Dealing with Terrorism in the New French Way of Life

In the aftermath of the November 13th horrific terrorist attacks on Paris, there have been many political speeches and social networking conversations that are using the word “war”.   They say we are at war here in France.  That the assault on Paris was a “game changer”.

The very much respected French way of life.
The very much respected French way of life.

That nothing will ever be the same.  That we all have to change our attitude.  We all have to be vigilant.  We all have to work together to catch and neutralize the barbarians who have threatened the French way of life, the French “joie de vivre”.

One politician said we urgently need a French Patriot Act.  The same one said we should also follow the post-911 guidance of “See Something, Say Something”.  I believed him.  So, when I actually did see something a few days after the Parisian murders, I did say something.  And the whole process scared the wits out of me.   Here’s what happened.

I was walking on a Parisian avenue in the middle of the day and happened to notice a piece of paper on the ground in the middle of fallen leaves.  I don’t really know why I picked it up but I did.  It had something written on it that, in line with the recent terrorist events, was more than a bit troubling. I put it in my pocket and went home to think about it.

I called a few family members and friends and asked them if they thought I should bring it to the attention of the French authorities.

Logo of the National Police in France.
Logo of the National Police in France.

They all agreed it would be a good idea and encouraged me to call the police.  When I called the police and explained what I found, they told me to come to the station and do a “declaration de main courante”, which basically means going on record.  I have had reason to do that sort of thing before when I had my checkbook stolen; lost my passport, etc. and it was always an excruciating exercise in witnessing the inefficient French administration at work.  But I thought it would be different now – now that we were at war and we all have to work together towards a common goal of saving this country and its citizens.  I was wrong.

First off, there was a waiting period of at least an hour while I witnessed one policewoman yelling at an adolescent who fabricated an aggression just so he could cut class.  He now wanted to come clean and take back his declaration.  She had no idea how to handle this and was, of course, upset that the kid lied in the first place (as was his father and everyone else in the station).  In the meantime, I felt my possible evidence should have given me priority over this teenager who actually came in after me.  But I have lived in France for 25 years now; I have learned to be patient and polite in administrative situations.  So I waited.

Finally, a policeman came and led me into a back office to type up my declaration.  I spent an uneasy 10 minutes telling him who I was; where I live; why I live in France, etc. while he typed away at 1 mile an hour.  I was anxious to give him the paper and spar the police into action.  I had what could be an important clue in my pocket.  Could he please hurry up?

“So what is it you have?” he finally asked me.

I showed him the paper.  He looked at it with a puzzled expression on his face and showed it to his boss, the policewoman who had been yelling at the teenager.

She replied sharply, with a typical French down-putting attitude in her voice, “What the hell do you expect me to do with a piece of paper?”

I told her she might want to show it to the people who were taking care of the attack investigation and she just clicked her tongue and snarled, pretty much calling me an idiot for even thinking that this could be useful.  And, might I remind you, she was the police station chief.

When the boss turned her back on me, I thought it was time for me to leave but the police officer took my statement and kept the paper.  So I did go on record but I was totally convinced that this was an exercise in futility and that disturbed me almost as much as the threat of more violence in Paris.  Perhaps what I found was useless but perhaps not.  In either case, I was doing my civic duty and, even if she thought it was useless, she could have been professional about it.  The fact that my life might be in her hands at this time was definitely unsettling.

French Hotline number to call with any terrorist-related information.
French Hotline number to call with any terrorist-related information.

In the end, I called the Terrorist Attack Hotline number which has been put into place in France (it is 197).  I explained once more what I had found and, at least, the lady I spoke to sounded interested.  She took all the information I had already put on record and assured me someone would follow up on it.  As I mentioned before, what I found could be nothing but that’s not for me to decide.  I saw something and I said something. And, finally, someone in authority actually listened.

The moral of this story is, if France is at war, everyone needs to change their attitude.  That includes the politicians, the citizens and the local authorities. peopleIf this is a game changer for us all, police administrative business-as-usual cannot work.  Citizens need to be alert and report potentially dangerous or strange situations.  True, we all have to walk that fine line between paranoia and vigilance.  But, as part of dealing with terrorism, we all have to pay attention in our daily lives.  And the police have to listen.

 

Pigalle – The Legendary Parisian Playground

My own version of a “Paris by Night” tour always includes a stroll around Pigalle, the most intriguing area of the French capital. I take my tourist friends there for a good, inexpensive meal on one of the side streets; a visit to the bistro on rue Lepic where the movie “Amelie” was filmed; or a jazz concert in an authentic two-hundred-year-old acoustically perfect “cave”. We stop for the obligatory photo session in front of the Moulin Rouge. We do not pay the exorbitant entrance fee. We take a seat on one of the sidewalk terraces nearby and I give my tourists a decadent history lesson about the most famously infamous cabaret in the world. Now this lesson is for you.

