Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Haunted Village

The charred remnants of Oradour-sur-Glane

The region of France called the Limousin, southwest of Paris, is not an area people go to, but one they go through. "It's like one of the flyover states in the U.S. Think of Indiana," is how one American who lives there put it. These days the Limousin is mostly known for its beef cattle and for being one of the most thinly populated areas in France. Its reputation as a sleepy backwater may be something of a liability today, but during World War II when France was occupied by the Nazis it was a blessing. That was probably how the residents of the tidy little market town of Oradour-sur-Glane saw it.

In 1944 they were surviving the war quite well. The village where they lived had no strategic value and, except for rationing, they were only marginally affected by the conflict. On the afternoon of June 10, 1944 it looked like even that inconvenience was due to end soon. The Allies had landed on the beaches of Normandy four days before. The Germans were pulling back. The war in Europe would be over in about six months.

But on that lovely Saturday afternoon, none of it would matter. There are variations on the story but facts everyone agrees with are as follows.

The village was busy that day because all the children were gathered in the schools for a health inspection. The young men were in town because ration coupons for tobacco were being distributed. Around 2 p.m. a convoy of about 180 SS troops, part of a Panzer division, rolled into town. Their commander told the mayor, a retired doctor, to round up everyone for an identity papers check.

Oradour is not a big place. You can walk end to end in about ten minutes. So it didn't take long for all the men women and children to gather at the grassy fairgrounds on the edge of the village [See photo at top of this page]. There were about 650 people. No one was particularly concerned. The village was under the jurisdiction of German puppet Vichy government and what little contact they had with German troops in the past had been innocuous.

After everyone was present the Germans changed their story, saying they were investigating rumors of arms and ammunition hidden in the village. They planned to conduct a building to building search. To keep them out of the way, they gathered up the women and children and marched them to the village church. To keep an eye on the village men, the Germans broke them down into smaller groups and marched them to barns and garages in the town. They posted machine gunners at each of the six locations.

Not long after this some soldiers walked into the church and set a large box with fuses dangling off it on the altar. Around four o'clock some sort of signal went off. Without warning the machine gunners at each of the six locations began gunning down the groups of unarmed Frenchmen in the barns and garages. The soldiers made a point of shooting waist high to make sure they would also kill any children who might be among the groups. After the fusillade, SS troops waded through the bodies, executing any who were still alive. Then they piled straw and wood on the bodies and set the pile of corpses on fire.

At the church, soldiers lit the fuses trailing out of the box and locked the door. An explosion released a thick cloud of black smoke. The women and children scrambled to the far corners to try and find a place to breathe. Seeing not all had suffocated to death, soldiers shot any survivors, firing through the church windows. They then tossed hand grenades into the church to finish off any still alive and lit the church on fire.

The next day the Germans set fire to every building in the village and left. A handful of people, through luck, courage or resourcefulness had escaped before and even during the shooting, but not many. Total confirmed dead was 642.

The people who came to town afterwards looking for friends and relatives said the air was fill with the nauseating odor of charred flesh. Bodies were so badly burned only 52 were identifiable.

To this day no one knows why this happened given other nearby villages were left untouched. One story has it that the German officer in charge mistook Oradour for another village with a similar name where members of the French Resistance were hiding. Another story is that he mistakenly heard the village had captured and killed a German officer. Since the officer died in battle a short time after the atrocity we will not know for sure.

After the war Charles de Gaulle visited Oradour and ordered that the village be left exactly as it is as a memorial to those slaughtered there. A new Oradour was built north of the site. And so it has been ever since.

We went to visit it. Even today the place is a scene of quiet horror and madness. This was a thorough, efficient, soulless execution of a town. There was just a handful of people wandering the empty streets the weekday we visited. Those few who talked spoke in whispers as they walked past the blackened shells of buildings. Most walked around in a kind of stunned silence. Among the crowd were two young men, tourists from Germany.

Some of what we saw:

Across the street from the fairgrounds: The mayor's car was left where he parked it that afternoon.

It was burned in the conflagration.

The main street of the town: These trolley tracks once led to the city of Limoges.

What's left of one of the village's cafes.

A truck in one of the garages.

According to grillwork over the door, this house had stood here since 1768.

The stone plaque to the left of this door says, "Two charred bodies were found here."

