Where It All Goes

March 2nd, 2017


(I don’t know what this is, but I love it.)

The Lonely Center

February 26th, 2017

PlaceChateletAlthough it is difficult to plot the center of a city coiled into 20 different arrondissements, geographically the spot wouldn’t be too far away from the Place du Chatêlet. Despite this centrality, the square and its surrounding streets wear an air of melancholic emptiness, as if imprisoned by their stifling past.
Paris is not short of celebratory statues and columns, or fountains that rarely spout water. The fontaine du Palmier on the Place du Chatêlet is a typical example – another monument that serves little purpose today beyond marking a point on a map. As with several other city monoliths, you can be fairly sure that it celebrates Napoleonic victories without knowing anything about the object (and that it obstinately remained anchored in the city despite the later Napoleonic defeats).

ChateletInvaderIt takes its name from the palm leaves being held by the statue of Victory at the top of the column, and was completed by the sculptor Louis-Simon Boizot in 1808. The victories were those of the Emperor in Italy, Egypt and Poland, but the monument has changed greatly since then. Even the winged lady is a copy, added in 1898 (the original is in the Musée Carnavalet).
It was of course during the Second Empire – and the rule of Napoleon III, Bonaparte’s nephew – that it was transformed and enlarged, with serial fountain specialist Gabriel Davioud adding the spouting sphinxes. Davioud also designed the twin theatres – the theatre du Châtelet and the theatre de la Ville – which took up position either side of the fountain in 1862.
prisonCarnavaletThe original reason for the column was not so much to celebrate some fairly inconsequential victories, but instead to fill a gap in the city that appeared after the destruction of the hated Grand Châtelet at the beginning of the 19th century. The construction could date its origins back nearly a thousand years when it helped the city fight off Viking invasions, but the succession of buildings that followed on the spot were always dark, dismal and invariably linked to punishment and death.


Smells Like Fun

February 13th, 2017

perfume museum parisRecently I was invited to an opening of Le Grand Musee du Parfum, located on the ritzy rue Faubourg Saint Honoré, across the street from the Hotel Bristol.

The beautifully restored 19th former hotel particulier, spanning three floors with over 15,000 square feet of exhibition space, was the home of aristocrat Antoine-Marie Roederer in the mid 1800s and in the early to late 1990s. It was also the couture house of designer Christian Lacroix.

The Grand Musee du Parfum is laid out with three sections. The first is divided into four galleries: la galerie des séducteurs (seducers’ gallery), le parfum sacré (sacred perfume), le cabinet de curiosités (the curio cabinet), and l’essor de la parfumerie moderne (the rise of modern perfumery). The history of perfume is documented from the ancient beginnings in Egypt where the first perfume was formulated, kyphi, to current-day perfume manufacturing.

smellsThe next gallery was sensory immersion, which also included a fun interactive section, with a state-of-the-art installation. Hanging metal spheres represented different oils and flower scents from which perfume is derived from. For instance, you pick up the one marked ‘lavender’ and you put the sphere up to your ear so you can listen to a history of lavender and how its used in perfume. Afterward it sprays a dash of lavender for you to smell.

The museum houses a 13,000 square foot garden, which will be used to raise awareness for sustainability by developing perfume plants.

In addition to the permanent exhibition rooms,Le Grand Musee du Parfum offers workshops, cultural events, new exhibitions, and performances and will collaborate with luxury and fine crafts companies to produce perfume related products.


France Bans Free Soda Refills

January 28th, 2017

French womanUntil I visited France, I had always thought that a person’s weight simply increases irrevocably as one ages. One day in Paris, however, clarified that misinformation. The lean-ness of the citizens struck me, particularly of the chic older people. Grandpas and grannies strolled their trim figures around the the Jardin de Luxembourg, their beige trench coats cinched at the waist. However, that first trip to Paris was in 1982. Today, the typical French physique is larger: 57% of men and 41% of women aged 30 to 60 years old are overweight or obese, according to a recent study.

So it’s no surprise that France is the #2 market for McDonald’s. They frickin’ LOVE “McDo.” And that is part of the reason why France, while still Europe’s slimmest nation, has a population with expanding waistlines. There are several reasons for this trend–the convenience and low cost of the food, the clever marketing by the fast-food chain. But it’s also part of a global move away from home-cooked, sit-down diners and towards dining on the go.

