May 24, 2008

Les Passages de Paris

Since I live on the right bank of the Seine (and in the 9th arrondissement), I often walk through les Passages in Paris – I guess the technical term for these in English is “Arcade.” They are literally passageways running through buildings. From the exterior they appear to be a grand building entrance, but they snake through the buildings, bringing you through to a parallel street on the other side.

At some point there were over 150 passages in Paris, but gradually with time, that number has shrunk. The very first passage in Paris was the Passage des Panoramas, which opened in 1800 when Bonaparte was First Consul. Like many others, this passage is very near the Bourse (Stock Exchange). Most of the others were built between 1800 and1830, in the Napoleonic and Bourbon periods. The last passage was built in 1860.

At the time, they became famous for their role in ‘flânerie’ – strolling, idling, lèche-vitrine-ing (literally window licking – or window-shopping), and certainly, as being good ways of avoiding the often unremitting rain. For me, they are often super good short cuts – it is like being able to walk straight through a block of buildings to get to the other side directly.

So, we were ‘flâneurs’ today – Xavier, Marguerite and I. We strolled along these passages to get out of the rain and to look in the very haphazard and eclectic mix of shops. Illustrations follow (my very favorite, of course, being Madame Deer dressed to the nines. Oh my goodness. Love at first sight.):

I became particularly interested in these passages when I came across an enormous volume of work by Walter Benjamin, the ever-illustrious Jewish historian/philosopher (who, when pursued by the Gestapo during the Second World War, poisoned himself). His mass of notes, writings, and musings about the passages in Paris was entitled Das Passagen-Werk [The Arcades Project] and was written between 1927 and 1939.

Benjamin regarded Paris as the capital of the 19th century. Of the passages, he says:

"These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-paneled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of the corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need…where the street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur."

In The Arcades Project, Benjamin examines the history of these passages in a constellar mode – his specific approach to history. He is renowned for viewing history not as a linear set of occurrences, but rather as a constellation of events/happenings/people. He categorizes his search of the passages into things like “Fashion,” “Boredom,” “Photography,” “Advertising,” “Baudelaire.” His focus is on the ‘commodification of things’ – literally a constant for us, but which, of course, had its own inception and meaning in history.

It is interesting though, that most of the passages in Paris are located surrounding the Bourse, the financial center and that many of them were built because space became available due to secularization. Old convents and religious spaces were often part of the structures that were removed and taken over for the passage space after the Revolution. The worship simply changes form – religion to things.

Most amusing though, is that in the 19th century, les flâneurs would often walk tortoises along the passages – and allow these little guys to set the pace for their stroll. Charming.

May 23, 2008


The other day, I was having lunch with my good friend (and colleague), Emma, and was selecting what I would have to drink. At the nice little delicatessen there was the traditional selection of coca, coca-light (as put by the French), bottles of water and such, and then, innocently placed among all the other bottles of things to drink was this:

Evian's Brumisateur, which hydrates, tones and refreshes...your face....apparently, wherever your local drinks and sandwiches are sold.

Instructions for the 'atomizer' are as follows:

Utilisé quotidiennement, été comme hiver, Evian Facial Spray augmente l'hydration de votre peau, aide à fixer votre maquillage et vous procure de véritables sensations de fraicher et de pureté.

Use daily, summer and winter. Evian Facial Spray enhances the hydration of your skin, helps to fix your makeup and provides true feelings of freshness and purity.

Emma shows us the product with poise:

And demonstrates the action with such sophistication:

Here, she turns to Julien (our very comical friend) and atomizes:

Bliss. Mutual bliss. That is the only way to interpret their joint sentiment:

In culmination: GLEE. That is the only way my own reaction to the existence of such a product can be described.

May 21, 2008

May 19, 2008


I'm still obsessed with them.

Xavier's mom said she might get a family of hérissons to live in the garden at their home in Baugé. The idea is gripping. I think about it when I can't sleep, or when I am supposed to be sleeping.