A memorial plaque to the men of the village who died in World War I. It is on a wall in the church. You can still see bullet scars on it from the day of the massacre.

Because the individual bodies were burned beyond recognitions all the corpses were deposited in a memorial in the town cemetery, essentially an ossuary. The age range of those murdered was from one week to 90 years old. Above is a typical memorial. Three generations of a family - parents, their daughter and her two young children - erased in minutes.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Life is Like A Chicken Ladder

It took a while to puzzle out why living in France seemed so annoyingly familiar. One day it came to me. It’s the cultural resonance of the place. Its citizens are smugly self-satisfied about their way of life. None sees the necessity of speaking any language other than their own. And they have an offhanded, unabashed xenophobia. It’s like being in the United States with cheaper wine.

Lately, however, I’ve been worried that the culture that gave us the acidic Candide, The Misanthrope and wristslittingly dreary Being and Nothingness is getting all warm and fuzzy, that their vinagery disdain for things non-French is fading and they are starting to think like the American philosopher and Raccoon Lodge member, Ralph Kramden, who once observed, “We are all brothers under the pelt.”

This epiphany came at a dinner given by my friend, Hilde. A true cosmopolite, she was born in Germany, lived in Paris as a young woman and spent most of her adult life in Manhattan before resettling in a tidy little village in the middle of France. Louise and I were visiting her for the weekend and earlier in the day we had been helping her prepare for an evening gettogether. The table was set and the food ready. She looked at her watch. It was eight o’clock precisely and her doorbell was silent. Everyone would be fashionably late. She muttered something in German.

“What?” I asked.

“Something my mother used to say: ‘Here I am with my neck washed and the aunt’s not coming.’”

“Don’t know that one,” I said.

“But there’s an equivalent in English.”

“Can’t think of any,” I replied. “Maybe: ‘The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get.’ No. Forget it. That means the opposite.”

“Who said that? Your mother?”

“Satchel Paige, I think. Or Lewis Carroll.”

“Surely you have something similar,” she pressed. “Everyone does.”

Not really, I said.

She was unconvinced. When the opportunity presented itself, she threw the topic out to her dinner guests, Europeans all. To my astonishment there was a consensus among everyone, even the French – especially the French – that there is a canon of everyday wisdom, a sort of international Poor Richard’s Almanac body of aphorisms and vocabulary we all share.


A Dutch woman suggested one reason was the Americanization of globalspeak:
Le weekend. Le sandwich. Happy Hour. Wi-fi. And so on. “All I hear the young people say is ZOO-pah this and ZOO-pah that,” she said.

“ZOO-pah?” I was lost.

“ZOO-pah.” She looked at me as though I were, as Robert Downey, Jr. so delicately put it in
Tropic Thunder, On Full Retard. She spelled: “S-U-P-E-R.”

She went on. “And the other day I asked my son what he was going to do after school and he said I’m just going to be
chillen. And he went into his room and spent hours on his computer with his friends. Chillen. What is that?”

“Chill-ING," I corrected. "It means to do nothing.”

“But he wasn’t not doing anything. He was on his computer.”

“Basically not working. To kick back.”

“Kick back?” her browed furrowed.

“Well you say window shopping,” interrupted a lively French woman at the other end of the table. “We say the same: ‘

She was correct, technically. But the French phrase is more graphic, unhygienic and, frankly, a little disgusting. It literally means to “lick the shop window,” a fairly accurate description of the avidity with which French people press their faces against the display windows of boutiques.

“And there’s
Chacun a son goût.” In case I didn’t get it, she turned to me and said in slow English: “To itch heez zone.”

“Yeah, yeah. Even I know that one,” I assured.


“It’s the same in German,” Hilde said and let fly a machine gun burst of German.

“Which means . . . ?” I said.

“’It's a matter of taste,' said the monkey as he bit into a bar of soap.”

WTF? That was a stretch, I thought, but I had to give her points for originality. I maintained it was naive to insist that we all drank from the same aphoristic well. Yes, I know there are
web sites where you can get expressions like “Don’t drink and drive.” translated into Polish or Arabic, but I bet some versions will come out like the soap eating monkey.