It does not bode well for the health of the nation, so France has just done something to try to buck the trend. It has just passed a law making it illegal to offer free refills on sodas in restaurants. (A patron is welcome to purchase a second or third pop, of course.)

This was a smart move by French legislators. Instead of levying a tax on sugary drinks, as Mexico has done (to measurable success, but despite controversy), the country simply prevents a restaurant from giving away a freebie. Soda refills are a relatively new thing anyway–they certainly weren’t a thing in the ’80s. I seriously doubt this will hurt the beloved McDo. What do you think?

St. Germain’s Less Gentrified Past

January 7th, 2017

john-baxtrFollowing up on his popular book The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, John Baxter is writing a new series of books about the great neighborhoods of Paris. The first in the series is about Saint Germain des Pres, one of the most beloved areas of Paris. Part history and part guide book, Baxter infuses the book with entertaining and fascinating stories: the bizarre account of a garden behind Saint Germain church memorializing poet Guillaume Apollinaire involving Jean Cocteau and Picasso; the juicy details of legal brothels in Paris in the late 1800s–including two gay ones with Proust as an investor and, one on rue Saint Sulpice, catering almost exclusively to priests from the church; the history of chocolate including the first chocolatier in Paris (Debauve et Gallais); and the Beat hotel where Burroughs, Ginsberg and Corso resided. The easy-to-read book also contains a map with key points of interest, photos and drawings.


New Cataracts with that Croissant?

December 20th, 2016

Ever since my un-expected encounter with mortality and the French medical system back in 2007 (“Thinking about Having Brain Surgery During Your Stay?”), I have been encouraging my fellow Americans to come to France for medical care.  Not only do they have some of the best doctors and hospitals in Europe, but the price is definitely right. For example, a friend told me that an MRI can cost up to $6,000 in the US, while here it would cost $200 max (and I should know, I get them every two years). For that price, you could come to France, take a tour of the Loire Valley, get your MRI and still have spare change. The only tricky part would be the paperwork: stuff like visas, insurance papers, and making sure your prescriptions/doctor’s instructions would be accepted on this side of the pond.

medical-tourism-1But it seems that is no longer an issue. After watching from afar as Germany, Belgium and the UK profited from US medical pricing excesses, France has finally jumped on the medical-tourism bandwagon. As of November 1, the French public hospital network (Assistance publique-Hôpitaux de Paris) is launching a medical tourism program aimed directly at foreign visitors who wish to benefit from competitive prices and quality care. And while that care usually comes in a plain brown wrapper here in France (bland waiting rooms, ugly doctors offices, minimal creature comfort options), this new program offers packages that include medical care, hotel stay and concierge service. You simply send in your application with your medical records to a hospital specialist with a secure server, and they send you back a quote for the package.

The only catch? They want you to prepay.

A Rare French Holiday Gift

December 8th, 2016

copperbayToday’s technology means we’ve all gone global and there are very few things that can’t be shipped directly to your door with the touch of a few buttons (and a credit card!) While this might make life easier, it makes finding truly original and unique presents to bring back from Paris a little harder. Wanna know what to buy that can’t be found easily, affordably or at all outside of Paris? Read on…

Local cocktail bar CopperBay collaborated with the Distillerie de Paris to create their own brand of gin. While you can find the original version at the Distillerie de Paris website and the bar itself, there’s also a Navy piconStrength version that you can only get at the bar. Definitely something your drinks-minded friends won’t have back home! As a bonus, the bar also has a small selection of CopperBay branded products like their cool nautical duffel bag. Cost: 49 euros.

The old-school French aperitif Amer Picon is next to impossible to find outside of France, meaning Cocktaillians go crazy for it and will be most appreciative of anyone willing to lug home a bottle in their bags. There are 4 versions including the black label, club, citron and biere – with the last being the easiest to find. Cost: 11 euros!

> more ideas

Best Methods to Transfer Money to France

December 5th, 2016

moneySuch a great city! And such an expensive one. In Paris it’s possible to burn through money pretty fast, and you feel awfully vulnerable when you run out.

So, how do you replenish the coffers? And how do you do it while minimizing the fees and commissions, and while getting a decent exchange rate?