More than a hundred years ago, the Pigalle area, and especially the Moulin Rouge was a living movie, filled with amazing characters from all walks of life and social circles. The Moulin Rouge (literally translated as Red Mill) was built in 1889 by Joseph Oller

Joseph Oller, one of the driving forces behind "La Belle Epoque".
Joseph Oller, one of the driving forces behind “La Belle Epoque”.

and Charles Zidler. By the way, Joseph Oller was also the inventor of “pari mutuel”, which is basically bookmaking.   He built the racetracks at Maisons-Laffitte and Alma and his betting structure was the predecessor of today’s French state-controlled betting system, the PMU, or Pari Mutuel Urbain – but that’s another story.

Anyway, when betting became illegal, Joseph concentrated on developing music halls and theatres, investing in the Moulin Rouge and other well-known venues such as the Olympia and Salle Pleyel, which still exist today. The Moulin Rouge became the temple of music and dance, the home of the French Can-Can and THE place to go for an evening of daring dancing and risqué relaxation. It was immoral maybe, especially for the beginning of the 20th century, but the Moulin Rouge exuded a joie de vivre that was no less than euphoric.

French can can
And yes, they Can….Can!

The army of young ladies who performed there were skilled, free-wheeling, flexible artists – almost acrobatic in their approach to the Can-Can – jumping and splitting as easily as giant rubber bands. They were gaily provocative, waving their white skirts in the air and showing their clingy underwear, a bit of skin and black garters. All of this was quite shocking at the time and a bit comic when you think of the topless, practically nude dancers who work there today.

There were many loyal customers of the Moulin Rouge. The most famous one, the French artist, Toulouse Lautrec, had his own table. He never paid for anything and immortalized the ambiance and clientele of the Moulin Rouge with his sketches and paintings. He was inspired by a couple of legendary Moulin Rouge dancers – Jane Avril (who was known for being discreet and nimble) and Louise Weber, nicknamed “La Goulue” who could take off a man’s hat with her foot while dancing!

The dancer "La Goulue" getting ready to do her famous hat trick as depicted in this famous Toulouse Lautrec lithograph.
The dancer “La Goulue” getting ready to do her famous hat trick as depicted in this famous Toulouse Lautrec lithograph.

The Moulin Rouge had its ups and downs; closed from time to time; burnt down in 1921 but was rebuilt soon after. It was known as “Pig Alley” right after WWII, when it was the epicentre of the Parisian red light district. It is just a tourist business now, without the energetic “joie de vivre” that was there at its origin. People are bus loaded in for the show at eye-boggling numbers. Each revue runs for 10 – 12 years and costs between 7 to 9 million euros to produce. The present revue is called “Féerie” which translates to “Extravaganza”. The next Moulin Rouge review will start just before Christmas 2015. The new show will be called “Flash”. For some unknown reason, every Moulin Rouge show begins with a “F” (no comment here).

There are other daring establishments to visit in Pigalle – things like erotic supermarkets and raunchy peep shows. I recently (and for the first time, really) went to the Musée de l’Erotisme on the Boulevard de Clichy. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was surprised at how boring it was. The place itself was more like a gallery of phallic carvings and religious artwork from India, Japan and Africa – interesting but not really exciting. No “joie de vivre” there, just a historical account of fertility symbols and erotic skeletons. There were some exquisite relics but, frankly, the Louvre is a better buy for the money.

Pigalle, where the adults come out to play.
Pigalle, where the adults come out to play.

The real fun in Pigalle lies in just walking around with an open mind (and your wallet safely out of pickpocket reach). Imagine what it was like over a hundred of years ago with bawdy laughter, music, dance, wine-tinged camaraderie and no tourist buses. Imagine Pigalle as a Parisian playground, an adult amusement park, the first of its kind and the only one worthy of becoming a legend.

 

Tasting Tips for the French Wine Connoisseur Wannabe

ad.foire aux vins
This is the event that French parents look forward to once the kids are back in school in September.

Now that parents have depleted their school supply budget and the kids are safely back in their respective institutions, the Parisians are ready to party. The first sign of this is the hype for the traditional “Foire aux Vins”, or “Wine Fair” which starts in mid-September and lasts for two weeks. There are wine tastings everywhere – private homes (beats a Tupperware party), supermarket retailers, wine store chains and farmers’ markets (my favorite). A wine consumer really gets to consume before they buy at this time of year. It could be overwhelming for those of you who aren’t used to the many facets of wine. So, here are some tips for the wine-tasting neophyte.

