Monday, May 18, 2009

On yer bike!

Once upon a time the Accidental Parisian lived in a small city in northern Northern Europe and used to zip around town on her trusty little Claud Butler hybrid bicycle (with rattan basket). She battled strong winds off the North Sea, high humidity and helmet hair, but she also benefited from slow, considerate drivers, a good cycle path network and the fact that none of her colleagues were really that fashion-conscious. (Okay, one major exception - Rubber Girl, if you're reading this, forgive me).

Ahh, but Paris is a totally different can of sardines in a light tomato sauce. On the one hand, you have the new, wonderful and exciting Velib network for public bicycle rental. There are hundreds of station dotted around the city and you either buy a annual membership for 29 euro or pay 1 euro per day. It's not perfect; my friend Fifteen says the bikes are very good but heavy for climbing hills, and poor Mazarine can never find a parking space to return a bike in her neighbourhood. The Velib are for adults only, and they don't have child seats. On the whole, Velib has been a huge success and is now being extended to the close Paris suburbs, "la petite couronne" (the little crown around Paris). A Velib station is being installed about a 10 minute walk from my house and there will be one about a 2 minute walk by the end of July. Hooray!

On the other hand, Paris has aggressive drivers and an incomplete cycle network. France has a rather confusing "priorite a droite" rule, meaning that drivers entering from the right have the priority, unless otherwise indicated. This is true even when you are on a main road - the side street on the right has the priority. This is also true in rotaries (roundabouts): people entering the rotary have priority - that means you may have to stop in the middle of the rotary to let people in.

Anyway, I've really wanted to cycle in Paris but have been anxious. MCM is fearless and has been cycling to work for the past few months, so we decided to go out last weekend: I would follow him and he would show me the best routes. We went to the Louvre, which took about an hour each way; approximately 1/3 of our trip was on designated cycle paths, 1/3 on very busy roads and 1/3 on quiet side streets.

How was it? Challenging but great. The cycle paths are wonderful: it is absolute bliss to be pedaling along the banks of the Seine on a spring day. It was also pretty amazing to think, Wow. I am riding my bicycle up the Champs Elysees and around the Arc de Triomphe. We parked in the Tuileries gardens and went for a coffee and browse around the Louvre (we're members so it's a free visit), and it was just a wonderful afternoon out.

I did have one little problem, which is that my basket dislodged itself from the back of my bike as I was headed downhill on the cobblestoned Boulevard Haussman. Not fun. Fortunately, no one was behind me and I was able to retrieve my lock and handbag and pull over. I spotted a dumpster on the side walk, pulled up to it and fished out some broken venetian blinds. Using the Swiss Army knife on my keychain (Christmas present from my Aunt Maria and Uncle Mark circa 2001 - probably the most useful Christmas gift ever!), I cut free a length of string from the blinds and McGuyvered my bike basket back on. Spanish tourists looked on in amazement - who knew Parisiennes were so resourceful, so ghetto?

AP's Tips for Cycling in Paris:

1. If you have not cycled since you were a kid, or you have never cycled in traffic before, the Concorde is not the place to start. Stick to cycle paths or practice in one of the big parks first (like Bois de Boulogne or Bois de Vincennes). Ditto if you are not in good shape - you need to be to accelerate when a traffic light turns green. Cycling is fun, but cycling in traffic is serious business.

2. Stay right but don't ride too close to parked cars (a driver or passenger might open the door without looking and hit you). Watch for cars entering from the right.

3. Be cautious but confident. If you are too hesitant you'll actually confuse drivers. Use hand signals to turn and make them obvious. In traffic, I found that the drivers were actually pretty respectful, or trying to be: a lot of them were doing the "hover and swerve", where they tail you very slowly, waiting for the left-hand lane to become free so that they can pass you quite wide. That's not necessary and it's annoying to have a car following that close behind you, but their intentions are good.