We read Marguerite this series of books called "Emilie." Emilie is a young French girl (with whiskers) who has a pet hérisson named Arthur. Dream life.

Emilie learns all sorts of lessons and Arthur always looks on with staying power, even when she kicks him down the stairs and things like that. He is a fabulous companion. When I read about Emilie's rainy days and bad moods or her prances with butterflies, I focus on Arthur. Enchanting.

And, as an important aside...Take this Anne Geddes:

When I worked for an impressive real estate broker in New York, I was showing an apartment on Park Avenue to some buyers whose budget hovered around 15 million dollars. We walked into the lavish apartment, and I was immediately disturbed. Every wall was covered by nude pregnant bellies, fetuses in wombs and close-up shots of baby parts - hands, toes, necks, baby hair, etc. It is not very often that you walk into an apartment worth that much money and even rarer that you walk into a place of that value, whose owner is absolutely fanatical about the tiny human form.

Later, I found out that the apartment was owned by Anne Geddes.

It wasn't a dead give away - all the baby parts. Really. It may sound like it. But there were no flower pots, or daisies or babies in bunny costumes. Just obsession, clear cut obsession. But now, I feel compelled to send her this photo of the baby hérissons and see if she admits defeat, or if she would, unsurprisingly, be stirred to take a new direction in her work.


A particularly delightful aspect of interacting with French people all the time is watching them gesticulate. These gestures are not scarce - most conversations are peppered with them. The Joly family demonstrates a few:

1. Attention: To communicate that someone is going to get it if they keep it up. Louise, Paule and Vincent give us various versions of this one.

2. Une vraie barbe: Used when someone is extremely tiresome, boring or irksome. Fabien does this well.

3. Avoir peur: This one is used to express when someone is scared.

4. Passer sous le nez: To describe how someone missed something entirely - that it passed right under their nose. Featuring Marie.

5. Voler: To steal or hide something away. Starring the lovely Xavier.

6. ...basically "Yeah right."

7. Verre dans le nez: Used to convey that someone has had too much to drink.

8. Barrons-nous | On se tire: let's get out of here...or used in the middle of a story to communicate that whoever is being spoken about left speedily.

9. J'en ai ras le bol: Used to communicate that you've had enough.

10. Qu'est-ce qu'il chante, là ?: Singing falsities...or another "Yeah right" sort-of gesture.

May 15, 2008

Vous Devez Prendre le Soin Aussi

(You Must Also Have 'le Soin')

Yesterday, I wanted a haircut. I got quite an experience with it.

I went to this place called L'instant 2MOSS - a rather strange name to begin with. I remembered this place because I had walked by a number of times - it is in the Square Louis XII - a charming little pedestrian courtyard in the middle of the Paris.

In words, it looks like an agreeable salon, where one could get a nice haircut.

So I walked in and announced my intention to the woman who greeted me. I was apparently lucky because normally they only accept reservations, but she had some time on that particular morning. She pulled out her price list and showed me the prices of the salon. Each haircut listed included a 'Rituel de Soin et Bien-Être,' which I didn't fully comprehend. She authoritatively explained that every haircut at this salon is given with le Soin. There is no choice. She was sort of defensive about this point, so I shrugged my shoulders and inertly agreed.

She instructed me to have a seat and to wait while she finished with another client (in a little room in the back of the salon). This client never surfaced - ever - but after 20 minutes, she finally did and invited me to 'install' myself in another room in the back of the salon. She waltzed me into the room and gave me the clear instructions that when she leaves the room, I should remove my clothing, my shoes, my earrings and put on this robe (which she handed to me). I was befuddled. I reconfirmed with myself that I was not at the doctors office.

After a long wait, during which I was reading a book, she reappeared, swooped the book out of my hands and looked at me with puzzlement. Who reads a book when they go to the salon, her face read. (Everyone I know, my eyes spoke in reaction).

