Chez Soi

Adventures of a Year Abroad

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Des Légumes et Des Herbes

sand carrots

Sand Carrots – 21 May 2016

Grocery shopping varies by country, of course.  Mostly it all makes sense, but sometimes it’s over the top.  The “Carrotte des Sables” (sand carrots) look like they were just plucked from the ground. What are they for?  With the lovely ordinary carrots below, do shoppers buy them to eat?  Are they decorative? Is there some “Fête des mères” ritual (as I write, it is French Mother’s Day) that they’re a part of?  Is it in honor of the Paris-Plage?  Central Paris isn’t exactly farm country or I’d speculate about animal feed.  Part of the oddness is that it’s a small store with limited selection … yet they use a good bit for, uh, sand carrots. Huh. (Scratches head.)

With a bit more care I might have captured more in the photo.  You can see the celery; lots more of the leaves left on here.  Can’t see the cauliflower (choufleur) is super leafy; half the take-home ends up in the trash.  Same with the leeks (poireaux) to the right. When I’ve bought leeks at the outdoor markets, the vendor will typically ask if you want the tops cut off.  Someone must occasionally say “no?”.  Leeks, as well as shallots, are available pretty much anywhere, even at the tiny epicerie (“7/11”) 50 meters from our front door.  Some unexpected options, like the celery root (celeriac upper right).  On the other hand, usually just one kind of hot pepper.

More pre-packaged options are available than our 2010 trip. Better cHerbesleaned and trimmed than the unpacked stuff, maybe 75% of a US expat’s ready-to-eat expectation.  Occasional grit or pebbles or “des mauvaise herbes” may turn up, as with this packet of “epinards” our gardienne (who we hire to do our main weekly shopping) brought home from the big Monoprix kitty-corner to the Abbey of Saint‑Germain‑des‑Prés.  Hmm,  come to think of it, “des Prés” means “of the meadows,” and it was estalished, you know, just 1.5 millenia back when what’s now Central Paris was basically farm land. Fairly likely that for 75% of the history of parishioners, the local markets offered “sand carrots.”  So maybe I should show a little respect?





Douze & Dont of Chicken’s Milk


Le Hibou, at 14 Carrefour de l’Odeon, Paris 6th

For many reasons, learning to speak French (and understand spoken French) is difficult for English speakers. Leaving aside grammatical things like word gender, 24 verb tenses (of which “only” 6 or 8 are commonly used), verb conjugation and the distinction between formal “you” and informal “you”, etc, etc, I’ll just comment on some challenges with pronunciation.  BTW, I should mention that although I think I’ve got most of these rules right, I half-expect my son, who is far more fluent than I am, to point out some error in this post.  Potential corrections notwithstanding, here are several items that conspire on this front to make understanding (and being understood) difficult for English speakers:

  1. French has several vowel sounds that are unfamiliar in English
  2. French has no pattern of syllable emphasis to signal where words begin and end
  3. Consonants at the end of words, such as a pluralizing ‘s’, are often silenced
  4. A silent consonant is often spoken if the next word starts with a vowel
  5. Spoken French uses lots of contractions
  6. The French ‘h’ may be ‘aspirated’ or ‘mute’, affecting contractions and liaisons

3365440316560_100_l-homme-yves-saint-laurent-eau-de-toilette-vaporisateur_Alt1You can see the difference between the aspirated and mute ‘h’ in some titles.  The restaurant above called  “Le Hibou” (“the owl”) shows the aspirated ‘h’; you pronounce the name with three syllables: “luh eeboo”.  If the ‘h’ were not there (i.e. mute), then you would use the rule that applies when a single noun starts with a vowel: you would contract the article with the noun.  The image on the left shows the Yves Saint Laurent scent titled “the man”.  The ‘h’ is mute, so instead of ‘le homme’, you contract to L’homme.  It is pronounced as one syllable, between “lum” and “loam” (or, if they feel like vocalizing the final “e”,  LUMMuh.)