A few years ago the
BBC polled 1,000 linguists about the most untranslatable words and phrases from other languages. The winner was "ilunga" which comes from Tshiluba, a tongue spoken in the Republic of Congo. The word describes "a person who is ready to forgive an abuse for the first time, tolerate it a second time, but never a third."

Unfortunately I did not have this info at the tips of my
doigts, so the juggernaut of misguided good will and belief in common experience rolled on. The French woman, talking about something thrilling, declared, “I had chair de poule,” and rubbed her forearm to make her point. “Or as you would put it,” she turned to me, “the skin of a hen.”

It took me a moment. “You mean ‘goose bumps.’”

Gänsehaut,” threw in Hilde. “Goose skin.”

“Why do you call it goose bumps,” a younger Frenchwoman next to me asked.

“Because that’s what a goose’s skin looks like after its feathers were plucked.”

“And that’s because you eat a lot of geese in the United States?”

“Actually I think we eat more chicken.”

“So why don’t you call it chicken bumps like us?” she said.

“I don’t know. I don’t really know,” I sighed. “I guess language is complicated. Like life.”

Hilde nodded sagely. “As my mother used to say . . ,” (Oh god, now what, I wondered,) ‘Life is like a chicken ladder, always full of shit.”

To my delight, no one, absolutely no one, could match that, or for that matter understand what the hell she was talking about. But by that time the wine had kicked in and no one cared.

This alcohol enhanced camaraderie only intensified as the night went on and the evening finished with vows of newfound friendships and empty promises to see one another soon.

Just as I was despairing that the arrogant, cynical, parochial, Frenchman was no more, I heard the woman next to me mention to her husband she wanted to say good-bye to the hostess before leaving. “I don’t want to filer comme un Anglais [rush off like an Englishman].”

Fascinating French Fact: The American colloquial vocabulary is about 10,000 words larger than the colloquial French vocabulary.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Transaction

Mme/Mr. A: "Do you have it?"
Mme/Mr. B: "Yes."
Mme/Mr. A: "Let's see. (Views object of desire.) OK."
Hands Mme/Mr. B cash.
Transaction complete, the two people glance over their respective shoulders and slink off in opposite directions.
[End scene]

All over Paris on any given day, two or more complete strangers are interacting this way, usually in a public place - on a bridge, outside a Metro stop, at an anonymous bench in a vest-pocket park, on a street corner in a double digit arrondissment, perhaps even in an apartment if they are feeling particularly adventurous - where they quickly introduce themselves, make perfunctory small talk then go through a quick, vaguely furtive exchange of money for goods. Minutes later they scurry off, aflutter with the dark thrill of having met a stranger's needs and their own.

They are the aficionados of La Liste de Craig, more commonly known as Craigslist. Every western country, every city of note seems to have one and Paris is no exception.

I was thrilled when I found it. There were offers of platonic relationships, one-on-one translation classes, used bicycles, used motorcycles, massage therapy, and, for all I know, a French Craigslist Serial Killer. I wasn't really interested in any of those goods and services, but it was nice to know they were out there.Then after a few weeks I started seeing stuff I could use. Hot diggety

The first transaction was typical. It seemed like every few months someone moving back to their country of origin was doing an apartment dump, offering everything from washing machines to flatware. In this instance a young American minister and his wife heading home and offloading much of their French bought possessions. Following his vague directions to a Metro B line stop south of the Luxembourg Gardens I arrived to find absolutely no one. A later phone call to him revealed he he had parked his truck full of stuff two blocks away around the corner.

"Everyone else found it," he said. The implication was I should have spotted it. Lacking X-ray vision and ESP unlike his other customers, I apologized. We re-met. The payoff was a good printer/scanner/copier at a great price which I hauled, sweating and gasping, about a mile through the streets of Paris back to our place.

My second transaction was what for what was described as a "party guitar." Basically it was a beat-up classical guitar. The seller was a bubbleheaded American student heading home. Via email he made, and broke, at least a dozen appointments. All of a sudden I was less interested in the guitar and more intrigued in seeing if I could actually make this deal happen.

