Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Mexican Getaway (Puerto Vallarta, Part 1)

Note to visitors: Por favor, do not attempt to read this post if your WiFi connection is slow. This could prove a very frustrating experience. On the other hand, you could fix yourself a margarita and go with the flow... Enjoy. 

Street art, El Malecón, Puerto Vallarta

It is not an easy job vacationing in a place like Puerto Vallarta, one of Mexico's safest and prettiest coastal towns. But someone had to do it, and our family flew over last week. You're welcome.

The City by the Bay: Puerto Vallarta
Life is a beach in P.V.

Renowned sunsets...

Since tourism took off in the 1960s, Puerto Vallarta has become a coveted destination for Mexicans and gringos alike, especially during peak season, December through April, when thousands of tourists descend upon the once sleepy town. Sun worshippers spend lazy days soaking up the rays and surfing on the beautiful beaches along Bahía de Banderas (Mexico's largest bay.)

The famous Mismaloya beach
Junior and friend

Others play and splash around in the expansive pools and lagoons of elegant resorts along the coast. 

Junior and Dad...

Look, Mom! I'm flying!

Foodies and amateurs of nightlife have a myriad of options to choose from, among beach and street-side stands, casual cantinas, world-class restaurants, lively bars and clubs. 

The Vista Grill: A gourmet experience above the Old Town

Thrill seekers are not forgotten, and venture out in the jungle and the mountains surrounding Puerto Vallarta. Last time we were in town - too brief of a visit while we were cruising down the Mexican coast - Les Boys loved taking a canopy tour with a local company, Los Veranos. Junior was 6 years old then. So they went back and brought our Seattle friends along. When we arrived after a bumpy and dusty ride along narrow mountain roads, French Girl and her Seattle Mom friend found a good observation point, down by gurgling Horcones river, and sipped margaritas to forget their 12-year olds were flying from treetop to treetop, securely fastened [they hoped] to a zip line, hundreds of feet above the ground. After a couple of drinks, French Girl and Seattle Mom did a great job at relaxing in the sun while ignoring the iguanas, snakes, and chatty jungle monkeys surrounding them.

Oldest zip line company in Puerto Vallarta--
Highly recommended by these French/American gringos!
Why can't there be a place like this while we wait daily
in our school's pick up line?

Ready for action!
When the crazy camera guy offers to take you on a "private tour"
so he can film the whole adventure,  you should be worried...
The highest and longest of the 15 zip lines
OMG! That's my child, flying over the Rio los Horcones canyon!

Crazy camera guy insisted everyone tried it upside down!

Later on that afternoon, we all walked around Puerto Vallarta's old town and went shopping for Mexican painted tile and glassware. My favorite find was a handmade ceramic Chihuahua  that will greet guests in my Seattle kitchen. His name is El Diablo, and I know my friends will not mind seeing him there, a few feet away from Minerva, the French kitchen witch I brought back last summer. Mes amis are very understanding of my quirky [French] ways, you see. 

Tourists in Los Arcos

The kind of kitchen
 that would brighten up the average Seattle day!

If, like this French Girl, you enjoy nothing more than walking around a city; people-watching; taking in colors, smells and sounds; if you know and love the Mediterranean culture, then Puerto Vallarta is a dream come true. The town reminded me of Spain at times, and provided daily opportunities to practice my [rusty] Spanish with friendly locals. I could not get enough, as I left the busy Malecón (waterfront) neighborhood and ventured deeper along the narrow, steep streets of the old town. 

Inside the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe
The recently renovated "Malecón', Puerto Vallarta's Champs-Elysées

The best art is not always for sale:
Sand sculptures

I prefer sand iguanas to the "real thing..."
This young guy was a few feet away from my table
 while I had lunch at the River Café...

Los Voladores de Papantla: a traditional performance,
 at the top of a 98-foot pole

There is so much more to show you, but I fear this post may already be too long. 

You see, this trip was not just about sightseeing and playing at the beach. I still have to tell you the story of the famous movie, filmed in Puerto Vallarta, that changed the town for ever; I have to tell you about that school where Junior and his friend spent a morning with Mexican children; I have to tell you about les chiens, the dogs... 

So here is the thing. Why don't we agree to meet here next week; same day; same place; same time? I hope you can make our rendez-vous.

A bientôt.

All photographs by American Frog Photography. 
A heartfelt merci to the artist otherwise known as Le Husband.
Do not reproduce without permission, please. 


9:30pm. This is a last minute update to cheer the crew and cast of the little [French] movie that could, "The Artist." Jean Dujardin, merci for a fun and... ahem... spontaneous speech ;-) Cocorico! Bravo les Artistes!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

And the Award goes to...