Most English speakers learning French (myself included) tend not to notice the distinctions between the French vowel sounds, hearing instead one of our familiar vowel sounds. Consider the following French words and contractions:

  1. Douze
  2. Deux
  3. D’Eu
  4. D’eux
  5. D’œufs
  6. De
  7. Doux
  8. D’où
  9. D’houx
  10. Dieu
  11. Du
  12. Dont

The words above are rather easy for the newby French speaker to confuse.  It’s not helped by the fact that several of the words are actually supposed to be pronounced exactly alike, and some will vary depending on whether the following word starts with a vowel or a mute ‘h’. So, “douze” (“twelve”) is said like “dooz” (or “do’s”).  “Deux” (two) is sorta between “duh” and “doo” (to me, it sounds like the German “ö” that I learned in high school).  The “x” is not pronounced… unless the next word starts with a vowel or mute ‘h’. When you say “Deux heure” (2 o’clock), the “h” is mute, so the “x” is said like a “z”, so it can easily sound like 12 o’clock. So if you’re not careful, someone may say 2pm, but you think they mean noon or vice versa.  One way to avoid confusion on the times is to use the words “midi” (noon) or “quatorze” (14) for 2pm.


Le Chateau d’Eu (wikimedia user:Alex1011)

The word “de” (“of” or “from”) is also pronounced basically the same as “deux” except generally shorter in duration.  “Doux” (soft or mild), “d’où” (from where) and  “D’houx” (mistaken contraction of the two words “of” and “holly”) are all pronounced like “dew”. “D’houx” is a mistaken contraction because the “h” in “houx” is “aspirated”, and thus I should not have contracted it. Instead, it should be written “de houx” and pronounced, roughly, “duh oo”.  So, sorry, trick question.The words “d’Eu” (“from Eu“, really), “d’eux” (“of them”) and “d’œufs” (of eggs) are all pronounced the same as “deux”.  Note that the “f” in “œuf” is pronounced when singular, but not when plural.

“Dieu” (God) is pronounced roughly like “d’yuh”.  “Du” (“of the” replacing “de le” but not “de la”) and “dû” (past tense of “devoir”, that means “to have to”) are pronounced the same. The vowel sound is close to the German “ű” (as in űber). Shape your lips to say “oo” then make an “ee” sound. Yeah, learned that in high school, too. (Perhaps I should mention that the circumflex mark on the “û” is now optional, so both forms can now be written as “du”.)   “Dont” (“which”) is pronounced “doh(n)” and only included cuz it’s in the title.

Of course, these are only the words that start with “d” and have a sound that, to “Laze Americah(n)”, resembles “oo”.  Similar challenges arise with other consonants and vowel sounds especially when the trailing consonants go silent.  “Lait” (milk) and “Les” (plural “the”) both sound like “lay” to me.

Last year, when Kiddo was already fluent, Nilofer and I would ask him to use his French so we could practice.  Once he said some sentence that we couldn’t follow and asked him to repeat it more than once.  We were stuck… Could kind of make out “puh” or “poo” (could be “peut”, or “can” or “peu” as in a “bit”) and “lay” would could be “lait” or “les”?  Could be “poulet” (chicken meat) Or, maybe we were splitting the words wrong!  “Poule” is a live chicken… maybe, um, “Poule lait”?  Yeah, I actually said “chicken’s milk” out loud in case, he might have said that. Turns out, no.  This was frustrating, but at least some hilarity was had at my expense.  I have no memory of what he actually said but we continue to say “chicken’s milk” whenever we horribly mangle an interpretation.

By the way, learning to write well in French also turns out be rather difficult for other reasons than understanding and speaking French.  Sometimes it is best to think of French as two languages; one spoken, one written.  Which of course just adds to the joy!  Butt, two bee fare, wee dew no that learning English is naught a peace of cake four others.

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Thump thump thump

Paris has a rhythm and a musical tradition.  You can hear the music in the birds singing their pretty message with a sense of urgency.  That’s kinda cute and uplifting.  And there’s music in the 5pm car horns when folks want to get somewhere but a van has parked not-quite-far-enough onto the sidewalk. Early thump thumpcars slip past but the first good-sized truck must stop and wait, typically with patient kindred sympathy for the delivery guy.  Now all traffic piles up behind the truck, and those folks are not nearly so sympa. This traffic music is not entirely pleasant, but tolerable, coming once or twice a week and lasting only a few minutes.

