Sugar Daze

Two big things happened in my life this week:

I reached the weight loss
goal I’d set for myself earlier this year …

… and I celebrated that fact with the best cupcakes
an American can find in Paris!

Back in July, you see, a blogger friend embarked on an epic a quest to find the best cupcakes in Paris and document the results for the world. Incidentally — perhaps fortunately for me — this all came about when I was also embarking on an epic quest … to lose the 25 pounds I’d packed on since coming to live in France. (Blasted croissants!) I say “fortunately” because I was forced to indulge vicariously in my friend’s cupcake caper … instead of following in her wake and packing on yet another 5 pounds!

Nevertheless, as soon as I reached my weight loss goal on Thursday, I knew exactly how I was going to celebrate. I dug out Nikki email’s announcing the champion of the cupcake competition, and I went in search of my victory prize at Sugar Daze! Continue reading Sugar Daze

Hot Dogs, Bagels, and Sticker Shock

I often complain about sticker shock in France, and with good reason. Everything here — except for French wine — is more expensive than it is back in the States. Part of the explanation for that is the TVA (or VAT, “value added tax” in English), which approaches 20% for some things. Another reason is that the cost of production is just higher here. For an American, the sticker shock can sometimes be eye-popping, even before converting the price you’re looking at into dollars. Translation: to appreciate the true impact on your wallet, tack on another 30% if you’re spending money you earned in dollars.

I commented on this most recently in my post about the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks. Everybody already knows that the prices at Starbucks are simply outrageous, but Starbucks in Europe is just a whole other story. I mean, a tall latte for $6 is off the rails — not that it prevented me from buying one last week. After all, c’est la vie here in France; after a while, you just get used to it. These days, I’m completely accustomed to paying $3.50 for an espresso and $14 for a cocktail, getting one hour of talk time with unlimited texts and data for $60 a month, and thinking that a $12 Chipotle burrito isn’t too bad a price.

But last week, I stumbled across this: Continue reading Hot Dogs, Bagels, and Sticker Shock

Pumpkin Spice!

A few weeks ago, I noticed certain posts popping up on Facebook that made me wax nostalgic for fall in America. They were all about the arrival of:

The Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte

© 2011 Starbucks Corporation

Ah, the memories of that delectable autumnal con-coction that has eluded me now for years! Living here in France and rarely traveling back to my homeland between September and December, I had resigned myself to the likelihood that I might never again savor this cinnamon- and nutmeg-laced libation to the gods of falling leaves. After all, I knew from firsthand experience that the French don’t quite understand the pumpkin … at least not a sweet, spiced one …

You see, on my very first Thanksgiving in France, I was psychologically scarred by my French family. Back in 2010, I decided to treat them to a real American Thanksgiving dinner. I even went to an American specialty store in the Marais (called Thanksgiving, by the way) to get all the necessary ingredients to make a real Thanksgiving feast. Now, my French family simply adored the stuffing and the homemade cranberry sauce. The pumpkin pie, on the other hand, well … it just confused them:

“Hmm. Interesting. It would make a good appetizer. You know, with a side salad,” was my sister-in-law’s reaction.

Alrighty then … no more pumpkin pies for the Frenchies. Continue reading Pumpkin Spice!

Factory Derma-tology

Photo: My carte vitale (for the French healthcare system), photoshopped to remove my number, of course © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

One of the great benefits of living in France is the socialized health care system. One of the great headaches of moving to France is the initial application process for it. My story (and, believe me, there is one) is just too exhausting and too long to recount in this post, so suffice it to say that I eventually got what I needed: Couverture Maladie Universelle (“CMU”), complete with my very own French social security number printed on a Carte Vitale. Until the end of November, my CMU was even “complémentaire” because my income was low enough in 2010 to qualify for coverage without any out-of-pocket fees. Vive le socialisme français! You might think that with that kind of coverage, I’d have used my CMU whenever I had a stuffy nose, but I didn’t. In fact, the first time I ever used it was just a few weeks ago, when I needed to get a cavity filled.