The day before he left he decided he could actually do the thing. He gave me the outdoor code and the hall code to his girlfriend's -- not his -- place. A climb to the sixth floor got me to an apartment that was so small we had to take turns turning around. A sulking young woman who was glaring at me was banging and slamming her one cup and spoon as she cleaned them at a teeny-tiny sink, next to a teeny-tiny two-burner stovetop in the microspeck of a kitchenette which seemed to be about two feet away from where he and I were standing in the living/bed/everything room. It was two in the afternoon but it appeared as though he just got up.

"I don't have a case for this or anything," he apologized sleepily as he pulled out the battered instrument. I had anticipated this and pulled a garbage bag out of my pocket to carry it home. "Kewl!" he gushed. He was so impressed it frightened me a little.

The guitar was only 40 euros so I was not expecting a recital hall quality instrument. A good thing. It was awful. Three of its six stings were steel, an atrocity on a guitar not built to handle the heavy stress of tightly wound steel. There was a thumb-size dent in one side, and the fingerboard was pulling away from the body. I strummed it and realized I never heard such and odd sound come from any stringed instrument. It was strangled plank. I sold it two months later on Craigslist for the price of the new nylon strings I had bought for it. I could not in conscience pass this dreadful thing on to another unsuspecting soul for profit. My buyer and I met, of course, near a Metro stop.

But hope springs eternal. Two months after I sold that I saw another Craigslist ad for another classical guitar. This time the meeting was in front of a bar at an anonymous corner in the 17th. My contact was nowhere in sight when I arrived in the seedy neighborhood. I walked into the dark, gritty drinking establishment. The huge African bartender glared at me and gave me a hostile, "Bonjour."

I cheeped, "I'm looking for a friend." I looked around at the room at the few drunks sitting in the dark. "Alors, he's not here." And rushed out like my clothes were on fire.

It was bitter cold.I remember lots of young malnourished looking young people with lotsa tattoos on their necks skulking by. I paced up and down the sidewalk to keep warm and everyone, everyone, who walked by me as I stood on the corner gave me a wary look as though they thought I was a cop or something. Finally a wan, pale young man with a ratty little soul patch on his chin slipped up next to me.


"Yes. Steven?"

"Here it is." For some reason he was accompanied by a wan young boy even paler than he who watched the whole transaction in total silence. Steven pulled out an elegant little guitar - they call them parlor guitars in the States - out of its padded nylon case. It had five nylon strings and one steel string on it -- what is it with these freaking steel strings? I wondered - but it had a lovely tone.

"Very nice," I said.

Then he looked up and down the street before he leaned forward and whispered, "I also have a music stand if you're interested."

I said no and that was that. "So, do you play classical guitar," I asked as he was counting the euros I gave him.

He looked up with a baffled expression as though it were an odd question. "No. But if you're interested," he lowered his voice. "I give lessons in music theory." With that, he and his young silent companion slipped down a side street like two characters from Oliver Twist.

Later I put on a fresh set of nylon strings and played that sweet instrument for a year before I sold it to an American architectural student who was in Paris for the summer. (This was only after I had exchanged frantic emails with a mom in the 6th Arr. who said she was eager to buy it for her daughter, and then abruptly stopped communicating. A typical Craigslist experience.) He said he's probably sell it before it went home. I like to think somewhere in Paris it has a good home, and six nylon strings.

Fascinating French Guitar Fact: For jazz manouche fans, Django Reinhardt's guitar is on display as part of the permanent collection of the Musée de la Musique.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Just got back from a gallery here in the States where they had a Georgia O'Keefe retrospective. One thing I could not help but notice was the difference in the style of appreciating that goes on here vs. France. In the U.S. art spectators are a wary lot, standing a good three to five feet away and they zoom along, as though cruising the cereal box aisle in the supermarket looking for the right brand of breakfast food. For whatever reason the French by contrast like to linger and when possible manhandle the art. Some examples of what I mean:

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


April is not the cruellest month. June is.

June is the month where our year countdown began.

June is the month when Mlle. Butterfly left to visit her family in Tokyo and as she said good-bye asked if Louise and I were coming back in the fall for more classes. When I said no, I have to say I was secretly pleased that she looked a little bereft. At least I think that was the expression on her face. Or maybe it was relief.

June is the month when one of the neighborhood clochards, the guy who lived in the doorway of the Shell mini-mart, the joker who made wisecracks when he saw me heading off for a run, left. I passed him crossing the Blvd. Raspail. He had his fully loaded backpack on and a sad, preoccupied look in his eyes as he walked east.