  1. Look before you leap – Take a good look at the wine you have poured into that glass; observe and enjoy its color. Look beyond the usual suspects of red, white or pink. Is it ruby, maroon, purple or brownish? For white wines, is it pale, yellow, golden, straw-colored? Is it opaque, cloudy, translucent?
  2. Tilt and Swirl – Tilt your glass slightly and give that wine a gentle swirl. Look for traces of sediment, which is a sign of an aged wine. Older reds might have more of an orangey tinge on the outside as you swirl; older whites would be darker. The swirling aerates the wine, which will release its aroma. The secret of the perfect swirl? Be gentle and don’t stand near anyone who is wearing white.
  3. Smell and Sigh – Well, maybe, just smell. The aroma of the wine will conjure up fruity memories of raspberry, blackberry, gooseberry or black currant. You might also smell vanilla, oak or citrus. Enjoy it – smell once, smell twice. Your nose will
    smell.it
    Get that nose in there — smelling is believing!

    remember.

  4. Taste and Savour – Now, taste the wine, really taste it. Remember, you drink water but you taste wine. So, take your time. If the wine doesn’t stay long enough in your mouth, you cannot appreciate its magnitude. Sip it first, letting the wine spread across your tongue. Swish it from front to back and side to side before finally swallowing. Let its acidity, tannin and depth explode in your mouth. And let it linger.
  5. After-taste – Once you have imbibed the wine, it’s time to pay attention to how long it lingers. Can you still taste it on the back of your mouth or throat? Is the taste sweet, acidic? Like butter, fruit, flower or oak? Do you like it? Do you want more?
  6. Discover your preferences – There is no wine that satisfies everyone’s palate so it’s to time to pay attention to yours. Know what you like. Tastes can vary from fruit, leather, wood, spices, nuts, vanilla or any combination of these. Pick your favorite flavour from the wonderful range of options.
  7. Write and remember – I can’t tell you how many times I have tasted
    One needs to jog their oenological memory - especially during the French Wine Fair.
    One needs to jog their oenological memory – especially during the French Wine Fair.

    a wonderful wine only to forget its name the morning after. So, keep a paper and pen handy when you embark on your wine-tasting adventure and write down the ones that you liked and want to buy again and again.

  8. Buy It – The Wine Fair in France in September is a great time to buy – in wine store chains or even in huge supermarkets such as Carrefour or Auchan.
    Just buy it already -- lots of it!
    Just buy it already — lots of it!

    At a supermarket, you might not be able to taste everything you would like to so here’s a little hint. Buy a bottle that you think would be a good bargain; drink it the same day. If you like it, go back and get a case or two before they all sell out. Have a party or get a wine cellar. Whatever you do, enjoy it. Wine and dine your lover, family or friends – or yourself. You know you’re worth it!

Monetizing a Smile and Driving a Parisian Taxi at the Same Time

I have discovered that the Parisians are changing their attitude about service industries – the recent Parisian taxi drivers versus Uber Pop clash being a prime example. But others will come. The French client is demanding that the people who they pay dearly to drive them in, out and around this beautiful city of Paris should actually be nice. Believe me, this is a game changer.

This smile will become very common as taxi drivers "adjust" to client demand.
This smile will become very common as taxi drivers “adjust” to client demand.

I have been alternating between using official Parisian taxis and Uber-driven vehicles since the conflict began. I have French taxi driver friends and I can understand their frustration at having to pay a hefty fee (it could reach as much as 100,000 dollars) and suddenly having to compete with chauffeurs who have paid nothing for the privilege of transporting clients in France. It’s not fair but hey, what is?

Before Uber came along, the cab drivers upheld their sterling reputation of being grouchy, unavailable and super-selective on whom they put in their cab (I’ve seen them refuse babies…and allow dogs). Almost every Parisian I know has a nasty cab story to tell. Some chauffeurs don’t have change for a fifty euro bill but do not accept credit cards. They add on charges for suitcases and early pick-up times. They come ten minutes earlier than their appointed time; start the meter and charge you extra for being on time.

Parisian taxis blocking the road in one of several "Uber Go Home" demonstrations.
Parisian taxis blocking the road in one of several demonstrations.

