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All Good Things Must End…

Well, it’s hard to believe that we’ve been living in France for nearly two years! Sadly, we’ve realized that our posts on this blog have been gradually getting fewer and further between. I guess we’re spending more time out doing stuff and less time at home writing! Or maybe we’ve already picked all the low-hanging fruit on the topic of Americans Moving to France and don’t feel like climbing higher. In any case, it’s time to tie up loose ends. We are officially saying farewell to our blog as we move on to other projects.

We wish you well, and we thank you for your readership and all the interesting comments! Stay in touch.

— Jen and Greg

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For awhile, I’ve been meaning to do a post about where to buy larger sizes of clothing in Paris. I wanted to visit several shops in person in order to have useful information to offer, but I am not much of a shopper so it’s taken me awhile to visit enough places to write this. But I think I’ve reached critical mass at last.

My style

I’m in my mid-thirties. I tend to wear the largest size of “regular” clothing or the smallest size at “plus” shops. Being in this middle area has advantages and disadvantages. In some sense, there are more options open to me, but it’s also the case that neither “world” of clothing really puts a priority on my type because most of their customers are a different size than I am. So often there are fewer choices in my size than in other sizes no matter what type of store I go in. (Ah well, I don’t think any woman finds it easy to find good clothing.)

I’m not a fashionista at all, but I like to dress my age and look reasonably put together. I’m really not a high maintenance type (makeup happens maybe once a month) and I work in the arts, so I don’t need a lot of very dressy clothing most of the time. I don’t like to spend exorbitantly on clothes, but I will pay a little bit more for quality/fit if I think the item will last a long time.

Unfortunately, in Paris I have not managed to find plus size clothing that wasn’t (to me) quite expensive. Your choices are basically expensive, more expensive, and really expensive. (Maybe cheaper stuff is out there and I just haven’t happened on it yet.)

Caveat: In most cases, I’ve only visited the shop once or twice (not a shopper, remember?), so do keep that in mind. Even if I give a slightly lukewarm review, the place could be worth checking out– maybe I went on an off day.

With that out of the way, here are my (rather unqualified) opinions:

Clothing

Elena Mirò
http://www.elenamiro.com/
This is my favorite place of the bunch. It’s not cheap, but it fits well and is well made. Fun, cute, up-to date styles that appeal to me. Mixture of casual and nice-casual, with some nicer work stuff too. Bonus: the sales-woman who helped me was really excellent. Very solicitous, but not at all pushy. (In France you often get either complete indifference or high-pressure sales– and not much in between).

Marina Rinaldi
http://www.marinarinaldi.com/
Dressy and slightly conservative (maybe “classic” is a better word). Good for professional clothes. Quite expensive. Owned by the same company that owns MaxMara, which should give you a feel for what to expect. If I had money to burn (and a reason to wear really dressy clothes), I might shop here. As it is, I haven’t bought anything yet.

Un Jour Ailleurs
http://www.unjourailleurs.com/
Somewhere in between Elena Mirò and Marina Rinaldi. Just a tad dressier than Elena Mirò. Price points are more akin to Marina Rinaldi,  but a bit fresher in style. I found a couple of casual-nice tops here during the annual sales that fit amazingly well. For me, it was hit-or-miss: I saw several things that I loved, and other things that looked a bit more appropriate for an older person. But definitely worth a try if you have the budget for it.

Ulla Popken
http://www.ullapopken.fr/
Casual and casual-nice. It’s a German clothing brand and you can tell the difference from the more Latinate brands. It’s just a bit more sensible and straightforward, perhaps a little more strait-laced. Like Un Jour Ailleurs, for me this place is a bit hit-or-miss. However, I got a pair of basic black pants here that fit me like a glove and I really adore them.

Jean Marc Philippe
http://www.jeanmarcphilippe.com/
Casual. On the lower end of the prices I’ve seen, but frankly, for what they charge (it’s still not cheap) I feel the quality could be better. I have a few things from here that I wear regularly, but the fit isn’t quite as good (for me) as at the other shops. It’s a good place to get basics, though.

Gerlane
http://www.gerlane-vetement.com/
This shop isn’t brand-specific, but rather carries a variety of brands, including some things by Marina Rinaldi and Elena Mirò, among others. Casual to casual-nice. The shop is tiny, but they pack a lot of choices in there. On the pricey side (90€ for a cotton T shirt?), though not out of line with the rest of the stores I’ve visited. The saleswoman smoked and her little dog was wandering around the shop while I was there.

Lingerie

Laure Sokol
http://www.laure-sokol.fr/
Several locations around Paris. They have lots of lacy, flowery bras and panties. The quality seems high; the prices are high too.