4. Safety: I looked like a moron with my helmet and fluorescent vest, but they're important for riding in traffic. The vest cost me a few euro and it makes me much more visible. It folds up tiny and goes in my purse when I am done. If you're visiting Paris and plan to cycle, bring your helmet from home.

5. You're not allowed to cycle on sidewalks. However, some Paris sidewalks are extremely wide - like Avenue de la Grande Armee, or most of the sidewalks in Neuilly-sur-Seine. If there are very few pedestrians and you cycle slowly, you might be okay. But be respectful and don't whizz past the Neuilly grannies out for their Sunday afternoon stroll.

6. Stay single-file on the cycle paths and stay on the right-hand side. Don't ride 3 or 4 abreast and block all the other cyclists. Yeah, I know it's your vacation and you want to all be together, but be respectful.

7. Don't talk on your phone or listen to music while cycling in traffic. I saw a woman swerving down Boulevard St Germain on a Velib while talking on her iPhone and I thought, Darwin, is this evolution?

8. Don't drink and ride!

And for pedestrians...

1. Stay off the cycle paths! They are usually built next to sidewalks. The sidewalk is for pedestrians and the cycle path is for bicycle. Got it? Granted, there are a few confusing spots - on Boulevard de Rochechouart, the hedges and park benches can make it difficult to see that you are crossing a cycle path.

2. That means keeping your children, tricycles and dogs off the path, too. Above all, do not let little Fido or Fifi wander across the path on a taut leash, unless you want someone to cycle into the leash and somersault through the air, taking man's best friend with them.

Happy cycling, everyone!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

French Wedding Primer

As spring turns to summer and the setting sun casts a rosy glow over Paris, our American heroine munches contentedly on the rest of the carrot cake she made for her French in-laws (7 of them!), and naturally her thoughts turn to weddings.

Not just any weddings, mind you. French weddings.

I've had requests for information about what to wear, say and do at a French wedding and decided to compile a little dossier as the big season begins.

Let me begin by saying two things.

1). I love weddings. I'm a bit biased, because my wedding was probably the happiest day ever in the history of the world. Trust me, I'm a historian.

2). A French wedding is not a sprint, but a marathon. You'll want to spend a good bit of time preparing. The day will be extremely long and tiring, your feet will be killing you at the end and your dodgy knee might act up. You will alternately bond with the strangers around you and/or kick them. At the very end, you may find yourself being sick or limping around wearing a silver cape that someone threw on you. Most importantly, you will finish dazzled and thrilled, and will delight in sharing photos and tales with friends for years to come.

Very generally speaking, the French wedding industry is not as developed or vast as the American or British one. French brides I've spoken to are at once in awe and shocked at the amount of detail and money that goes into an average American affair. A larger percentage of the budget will be allocated towards food and drink, with much less emphasis on things like limos, bridesmaid dresses, favours and formal invitations. Surprisingly, you might find that the French wedding you attend is less formal that one in the US, even if the venue is extremely grand. The French weddings I've been to, while lovely and highly enjoyable, suprised me by the lack of interest in these details - some of it refreshing, some of it disappointing ("You splurged on a huge poofy dress but didn't get your roots done?").

Invitations typically arrive 2-3 months before a wedding and wedding websites are becoming more common. Some French couples have a formal engagement ceremony called a fiancailles. The couple might exchange rings - this is why you occasionally see French men wearing two wedding bands. This is often just for immediate family, but you might be invited to one.

A typical wedding-day timeline:

- Many French weddings begin midday and finish in the early hours of the next morning. Your invitation may specify that you are only invited to certain parts.

- In France, only the town/city hall (mairie) can perform legal marriages - unlike in the UK, Ireland or the US, where members of the clergy legalize marriages by signing a license. Everyone who gets married in France does so at the mairie, and has, if they wish, a religious ceremony after. The mariage civil oftens takes place in the morning of the wedding, but could take place a few weeks or days before the "real" wedding. Don't be offended if you aren't invited to the mariage civil: some mairies are quite small... and some are quite ugly, too. You're not missing much.