They go on strike fairly often, holding the customers hostage. Trying to find a cab in Paris in the rain is tantamount to waiting for hell to freeze over. The client was not “king” of the road when it came to taxis. The drivers made all the choices. Take it or leave it. Their government-backed monopoly gave them wings. Ah, but in the commercial sky of free enterprise, those wings are flapping out of control.

Taxi services will change in France because the attitude of the consumer is changing. Thanks to the likes of Uber, LeCab and other private vehicle start-ups, the French now have choices. And they are finding that having a smiling driver is a good thing. There is no longer any reason to “put up” with bad service. Now, they can leave it and get something better in its place. If I were a French taxi driver, I would read the writing on the wall really quickly – and make a uturn into the waiting arms of Uber or any other private transportation company. If you can’t beat them, join them.

I took an Uber a couple of weeks ago and was surprised to hear the chauffeur’s story. He is a bona fide Parisian taxi driver but he’s young and internet savvy and figured it out before his colleagues did. He has put his French taxi license up for sale and, in the meantime, he’s driving for Uber. He likes how easy it is – says he has more freedom over his life and he actually enjoys meeting his clients and making sure they are satisfied with his service. I was amazed – a French person wanting to provide good customer service is as rare as a three-euro bill here. But this new attitude will multiply. It has to or the French taxi drivers will just go out of business. Pure and simple.

I am looking forward to this impending change in attitude in taxi drivers.

We lile Parisian taxis but we're gonna love them when they start being nice!
We like Parisian taxis but we’re gonna love them when they start being nice!

It’ll be a lot more fun when the Frenchman taking me for a ride has a smile on his face. It doesn’t matter if he’s driving for Uber or for Parisian taxis. He will be nice because he finally understood that being nice has its advantages – the biggest of which will be his pay check. He will be smiling all the way to the bank.

Rural Romance – Finding Love in a French Haystack

I rented a car this week and ventured outside of the Paris capital to catch a glimpse of the seaside before it is invaded by vacationers. On the way there, I was amazed at how close the country is to the city. Whatever direction you might take on your way out of the French capital, in less than a 30 minute drive, you will start seeing endless fields of grain, corn or other crops bordered by green pastures and grazing cows. The cows might be white or brown or black and white depending on what direction you take, but they will always be there watching you watching them.

The surface of France is 48% rural and France is the top agricultural country in the European Union. It is a star producer of wheat, sugar, wine (of course!), milk and dairy products (over 300 kinds of cheeses), fruits, vegetables and poultry. But, as I was driving along the magnificent countryside, I was wondering – where are the farmers?   I didn’t see a soul in any of the fields I passed. And then, on Monday evening, I got my answer. They’re on TV.

Here's the pretty presenter getting comfy in the haystack.
Here’s the pretty presenter getting comfy in the haystack.

It was a coincidence, really. In general, I do not watch reality television shows in any country. But it was raining and that was all there was to do in the sleepy seaside town I landed in – and I had been thinking about farmers all day. It was destiny throwing me some crumbs of entertainment, which I totally enjoyed.

The show is called “L’Amour est dans le Pré”, which literally translates into “Love is in the Meadow”. It’s a spin-off from the original UK series that is called “Farmer Wants a Wife.” You must admit that the French title is a bit more glamorous than the British one, a clear tribute to France’s romantic reputation. When you think about it, farmers would most certainly need a little help in the love department. The daily schedule for agricultural workers is pretty hectic. They wake up early; go to bed even earlier and spend most of their day with machines and animals. Their routine leaves little time for dating so it’s only natural that they turn to reality TV for a little help in the matchmaking department.

Here's one of this season's Love Crop.
Here’s one of this season’s Love Crop.

It works like this. The farmers are introduced to the public in January and would-be wives and lovers send in letters, actual hand-written letters, in which they pour out their hearts in the hopes of being one of the ten candidates who are chosen in the first round. Then, there is a televised speed-dating session in which the rural bachelors and bachelorettes narrow it down to only two candidates who subsequently get to spend a week on the farm. The week is really “up close and personal” – sometimes both candidates are there at the same time, which could make for colourful entertaining.

This year marks the 10th season for “L’Amour est dans le Pré ” and the first time that a gay farmer, Guillaume, joined the love search party. However, he didn’t last long. He made it through the speed dating part but got cold feet soon after and abandoned the show…much to the dismay of his handsome would-be partners.

This summer’s show is now down to 12 farmers – 10 men and 2 women.

Women farmers look for love in the meadow too.
Women farmers look for love in the meadow too.