That experience can best be described as “factory dentistry“: intake at a big dental clinic without an appointment, lots of waiting, sixteen … count ’em SIXTEEN … bitewing x-rays plus a 360º head scan, followed by quick, no-nonsense filling of that little hole in my molar. After all of that, I walked out without paying for a single thing. I can’t complain about that. So, when I went for a dermatology appointment yesterday evening, I was expecting something similar … but that’s not at all what I got.

My appointment was at 5:30 pm, and I was running late because of a problem in the Métro. I asked Michel to call the office to let them know I was on my way; I didn’t want the dermatologist to pack up and go home before I could get there. Once I got off the Métro, it was relatively easy to find the address. I hurried past several medical offices en route so it seemed I was in the right neighborhood, but once I arrived I started to have doubts.

The office was located on the first floor of a poorly-lit, high-rise apartment building. Now, there’s nothing really out of the ordinary in that. After all, my dentist back in DC had the same kind of office arrangement. What was out of the ordinary was that I couldn’t find the office once I got inside the building. I walked back and forth along the first floor corridor searching for a little plaque with the doctor’s name … something … anything to distinguish her office from the rest of the doors that obviously led to residential apartments. Finally, after a few passes, I located it: the dermatologist’s name scribbled by hand on a tiny sticker (the kind you’d put on the tab of a file folder) just above the doorbell.

“Okay, that’s a little odd,” I thought.

I rang the doorbell and waited. The door opened halfway, and I was greeted by the visage of a short, frizzy-haired woman in a white doctor’s coat peering at me almost suspiciously from inside.

Good evening.

Good evening. I have an appointment at 5:30.

Your name?

Samuel Bell.

Come in.

“Okay, that’s a little odd,” I thought again.

When she opened the door, I caught my first glimpse of the waiting “room.” Frankly, it was more like a waiting “closet” … maybe 72 square feet … already occupied by 2 adults and 2 kids. I made my way over to the corner, sat down in the only available seat, and looked around: four dingy walls and four doors, each (except for the door through which I had come) marked with a hand-written sign denoting what lay behind it. I could hear the doctor with her patient behind the sliding door to the “examination room.” There were at least two more patients ahead of me, it seemed, so this was going to be a long wait, and for what, I was not quite sure.

After about 20 minutes, feeling ill at ease, I started searching for an excuse to leave … and then I found it. In her typical professional manner, the dermatologist had taped a handwritten notice to the wall. Just below the request to turn off our cell phones were the magic words:

Bank cards not accepted. Please pay the exact amount. Cartes Vitales not accepted (only CMU sheets).

No computer, no printer? © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

“Okay, that’s a just too odd,” I decided.

I had no idea what a CMU sheet was, but as far as I was concerned, any dermatologist who couldn’t swipe my Carte Vitale and wanted payment in cash wouldn’t be curing my acne! I packed up my things and left, shaking my head.

All that’s to say that I’m still looking for the right dermatologist in Paris, preferably one whose office doesn’t evoke some underground medical operation. I won’t even mind if what I get is “factory dermatology” as long as I’m not hanging out in someone’s apartment and paying cash under the kitchen table.


© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

I SPEAK American, but I TEACH English.

When I moved to Paris sixteen months ago, I had what I thought was a pretty good plan: 20 hours a week as a French student and 20 hours a week as an English teacher. After all, I had always been attracted to the idea of teaching, even though I had never pursued it as a career. “Why not try it now?” I thought. “This is the perfect time, and this is the perfect place to start.” I had been assured that teaching English was the “easiest field to get into here” and, as an overeducated former lawyer, I thought I had a pretty impressive résumé.

As it turns out, it wasn’t going to be that easy. The truth of the matter is that native English speakers are a dime a dozen in this city, and most good teaching positions require a certification that I don’t have. The disappointment of discovering that I wasn’t a ready-made English teacher plus the demands of my own French classes ended up putting my plan on the back burner … that is, until I recently looked at my bank account and decided that it was high time to turn the heat up again. Continue reading I SPEAK American, but I TEACH English.