Corsets de Paris
28 avenue général Leclerc, 75014
I haven’t actually stepped inside this shop, which is in my neighborhood. During the annual sales, they set up tables outside with the sale items, which is what my comments are based on. Similar price point and styles as Laure Sokol. Lots of lace and flowers. (I suppose they must sell corsets too, though I’ve only looked at their bras/panties.)

A few other places

I have not visited any of the following stores yet, but they look like they may have potential. I will update this post if I ever manage to go to any of them.

Cazak
http://www.cazak.com/

Couleurs
http://www.ronde-en-couleurs.com/

Kamino Paris
http://kamino-paris.fr/
This place seems new– their website is kind of sparse.

No Complex
http://www.nocomplex.net/

Bastille Day

Yesterday was my first Bastille Day in France. I was really excited to be in town for it. (Last year I missed it because I was on a choir tour.)

French people don’t call the day Bastille Day. Here, it’s either the La Fête Nationale Française (the French National Holiday) or simply called “July 14th.”

The holiday is celebrated with fireworks shows, a military parade, and firemen’s balls. Can you guess which two out of the three we participated in? I bet you can’t!

On Sunday night, we went out to find a good place to watch fireworks. We didn’t want to deal with the massive crowds right by the Eiffel Tower, so we decided to walk along the Seine until we found a place that had a decent view but wasn’t packed. We ended up at the Pont de la Concorde, and were pretty happy with it. The view of the fireworks and the Eiffel Tower was pretty good. There were a lot of people, but there was still breathing space; we weren’t shoulder-to-shoulder. The only annoying thing was that sometimes a tour bus crossing the bridge got caught at a red light in a spot where it was exactly blocking our view. But on the whole, it was a fun experience. The fireworks were impressive, and there was a light show on the Eiffel Tower to coordinate with the fireworks show.

So what was the other thing we did to celebrate Bastille Day?

Well, on Saturday night, after having had a nice dinner to celebrate our wedding anniversary (a few days earlier), we headed out to our nearest fire station to check out the firemen’s ball. Calling it a ball is a bit of a misnomer, since that word evokes waltzes and sedate couples dancing. The scene was more like a dance club, with a DJ, loud music, flashing lights, and three(!) different bars. The firehouse building is in the shape of a square with a huge courtyard in the middle, and the dance was held in the courtyard. I estimate there were 1,000 people there (it’s a big firehouse). The balls go from 9pm to 4am. We arrived at the firehouse around midnight and waited about 30-45 minutes to get in the door– the line was very long. Finally, once we had passed through the metal detectors and put our donation in the fireman’s helmet, we were in!

The music itself was pretty good, though I hardly recognized any of it (am I that out of touch?). Neither of us have ever been really big on dance parties, probably due to junior-high era insecurities. But since neither of us knew another soul there, it was really easy to simply not care what other people thought of our dancing. In addition, the place was so crowded that the only thing you could really do was bounce straight up and down in rhythm. There was no space to move your arms or feet. So, the effect of all this was that we were able to relax and just enjoy the experience. At one point when the music reached a peak, a group of guys near us all threw their hands up in the air and yelled with enthusiasm. One of them near me decided I ought to participate and so he grabbed my hand and put it in the air too. Pretty funny.

Though we were having a grand old time, I saw good number of people who looked totally bored to be there. They were dancing rather limply, and their faces registered complete boredom. I don’t know if they were actually bored, or if they were just being Parisian. The people clumped right in front of the DJ’s stage looked to be having more fun, but when we tried to go over there we couldn’t handle the loudness of the music and the people were even more squashed together than in the rest of the dance area, so we retreated pretty quickly.

The ball and its bars were mostly staffed by firemen in uniform (well, to be fair I did see one fire-woman). I have to say, that was a nice bonus– the firemen were pretty good-looking, and they were dancing enthusiastically and contributing to the fun atmosphere.

We stayed until about 2am, and then walked home. For me, that’s practically a record-breaking night. I am very rarely awake after midnight. But it was worth making an exception to have another interesting Parisian experience!

The Pigeon

I was sitting in the Luxembourg Garden this afternoon when I noticed a pretty pigeon walking toward my lawn chair. This wasn’t an ordinary pigeon. It was big and round, looked well groomed, with a velvety creamy coat of grey and rose. Its tail was ornamented with orderly dark and white patches. Its eyes were bright and alert. It was as fine a specimen of pigeon as I’ve ever seen.

Then I noticed something strange about the pigeon’s feet. As it walked by me, I leaned over for a closer look. A long thin ribbon of orange tape, almost the same color as the bird’s feet, was wrapped and wound and tangled all around its feet and legs, loosely binding them together. The pigeon’s stride was hobbled.