For the last 2 weeks, we have been getting a new tune that is very heavy on the bass, and even less endearing than car horns.  Our apartment is next door to (roughly) the Office of Veterans Affairs.  This institution has a biggish courtyard that, apparently, is soon going to be home to a whole new building.  This means a near-constant jack-hammering with other ground-shaking instruments chiming in on a regular basis.  At first we shrugged it off… probably just some big plumbing job. After all, they’re always upgrading gaz pipelines or whatever.

Uh, no.

To me, the first hint of a longer term project was the appearance, earlier this week, of vertical posts in the roadway, as shown in the above picture.  This portends the construction of a kind of semi-permanent elevated project management office such as the one shown below (I cropped from this image on Google StreetView) on Saint Dominque across from the Dominos Pizza (did they cleverly pick the STemporary proj mgmt officet Dom’s address?) near the Esplanade des Invalides. If I’m right about the elevated project office, then the thumpa-thumpa construction disco beat will probably continue right up till our departure. <sigh>

One amusing thing (hey, I’m easy)… the temporary yellow-striped crosswalk in the first photo is in the exact same spot as the temporary yellow crosswalk that was removed 3 months ago.  That came in after our apartment tour but before our arrival, necessitated by a massive building renovation across the street which finished up late last year.  Temporary is the new normal in Paris.  Wonder when they will finish.  We’ll check in on it in future visits (how could we miss a quick peek at our former grounds?), or maybe just text our soon-to-be-former gardienne for an update.

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In August of 2014, one of my company colleagues told me about a Saturday running group that meets in Bois de Boulogne.  A week or two later I met the group at the appointed time and place.  My colleague wasn’t there, but no matter…  We took off about 9h30, winding around the park, then surprise! we’re on a footbridge over a big river (uh, the Seine?). Then residential streets for a bit, and BAM! a new park, hillier than the Bois. Finally, winded, a pause at a high point with killer view.  Wheezing, I asked (in English) where we were. Answer sounded like “Sahn Kloo”.  Sans Clue?  Clueless?  Oh yeah, “clou” is French for “nail!”  So… “nail free!”  Or not.  Clueless felt about right.

After 10 miles, we wound up back where started and I got a lift home. Google Maps told me that we’d run to Saint Cloud, which in French sounds like “sans clue” to the American.April 17 run mapI’ve worked that route into my regular routine, though I start from our apartment and don’t run quite so far through Parc de St Cloud. The image above is from Runkeeper for a run a couple of weeks ago. Sure, I feel pretty good about the run, starting at the green marker on the right… though I kinda lost steam at the end (red marker near green one). The group meet up point is by the lake between markers 3 and 4 on my route.  Footbridge is by marker 6.  The far point of the run, just past marker 7, is a good view point.  I paused during my run and took the photo below.  zoomed Eiffel and Sacre from St CloudYou’ll recognize the pointy thing on the right, about 3 miles away.  From this angle, our apartment is a mile past Tour Eiffel, and just to the right.  The tiny faint spires silhouetted on the horizon just left of center are the Sacre Coeur, a good “short” running destination (2.5 miles from chez nous).  Below Sacre Coeur is greenery of the Bois de Boulogne.

Oh, and that part on my run, near marker 12, where I charge up the middle of the Seine? It’s actually a long thin man-made island called l’Ile aux Cygnes.  At one end of the island is a “small” replica of the Statue of Liberty, positioned such that she is (supposedly, anyway) facing toward the larger Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island in New York Harbor.

It seems so familiar now.  I’ve picked up a few clues in the last 2 years… Glad to capture the thoughts and images here, as some of the clues may drift away in the next few years…



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I’m cooking in sunshine…

TScaled Cooking in Sunlighthis post just captures a wonderful feeling I had while making dinner the other day.  It was maybe 5:30pm, and after we had set our clocks forward, so the sun was still high enough in the sky that sunlight angled onto the counter where I was cutting vegetables.  There was something very uplifting about that.  This never happens at our home in California, where there are not enough big windows, especially in the kitchen area.  In addition, the kitchen is on the northwest of the house, with no west-facing windows at all…  sigh.

Nilofer and I have been talking about a remodel for years, and our “plans” have been firming up as we approach relocation back to Silicon Valley.

I had never previously thought about sunlight on the kitchen counter as a desired feature… but I do now!  And so this is one more thing I may bring home from Paris.