Lenny Kravitz’s Favorite Falafel

L’As du Fallafel, certified Kosher—”always imitated but never duplicated” © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

I’m often asked if it’s hard being a vegetarian in Paris. The question makes a lot of sense. After all, when you think of French cuisine, you probably conjure up images of bœuf bourguignon, coq au vin, foie gras, even escargots. And ham, well, ham is practically its own food group here. The truth is, though, that between cheese crêpes and savory tarts (as long as there are no lardons in there), I’ve never really had much trouble finding something to eat. But one of the best things about being a vegetarian in Paris isn’t even French …

it’s falafel. Continue reading Lenny Kravitz’s Favorite Falafel

Up, up and away …

Saturday afternoon, I joined some friends at Parc André-Citroën to do something I’d never done before: ride in a balloon! That’s right. Perhaps surprisingly, this almost 40-year-old had never, ever gotten inside the basket of a hot air-balloon to make an ascent. It’s not that I’m afraid of heights. (I have, after all, been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, and the Sears Tower in Chicago. I’ve even gone parasailing.) It’s just that, for whatever reason, I had never gotten around to doing this before yesterday.

I was invited by a friend who was doing field research for a presentation on Parc André-Citroën. This 59-acre park was constructed on the site of the 1915 Citroën factory, where André Citroën built one of the first fleets of French automobiles. That factory closed in the 1970s, and the city of Paris purchased the property and opened the park in 1992. The park features an expansive central lawn around which are situated two greenhouse pavilions, “dancing fountains” where kids (and adults) can play in the spray of the jets during the summer, a reflecting pool traversed by a suspended walkway, and six ornamental gardens. But what drew me to Parc André-Citroën yesterday (in addition to catching up with friends, of course) was the opportunity to take a ride in the Ballon Air de Paris. Continue reading Up, up and away …

An American … no, make that eight Americans … in Père Lachaise

Your Guide to Père Lachaise © 2011 Michel Pouradier, all rights reserved

Best known to most Americans as the final resting place of Jim Morrison, Le Père Lachaise cemetery is the largest graveyard in the city of Paris, occupying 110 acres in the 20th arrondissement and having over 1 million interments. I can still remember my first visit to Père Lachaise back in April 2009—it was nothing like I had expected. There, in the center of a bustling multi-ethnic quarter, was a veritable city of the dead, with streets that actually bear names and divisions that function somewhat like little neighborhoods. It was even large enough to have a map with an alphabetized key for locating the grave sites of literally hundreds of its most famous occupants. I spent a few hours during that first visit, strolling along wide, tree-lined avenues and down narrow, winding cobblestone chemins in search of such luminaries of French literature, music and history as Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Georges Bizet, Jean de la Fontaine, Édith Piaf, Molière (who isn’t really there, but that’s another story), and even the legendary twelfth-century lovers Abelard and Héloïse (at least according to the 1817 marketing scheme to attract cemetery plot purchases).

Continue reading An American … no, make that eight Americans … in Père Lachaise

Cold War on Line 7?

I live in La Courneuve, at one end of line 7 of the Paris Métro. I spend a lot of time riding on that line, looking at its long list of stations during my daily trips back and forth to Paris. Scanning that list recently, I noticed what seemed to be some strange homage to the Cold War: the end of World War II … the White House … and the Kremlin.

V-E Day in Paris, May 8, 1945

The official name of the La Courneuve station is La Courneuve—8 mai 1945. The date refers to V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day: the end of the Second World War in Europe, when Germany’s act of military surrender was officially ratified in Berlin. While we don’t celebrate May 8 in the United States, it’s celebrated widely in Europe as a public holiday. Nothing really noteworthy in having a station named in honor of the end of the war, right? Towards the other end of line 7, however, two more stations drew my attention: Maison Blanche and Le Kremlin-Bicêtre. That got me thinking. “Maison Blanche” means “White House” and “Kremlin” … well, “Kremlin” means “Kremlin.” (I’ll admit, I had no idea what “Bicêtre” meant.) “How interesting!” I thought. At one end of line 7 we’ve got the end of World War II and at the other end, we’ve got the White House and the Kremlin! Hmm …

Continue reading Cold War on Line 7?