The pigeon was right there at my feet. I could have easily reached down and grabbed it, and the ribbon was knotted loosely enough that I could have easily removed it. But I didn’t reach down. I knew the pigeon would be too fast and it would fly away before I could help it. I felt sorry for the pigeon, whose instinctual distrust of humans was preventing it from getting the help it needed.

There are a couple of interesting metaphors here. First, the pigeon being too afraid to accept help from those who would gladly give it. Second, the pigeon was pretty much doing OK: he could fly, eat, and even walk. He didn’t seem like he was suffering too badly from his plastic shackles. But how much better could his life be if he could get rid of them? And if they stayed on his feet too long, would they get tighter and more tangled, slowly making his life worse and worse?

I really wish I could have grabbed that pigeon and helped him out of his jam. I relate to that pigeon. Except my orange tape is inside of me. I know I’ve held myself back in life unnecessarily at times, lacking the confidence to simply take a shot at things. But despite that, I’ve done a few interesting things in my life, and I expect I’ll do more. I just hope I can untangle that orange tape before it embeds itself too deeply and cuts off my circulation.

Chocolate New Year

We are both back in Paris after a long sojourn to the US for both work and vacation. We visited five cities in three states on two coasts, in four weeks. It was wonderful to see many friends and loved ones.

When I got back, one of my English students gave me a box of chocolates as a New Year’s gift. It was the tastiest chocolate that I’ve had in Paris so far, and believe me, I’ve eaten a lot of it. So I wanted to plug this place a little bit, since their chocolate was so wonderful:

Gérard Cosme
102 rue de Belleville
75020 Paris

Over the weekend we had a pretty respectable snowstorm, by Paris standards. Seeing the city covered in a blanket of white was a pleasure. To celebrate the snow, we rode the Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde at dusk and looked out over the city covered in white as all the monuments started lighting up. It was a memorable moment.

Airline Shenanigans

The economics of air travel are pretty ridiculous. Here is my tale:

Yesterday I flew from Paris to New Jersey. I am spending this week in Princeton, NJ, which is located about halfway beween the Newark and Philadelphia airports. The cheapest flights at the time I booked my travel were on United Airlines. United has direct flights from Paris to both Newark and Philly. But here is the weird part. I could fly Paris>Newark>Philly OR Paris>Philly>Newark for about the same price. But if I wanted to fly Paris>Newark or Paris>Philly, leaving out the short hop at the end– and indeed, going on the same flights I would be on if I took the option with the short hops–it would cost me about 100 euros more. Consider that a moment: it costs more if you want to use less of the airline’s service!

So, I weighed my options. I knew that usually if you skip a leg of your trip, they cancel the remaining flights on the trip. But taking the cheaper flight with a short hop at the end would add about six hours to my travel time. I felt pretty resentful at being forced to either pay more or give up a large chunk of my time, but I decided to buy the cheaper fare and see if I could wiggle my way out of the short hop once I arrived in Newark. Since I had a four-hour layover, I would still have plenty of time to get onto the pointless short hop flight if it turned out that skipping it would be too costly or annoying.

When I checked in at Charles De Gaulle, I tried asking about it. The ticket agent there did not seem optimistic, but she said that I should try asking an agent at Newark. My bag was checked through to Philly, but everyone from abroad has to claim their bags at Newark to go through US customs and then recheck it for their next leg, so that part was no problem. Once I got to Newark and cleared customs with all my stuff, I went to United’s service desk to ask my question. It took awhile to make myself clear for a couple of reasons. First, since I’m American, the gate agent initially assumed that I was on the final leg of my journey instead of the first leg; in this case it wouldn’t matter if I ditched the last flight on the itinerary. So his first answer was to go ahead and skip it. But once I got across the fact that I have a flight back to France in January, he said that my plan wouldn’t work. But then I mentioned that my next flight with them originates in LAX (I booked my trans-US flight separately on another airline, to coordinate with Greg). Aha! The agent got a certain look in his eyes, and looked up my ticket in the system. After a moment, he said that I should be fine after all. Without going into specifics, he hinted that it had to do with the fact that this reservation was Paris to the East Coast followed by the West Coast to Paris, without a flight going East Coast to West Coast. I suppose that since they don’t know how I’m getting across the country, they can’t assume that I won’t be able to make the return trip. The ticket agent told me he would take me out of my seat on the short hop flight and that I should call the next day to reconfirm the LAX-Paris flight.

So, I happily left Newark and went straight to Princeton, instead of flying over Princeton on my way to Philly and then taking transit back. The rest of the afternoon, I saw emails coming in telling me that the flight I was supposed to be on to Philly had been delayed, then delayed some more, and I was really glad not to be stuck on it.