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) knows a thing or two about Awards

The Academy Awards are just around the corner. Perfect timing.

A few days ago, Natalie, from a Jewel Yet To Find, surprised me with the Liebster Blog Award.

Merci beaucoup, Natalie! 

The Liebster Blog Award recognizes up-and-coming bloggers with fewer than 200 Followers. I am happy and honored to receive this award from Natalie. She lives in Toronto and writes inspiring stories about her travels in France, always illustrated with beautiful photographs.

Once you receive the Liebster Award, you should:

1. Thank the person who sent the award your way by linking back to their website.

2. Copy and paste the Liebster Award Logo to your blog.

3. Choose five bloggers who, you feel, are deserving of more Followers.

4. Hope that your five "nominees" will accept the Liebster Award, and forward it to five bloggers of their choice, so it keeps going his merry way.

Since I started blogging in December 2010, I have enjoyed taking a few minutes each day to visit my favorite blogs, and leaving comments for their authors. Some of them are well recognized in "Blogland." Others are not... yet. I am hoping to change this by awarding them the Liebster Award and showcasing their work chez French Girl in Seattle today. Please visit their blogs when you get a chance. You will not regret it. 

Nominee #1: 

My friend Malyss, Chronicles from the Shore. Malyss takes surprising, unusual and often inspired photos of her city, Nice, on the beautiful Côte d'Azur. Malyss is also a bit of a poet. The captions or introductions she writes to introduce her daily posts often get me thinking. I appreciate the time, hard work and creativity involved in her daily posts. Bravo, Malyss. 

Nominee #2:

Katelyn, Pure Panache. Voilà a fun, creative, consistently entertaining blog. Katelyn is a francophile. On her blog, (I visit several times a week,) I find great tips about design, home decor, shopping, accessories, cooking and more. I always check out her links to favorite online boutiques, as I know she has a knack for digging up "cool" objects and ideas. 

Nominee #3:

Miss b, Bobochic. Miss b hails from the United Kingdom and is a versatile blogger. On her blog, I have found recipes for favorite cocktails, snapshots on stylish, sometimes unusual accessories and products, and - my personal favorite - reviews of trendy establishments when she takes her readers to Dubai, a place I have not visited yet.

Nominee #4: 

Aidan, Conjugating Irregular Verbs. Aidan is from Texas, but she lives in Southern France with her [French] husband and three lively children. I read several posts written by American expats in France. Aidan's is the one I keep coming back to. She excels at writing personal and entertaining stories about her family's daily life in my homeland. I like her sense of humor,  her curiosity, her resiliency, and most of all, her positive outlook on French idiosyncrasies (that Texan girl ain't no whiner!) 

Nominee  #5: 

MJ, Seattle Moxie. Now, here is a great story. For several years, American-born MJ blogged from Paris, France where she lived the expat life with her Canadian husband and two young children. MJ quickly built a strong following thanks to her witty and often hilarious posts. A few months ago, MJ's husband was transferred back to Seattle, WA. That's right, we are neighbors. MJ did not let minor details such as an international move, house hunting or her kids' school life slow her down. She immediately launched a new blog and is facing the transition head on. Bonne chance, MJ!

And here you have them: French Girl's five nominees for the Liebster Blog Award. Félicitations, Mesdames. There are other friends I could have mentioned, as this is hardly an exhaustive list. There are many talented, creative people in Blogland, folks. 

As for me, the new award recipient, I have found a way to reward myself for such an outstanding achievement (George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jean Dujardin do not have a Liebster Award. They will die when they hear the prestigious recognition landed chez French Girl!) 

When you read this story, I will be en vacances (on vacation) in an exotic locale, lying in the sun, frolicking in the ocean, and sipping colorful cocktails.

"Where?," you ask.

I will give you three hints:

1. Forget evergreens, banana slugs, and grey skies. I give you palm trees, iguanas and sunny skies. 

2. I have packed this handy little tool in my suitcase:

3. The life of this [formerly] sleepy town was changed forever when a famous movie was shot in the area in the 1960s. 

Think you got it? Do tell, please.

Until next time, "La vie est belle, les amis!" -- Life is good!

A bientôt.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Un Dimanche à la Campagne (A Sunday in the Country)

Funny what happens when you let a story take you by the hand...

This little tale started with a photo I found online a few days ago.

