fees at 3 euros 50 cents made me wonder why so many students choose to study in Paris when Brussels has universities too. Belgium was also noticeably cleaner than Paris. The Brussels metro was nearly spotless while the streets were surprisingly devoid of proof that Belgians own dogs. Lastly, spending time in Belgium allowed me to stretch my legs a little. Staying at a friends' house in the suburbs of Brussels was a dream; complete with a roomy backyard and a two-car garage. Everything in Paris feels crowded - the metro, apartments and sidewalks - while in Belgium it felt like there was room to spare.

Of course, there were also things that I did miss about Paris. For example, I missed speaking French. Yes, part of Belgium is French-speaking, but part of it is not. While spending time in Flemish-speaking Belgium I was reminded how frustrating it can be when you're unable to communicate in a foreign country. I also missed the beautiful architecture that is so characteristic of Paris. Bruge and Gent were charming to be sure, but Brussels lacked inspiration and the country just can't compare to architecturally stunning Paris. What's more, I didn't see a single bakery that looked or smelled as good as the endless boulangeries I pass by everyday in Paris. A life without pain au chocolat? Quelle horreur!

But most importantly, I missed that one of a kind Parisian atmosphere. I missed the vibe, the feeling you get just walking around this city. Paris knows it's special, and everyone who lives here knows it too. Yes, we put up with a filthy metro, sky-high prices and cramped spaces, but we do it out of love; love for a city that we just can't bear to leave.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Royal Treatment

Here are some things that I did not know about Belgium: the country has three official languages (French, Flemish and German), the Flemish speaking areas are richer and more beautiful than the French speaking areas, and Brussels has a serious petty theft problem. I learned these fun Belgian facts this weekend while visiting France's lovely northern neighbor with my roommate and her Brussels-raised colleague. To my surprise, there was quite a lot to discover in this tiny country that is one of the most densely populated in Europe. For example, did you know that Belgium still has a royal family...and that they live in an amazing royal palace on the outskirts of Brussels...and that they open their amazing grounds and greenhouses to the public only once a year...and that their once-a-year opening just happened to coincide with our weekend getaway?

Visiting the royal grounds and greenhouses was truly the highlight of the trip. The combination of great weather, beautiful surroundings, and amazement at our luck provided a couple hours worth of sheer jubilation. Built during the late 19th/early 20th centuries, the greenhouses are not only impressive in terms of their size, but also in terms of their up-keep. I'm not sure I've ever taken so many pictures of flowers, trees, and plants in my entire life; they were everywhere! Outside, the grounds are equally well-maintained and worthy of camera snapping. It's not surprising, then, that so many people showed up to take the tour. Belgian policemen were directing traffic in front of the palace, while others maintained order in the greenhouses or ensured that little kids didn't take a dip in the royal pond.

Despite their modern-day lack of any real power, the Belgian royals still receive funding from the state. Tax-payers from Brussels to Bruge ensure the existence of royal properties and royal activities. I found it strange, then, that visitors were charged 2 euros and 50 cents to have the privilege of viewing the grounds. Doesn't the royal family already get enough money from the commoners? Because of their generosity - paying for a useless figurehead to live in the lap of luxury - shouldn't the public be allowed not only a visit but a free visit to see where their money is going? That's another thing I learned about Belgium. Years after being ousted from power, its royal family still walks around like it owns the place.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Workers, Rejoice!

Banks, schools, and stores are closed, the streets are quiet, and the metro is running on a modified schedule. That's right, it's a national holiday in France. May 1st is a sort of Labor Day for many countries across the globe, including France. To celebrate workers rights and the start of the vacation season, Parisians will sleep in, visit family, demonstrate in the streets, and exchange Lily of the Valley bouquets. They might also relish the fact that today marks the start of a long string of national holidays. Next Thursday is a jour férie too, and thanks to a recent move by the French government, Monday the 12th, which marks the Christian holiday of Pentecost, has regained its national holiday status.

I say regained because a couple of years ago this day lost its férie status. You can imagine what a scandale the change caused; France is understandably very attached to its national holidays and generous vacation time. While the official reinstatement bill has not yet been signed, the mere fact that it's nearly a done deal is enough to close schools and other government offices. Those French workers whose private sector offices have decided not to close will be among the unlucky few who have to drag themselves to the desk on the 12th.

With so many long weekends on the horizon, many Parisians will take this opportunity to flee the city in search of some fresh air, rest and relaxation. Never one to miss the chance to participate in the local culture, I too am heading out of town. I'll be spending the next three days in Brussels, and therefore will unfortunately not be able to post again until Monday. In France, even blogs are entitled to a national holiday.