And then she proceeded to be extremely weird, but her performance was impressive because she executed each strange happening with utter grace and assurance. With sincerity. She leapt from one side of the very small room to the other (the salon apparently prides itself on offering its customers cabines individuelles privées (private rooms)). And then she turned off the lights. I was alarmed, gripping the sides of the chair, which was a bit too reminiscent of a dentist chair - big, synthetic, and strangely not comfortable despite all the effort to be.

There was a sliver of light left in the room and then with a creepy, low voice she 'invited' me to close my eyes. Are you crazy lady? That was about all I was thinking. And a few other things too, I guess, such as, when am I going to get my haircut?

Next, she announced with a bit of drama that she needed to leave the room to get the brush. Oh no. When she came back with it, she instructed me to relax. She took the brush (it turned out to be a normal hairbrush, which she claimed was a massage tool) and placed it on my head and pushed into my scalp and held it there for 60 seconds. And then proceeded to repeat this at least 25 times all over my head. It felt like nothing more than a brush being pushed into my head 25 times.

After this, I heard a swooshing of liquid behind me and startled in reaction. She assured me that it was only oil and started pouring it on my head and rubbing it all over - my neck, my forehead, my ears and then, from time to time, the target area - my hair. She wrapped my hair into a ball over and over and then would release it each time. The energy she invested in this task was hefty and I could hear her breathing a little harder behind me as a result. I was tense.

Another surprise arrived when she slathered something freezing cold all over my scalp. By this point, I told myself that I would like this more if I just went with it. So, I stopped clutching the dentist chair and it was at this moment that 'le Soin' ended. She told me that she was going to lower me down and the chair started moving backward to such an angle that it was difficult to keep my neck lifted. My feet were higher than my head at this point. She had lowered me into a basin where she washed my hair up to ten times (I stopped counting after the sixth lather).

And then she abruptly turned on the lights. I was really relieved, even though my feet were still higher than my face. She raised me up, put on her glasses, took a deep breath and began chopping. We had never discussed how much hair was to be sacrificed, etc. And I began to tell her my preferences, but she made it clear that all of that was pretty irrelevant anyway. The haircut, in blessed contrast to the rest, was not dramatic.

At the moment she turned the noisy hairdryer on, she decided that we needed to chat. So she started asking me about what I was doing in Paris and those sorts of inquiries. I told her and then upon finding out that I had moved from New York, she enlightened me regarding all the many habits of New York women. I was fascinated to learn that women in New York have this ritual done (what I had just gone through) every time their hair is cut. She knew more about women in NY than I did. I asked politely if she had ever been to New York. You can guess the reply.

I left giggling.

To be fair, and for those of you who are interested, here is the salon's own description of 'le Soin.'

En cabine privée et par le biais d'effleurements, de pressions et d'étirements, une spécialiste vous masse longuement, des épaules à la tête, à l'aide d'huiles et de crèmes relaxantes et régénérantes. Ce soin associe gommage doux, hydratation intense et relaxation apaisante afin de procurer un véritable moment de plaisir. Avec des produits d’origine naturelle riches en oligo-éléments et acides aminés, les cheveux et le cuir chevelu sont soignés en profondeur. La reconstitution en profondeur du cheveu et son hydratation lui apportent souplesse, légèreté, tonicité et brillance.

May 10, 2008


If you look at the way my mom is regarding this butterfly, it is clear that she relishes it. Her gaze gives off celebration of and gratitude for something so small and inconsequential. The time my mom gives to take things in - to notice them - is distinctive. And I think this relishing of small things is a source of her love for children, for me and for my seven siblings. With children, my mom appropriated our tempos. She savored us as we were - all of us - at all of the corresponding and intersecting moments and speeds. And I think she was able to do this because of her ability to be grateful for the smallest happenings - little movements and actions that may be inconsequential, but which are not unimportant. I think many people do not have this ability.

For some, children are simply a narcissistic reflection of themselves - their desires, their hopes, their youth, their bargaining with time and death. But from my mom's gaze, there was always the clear and distinct knowledge that she was observing us, playing with us, illustrating things, for us. She was taking us in and relishing us at every turn as appreciation, as gratitude. The commonplace task was something unequivocally worth doing - something essential. Deeming us worth it all the time. From making homemade playdough to reading bedtime stories - we experienced someone who was thankful to be our mother and grateful to be herself - a profound and singular gift. I continually harvest the benefits. I love you my mom and I wish I were nearer to let you know that.