June was when Madame Rosa our concierge left, maybe not to return. She had been in and out of the hospital during the spring. She came back looking very frail and stayed sequestered in her tiny apartment by the front door. Gradually she seemed to recover. One day I saw her standing uncertainly outside the front door. "The oxygen tubes are coming out next week!" she smiled. A few weeks later I saw her, as before, hauling the garbage bins to the sidewalk. Even then there was a diminished quality. Then one June afternoon I was coming back to our building and saw a small scrum of tenants out on the sidewalk. An ambulance was parked at the curb. Attendants had crowded into her apartment. Madame Rosa was going to have to go back to the hospital.

June was when we left Paris. With no complaints. It was almost eery how smoothly everything had gone. When our year was up we realized there was no law that said we had to go, so we stayed another six months. When those six months were up, our landlord asked if we wanted to stay on another six months. We did, but it was time to leave.

Hemingway famously wrote, "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." I think I understood what he was getting at, but to be honest I'm not totally sure. For some reason I think of takeout meals and doggie bags when I read that. But I guess "Paris is a doggie bag" doesn't scan.

In any case the quote had no relevance to me, I thought. I lived in Paris, yes -- as an old man. Just how old I realized one evening when I was at a birthday party of younger friends. The husband was turning 30. At one point in the evening I was talking to three of his young guests and was feeling acutely Methusalahish. I was thinking that the cumulative ages of the three of them only barely exceeded mine by a year or two.

Fortunately that feeling did not last. If you substitute "old man" for "young man" in Hemingway's line it still applies. Would it have been any different had I come as a young man? When I first came to Paris I felt unstylish, unsophisticated and poor. When I moved there decades later I still felt that way. Only then I didn't care. It was fun.

The cab was at the curb and we were loading it our six suitcases containing all our worldly goods into it to go to the airport and home. The gray-haired man who worked for Madame Rosa came running out. Madame Rosa was on the phone, calling from the hospital. She wished us bon voyage we wished her bonne sante. I hope she's there when we come back.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Something there is that doesn't love a blank wall in Paris. I don't know if it's the frustrated public artist in the Parisian, an abhorrence of a blank space, or just an addiction to eye candy of any and all kinds that is at the root of it. But on my meanderings around the city it seemed impossible to wander down a street without seeing something startling pop up on a wall.

There's the standard grungy grafitti:
. . . some of it in English. Alors.

Some of it quite striking:

Less imaginative but still intriguing is a kind of stencil art which appears mysteriously in nooks and crannies:

Or high on walls:

Or laid out like a kind of public gallery:

I never saw anyone actually putting up this, until one day I turned a corner and there was a kind of SWAT team of student artists working frantically to put up a street's worth of this stuff:
And then there is the soothing, pleasant shock of:

Or this Dali sundial high on a wall:
Or ephemera like this, which only comes out at night:

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ten Things I Won't Miss About Paris and Ten Things I Will

WON'T MISS . . .

1. DOGSHIT. I know dogs have to take a crap, but I also know Parisians dog owners are supposed to pick it up. I have seen three people do it. The rest of the city's walkers are, tragically, struck blind the instant their pet's merde plops onto the pavement. Miraculously they get their vision back after they have walked out of smelling distance. If we can find a cure for Dog Walker's Blindness we will have solved the problem.

2. SCAFFOLDING. There are 2,300,000 vertical meters of construction scaffolding blocking the already narrow sidewalks of the city. I don't know if this number is accurate. In fact I know it isn't because I just pulled it out of my ear, but that's what it seems like. Few experiences are more unnerving than walking under creaky, swaying scaffolding that looks like it was made of recycled Red Bull cans and assembled by drunken children.