It has just started and there already are serious internet forums about “Who is Your Favorite Farmer?” This year’s “crop” (no pun intended) is a handsome one with various interests. They breed cows and horses; raise pigs; make wine and cheese and range in age from 25 – 64. They are fun to watch and the scenery that goes along with the program is gorgeous. “L’Amour est dans le Pré” has a great track record too. Out of the 111 farmers whose search for love has been documented in the past nine seasons, 60 of them are now living with a partner; 14 of them are married; and 32 children have been born and 2 more are on the way. Love statistics speak louder than words.

“L’Amour est dans le Pré”, with its record-breaking 6.3 million viewers, is second only to soccer in popularity. After watching just one episode, I can totally understand that. And I know that I will be looking really closely the next time I drive by a meadow. You never know what might be hiding behind a haystack – especially a French one.

The Full Monty Steals the Show at the French Molières

French politics went back to basics last week when a Parisian actor decided to show his stuff – and I mean ALL his stuff .  This politically incorrect man, Sébastien Thiéry, actor and playwright, proud and naked, strolled onto the stage of the annual Molières Show, France’s Tony Awards dedicated to excellence in theater. This event was broadcast live on France 2, a national television station. It wasn’t cable or pay-per-view but it was total frontal

Stark naked actor Sebastien Thiery making a point.
Stark naked actor Sebastien Thiery making a point.

(and back) nudity on prime-time TV on a Monday evening. I was amazed…no, thunderstruck would be more like it. I absolutely could not believe what I was seeing for a multitude of reasons. Let me verbally paint this provocative picture.

The Molières Show started out as boring as usual and I was ready to surf the channels when suddenly a butt-naked man started walking down a spiral staircase. That man was Sébastien Thiéry, an actor in his mid-forties (and I’m guessing here but I actually did have visual clues). He had a very serious look on his face even though his birthday suit brought the house down in laughter. Sébastien got behind the podium and put on his glasses, the only speck of wardrobe he was wearing and started reading a serious politicized speech directed at Fleur Pellerin, the Minister of Culture, who was there in the audience.

This particular minister was exactly the reason Mr. Thiéry took his pants off.

An embarassed Minister of Culture, Fleur Pellerin.
An embarassed Minister of Culture, Fleur Pellerin.

Now, you can interpret that any way you want, but it’s the truth. He began this political speech and stared her right in the eyes. At one point, he even left the podium and approached her up close and almost personal. The Minister was obviously surprised and embarrassed but smiled discreetly.

The actor’s message was about how authors should also be part of the special governmental statute that French artists have which is called “intermittent spectacle.” Actors, stage and sound crew, wardrobe people, make-up artists, etc. can collect unemployment benefits in-between shows thanks to this statute. He was asking for the same rights for playwrights. The naked man did not smile once. This was supposed to be a serious political statement. He was lobbying in the buff. Well, even though his intentions were good, let me tell you what I think was wrong with this indelicate statement.

photo4.indexFirst of all, the spectators were not warned that this show would have what some people might call “adult” content. Just ten minutes before Mr. Nude came on stage, France 2 posted the warning that the show was not recommended for children under 12. They did not black out Mr. Thiéry’s private parts. It was four minutes of the Full Monty at the Molières . Now, why would anyone listen to what that guy had to say while they were checking out his anatomy?

I kept thinking, “Only in France, this could happen only in France.” In the USA, someone would have escorted him off the stage in a second. Whether he wanted to impress a minister or not – that wouldn’t matter. I also wondered, “What if the Minister of Culture was a man? Would we have seen the same show? Would this guy’s wife come out on the stage instead?”

In the end, it seems that the shock value of this display did not bear any political fruit. Ms Pellerin issued no statement. She did not talk about this after the show and certainly did not go backstage to shake this guy’s (cough) hand. What will she remember from that evening? Probably the fact that she was embarrassed in public. Will that change any legislation? I doubt it.

What did I take away from that one naked man show or one man naked show? That, whatever anyone says about Mr. Sébastien Thiéry, I know for sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that he’s got balls!

A Parisian Old Lady with an Attitude

She didn’t see my crutch when she tapped me on the shoulder but when she did finally notice it, she tried to get me on her side, the “nasty” one. “She” was a dressed-to-the-nineties little old Parisian lady who was sporting a beautifully carved cane, a Gucci jacket and a very expensive hairdo.  I’ll call her “Eglantine”, an old French name that means “needle” or “thorn”. You’ll find out why later.

It was Saturday morning. I was in Monoprix, a French supermarket chain and I was standing in the priority check-out line meant for pregnant and/or handicapped clients.

The scene of the attitude.
The scene of the attitude.

