Monday, April 26, 2010


In March of this year, Greg and I were thrilled to go back to Portugal (we had been there for several week in 2003 or 2004....we can't remember which).
The timing was pretty tight as we were leaving a mere week after moving into our apartment; with company expected on the return week, it was frantic times! So R&R in the Algarve's mellow setting was perfect.
I have rarely had the privilege of returning somewhere that I had been before, and it was really nice to see someplace foreign as familiar. We had not misremembered Portugal's charms: stimulating it is not, but the gentle pace of life there is enchanting. In March, the weather was warm, but not too hot; the people were friendly; the food plentiful and healthy (lots of fresh fish!).
We went for long walks along the red cliffs, commenting on the strange vegetation and undulating rock formations. We enjoyed returning to one of the many secret beaches that appear once the tide goes out; while there we felt like the only 2 people in the world.
We took a day trip into Gibralter, which has long been on our list to see. It took a 10 hour bus ride there and back to have only 5 hours on the Rock itself, but it was very interesting both from a geograhical and historical perspective. We took a cable car up, then hiked the length of the Rock seeing St. Michael's cave ( which was thought by the ancients to be the mouth of Hades), the Moorish castle, the WWII caves and lots of resident monkeys lolling in the sun. Unfortunately, with all the unpacking/walking/hiking/sitting on an uncomfortable bus I threw out my back, but was then entitled to complete R&R for the remainder of the trip!
On the other days we went pottery shopping and for a drive to see 'the end of the earth'. On this drive we stoped in for lunch at Salema where we had spent 3 wonderful days on our previous trip. It was just as charming as we remembered, and we vowed to come back for another holiday.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Why are the French so Slim?

I have been tasked by a source who will remain nameless to find out (and I quote) "How the hell do those French women stay so skinny?!".
In pursuit of the answer to this question, we have heard some interesting theories. One individual -who shall also remain nameless- thinks that Darwinism is at play. His theory runs something like this: all the burly Frenchmen have been sent off to war. You pick the war, there have been lots of them. All the burly French guys are killed, leaving behind their scrawny counterpoints to procreate. It is true that all French people do appear fine boned and petite, so there may be something to this. A theory that is interesting or insane, you decide!
At first, I assumed the national slimness could be put down to diet. It must be all the mineral water, and red wine, and healthy fats. You only have to be here a few days to realize that the French eat ALOT, and mostly what North Americans would consider 'bad stuff'. South Beach diets would die a quick death here in the land of bread; mashed potatoes or fries accompany most meals, and it can be a challenge to get vegetables in a restaurant. And I've waxed eloquent before about the wine: cheap, plantiful and delicious it is the drink of choice with very meal save breakfast, and often in between. And then there are pastries, eaten daily and in quantity. Croissants (with all the lovely butter and white flour) are most people's breakfast of choice.
Then I thought, perhaps it is portions? Again not so. A typical lunch in Paris consists of a mound (and I do mean a mound) of mashed potatoes accompanied by some kind of succulent meat and a sauce. Veggies optional! I've watched fascinated as teensy 95 lb women (you know the kind you hate as they fit effortlessly into their size zero want to tell them 'zero is not a size!!!") tuck into these huge lunches with gusto; there is rarely anything wasted. (I'm told dinners are usually smaller....this I cannot corroborate yet).
So, as far as I can tell, it comes down to lifestyle. Like Greg and I, most Parisians do not own a vehicle. So they take the Metro, necessitating a walk on each end and climbing A LOT of stairs. Anything bought must be lugged home in a similar fashion, which becomes 'weighted walking' according to work out fiends. A friend of mine who moved here a year ago has lost a stone -nearly 14 lbs-from this regime (and reduced snacking). And she didn't need to lose weight. I think I hate her too:)
So, here's hoping that I encounter the same fate.......