- Religious ceremonies: most people who profess a religion in France are Roman Catholics and most churches are centuries old, so you're in for a treat. Even if it's warm outside, you should probably bring a shawl or jacket for this part, because 12th century stone churches stay quite cool inside. A Roman Catholic wedding typically lasts an hour and features readings, music, an exchange of vows and a homily from the priest. (Tacky alert: there may be a collection so have some change or a 5 euro note handy. The guests pay for the church).

- After the final ceremony, be it civil or religious, there is always a vin d'honneur: a cocktail reception where champagne is served. The vin d'honneur is open to anyone who has attended the ceremony - in theory, that could mean locals in the village or work colleagues who aren't invited to the dinner. It can be held in a space next to the mairie or church, or it can be at the chateau where the reception is being held. (Note that chateau means castle, but don't be overwhelmed: it is also used to mean "place where reception is being held." It may be more like a nice 19th century home or manor house).

The vin d'honneur may last 2-3 hours, so pace yourself (remember: champagne = bubbles = alcohol moving quickly to your head!) and make sure to nibble. Right now verrines are all the rage in France: appetisers served in tiny glasses. If anyone can figure out how to maneouvre salmon tartare out of a plastic shot glass with a 2-inch plastic fork while holding a coupe de champagne, please enlighten me.

- Le diner: usually a sit-down affair, occasionally a buffet. Again, pacing is important. I went to a wedding where the mass was at 2pm, the vin d'honneur began at 4pm, we were seated for dinner at 8pm and we finished eating a little after midnight. The pros: the food is probably going to be great, with 5 or 6 courses and wines to match each one. The cons: even if you're sitting with people you know and like, 4 hours is a bit tough-going. Which is why there are....

- Les jeux! To faire une petite pause between courses, sometimes games are organised. These could be musical chairs, hide-and-seek, duck-duck-goose... very, very funny, until someone gets hurt...!

- Le disco! This may begin at midnight or later; there may or may not be a first dance from the couple. French people are, in my experience, not good dancers, but after 9 hours, 6 courses and a few bottles of wine, I'm no Ginger Rodgers, either. This is also the moment where that high-cultured French facade crumbles and they reveal that they, too, like insipid pop music. Party on.

- Stop the music! It's time for la piece montee: the wedding cake, really a pastry and not a cake. This is a tower of chou pastry puffs filled with cream, held together with caramel and installed on a nougatine base. Absolutely delicious. A conic shape is traditional, but I've also seen more "creative" bakers do windmills, lighthouses, and... uh, what is that?

- Will it ever end? Who knows. I'm not aware of a cue for when to leave a wedding. Back in the day, the bride and groom left first; now it seems they are usually the last to leave. You can leave when the meal is completely finished, which may be well after midnight. Just make sure to say goodbye to the couple and their parents before you go.

- Note the possible absence of the following: the speeches, the first dances, the receiving line, the Achy-Breaky-Heart.

What about gifts?

Wedding registries are becoming more popular in France. The Galeries Lafayette department store chain is probably the leading one, and you can buy from their website (which, until very recently, had hilariously bad photos of the gifts, maybe from when they sent an intern around the store to take photos on his phone?).

Cash is also acceptable, or a check sent in the post. If you are (rightly) nervous about leaving an envelope of cash on a gift table, give it to one of the parents.

And finally... What to wear?

Whatever you want. That's what French people seem to do.

Okay, snark over. Study your invitation: are you attending the wedding of a couple named Segolene de France de Paris and Stanislaus Sarkozy-Bettencourt-Royal, held at Notre Dame with a reception at Le Crillon? Then beg, borrow or steal a metallic pastel Prada dress with matching jacket and hat (over 40s) or Chloe dress (under 40s).

