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Paris – Observations

This week since my days are busy with French language class again, I thought I’d present some observations I’ve been accumulating while here…..

– Florists in Paris are really special. Their flowers are always artfully displayed, overflowing out onto the sidewalks.  The arrangements are lush and creative. French patisseries tend to get all the oohs and ahhs but I think the florists are right up there and may even be tied with the fruit sellers who also outdo themselves in presenting their produce. When in America have you ever stopped in your tracks while on a walk and just gawked at a fruit stand? Here it happens to me almost daily.  And then I pony up and pay 6.50 Euro for a little basket of strawberries. So you see, all that special care in merchandising works!

– Speaking of beautiful displays, I cannot pass over the patisseries with their delightful pastries. Oh. My. God.  They are works of art. You’ve never seen or tasted anything like them. Some patisseries are like mini museums all glass and good lighting, showcasing desserts that look like hours were spent crafting each one. Alternatively, some pastry shops are full of big rustic, homemade looking baked goods that still make your mouth water even though they are not visual works of art.  What looks like a humble plain chocolate cupcake can turn out to be one of the best things you’ve ever eaten in your life. I have this little French food guide book which covers the various popular French pastries in all their glory and we have been working our way through it, one by one.  If I come home 20 pounds heavier, you’ll know why.

– Shops in Paris are big on handing out their “carte”  – their business card – to shoppers. It’s great because sometimes you are eyeing something but can’t decide or you are in a rush and want to return later. And now you have their well designed shop card in your bag and a means to find them again. Especially useful for a tourist!

– The French really do say “Ooh, la la!” I have heard this stereotypical little exclamation used quite a bit, even by people just watching the world cup!

– Women here wear dresses with sandals in the summer. All day long I admire the cute dresses. Men going to work are often in suits. Stylish, slim fitting suits and nice shoes. No baggy pleated pants or wrinkled shirts for these Frenchmen. Parisians look great and we could learn a thing or two or three from them about how to dress.

– Clothing here is expensive. With the much hyped bi-annual sales going on now in July, you would think you could finally get a deal?  Nope. Clothes here are an investment and quality matters. Therefore people seem to have smaller wardrobes of better clothes. Smart. And it’s environmentally friendly. Don’t you always cringe inside when you walk by a Forever 21 or H&M and see the thousands upon thousands of disposable fast fashion that changes inventory constantly? I always wonder what becomes of all the clothing that doesn’t sell by the time the next batch hits the racks.  Here many clothing shops have a very limited, very curated inventory.  It is refreshing.

– On that note, unlike in Italy where shopkeepers assault you with “Dimmi” when you walk in the door (Literally “tell me!” – meaning tell me exactly what you are looking for) the French boutiques allow you to browse in peace. So much better.  Especially if you don’t speak the language well.

– Nobody rushes you in restaurants. You can sit nearly as long as you like. It’s amazing and automatically relaxes you. In fact, if you want to pay the check you have to pointedly ask for it – they won’t just drop it on your table and glower at you until you leave. Why is this? Servers here are not paid by tips alone. They get paid normal wages.  (I read, on average, about $2000 per month.)  This means they can relax and just do their job without trying to turn your table for the next tip. We Americans could learn from this and find a way to eliminate restaurant tipping and the sad minimum hourly wage that servers are paid stateside.

– The French very much like to picnic.  Or, rather “pique-nique”.  Along the Seine. On any patch of grass. These are not elaborate meals and there is always a baguette or two or three. Plus cheese and wine.  This is a super easy French habit to pick up and I recommend it!

– Buildings are beautifully designed. Care is even taken with the design of the door and with the knocker. Every single day I see one beautiful door after another, with its own unique knocker, on an architecturally stunning building. It is so rare to see a plain unadorned building that when you do see one it almost stops you in your tracks.

– Air conditioning is a luxury. The metro is hot, the buses are hot, inside the cafes are hot. Some shops will have AC but generally not.  And yet, the Parisians never look sweaty or uncomfortable.  It is an absolute mystery to me.

– Let’s talk bread.  Specifically baguettes. Parisians buy one every single day. I can’t count how many baguette ends I have seen poking out of peoples purses, brief cases, or sacs. And it is not uncommon to see the person munching on a piece of it while they walk.  When you get a warm one handed to you it is heaven.

– People here are generally friendly and helpful. The grumpy Parisian stereotype is unfair. If you try a few words of French, that is enough to satisfy them.  If you look remotely confused or blank, they switch seamlessly to English.  I give them full credit for this skill.

– No foods are forbidden here. People eat LOTS of cheese and croissants and butter and the aforementioned baguette. (No it’s not just the tourists.) And most people are indeed thin. Think about that and if you come up with a 100% explanation for it, please email me.