The same Paris window that allows the sun in also offers a sometime view of the Eiffel Tower… through now-leafless branches of a ginormous tree across the way.  Thus we can see Tour Eiffel in winter and especially at night when the tower is lit up.  We don’t see how our remodel is going to deliver an epic view though… Instead we will constrain the budget and spend the savings on occasional penthouse views in Paris.  That is something that we won’t try to bring home…

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Talking Different

Cropped orange homelessThis post is about how talking is different in Paris…  Well, sure, sometimes it’s in French, but that’s not what I mean.  The picture at the left captures two aspects of what I mean (and a third comes farther down).  First, the Orange store…  Second, the homeless couple sitting on the sidewalk.  (This is on Rue de Sèvres… if you know the area, you might notice that Le Bon Marche is in the background.)

This was earlier today, and Kiddo and I had just left the Orange store.  It was our second visit there recently because we needed to get a new SIM card for him, um, twice.  First time was a mugging, by high school kids who he recognizes but don’t go to his school. (We have not filed a police report yet because we had to track down the phone’s IMEI…  But now we have it and will file tomorrow.  Not sure what will happen but feels like civic duty and maybe, just maybe, they will bust these guys.)  Second time was maybe a loss, but feels like a “prank” (not a theft?) in part because the screen was SERIOUSLY damaged (so who would steal it) but came so close after mugging, and was in the company of many schoolmates who were aware of the mugging and “pranks” are common.  But no one has returned the phone, so…  Both the mugging and the likely prank are ways in which talking is different for us in Paris.  [Note to future self… this was around the same time my S4 started “losing” its SIM card, requiring frequent reboots and leading to replacement with SE (no relation).]

The homeless folks enter the picture because I’m amazed at how often I see Parisians engaged in conversation with homeless people.  Maybe this is not so much a Parisian thing as a big-city thing? That is, maybe it happens in New York City and I’m just unaware?  Why does that idea seem so unlikely?  Anyway, I have seen these conversations at least half a dozen times, and I’m sure it’s slipped my notice as often as not.  But when I do notice, it strikes me, as it did today, and this time it prompted a photo, which increases the odds I will write a blog post. And voila!

But while we were out and about, I thought, hey, let’s go have lunch in a new place.  I remembered a place that had previously intrigued me, though I couldn’t recall why, just where it was.  And since this place was a mere kilometer away (not far when you’re used to walking, as we are in Paris), off we went.  When we got there, it was obvious why I remembered it…

Scaled Menhir

The name of the restaurant is “menhir”, which I have only ever heard of in Asterix and Obelix comics (or “graphic novels”).  Menhirs are really large stones that Obelix quarries as his livelihood or maybe just a hobby (hard to tell… Obelix has superhuman strength but somewhat childlike mentality). These books were a major part of my learning and practicing German (though a menhir is a “hinkelstein” in German), and later French.  Kiddo has numerous A & O books, mostly in French and German, but with one or two in English and (recently) Spanish.  So, yet another connection to talking different.

Unfortunately, we didn’t actually eat there, as the resto was closed.  Walked down the road a short way to the Pasteur metro stop, where we found the aptly named “Au Métro.” Randomly, the place offered Oldarki , a Basque beer that I’d never had before.  Lunch was predictably good, and the beer was tasty, yet lower in alcohol than my go-to Leffe. But I have not doubt that if you drink enough it’ll make you talk different.

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As my family looks ahead to our “repatriation”, we have been discussing what we will bring back with us after 2 years in Paris.  One thing for me will be an altered perspective on patience.  For the French have a different perspective, probably different from most Americans, and surely different from most Silicon Valley residents like me.  This reality has soaked in slowly during our Paris time, through various experiences that suggest something that you can’t quite put your finger on. A few recent events have brought it forward in my mind, hence this post.  Cultural differences often show up in vocabulary, and this is no exception.  Train that never came 20160322_074140French has a verb “to be patient”, which appears in the imperative (i.e. command) form on ATMs or ticket machines when you must wait. “Patientez, s’il vous plait”, literally, “be patient, if it pleases you.”  What if it doesn’t please me? Well, that just shows you the limits of literal translation.