French people are known internationally as harbingers of style; and from observation I have to say the stereotype is true. What is it that gives the French their flair, thier sense of style? I decide to observe.
First off, they ALWAYS have nice shoes. There are no Birkenstocks. There are no Crocs (thank God). There are no runners (unless they are running). The shoes worn may be casual, but always stylish (witness the 'Euro runner') but are more likely leather, high and pointy. And this makes for one heck of a put together look.
Second, nice coats. Choices are usually wool, leather or suede, usually black, but not exclusively. Denim is rarely seen (but would be OK paired with a floaty skirt). During winter, poufy parkas were around, but they were slimmer and less bulky than their Canadian counterparts. Men especially look chic in their classic black dress coats. Ooh la la!
And then there are the scarves. If I had to pick one fashion item to define the French it would be the scarf. It is worn casually, twisted and wrapped effortlessly about the neck. Its almost always of a fine material, or alernatively is worn a funky counterpoint to a conservative ensemble. There are wooly winter scarves, floaty summer scarves, skinny statement scarves. They are everywhere.
Of course, anything worn looks better on an attractive wearer, especially someone slim. And the French are uniformly thin. Not slim, not svelte, thin! Which brings me to my next topic.........

PS-no one wear berets. That stereotype is not true!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Today I went to see a Yves Saint Laurent retrospective exhibition at the Petit Palais. YSL was Armenian by birth, but adopted Paris as his home during his early years, remaining loyal to it until his death in 2008. He originally worked for Christian Lacroix, but took the fashion world by storm with his avant garde designs that liberated the female form.

To my surprise, I was impressed and moved by this man. I have never been a haute couture fashionista; lets face it I can't afford it, and as those who know me will attest to the fact that I would much rather spend my money on a painting! Actually YSL himself did not consider fashion an art form-note the small A. He is quoted in the exhibition as saying that fashion is not art, but does require an artist to bring it about. Having now seen his work, I may have to agree....

YSL was a man who was able to transform his inspirations into something wearable. Witness his collections based on foreign cultures: African, Chinese, Spanish and Russian (he himself considered his Russian collection, inspired by the Ballets Russes, to be is best work). The influence of other cultures on clothing design is somewhat blasee today, but he is the originator of this concept: if you will, the original United Benetton. But, more astoundingly, he was also able to witness art- painting, sculpture, verse, whatever-and transform it into a fabric fanstasy. For example, his Mondrian dress mimics that artist's colorful squares; his Monet jacket is a symphony of watercolors, all done in beadwork. As a tribute to poets, he wrote their verses in sparkly, cursive words on the back of a swing coat. I find this transformation of art fascinating. How can someone look at one art form and then dream up a way to apply it to another art form, making it equally beautiful and arresting? Assuming I agree that fashion is art, could I transform the colors and beauty of line of the YSL collections into words? Into song? Isn't that an interesting idea?

I also loved a quote of his (this is an approximate version): "The most beautiful thing a woman can wear is the arms of the man she loves".

Now THAT is haute couture!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Alice au des Pays Merveilles

A friend and I went to see "Alice au des Pays Merveilles" earlier this week (Alice in Wonderland to us anglophones). Wonderland indeed! Besides very much enjoying the pure escapism of the movie, I also found it an excellent analogy for my life right now:
I've fallen (like Alice, somewhat deliberately) into this new world that is strange and wonderful. I eat things (like croissants) that make me grow big; for most of the movie Alice is tiny, and I too feel diminished and puny in this big city at times. Some things (like new friends and fantastical scenery) are wonderful, and other things (like feeling lost) are not.
The most poignant line of the movie to me was when the Mad Hatter says to Alice "You are not as much yourself as you were before; you have lost some of your muchness". I too, have lost my muchness. I'm the same being, the same 'body that I was at home, but here I am different. Identity is context. Its strange and scary how much of oneself is defined by context, by the place one lives and the people one knows. And while my current context is often delightful it is, like Wonderland, a bit confusing, scary and strange.
I'll go and eat some croissants now, and have a look around for my muchness. I'll let you know what I find!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

My Life by Metro

Metro is the way to go in Paris. The first line was put in at the turn of the Century, and Parisians have never looked back. In general the system is clean, fast and extremely efficient. Having driven in Paris a few times (actually Greg drove, I was driven) we really appreciate the excellence of this public transport. And it also provides wonderful opportunities to people watch!