However, this morning I noticed a new email in my inbox, saying that my flight today has been delayed. A flight today? I log in to view my reservation, and it shows that I am now scheduled to fly Newark-Philly this afternoon, and–get this– I will be flying through Washington-Dulles! The ridiculousness multiplies!

I called United, and at first, the woman I talked to on the phone was adamant that I would have to pay a change fee and also pay the difference between my original reservation and my revised reservation, if any (at this point, I could totally imagine them charging me for simply deleting a flight from the itinerary). But then she started to dig into my history, and eventually put me on hold. After several minutes of silence, she came back on and said that everything was taken care of, my flight for today was removed, and my flight going back to Paris is all set. No fees, nothing.

In the end, it was totally worth it! Fifteen minutes on the phone versus six hours of dragging around my luggage and twiddling my thumbs at the airport in a miserable sleep-deprived state.

It’s ridiculous to try to force people to do a short-hop flight like that. What gives? The agent in Newark said that the airline is trying to drive business to the Philly airport. Well, that’s a rather dumb way to do it, I must say. And there is no guarantee that what I did would work most of the time. The agent in Newark was very clear that if I had been doing a standard round-trip from Paris to Philly and back (via Newark), that skipping the hop from Newark to Philly would have wrecked my reservation. So be careful!

I would like to note that all the representatives of United that I interacted with, at CDG, Newark, and on the phone, were extremely friendly and patient. The cabin crew was also really pleasant. But they need to work a bit on their pricing system!

Today I was awakened by our doorbell.  The building guardian handed me a package, which made me happy, then launched into a angry tirade (in French), which made me unhappy.

“I can’t handle requests after hours.  If someone is sick or there’s an emergency, I do my best to help, but I can’t accept packages people outside of my normal hours.”

When we moved in, she explained that her schedule was that she was always available from 8am to noon and then usually available in the afternoon, although sometimes she would be out of the building doing errands in the afternoon.

So I initially thought she was upset that the package had come in the afternoon, outside of the 8am-noon time slot.  It couldn’t have come in the evening, because who delivers packages on a Friday night?  But she seemed awfully upset for having had to accept a package in the afternoon, especially since I understood that she was usually available in the afternoons, she just didn’t guarantee it.

So I asked her “What time did they deliver it?”

“11:30 pm”

“Really?  I’m completely shocked!”

“But they said that you said it was ok to deliver it at that time!”

“Oh, I never said that!”

Once I displayed my shock and horror that she had been woken up, she seemed much happier and we parted amicably.

Who delivers packages at nearly midnight on a Friday?  Especially in France!  The only thing I can figure out is that some poor soul was running very late for their daily deliveries, or maybe their boss was punishing them, and they ended delivering packages until all hours.

The whole thing would have been much less disorienting for me if the guardian had started by giving me some context, telling me what happened before telling me that she was angry.  I guess this sort of thing happens anywhere you go, but when it happens to me in French, there’s always a nagging voice in my head asking “Am I confused because I haven’t understood what the person said, or am I confused because they haven’t given me enough information to know what’s going on?”

Before we moved here I did dutifully read a book about living and working in France in order to help recognize cultural differences before they became catastrophic misunderstandings.  That is, after all, the problem with cultural misunderstandings: culture is more or less all of the things that you assume to be true about the world, and also assume that everyone else also assumes to be true.

So cultural differences can cause a lot of harm before they’re even recognized as cultural differences, since it never occurs to either party that the other  person is behaving according to a different of assumptions.  Both people think that the other person is just being a jerk until the issue causing the friction is identified as something about which the two cultures make different assumptions.  This sort of learning experience can be very enriching and teaches you something about yourself as well as about the other culture.  But there can be some pain involved before the understanding is achieved.

Anyway, my book about working in France said that France is a “high context” culture compared to Anglo-saxon cultures.  For example, I assume that each interaction with another person is self-contained and should include all appropriate context.  I start e-mails by reminding the person of the general situation before I ask my specific question.  In France, according to my book, each interaction with another person is just a small piece of a much greater conversation—a letter within a word or a sentence within a novel.  Every sentence of a book cannot itself contain all of the prior knowledge necessary to understand it; that would be absurd.  Nor should e-mails or conversations start with a summary of background information—they should proceed straight to the point, assuming that the recipient already has all relevant information to understand the message.

So I think the guardian and I just had a small cultural misunderstanding rooted in our assumptions about context.  In any case, now what instructions do I give when I have packages delivered?  “The door code is YXYY, the guardian is the second door on the right, please don’t deliver at an hour when people are either asleep or out partying.”