Broomstick Hair

This is worth displaying. This woman. Xavier and I were having dinner outside one night and there she sat, broomstick hair on full display. She thought she was something else. And she was. She is even featured here in action, shaking it out like a dog. Xavier accurately described the 'do' as reminiscent of the end point of a thatched-roof. The resemblance is salient. The striking thing is that the thatched-roof of the house (below) seems rather introverted and shy in comparison.


My sister-in-law Marie (above with her son Jules) has been a cherished friend in Paris. I wrote about her early on, but I haven't chronicled the importance of her amity to me. I often ride my bike from our apartment in the 9th arrondissement (in the north central part of the city) to her apartment south of Paris in Montrouge (just outside the city boundaries). It is a 40-minute ride; flying by striking monuments: Opera Garnier, through the courtyard of the Louvre, over the Pont du Carrousel (a bridge across the Seine) and then through Paris' picturesque 6th arrondissement on Blvd. Raspail southward. When I climb the three flights of stairs to her apartment, she is there waiting for me, door open, smiling with Jules and Louise. She makes me a big bowl of tea in the afternoon (french women mainly drink their afternoon tea from bowls) and we sit and confer with and digest each other and our lives expansively. Her regard is intense; she listens closely - even when I can't produce the words to say what I mean. We know each other intimately, despite where I sit looking at her and where she starts from – and all the levels therein.

Then there is my lovely father-in-law, to whom Xavier finally bestowed the highly anticipated gift this weekend (for his 60th birthday). He is shown here blowing bubbles, because he is lovely in that sense - totally unassuming and extremely charming, as you can see. He was knocked mute when Xavier gave him the keys to the car. A grand, very rare moment between father and son.

And then we have our petite americaine, Marguerite, in her Yankees baseball cap. Xavier is a lot of things - whatever is good or bad in a person - speed it up by 200% and you've got him. But he is heavenly as a dad. As the french would say, a fond (100%). Wholly. He is a pretty nice guy to me also.

May 5, 2008

La Vallée de la Loire et ses Châteaux

Thanks to the fact that my American father is a bit of a Francophile, I have been lucky enough to see the chateaux of the Loire Valley on a few occasions. However, Xavier, French as he may be, and despite the fact that his parents' country home is actually located in the Loire Valley, has never taken the opportunity. So, we set out last Thursday to spend four days exploring the region.

If you look at a map of this region of France, the number of little symbols indicating a chateau is, in fact, daunting. It is a difficult task to settle on just where to start. Of course, there are the big and very famous chateaux - some of which we did visit; but we also took the opportunity to start with more unfamiliar, less illustrious chateux.

See (this one is kind of like a medieval parking garage):

And then others:


One of the most famous chateaux - Villandry - is a geometric gardener's dream. The interior follows suit.

Rapeseed (Brassica napus)

Rapeseed (Brassica napus) is grown extensively in the Loire Valley and is used for biofuel, among other things for animals and humans. As we drove, fields of expansive yellow bordered us on the left and right.


We drove up a long, straight drive along a vineyard to one chateau and there, waiting for us to arrive, were two "seeing-eye ponies" (miniature-sized ponies that we Johnsons have deemed perfect for said task), and one very endearing young lab. Like many others, the chateau was apparently privately owned, and the dog and ponies had free reign. The little black fella follwed us all around the shabby grounds of the once-stately chateau as we explored. He pursued us up the winding stairwell that led nowhere and slipped on each stone step, with his awkward puppy body and his paws he didn't quite yet know how to handle. He would run back and forth between me and Xavier wherever we were separately surveying, his eagerness brimming over - my favorite feature of this species.

At another little chateau (that was not really worth seeing), there was something else that definitely was worth seeing: a cat in a diaper. He looked livid.

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