In general, Parisians are not chatty in public, including on the Metro. This is a function of extreme politeness and an effort to maintain some privacy in one of the busiest cities in the world. However, this rule seems to relax a bit on the Metro. People will exchange a small smile or eye roll when something annoying happens, and there are inevitable 'pardons' when trying to get out or when you accidentally trod on someone's toe. But the other unusual thing that happens on the Metro is that you may find yourself subjected to 'The Stare'. You'll feel yourself being watched and look up to find someone staring fixedly at you. They don't blink. They don't look away. Its like they are trying to memorize your features for a later quiz show. The only solution is to give them a quick smile and look away....or stare back!

Since Metros are the primary mode of transport for almost everyone, we've also seen some funny stuff being transported on them. Baby carriages and shopping carts are normale, as are various purchases from the local department stores. This vision is so commonplace that few people gave me a second look when I and a friend lugged two floor lamps on board, tied together and carried coffin style!

Using this mode of transport makes us realize anew how badly Ottawa needs to put in light rail! Its shameful for a city of the size and importance of Ottawa to have such poor and inefficient transportation. Besides, think of all the missed opportunities to give and get 'The Stare'!

Getting Straight

And so, after a fair bit of moving around we are finally settling into our new apartment. I'll try and describe it for you:
It is located in the 15eme arrondissement close to Montparnasse. The building is old-sadly not cute old, but sad seventies old-but the apartment itself is great: huge, bright rooms with a fantastic view from the 11th floor. We both had to adjust to living at this height; at first, Greg would only skirt the edge of the balconey, and I was having nightmares about falling off the building during an earthquake!
We have a complete bathroom (unusual in Paris-most toilets are separate from the shower) with pretty pink and grey tile. The kitchen is a long galley style which gives me lots of exercise while I make dinner; but the landlord installed all brand new appliances before we moved in, which is a real bonus as we expected to have to buy our own. In fact, it would not have been unusual for us to have had to actually install kitchen cabinetry as most people take their cabinets with them when they move. Why you ask? We have no idea. Its just one of those many mysteries of life in a different country. (Our kitchen came with cabinets:)
We also have a cozy separate bedroom for guests, with a comfy Queen sized bed (yes, we want you to come and visit:)
Best of all, we can lay in our own comfy Queen sized bed and watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle at's really something.
Of course, there are a few drawbacks as with any home. There is only one closet-a good sized closet, but still, only one. There is a mysterious drip under the kitchen sink, and the wiring is too delicate for us to install proper light fixtures (instead we have student-like paper shades over all the naked lightbulbs!). We're finding that we are a good distance from our social club in the 16eme arrondissement....its a good 45 mins away by Metro. However, when we are laying back in bed looking at the Eiffel Tower, its all worth it!
The neighborhood is really nice. As a friend who used to live in Paris told me 'it's where the real people live' (Phew! what a relief to be real! Puts me in mind of the Toy Horse from 'The Velveteen Rabbit"). There is a daycare in the lower floor of our building where darling babies wave from the window; there is also an elementary school directly below the apartment, so I hear the children play during the day. These children also do a geat deal of chanting, so I've labelled them 'the Little Revolutionaries" who are possibly in training for the next big public uprising! There is also a very modern looking church nearby, and we love listening to the bell toll. We're getting to know our local shopkeepers who are very patient with my stumbling French. Once I can speak a little better I want to do my daily shopping at the market held on nearby rue Convention twice per week. There we can buy rugs and clothes and seafood (oh my!) to name just a few of the available items.
And so, as my British friend says we are 'getting straight' ie. settling in, getting organized (not getting off drugs as I originally thought when I heard this expression:) It's good to be home.