3. THE SCOLDS. It sounds sexist but some days it seems like there are a whole army of grim faced, post-menopausal harridans who have taken upon themselves the civic responsibility of telling the rest of the world how to behave. I was once yelled at in the Luxembourg Gardens for sitting too close to one of their public installations of art. (For the record I was about 5 meters away.) “Monsieur,” snapped a woman bypasser with, I noticed, a hint of a moustache, “not so close to the art!” My wife was once reprimanded by a woman in the market for touching fruit. Again, for the record everyone else was manhandling the bananas with the vendor's approval. The only thing that cancels out the Scolds is watching them take each other on. (See LINE CUTTERS below)

4. THE SHANTY TOWN AROUND ST. SULPICE. Yes it is sad but necessary to enshroud the church of St. Sulpice with that ugly scaffolding to refurbish it. But it is sadder and totally unnecessary to double uglify the lovely plaza with those crap shacks display booths they set up for their inane fairs showcasing: bad art, bad photography, overpriced antiques, mathematical games, travel booths promoting doomed leisure destinations like Kazakhstan. The one exception: the charming Christmas fair that’s set up there. I know I'm not alone on this. I overheard a woman talking to an older French couple and excitedly pointing out the current foire for I don't know what -- doorknobs or something -- as they strolled by Saint Sulpice. The older woman moaned, “But it blocks everything. Everything.”

THE BUREAUCRACY. Too bad Kafka is dead, he'd have a field day here. Everyone has a story about the French bureaucracy. Mine is that last summer I received an email from someone in the Visa section saying they could not do the final processing of my application because my ears were cut off. I touched the sides of my head to make sure. Nope still there. I re-read. OK my ears were cut off in the photos I had given them. But the pictures I sent were the government specified size – I measured -- and my ears were intact and visible in them.

So I re-re-read the email. Apparently because of a spazzy inability to use scissors someone in the Visa office had inadvertently cut off my ears in my photos and now they couldn’t use them. That meant I had to make good on their incompetence and bring in more pictures. It’s a tribute to the French sense of humor that when I showed my copy of the email to the receptionist at the visa office she smirked then showed it to her fellow clerk who laughed and shook her head. Once I got to the right desk I discovered, sadly, that the pompous doofus who sent me the scolding email was on vacation and would not be back for weeks. Fortunately, I got a very nice woman who took care of it.

6. BACKWARDS DRIVERS. Yes the streets of Paris are confusing. Yes, it is a very old city with all the ambling, rambling streets and alleys that come with its history. But maps have been around at least since Magellan. And there are GPS's. Even so, at any given moment probably 30 percent of all the drivers on Paris streets are going backwards because they: A) went down the wrong street B) went down a street where garbage is being picked up and traffic is going nowhere C) passed a parking space half a block back and want it D) found themselves on a street whose appearance for some vague reason displeased them. So they put it in reverse and occasionally even look over a shoulder as they shoot backwards. Because of this I long ago learned to look both ways when crossing even one-way streets. I used to marvel at how deftly Parisians drive in reverse. Now know why. They spend half their time in that gear.

7. MOTO RIDERS WHO USE THE SIDEWALK AS THEIR PRIVATE ROAD. Hey, I own a motorcycle too, but I drive like a grown-up, out on the road, with the traffic, not on the sidewalk like a child on a tricycle. Try it sometime. What's that? You have to go around the block to go the right way on a street?
Tant pis, mon ami.

8. LINE CUTTING. Actually I'm a little ambivalent about this. Certainly it can be annoying to lose your space in line to some twit. But as one cute young Parisianne told my brother-in-law as she cut in front of him, "This is Paris. You have to assert yourself or you will lose out." Plus it can sometimes be a source of entertainment.

One memorable day I had an Olympic caliber Scold, a real vinegar puss, standing in front of me in the ten item or less line at Monoprix when another Scold attempted to slip in front of her. I cannot translate the French dialogue precisely but it was something like, “Madame, [as in “Hey, Bitch”] I was here first.” And the reply was a supercilious, “But I have fewer items than you and I am in a hurry." And they were off and running. It was great, like watching two scorpions in a bottle.

9. THE COFFEE. When I first started coming to Paris decades ago, part of its charm and its specialness was the smell of coffee wafting out of the cafes in the morning. But in the years since, coffee has gotten better in the U.S. and the rest of the world for that matter. So I was horrified when came back to discover the coffee, quite frankly, stinks. When I had my first cup this past year I was thinking, “This tastes like a fart. When did they add tripe to their beans?”

10. THE STREET BEGGARS. Not all of them. I give selectively. The ones I find the most offensive are those who slink up to you, whispering and hissing their plea for
monnaie centimeters from your face. And they have no beggar logic. I remember a quite plump guy sitting on a sidewalk with his pet rabbit in a box and a “J'ai faim” sign. I wanted to go up to him and say, “Here's an idea: Eat the rabbit.”