Eglantine saw me from behind and pushed her cart in front of me thinking I was not handicapped. She noticed her mistake and promptly barked in loud-enough-for-everyone-to-hear French, “Don’t you hate it when these non-handicapped people take your place in line?” I was not looking for trouble; I was just buying toothpaste and dental floss so I ignored her. But, then again, I’m not French and the other customers were. A shouting match followed; giving me a live lesson on how senior Parisian ladies can take care of themselves and anyone else who gets in their way. Here’s what happened.

The first lady in line had 2 small children and could have been pregnant. Eglantine looked her up and down and clicked her tongue in obvious disapproval.

“What?” said the young mother. “I have every right to be in this line and don’t you dare look at my children like that!”

Eglantine was ready with a quick reply. “I was not looking at your children. I don’t like children (none of us doubted that). Are you pregnant? Because if you’re not pregnant, you cannot be in this line! Look at the sign.”

The "sign" that Eglantine so proudly pointed out.
The “sign” that Eglantine so proudly pointed out.

The young mother told Eglantine that her body was none of the old lady’s business and then flipped her off as she stormed away pulling her kids behind her. Eglantine then lit into another lady customer who looked to be in good shape – too good a shape to be in our line. That lady lowered her eyes immediately and made room for Eglantine to put her purchases on the belt. Eglantine thought she had won but the fight wasn’t over yet. We had another round coming.

The elderly, cane-less lady behind me objected raucously to Eglantine cutting in – she told the cashier that no one should give in to such a “disagreeable” person. And, in any case, she just had a gall bladder operation and she was really tired.

Eglantine's trump card.
Eglantine’s trump card.

That’s when Eglantine took out her card – her pink government-issued card that proves she has a declared handicap. She slammed it on the moving belt and shouted something that roughly translates to “Oh yeah? Well, my handicap trumps yours. So, show me your card or shut up!” The customer sighed and raised her eyebrows. The rest of us followed Eglantine’s rather strong advice. We all shut up while we waited for her to pay and go away.

But, as soon as Eglantine was out of hearing distance, we had an animated discussion about how nasty she was and how we should have checked her card. It might have been a fake. Well, even if her card had been a fake, I can assure you that she wasn’t. Eglantine was a nasty, arrogant self-centered lady. And, even though she was an impeccable dresser and her make-up was reminded me of Jane Fonda, she was still old and still nasty. No saving grace. No grace at all.

The French Art of Peeing in Public – A Popular Parisian Pastime

This is inbedwiththefrench’s Happy  Spring podcast and I probably should address a topic slightly nobler than urine, but I can’t.  I saw something on French television recently that absolutely blew me away.  It was one of those “info-tainment” features and the lady reporter chose the subject of “How to Pee in Public and Not Get Caught” – with video footage to boot.

This was part of “Le Grand Journal”, a very popular prime time program that is as close to “The Daily Show” as the French can get.  The sexy, cute, tongue-in-cheek  presenter did her thing, or rather, showed the men in the audience how to do their own thing – right under their own noses (and ours too).

The “star” of the video was a young gentleman with a cell phone explaining his 3 best techniques for relieving himself in public in broad daylight.  They all dealt with distraction – that is to say, he would talk loudly on his cell phone while holding a Starbucks cup over his

Guess what he's doing?
Guess what he’s doing?

you-know-what and doing his own personal refill.  The second method involved a rolled up newspaper (the paper kind; not a digital one) directed downwards – like some sort of funnel. And the last method was walking quickly and urinating proudly along a side of a wall while pretending to have an animated discussion with an imaginary accomplice.  I don’t know what shocked me more – was it the fact that French television was encouraging public urination (for men only) or was it the fact that this Parisian male was probably paid a hefty sum just to pee?

Public urination has been a problem in Paris for ages.  Any tourist who has taken the metro or walked down alley ways recognized the odor and/or has probably been a witness to the actual act.  In French, the act itself is called urine sauvage, which means wild pee.  The government has tried to deal with this issue in an orderly fashion.

In 1986, a Brigade des Incivilités, (roughly translated as a Bad Behavior Brigade), was formed to enforce sanctions for crimes against hygiene.

Who you gonna call?
Who you gonna call?

There are more than ninety agents who roam the streets of Paris trying to catch offenders in the act, and I mean really “in the act”.  The fine starts at 35 € but repeat wrongdoers might have to dish out as much as 450 €.  It’s interesting that the French agents are trained to be considerate when they are giving an offender a ticket.   They allow him to finish his business before they begin their discussion.  (I doubt if they shake hands though.)
The Bad Behavior Brigade hands out over 2000 tickets yearly but that does not seem to diminish the practice.  Fining dog owners though has made a difference in the amount of dog poop you find on the streets.  It looks like Parisian poodles are more disciplined than their male owners.