Audrey Tautou "Coco Before Chanel"

I looked at delightful Audrey, impersonating the great Coco Chanel, and I wondered how anyone could look this good, dressed as a man and wearing a black canotier (boater hat.) That got me thinking le canotier was the couvre-chef (headgear) of choice of many, starting in the late 19th century. The popular straw hat was most commonly seen in a much lighter-colored version, often adorned with a wide brim ribbon. Le canotier is a bit of a cheeky hat, and it tends to fight for attention with the person wearing it. Illustration:

French singing and acting legend: Maurice Chevalier
Daddy Long Legs: Fred Astaire
Lovely Audrey Hepburn

Coco Chanel knew she was on to something when she adopted the whimsical hat at the beginning of her career. All most women had known until then was the ornate, cumbersome, heavily decorated headgear de rigueur during la Belle Epoque.

From Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn)...

... to Coco Chanel,
(wearing one of her early creations in 1910)

Coco Before Chanel (the movie)
La Belle Epoque meets Chanel

Truth be told, Chanel adopted something that had been around for years, and made it her own. In the 1880s, le canotier became popular first with men, then with children and women. It was reserved for athletic activities: cycling, hunting, and horseback riding. In the early 19th century many indulged in a favorite summer pastime: le canotage (canoeing.) Boats - often handmade - were everywhere on the Seine river, in downtown Paris, and outside the city. I wrote a story about the illustrious river a few months ago, and I mentioned les Canotiers (the Canoeists) who discovered the joys of rowing and the world of boating. This was documented by artists, among them painters in the Impressionist movement.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894),
a good friend of the Impressionist crowd

Gustave Caillebotte
Canotiers in Chatou
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

It was important to look the part while rowing, and the straw boating hat, worn by the French navy crews, was adopted early on by all. This started among Parisians an enduring fascination with the nautical clothing style, in particular la Marinière (French sailor shirt.) 

A French girl all the way: Marion Cotillard

I could have stopped when I reached this point in my story. But there was more to tell. From the straw boating hat, to the Canoeists, I started thinking about how very few foreign visitors realize how beautiful the Seine river banks are outside of Paris. Most tourists will stay downtown - or take day trips to Versailles - but few will travel to the Western outskirts of the French capital and follow the river, as it heads towards Normandy and finally flows into the English Channel in le Havre. 

(photographer unknown)

La Seine near Chatou
(Y. Capelle)
Near Bougival

On the way, bucolic scenes await as the Seine meanders through small towns, Croissy, Chatou, Rueil-Malmaison, Bougival... This may not be the mighty Mississippi river, but I am guessing Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn would have enjoyed following the old Seine, and exploring some of the islands discovered on the way, l'Ile Fleurie, l'Ile des Impressionnistes...

La Seine in les Andelys (Upper Normandy)
(photographer unknown)

Bords de Seine (Seine riverbanks) near Chatou
(Jacques Souben)

While I lived in Paris, I was fortunate to work for many years in one of these small towns, Rueil Malmaison. American Express France was headquartered there. The building - and my office - overlooked the majestic and peaceful river. I am happy to go back today, and to take you with me.

This was the view from my office window for a while...

la Seine and la Maison Fournaise

Très joli, non? Let's get closer, shall we?

We have arrived on a small island, l'Ile des Impressionnistes (Ile de Chatou,) connected to the towns of Rueil-Malmaison and Chatou by a bridge. There, time has stopped. 

The "old" Chatou bridge (1870s)

The most famous building on the island is an institution of sorts, the type of place where one often thinks: "If only these walls could talk..." As a history buff with a healthy respect for the past, you know how much I love these.

Ile des Impressionnistes, Chatou
La Maison Fournaise

(unknown photographer)

Bienvenue à La Maison Fournaise. This restaurant was a popular place in the 19th century. Remember our friends les Canotiers (the Canoeists)? This was one of their favorite destinations on Sunday afternoons. Every week, Parisians flocked to la Gare St Lazare and after a 20-minute train ride, arrived in Chatou, looking for a good time. La Seine provided affordable entertainment. Swimming and fishing were favored by all. Sunday boaters could also rent sailboats or canoes. 

L'Ile Fleurie, Chatou
(Musée Fournaise)
Fishing party, Chatou 
(Musée Fournaise)

Artists were attracted by the exceptional light and shadows they found by the river where ancient poplars, willow and chestnut trees provided shade on hot summer days. La Maison Fournaise's guest lists reads like the Who's Who of the Impressionist movement: Monet, Manet, Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Pissaro, and the painter and art patron Gustave Caillebotte were all regulars. Later on, Vlaminck and Derain, the founders of Fauvism, opened a workshop in Chatou. Matisse visited them on a regular basis.