1. THE SKY. Even in the coal dark depths of winter or on a gloomy overcast Fall afternoon there comes an instant when the clouds part and the light shifts in a special way. Everything pops in bright relief against a crystalline sky. Buildings change hues. You can feel the mood of everyone lift. It’s a moment.

2. THE PEOPLE. They are better looking here, at least the female half of the population I notice. They are also more courteous, albeit in a pro forma way, and they have style. OK, maybe they are a tad obsessive about their appearance, but I know I will miss it when I'm in a mall in the U.S. surrounded by fellow citizens who, according to Bill Bryson, look like "elephants dressed in children's clothing" in T-shirts, baggy shorts and flip flops. And I know Parisians are supposedly famous, or infamous, for their rudeness. I've run into my share, but no more than in Manhattan where I lived or any other big city I’ve visited. (For the record: The weirdest/rudest people I ever encountered were in Minneapolis.)

2. THE BREAD. “You will find decent bread when you get home,” an American living in Paris said in consolation when I said we were leaving. No we’re not. No. Not going to happen. Ever. Period.

3. THE WINE. Yes there is plonk here, which I discovered you can find if you pay less than 90 centimes a bottle. But there is lots and lots and lots of good, and of course, great wine here. It is easier to find good wine than bad, often for less than what it costs for a bottle of milk or water.
4. SUNDAYS. I'm old enough to remember when Sundays in the United States were authentic days of rest. Stores were closed. Most restaurants were as well. There was little to do but hang out, visit relatives or friends, go for a drive, do nothing. Those days are long gone. But not in France. There is still a mellow, relaxed old-fashioned Sunday feel I looked forward to.

Sunday afternoon in Paris.

5. THE MURMUR IN A RESTAURANT. Soon we’ll be back in a country where practically every restaurant has an agenda of enforced liveliness: LOUD MUSIC, crammed tables, hard surfaces bouncing shrill conversation all over the room, all engineered to make your dining experience more festive. Of course the reality is diners end up shreiking across their entrees to each other in futile attempt to make themselves heard. Gone will be the gentle murmur of a room full of people enjoying their meals and each other's company and being able to hear themselves think.

6. THE WAITSTAFFS. It's a small thing, perhaps, but there is a level of professionalism in restaurants that I will miss. I don't need to know the name of my waiter or, as happened at once fancy place in the U.S., to be told how to eat. (We were instructed that everyone had to order the exact same number of courses because the chef did not want the ritual of his food being served upset by someone eating their entrees out of synch with a fellow diner.) The waiters and waitresses here know their wine, know their specials. They know the job and do it well.

And they leave you alone. They don’t share their curriculum vitae with you. They don't pop up as you are about to fork the first bite into your mouth and ask how was everything. [Mother of Mercy, is my meal over already? I used to wonder.] They don't push overpriced bottled water. They work hard and act like adults.

7. LUXEMBOURG GARDENS. I used to find it annoying to arrive at the gate of Luxembourg Gardens at four o'clock and be told they were closing soon, or to have to listen to the officious shriek of police whistles as they shut down the park for the evening. But that established a rhythm and bestows a sense of propriety for the place which I have now come to appreciate. The first time I was aware of the Luxembourg Gardens was back in the 80s when we took our daughter there for donkey rides. In the hundreds of visits I’ve made there since it has only gotten more complex.

8. ISLE OF SWANS. This odd little pencil of a man made island just a few minutes walk from the Eiffel Tower gives the double bonus of privacy and being immersed totally in the Seine.

THE STREETS. ANY STREET. On a typical Sunday I would give myself a destination to walk to. Sometimes I would make it. Sometimes I would not. It never mattered. Three to four hours later I would be back home my head full of discoveries and images, knowing I hadn’t even come close to scratching the surface of this complex city.

10. THE TWINKLING EIFFEL TOWER. It’s corny, it’s flashy, it’s schmaltzy, and irresistable. A friend who has been coming to France for over 30 years made me run to the other side of the Seine one night so she could catch the lights display on the stroke of the hour. Our landlady, who was born in Paris, stressed that we must see it. She was right.