Here's the Sanisette, the free public toilets in Paris; not as much fun as peeing in the gutter though.
Here’s the Sanisette, the free public toilets in Paris.

In their continuing “anti-pipi” effort, the government has also installed over 400 public toilets in the city.  Since 2006, they are absolutely free to use. These chocolate-colored pods are called Sanisettes, a very hygienic sounding name.  They are modern, spacious and bright.  They even recycle rain water.  I know that tourists use them, but I have yet to see a “native” actually “go” inside.
What’s more is that Parisian sanitation workers clean and spray thousands of square meters and sidewalks daily.  But that does not seem to be effective at all.  In fact, I actually saw a sanitation worker urinate in a gutter while he was working! (This is where I would make a pun about hoses, but I’ll resist the temptation.)
So, the moral of this story?  There really isn’t any.  In the end, we can surmise that Frenchmen are bound by some cultural imperative to relieve themselves in the street.  They are following ancient rules that are embedded in their DNA; nothing can stop them – not even Bad Behavior Brigades or Sanisettes.  This is their story and they’re sticking to it.  The rest of us can just watch – and wonder.

How Lean and Mean French Ladies Stay That Way

That French women are stylish, slim and simply beautiful is painfully obvious when you walk around the streets of Paris. They make looking good look easy but, believe me, it’s not. In the 25 years I’ve lived in Paris I have met many French women and indulged myself in countless conversations with them about how they stay so thin.

Just saying no - a simple and efficient gesture.
Just saying no – a simple and efficient gesture.

The overwhelming response is that they “Just say No” over and over again. And they actually mean it.

Let me give you an example. One of my work colleagues, Catherine, was complaining about the three kilos she had recently put on. (Of course, I couldn’t see those kilos; she was as svelte as ever. But, she knew they were there and she was not happy.) Catherine went to the doctor’s for a series of tests and, when she was convinced there was no medical reason for those extra kilos, she went to work on getting rid of them. Lunch was a daily litany of vegetables only–no cheese, no bread (!), no soda, no dessert. Snack at break time might be hot water for a change but no chocolate, no nuts, no nothing. It worked–the pounds quickly melted off her; her self-denial got her where she wanted to go.

I know some people think that French women eat balanced meals and that’s how they stay so fit.  They probably do – about two-thirds of the time.  However, during holiday season and vacations, they eat just like the rest of us – too much.  But then they use negativity to handle the situation.  They have a strong self-denial mindset.  We Americans, however, are trained to be positive.  We don’t go on diets; we don’t deny ourselves.  We don’t say no to second helpings.  We try to eat balanced meals for a while and then slip back into old, fatty habits.  We also encourage each other; we publicly acknowledge that it’s OK to be a “little” overweight – let’s say 5 to 10 kilos over our ideal weight.  For a French woman’s standards, one kilo over the line is akin to going out in public with a cold sore – totally unacceptable!

These lean ladies are also mean ladies.  They will make remarks when you’re getting fat (or fatter).  They will tell you that you “should do something” about it.  They will giggle sarcastically when you drink a Coke since you are enforcing the stereotype of the fat American.  They will make comments about your fat kids too and go into warning mode about it’s your responsibility to make sure they don’t turn out like you.  They are ruthless in their fight for skinniness.

French Health Minister
The ever-so-skinny French Health Minister, Marisol Touraine

French women also get weight-watching help from the government, even without asking.  A law was passed last week which bans free unlimited soda refills in public restaurants.  The fast food chain “Quick”, the first hamburger restaurant brand of European origin had installed a soda fountain in their establishments and will now have to dismantle them.  Marisol Touraine, the French Health Minister (herself a very skinny lady), said the law was created to fight against commercial measures which “entice customers and encourage them to consume unhealthy products excessively”.  In France, water is the only essential drink and the only one allowed in school cafeterias (soda vending machines were banned in French schools way back in 2004).
You might remember when, in 2012, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to ban soda servings larger than half a liter.  It was ruled unconstitutional; a hindrance to our freedom to choose.  France is taking away that choice altogether in their country and no skinny French citizen is even blinking an eye. That’s because it actually helps mothers keep their children away from sugar, sugar and more sugar.  Just one more statistic – the average Frenchman drinks 45 liters (quarts) of soda a year; whereas the average American gulps down 170 quarts per year.  Given the new law in France, that statistic will most certainly decrease – but the American one will most certainly keep rising.  We just can’t say no.