I recently went to seaside town near Nice for the weekend to visit Nilofer, who was 3 weeks into a 4 week immersion course.  On Saturday, we took a 2 hour hike to hilltop village called Eze, where we enjoyed a pleasant outdoor lunch. On the way back, we figured we would save time – and wear-and-tear on our feet – by catching a train for the last 3 miles.  We arrived the station just as the train pulled in, but by the time we bought our ticket (photo), it had left.  The posted schedule indicated that the trains run every 30 mins on Saturday. Ah, well, life in the small city… and the March weather wise fine.  But then the next train didn’t come…  The train we had seen had been on schedule, so the tracks were clearly not blocked.  We killed time surfing the web on our smartphones.

After waiting over an hour, past when yet another train should have come, we gave up and ran/walked back to our hotel.  As we approached it, the next train finally pulled into what would have been our destination station. Three trains in succession had just not happened.  We scuttled our plans to take the train to Antibes for dinner.  Nilofer mentioned that her classmates had complained that the trains were highly unreliable, especially on weekends.  It struck me as crazy making, and Cote d’Azur dropped several pegs in my barely-conscious ranking of ideal retirement spots.  I saved the unused train ticket as a reminder to write this post.  That was before the next day’s crazy making…

On Sunday, I kissed Nilofer goodbye and took the taxi to Nice airport, where I learned that my flight was delayed 90 minutes.  It turned out that Nice was experiencing an air traffic controller strike. Delightful. I texted our gardienne in Paris, who had been looking after Kiddo. No problem, she would make sure he got dinner.  The Nice airport was less pleasant than the Eze train station. The 90 min delay grew slowly to a 4.5 hour delay (but, on the bright side, the flight was not cancelled like several others were), and I arrived home near midnight.  But the remarkable side of this experience was how the parents of the numerous kids had handled it all.  (Apparently, a weekend in Nice is a popular family trip.) After hours in the airport, the mothers and fathers all seemed remarkably calm.  My head was near exploding, but they took it all in stride, with the slightest hint of Gallic resignation. Their calmness muted their kids’ reactions and mitigated what could have been a lot worse.

So that’s the upside to French patience / resignation. Like the serenity prayer: accept what you cannot change and have the wisdom to know the difference.  And yet, unreliable trains and ATC strikes seem to be at the edge of what we can control.  Which side of the line?  Is it something the French have control over?  After all, those annoyances don’t exist everywhere. That is, if the French, collectively, saw them as unacceptable, they would not be so commonplace.  It’s about expectations, right?  They could just “say no.” I say all that rather blithely, aware that some aspects of Silicon Valley life are similarly at the edge of what I can control.  Have I come to accept things that I might somehow be capable of changing?  We do wonder how smoothly our readjustment to life in Silicon Valley will go.  Will I experience some kind of homesickness because I can’t buy fresh zucchini and cilantro at the 7-Eleven, like I can at the mini-epicerie down the block in Paris?  Will I be more patient, or just impatient for different things?

I saved the train ticket after our extra-long (20km) walk that Saturday, then got another reminder at the airport on Sunday.  Then, on Tuesday morning, suicide bombers attacked Brussels.  Now, Brussels is not French in the way that Cote-d’Azur is French… but there is a Frenchness.  This was the 3rd deadly terrorist attack in Francophone land in just over a year, and clearly Brussels was connected to the second Paris attack in November.  Security lapses had been identified in the earlier attacks. Despite assurances that they had been addressed, news quickly came out of yet more security breakdowns.

I would expect that even Gallic patience must wear thin by now. The upcoming elections will no doubt speak volumes.  Closing borders or other forms of ultra-nationalism will not solve the problem.  The French nationalist party had a glimmer of success in (still-mysterious) December elections, only to be thwarted the next weekend by coordinated effort of the two mainstream parties. Trust and coordination between nations will be required, but that won’t be easy.  Is it within the span of control of the voters?  The optimist in me says yes.  What other option is there?

Perhaps a bit of wise impatience is in order?


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Safe, but…

uk telegraph taxi-paris_2694943kI was in a cigarette-scented cab from CDG, window opened slightly for relief, coming home from a Zurich SDN meetup when I heard. Sirens all around us made the driver call someone (and roll up my window as he listened) and then he shared…in French that I only partially understood that 3 explosions had occurred. Wife and kiddo were at Bond movie nowhere near the action but not home when I arrived… which felt weird but I was pretty sure they were safe. They texted about 20 mins later.  I waited with a box of Sprüngli chocolates, a Swiss peace offering for missing family movie night.