– A glass of Rosé in the summer heat is perfection. Light, refreshing and the perfect outdoor drink at a café at lunch or dinner. Sorry Kir. I tried you and you’re too sweet. Aperol meanwhile was a bit bitter for my taste.  Pour moi, Rosé it is.

– It’s easy to walk 4 or 5 miles a day without really trying. I’ve been taking public transportation – metro & bus – if it’s really far.  But stops are not everywhere and usually walking takes nearly the same amount of time and it burns off all that amazing food.

– If you go in a hardware store (a “droguerie” specifically) you will be shocked by the attractive, orderly, stylish care that has been taken with their wares. You can literally be staring at shelves of rat poison and you almost want to take a photo. Why can’t our hardware stores do this and make cleaning products and paint shopping a more enjoyable sensory experience?

In conclusion, I’ve found that no matter what the product, the French can make it look good. No matter what the food, the French can make it beautifully and give you full permission to eat it often. And they look good while doing all of the above avec plaisir!

 

 

 

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Paris Weeks 2/3/4 – Life in a Paris apartment

My apologies for disappearing for the last three weeks. I thought I would have so much time to blog but instead all I can seem to manage is a steady stream of Instagram posts. (So follow me there at @Jenfreshstart!)

The rest of June for me was pretty much comprised of friends, French lessons and family. First, some Concord girlfriends (shout-outs to Kath, Bonny & Hilary!) made the trip over. For a few days we walked a ton and got in as much as we could. Highlights were the amazing full day food tour of Montmartre (a must do),  a sunset cruise on the Seine, the Rodin museum and some very good meals.

That week was followed by a week of Intensive French lessons at Lutece Langue. I was placed in an advanced beginner class with about 8 other people from Korea, Austria, the UK, Australia and China. We went from 9am-12:30pm with a little café creme break in between. It was fun but also a difficult class because everybody came to the group with varied abilities, vocabulary and experience with the language. Our teacher, rather than explaining things in English like at home, explained them in more French. So the difficulty level shot past my class at Concord Community Ed which by the way is where I started taking some French once per week last September. Basically, I often couldn’t understand the French teacher’s explanations of something that I already couldn’t understand! We had no textbook but played lots of verb conjugation games, did little group projects, role playing with classmates, listening exercises, songs, more games and just conversation. The week flew by and definitely improved my French a bit… and luckily I have two more weeks there scheduled this month!

Next my sister, niece and nephew all arrived for their first ever visit to Paris! In fact, it was their first time in Europe so pretty much everything was all new and exciting to them. They stayed with us in the apartment and we really put our space to the test with 6 of us here. We saw all the top attractions and walked thousands more steps. Jack, with the metabolism of a 16 year old teen, did a pretty good job of trying lots of the bakery offerings. We had a great picnic at the Louvre grounds, rode the giant Ferris wheel at the Tuilieries, spent the day at Versailles, visited the Orangerie museum (Monet’s waterlilies) and the Museé d’Orsay and the Trocadéro for a great view of the Eiffel Tower. Plus too many other things to list. In short, I think they will be back – particularly Jack and Maddie who seemed enchanted with pretty much everything Paris.

Now, for the actual subject of this blog: living in a Paris apartment. Since I work on peoples’ homes and also work in real estate, I obviously am fascinated by how people live and I love houses. Having an apartment in the center of Paris is pretty much a dream scenario for many people – but it does come with it’s own set of quirks. (A small set, a very small set). I will discuss those little cons here and you can be the judge. I think you will decide, like I have, that the inconveniences are well worth the many pluses of this lifestyle.

First off, we’re talking about city living – which is no different than living in any large American city. There is traffic…you hear sirens etc.. You hear construction nearby. You are in close quarters with your neighbors. Privacy and personal outdoor space is limited or unavailable. Parking a car is a hassle so you rely on public transportation and deal with the public transportation delays and strikes. This is the same scenario if you lived in Manhattan or downtown Chicago.

Nope, this is NOT our apartment building. But I would love to see inside that curved room up top!

Having lived in New York City and Atlanta, I find Paris to be a really livable large city. The number of skyscraper height buildings is very small so everything feels more like a series of neighborhoods and less like a bustling metropolis. As you probably know, the arrondissement division of the city (there are 20) really gives each neighborhood its own identity and distinct community feel. There are LOTS of trees and public parks – including cute neighborhood parks where people gather with their kids, dogs or partners. It’s clean and there are trash bins everywhere. The public transportation system here works really well and we’ve been impressed with the efficiency of the metro and the bus system. (Although I hear that the trains have suffered a lot of strikes in the last few months).   There are a couple different bike sharing options and people actually ride bikes a lot. It’s very common to see smartly dressed Parisian women in a dress and heels cruising through the streets on their way to the office.