Otherwise, don't panic. I am convinced that France is moving towards a single transferable dress code. The French don't go out in pajamas, old sweats and flip flops, but nor do they really dress up. It's the tyranny of smart casual. People wear the same clothes to work, to dinner, to the market and to the boulangerie in the morning. At one summer wedding I attended a lot of the women were wearing linen shift dresses with flat sandals - nice but not dressy. Dresses and pantsuits are fine; jeans are not, and anything you could wear to the prom would be OTT. It is perfectly acceptable to wear black - in fact, all of the French women who came to my wedding wore black, except for my mother-in-law, who wore white.

Exception to the smart casual rule: one of my informants tells me that hats are having a big moment, so if you go weak for a brim this could be your big chance to bust out.

Last thoughts: think about how you are getting home and plan ahead for a taxi or designated driver. I ended up walking home from a wedding once at 4am, not having considered how that cute little village wouldn't have cute little taxis just idling outside the reception.

Have a great time, and come back and tell me all about it!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Being beautiful, in France

I'm quite used to getting unsolicited advice from French people about how I should look and dress; it's what makes the holidays so much fun! But in the past two days I've had two rather bizarre incidents that I thought I'd relate to my dear readers.

Yesterday morning I left my house for work and my sixth sense for public transportation kicked in. I think my bus is at the bus stop, I thought. I bet if I run, I can make it. (The bus stop is at the end of the street and around the corner, so by the time I can see it, it's too late). So I started to run up the street, quite fast, in my dress, trenchcoat and ballet flats, carrying a big bag of students files. You know, as you do. Totally normal. Not worth noting. Well, maybe for an American.

Have you ever seen a French woman run? I have. Once, in Parc Monceau. She was wearing a turtleneck and cargo pants. It was about 70 degrees fahrenheit. This whole "exercise" thing hasn't really caught on with French women, and as they say on that website with the silly cat pictures, teh kitteh is doin it rong! lol lol lol

My sixth sense is finely honed, for in fact the bus had been at the bus stop and was now stopped at the red light. The driver opened the door when he saw me booking it up the street. I hopped on and said, in French, "thank you!" The driver smiled broadly. "No, thank you!" he replied. Eh? "I just love that. I love to see a woman who runs!"

I laughed. What else can you do? I think I made his day. Power to the Yank who isn't afraid to leg it.

Today I got up the nerve to go to the hairdresser - my third time in France. The first time was great, because the hairdresser was a monoglot Portuguese speaker and I was spared small talk. The second time was not great. Today I tried a new salon in my town. This hairdresser, like the other two, was competent but a bit rough. I got thwacked with the brush a few times. She chastised me for me dry hair (a result, I'm pretty sure, of Paris's very hard water), recommended un soin (a deep-conditioner - and a racket), and trimmed my shoulder-length hair in record time. I was satisfied.

But I was also tired and having a "bad French day," struggling with both speaking and listening comprehension. So when she told me to sit back down , I didn't really know what was going on. She and the nice man who took my coat started asking me what I was wearing for makeup. Eyeshadow? Pah. Can't see it. Too pale! Concealer? Gasp! Not enough, apparently! And didn't I mind the redness in my cheeks? They could fix that for me, they cooed. Don't worry. C'est offert, madame. (It's free). Nice man produced a bunch of cotton balls and started rubbing my face. What the hell?

(Do I look like I want advice? Is this a French woman thing, or is it my bad luck? I went into a shop to buy sunscreen recently and the shop assistant looked at me, started nodding vigorously, and said, "Don't worry, madame, I understand your problem. Freckles. We have a product for you. We can fix that." Whah?)

So, without really agreeing to it, I got a free relooking from the nice man. It took longer than the haircut. Hairdresser and one of her turbanned clients peeked in from smoking behind the shop to offer encouragement. Mais regarde! Baaah t'es belle maitenant! Oh mais c'est tres bien!

Am I belle? Well, I think I resemble this famous and celebrated French person! I've resisted the urge to scrub it all off - I want to see what MCM thinks when he gets home. It's at least good for a laugh.

PS. Happy birthday, Mum!