There were politicians; there were intellectuals and writers, Guy de Maupassant, Guillaume Apollinaire. They ate and often stayed at La Maison Fournaise

"La Fournaise," as it is sometimes called, is a piece of property purchased in the 1850s by a river toll collector, Alphonse Fournaise. Capitalizing on the new tourist trade and the emerging canoeing craze, he promptly established a boat rental business on site, with the help of his son, Alphonse Jr. Meanwhile, his wife took care of the restaurant and the small hotel in the main building. The most famous person in the family was lovely Alphonsine, their daughter, who counted many admirers and friends among the customers. 

La Fournaise quickly established itself as the epicenter of the Impressionists' social life in Chatou. Through the 1870s and 1880s, the business prospered. The restaurant was known for its terrace, overlooking the Seine river and surrounded by an ornate cast iron railing; its murals, painted on the building façade by visiting artists ; its food; and its clientèle.

La Maison Fournaise, late 19th century
(Maurice Leloir, 1851-1940)
Fournaise boat rental business, Chatou, early 20th century
(Musée Fournaise)

Maison Fournaise:
La terrasse (the terrace,)  today

Renoir, who stayed chez Fournaise on a regular basis between 1868 and 1884, felt inspired by the pastoral surroundings. He immortalized La Maison Fournaise in one of his most famous paintings, Le Déjeuner des Canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party.) 


The scene depicts Renoir's friends and acquaintances on a hot summer day. Some noticeable characters are the Fournaise children, Alphonse Jr. and pretty Alphonsine, both wearing straw boater hats, on the left. The young woman kissing the dog is Renoir's future wife, Aline Charigot. On the right, also wearing a canotier, Gustave Caillebotte, painter, photographer, and art patron, straddles a chair. The painting captures the lively and relaxed atmosphere of the Impressionists' lazy Sunday afternoons in Chatou. 

Many years later, Alphonsine Fournaise took over the family business, but the restaurant closed down in 1906. A few years later, her father's old boat rental business followed suit. The world was changing fast and many deserted the area. The building and grounds fell in a bad state of disrepair until the property was purchased by the city of Chatou in 1977.

Maison Fournaise at the end of WW2
(courtesy of the City of Chatou)

In 1982, it was registered as a Historical monument of France. The city received subsidies from the state and from private organizations (including the Friends of French Art in Los Angeles who restored the beautiful iron railing.) A massive renovation effort was undertaken from 1984 to 1990. Today, the restaurant has reopened and a museum is located in Alphonse Fournaise's old boat workshop. 

The renovated façade 
(courtesy of the city of Chatou)

A message left by writer Guy de Maupassant,
restored to its former glory

I started working part-time for American Express in my early 20s as a customer service  representative, while I studied English at the Sorbonne university. I remember looking longingly at the old building across the Seine river - the restaurant had recently re-opened - knowing that I would be having lunch there sooner or later. After graduate school, I was hired full time by American Express, and there were many opportunities to follow in the Impressionists' footsteps. Birthdays, engagements, or just casual Fridays: My friends and I would head over chez Fournaise, a short car ride away. In the winter, we had lunch indoors, waiting for the weather to warm up so we could finally enjoy the renowned terrace. The food may not have always been up to old Madame Fournaise's standards, but the view and atmosphere were unmatched in the area. Ever since I moved to the United States, a reproduction of Renoir's masterpiece, Le Déjeuner des Canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party,) has been hanging on the wall above my desk, a reminder that I, too, got to sit on the renowned terrace chez Fournaise.

(unknown photographer)

Many years later, during our annual visit to Paris, it was time to christen American-born Junior. We booked a private room in the restaurant before going to church. I was really happy to go back to my old "hunting grounds" that day!

Memories, memories...

Like so many other [prestigious or anonymous] visitors before us,  we had a lovely time chez Fournaise; enjoying a stroll by the Seine after lunch as Junior and his cousin ran along the river banks; imagining the canoes, the sailboats, and the artists who had sat outside and painted in the shade of the ancient trees. 

Next time you visit Paris, why don't you, too, follow la Seine all the way to Chatou? No need to wait until Sunday afternoon, or wear a canotier. The Canoeists and lovely Alphonsine may be long gone, but la Maison Fournaise is still there, by the river, waiting... 

La Maison Fournaise (Renoir)

Alphonsine Fournaise (Renoir)


"I can't leave Chatou, because my painting is not finished yet. It would be nice of you to come down here and have lunch with me. You won't regret the trip, I assure you. There isn't a lovelier place in all of Paris surroundings."

-- From a letter Renoir sent a friend in 1880

A bientôt.


My brother, who is a good man, braved the cold on his bicycle this weekend to ride to the American Express building in Rueil Malmaison (he lives nearby with his family) and took several great shots for me. This one is my favorite. Merci, petit frère!

La Maison Fournaise while standing in front of American Express