In general, the ambiance is just beautiful. Outdoor cafes everywhere. Gorgeous displays in boutique or bakery windows. A gilded cupola here. A cobblestoned street there. Haussmann architecture gets me every time. I find that I can’t go five minutes in Paris without looking up and admiring something. The Seine and all its lovely bridges are running through the center of it all add to the old world ambiance and whisper to you to “slow down” and admire the view. But then there are just SO MANY gorgeous museums, sights, monuments and other unique things sprinkled around the city that you pretty much encounter something special wherever you go.

As for living in the apartments themselves…..here are some realities. You’re living in a building with multiple floors and elevators are not a given. If you have one it is usually just tiny and retrofit into the tiny center of a winding staircase. So you get a bonus glute workout in each time you leave the house and walk up those stairs to come home.

The apartment windows are big casements that open inward and most also have a set of exterior shutters for controlling light and temperature. Now that the weather is consistently hot, we have finally figured out that we need to keep those outdoor shutters closed during the day to keep the apartment cool and then open everything up in the evening to let in the cooler air. Which brings up another point – no air conditioning. Our fan is our new best French friend.

As someone who works on kitchen design, I find the French kitchen to be a bit underwhelming and my least favorite aspect of life here. Typically, Paris kitchens are tiny. We have a pretty large apartment here but the kitchen is very small, not in proportion to the square footage of the space. We have exactly 4 square feet of free counter space for prepping a meal, so you end up working alone in the kitchen because having two people is just painful. An “American style” open kitchen is less common and you can pretty much forget about a big island and lots of cabinet storage space.

We are lucky to have a dishwasher in our micro kitchen, but the way it opens blocks the trash cabinet entirely. (So no clearing a plate and then putting it right into the dishwasher).

The refrigerator is also probably half the capacity of an American fridge but it works out just fine because you pretty much can never do a large grocery shopping anyway. Remember – you have no car and you have a lot of stairs. . You have very little storage space in your tiny kitchen. And everything here is actually really fresh and for some reason also spoils quickly. It takes you about 3 days to re-learn your American ways and realize that you have to think about and buy your dinner foods that very same day. You can only carry so much home, only manage so much up the stairs and only fit so much in the little fridge. So there you go – you are a Parisian daily shopper!

My fancy new supermarket!

I have become trés familiar with my local Monoprix (look at the photo of it above), boulangerie, fromagerie and fruit vendor.

While we are talking about housekeeping chores, let’s discuss doing laundry in Paris. We are super lucky that our apartment came not only with a washing machine tucked into the master bathroom but also…. a dryer!! In my past European rentals (Italy, Spain, Greece etc.) we had to hang and air dry all our clothing. Everything smells like fresh air afterwards – but your clothes end up physically crunchy. Unfortunately, the dryer in a Parisian apartment is not the efficient appliance we are used to at home. First of all, like most things here, it’s small. Which means small loads. Small loads means doing frequent loads. I am literally finding myself doing a load or two of laundry nearly every single day. With regard to the dryer, your Parisian dryer is probably not going to be vented to the outside. I could be wrong, but to me this seems to slow the drying process down. It is not uncommon for a dryer cycle to be almost 3 hours. After a couple days, our dryer here kept shutting itself off and a mysterious little light was lit up. After Googling the model and deciphering French, we learned that there was a tank on the side of the dryer that was collecting condensation and was full of water. It needed emptying before the dryer could do its job. Who knew?

So those are a few of the quirks. But let’s talk about the charms of the Paris apartment. Creaky herringbone wood floors (not hard cold tile like in Italy or Spain). Big windows that open wide (no screens but luckily very few bugs). You feel connected to your neighbors. Is there a birthday party for the four year old across the courtyard? You know about it. Neighbor is practicing piano chords? You get to hear his progress. I know this is not everyone’s cup of tea, but personally I love knowing that people are nearby. I would never want to live in the woods at the end of a long driveway and really love having activity and neighbors that city life brings.

Other pluses….having a small space means it doesn’t take you very long to clean it. There are usually lovely fireplaces in these old buildings – plus gorgeous plaster medallions on the ceilings and distinctive trim – all totally charming.  Being in a city center means you can walk to the majority of the places you need to go. And burn calories you can then spend on the baguette, cheese or apparently the crazy gorgeous intricate pastries that are literally everywhere being consumed by what looks like everyone.

But the best part? In a few minutes you can head downstairs and grab a carafe of rosé and a cheese plate at the corner cafe and sit and watch the world pass by. Can’t do that in the suburbs, so I’m willing to forgive the tiny kitchen. I bet you would too.