And that's all there is to it.
And that’s all there is to it.

So, if you’re looking for a French lesson in losing weight, look no further.  Just do as the French ladies do – start saying no and keep repeating it until you’re at your ideal weight.  Take a lesson from Coco Chanel who coined the phrase, “Elegance is refusal.”

How One Frenchman Mixed and Matched NOT – Internet Dating at Its Worst

I had to go in for minor knee surgery in January and I knew I would be out of romantic circulation for a while. And I also knew I would have time and a computer on my hands (with free wifi in the Parisian clinic). So, I decided to sign up with an internet dating service and have a go at dating Frenchmen. I had been married to a Frenchman before but I nixed that nationality out of my dating pool once the divorce was final. Paris is full of foreigners so it was not a problem finding other sources for amorous activity. But, I told myself, maybe it was time to turn the (digital) page. I chose “match.com”, one of the older sites; I just couldn’t see myself tindering, happning or adopting a French guy. I felt safe going with the old, traditional one.

A love computer - ready to ride.
A love computer – ready to ride.

I started navigating through tons of profiles – some completely ridiculous (like a scary looking guy in front of his webcam saying he liked “round” women) – and some less ridiculous. I liked leafing through the photos and seeing guys in their “Speedo” bathing suits since you really don’t see many of those on US beaches. I corresponded a lot in both French and English but I preferred to write in English so I naturally favored those who did the same.

Then I started meeting guys for a drink. The rendezvous’s were close to my apartment but not too close. I met a few who were “OK” – nice but not romantic material. I met a couple of guys who were so full of themselves their ankles were swelling (as the French would say).  And then I met one who I was actually interested in and I thought the interest was mutual. I’ll call him “Jean” – but, you should know, that’s his real name and I really hope he’s reading this blog right now.

I liked Jean because he smiled a lot. He had travelled quite a bit and had an apartment in Paris and a vacation house on some island in Brittany. He was retired, energetic and he was one of those “Speedo” guys. I also thought he was a generous character since he offered to cook a meal at my place for English-speaking friends. I should have been a bit suspicious right then but I know many French people who like to practice their English socially and I assumed he was one of them.

The white wine sealed the deal.
The white wine sealed the deal.

And then he said he would bring the food and the wine and that closed the deal for me. We picked the date for the dinner and I invited some American friends and family. Jean and I both agreed that 6 was a good number for people at the dinner table.

Jean brought the fresh sea bass and wine to my apartment on Friday for the Saturday dinner. I was taking care of the “aperitif” and dessert. What a team. On Saturday evening, one of my American friends cancelled on the dinner, so I told Jean there would be only five of us. I asked him if he had another friend who spoke English who would like to join us and he said yes. I got a phone call at the same time he was on his phone with the mystery guest so I don’t know what he said to her to explain the last minute invitation. But it worked. She was supposedly in her pajamas but she was dressed to the nines when she showed up at my place an hour later. Oh, and Jean told us her name was “Helene”.

Helene’s name was really Marie-Helene (I am not using her real name) but Jean somehow didn’t know that. Anyway, she was an interesting person with a medical background who also had travelled a lot. But, as the evening progressed, it became obvious that they did not know each other very well. Finally, when I was in the kitchen getting the fish ready with

Look what he brought to dinner.
Look what he brought to dinner.

Jean, my friend asked Marie-Helene when she had met Jean. And the wonderful answer was, “This morning – we had coffee together. We met on match.com”.

As the evening progressed, it was obvious that they were getting all hot and bothered for each other – and I was sitting right in the middle of this heat, smoldering, but holding my tongue. She thought I was an old friend or colleague of Jean’s and I had thought the same of her. Only he knew what was going on since he had set it up. I had nothing against this lady so I just let the evening flow by and kept drinking the wine he brought (which was wonderful – at least the evening wasn’t a total waste). My friends left before the newly-formed couple did but not without whispering to me what a shameless jerk they thought this guy was.

Jean and Marie-Helene left in their uber together, both smiling and thanking me profusely. She gave me her email address to keep in touch but I threw it away as soon as they left. I let twenty minutes go by before I texted Jean in a drunken (but legitimate) haze. I think I wrote something like “Don’t contact me again. Your behavior tonight was rude, improper and unacceptable.” About ten minutes later, he texted back with “I thought it was a good night”.   No doubt about that – from his point of view.  He got two matches for the price of one. And all I got was angry.

The next day, I deleted my profile and ended my tryst with match.com. I can find enough shameless people in real life – don’t need to go looking for any on the internet.