For this article, I’m assuming you have funds in the US that you want to move to France. There are a few good ways to do it, and a lot of bad ones. You should review the ideas I list below, and then check out all the comments that are bound to pop up as people chime in (or set me straight).

There are lots of options—from PayPal to toting gold coins in your carryon (just kidding!)—but in every case you want to ask two questions: 1) What are the fees for the service; and 2) How good is the exchange rate? The answers can have a huge impact on what you get for your money.

Disclaimer: We’re not sponsored by any of the services/companies mentioned here, and we’re also not financial gurus. The information provided is checked to the best of our abilities, but it’s provided “as is.”

wiretransfer1. Transferring funds from the US to a French bank account:

First off, make sure you have a French account to transfer funds to! If you’re looking to open your own account at a French bank, be forewarned: the IRS has made reporting of American accounts so burdensome, that many French banks don’t want to bother with it! (Maybe we should do an article on opening a bank account!)

But let’s day you already have that French account, or else you are transferring money to someone else’s account. To start the process, you need to have the banking information for the account you are transferring to—otherwise known as the relevé d’identité bancaire (or RIB). This will include the bank codes, the account holder’s name, and, especially the IBAN (the International Bank Account Number – a system used throughout Europe, but not domestically in the US).

>Pros and cons of different methods

The Streets, the Sex, the Scandals

November 6th, 2016

la_bigne_valtesseIn the annals of self-invention, Emilie-Louise Delabigne was an Olympian. Giving herself an invented first name that rhymed with the French for “your highness” and inserting spaces that made her surname seem more aristocratic, she also christened herself a “Comtesse.” In reality, Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne was the teenage prostitute daughter of a prostitute mother. For single, working-class women in 19th century Paris, selling one’s flesh was one of the few routes for upward mobility. And how she rose!

As chronicled in the page-turning biography The Mistress of Paris: The 19th Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret, Valtesse graduated from being a grisette (streetwalker) to a lorette (kept woman) to, ultimately, the surprisingly refined realm of courtesan–a high-priced, publicly revered mistress to wealthy and powerful men. Her lovers included military men, politicians, even painters such as Eduard Detaille. Emile Zola’s novel Nana was based in part on her, and Manet painted her portrait. When politician Leon Gambetta accidentally shot himself, the press wondered if Valtesse–his neighbor–was somehow involved, and she was also name-dropped in the scandalous anti-semitic milestone, the Dreyfus Affair.

mistressShe was a unique beauty, with red hair that was marveled at in society pages–which tracked her movements the way TMZ chronicles the Kardashians today. But looks alone are not what catapulted Valtesse to riches and public fascination. A classic auto-didact, she was a voracious reader, a savvy political observer, and an astute collector of art. It’s clear that distinguished men paid handsomely for her company both in and out of bed.

The sheer willpower of Valtesse reverberates off the pages of Catherine Hewitt’s book. Valtesse deposits her two sickly babies with her mother, paying for their keep. She sleeps with journalists in exchange for good press. She rarely if ever revealed any of her sorrows…it wasn’t becoming. And so, while the Herculean task of maintaining beauty, fashionability and mystique is carefully documented in this book, there are few hints of any real underlying sorrow. Was she really so calculating that true love never touched her? We get a clear view of the public Valtesse, but not enough of the woman in private.

Valtesse knew how to make people want more. This book does, as well. That hollowness at its cor e perhaps simply reflects a characteristic of its heroine. (Towards the end of her life, when she no longer needed to perpetuate a mythic status, Valtesse had her ancestors painted on the walls of her home. All but one were fictional.) Still, the easy-to-read, if cliche writing (“As voices hummed and glasses clinked, the staff move about silently, each performing his or her role to perfection.”) is a guilty-pleasure way to bone up on French history and social life from the 1850s to the turn of the 20th century.

More New Museums!

October 28th, 2016

glass-works-museumI often lament that France feels more and more like a museum–it’s beautiful and classic, but backwards in its bloated bureaucracy, turgid politics and social nostalgia. It is ossified to the point where many tourists–I’d say most tourists–come just to look at it, eat great bread, and feel nostalgic. Well, I do like museums. And France will see at least 15 new ones between here and 2019, according to the newspaper Le Figaro. Yet another museum dedicated to perfume will open in Paris, while more far-flung locations will see the likes of an art glass museum. Art Forum has some details in English.