 

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Summer in Paris, the arrival….

When I started this website a little over a year ago, I intended to blog.  The bad news is, I didn’t.  The good news is, I got super busy with lots of great design work – and a bunch of incredible travel.  In the last year or so I’ve been fortunate enough to work on several great kitchen & bathroom renovations, helping a bunch of clients move into new homes which meant helping pick all the materials for those spaces plus furniture, lighting, paint etc…  On the personal side, I’ve also traveled to Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, Antigua (Guatemala), Colorado, Tulum (Mexico), Singapore and Tioman Island (Malaysia).  I even helped a young family buy their first home.  I kept up with short social media bursts on Facebook and (finally!) on Instagram.  Plus I gut renovated another full bathroom in my own house.  So the last year was too busy to blog….which is a very good problem to have!

I’m here blogging today because work just came to a screeching halt – I have just started on a new adventure – in Paris!  Mark, my partner, who also loves languages and travel, amazingly arranged to work out of his company’s Paris office for the summer.  Being self employed, I am able to join him for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  And my daughter Ally is smartly along for the ride.  She will take a class at Science Po next month and then stay for her junior fall semester abroad in Paris.  So she gets to stay until December!

After nearly a year of preparation for this adventure (studying French, renting out our house, finding housing here, etc. etc.) we arrived on Saturday.  My “To Do” list leading up to this trip was so long and detailed that the actual travel, in comparison, was over in the blink of an eye. We made our connection, our luggage not only arrived but was the first off the plane, and the taxi to the apartment was driven by a friendly  (oui!) Frenchman who decided to be our tour guide too – pointing out sites along the way.

We have a 3 BR/2 Bath Airbnb apartment for June & July, perfectly situated in the 7th arrondissement.  The 3rd floor apartment, in St. Germain des Prés on Rue du Bac, is about a 5 minute walk from the Musee D’Orsay and the Seine.  C’est fantastique!

We got the lay of the land from our new landlady Nathalie.  It turns out we are living in her actual apartment and she moved out to stay with relatives.  Thus, the closets and cupboards are all full of her stuff.  Even the small fridge has its two drawers full of her food.  Not so fantastique, but we figured out where to squeeze our belongings and got settled.  The apartment has a sprawling quirky layout, gorgeous chevron laid wood floors, four fireplaces, and intricate ceiling medallions all combined with odd paint color combos and a hodge-podge mix of furniture. Ikea meets antiques and pale pink meets primary red and sunflower yellow.

 

Large floor to ceiling windows & shutters open up wide to let in light and air.  We overlook a charming stone courtyard with a single, gorgeous, perfect tree at the center. 

The old Parisian rooftops surround us, with a trés petite elevator (big enough for one person and one suitcase) retrofit into the building’s curving wood staircase.  Across the street, literally, is a Monoprix supermarché, perfectly positioned so we can easily adapt to the tiny kitchen/tiny fridge requirement of doing almost daily grocery shopping.

Sunday morning after a deep wonderful sleep, I awoke early to birds chirping and the sun shining.  Who would expect all the birds? We were amazed with how quiet and peaceful the morning was in our building despite our being in the heart of Paris! With perfect blue skies and temps in the 70s, Mark and I ventured out for a walk along the Seine and landed at the L’Tour Eiffel.  The paved side of the left bank was full of joggers.  On the way home we picked up fresh cherries at a fruit stand and hit our local boulangerie for a fluffy eggy brioche and some kind of miniature baguette studded with chocolate chips.  Enjoyed in our new dining room with tea & coffee, we were off to a good start!

This morning, Monday, was a bit of a different story. First, insomnia hit from 3-5 am.  Then Mark had to report to his first day of work. The forecast is for rain all week and the skies today are gray.  But the harshest reality came outside our window at precisely 7:30 am. The peace and quiet we marveled at yesterday?  Well, I couldn’t even hear the birds today for all the construction noise……hammering, drilling, sawing, banging, scraping and other assorted loud noises came from just outside our window.  Across the alley from our bedroom, scaffolding I hardly noticed yesterday is being used by two men loudly speaking French as they repair the exterior of the opposite building. Below, with green spray paint marking the path of a gas line, a second crew of men was pounding at the pavers to access the lines.  Obviously with all the stone surfaces, the echo factor is enormous.  Over in her room, a mosquito bit Ally all night long (no screens on those gorgeous windows). Our perfect strawberries, bought 36 hours ago, were mostly rotted when we attempted to top our yogurt.  And thus, just like that, our little bubble of paradise just got hit by a reality check.  As they say, c’est la vie!

Stick with me on this blog to hear more about our time in Paris and hopefully my design discoveries and Parisian pleasures found along the way!