Instant comparisons to Charlie Hebdo, but this is different in approach and scale. And response.  Yesterday morning we went to Bon Marche high-end department store to exchange something.  We arrived about 11:40, just in time to hear a (loud, repeated, bilingual) announcement that the store would close at noon “due to the events of last night.”  We left the store and walked back home, very irritable, snapping at each other for minor things.

I think outdoor markets are all closed as well, though grocery stores seem open. We’ve read that the American Church in Paris will hold services this morning, probably with heavy attendance in terms of both congregation and security detail.  Kiddo’s school sent an email: school schedule will hold steady, though excursions cancelled and no parking or gathering near entrance, same as post-Charlie.

We have this contrary feeling of wanting to hunker down inside, and also wanting to get out and burn off pent up energy somehow.  I want to go for a long run, justifiable as I’m signed up for Paris Marathon in April (which of course now reminds me of Boston’s event).  Indeed, I would be running instead of typing but phone (with running app) wasn’t charged, and I’m missing a sock but don’t want to disturb the sleepers.  That means I’ll probably not run till after church.

Gut reactions are all over.  I was already stressing a bit over unrelated news from a pre-flight phone call.  Now in the back of my mind the unrelated news is all tangled with emotional reaction to the violence. On the other side, there is this rush of empathy for victims and their families. I don’t yet know if all my colleagues in Paris are safe. Nilofer found the #PortesOuvertes hashtag on Twitter and for a while in the wee hours post-event we thought we would be hosting a stranded friend-of-friend college student. Went to sleep expecting to be awoken by the doorbell, but it turned out she managed to get unstranded somehow.

I feel multiple urges… First is to hug, to physically embrace, all the diverse citizens of Paris.  It’s a mental image of tolerance and solidarity.  Next is revenge against the brainless intolerance of extremism, wholehearted support for all-out campaign to squash them.  Plus a nagging thought that somehow my personal petro dollars are funding them.  And of course that visceral need for the 10 (or 12?) mile run mentioned earlier.

Usually I like to find a clever little finish to a blog post.  Nothing comes to mind.

Image credit:

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Latest chart-topper in Paris neighborhood tooth rattling hit parade

We’ve been here 1Paris tooth rattling6 months now.  The blogging dry spell signals a lack of inspiration.  Just this morning I got inspired.  How?  Well, for 15 of our 16 months, the building across the street was being renovated, including installation of an underground parking garage.  (It seems more people own cars now than when the building was first put up in the 1890’s.)  Lots o’ jackhammering, etc.  Always some new and delightful way to make the entire apartment shudder and shake.

But it finally ended last month!  Yay!  Just at the end we were spooked by an unrelated street project wherein the GdF was replacing the local gas pipelines (lingering evidence visible in the dark patches in the sidewalk across the way).  But that was pretty short-lived, a week or less, and actually finished before the apartment project.  You might just be able to imagine our collective sigh of relief as we began to grasp that we might be done with the daily drumbeat of noise.

How naive!

This morning something new…  There was a bit of activity this morning with the little green separator walls this morning, I noticed when returning from walking Kiddo to school.  I actually thought “Hey, this looks like good news… maybe they will be removing those yellow plastic parking-blocker posts (one is just visible in bottom of the photo) from the street… The last vestige of the building renovation is disappearing!”  Uh, no. Just as I began a phone call, the building shuddered when an extra jumbo machine punched a hole in the sidewalk.  No idea what they are up to (unlike the GdF project, there were no signs posted in advance), but whatever it is requires the removal of a truckload of earth.

The upside: this week mom is in San Francisco area for a business meeting.  Timing of the trip seemed annoying for various reasons, but since she managed to miss out on the latest rock-busting concert on our doorstep, maybe it was a blessing in disguise?  It depends, of course… Will they finish before she gets back?  Fear not!  A new neighborhood effort aimed at cracking the earth’s crust or rerouting the Seine will be along soon!

This is probably not specific to Paris, just life in a big city.  Nevertheless, I’m just a wee bit wistful for our quiet suburban home in California.  On the other hand, my fresh new cynicism tells me to stop romanticizing things… No doubt the dilapidated house next door in California will undergo scraping and reconstruction the day we move back home.  And here in Paris, this sidewalk root canal will be over soon. I resolve to appreciate quiet days one at a time.