Sunday, November 24, 2013

To shop or not to shop... There is no question.

Americans love shopping. They love deals. 

And why wouldn't they?

Most stores are open 7 days a week, and for at least 10 or 12 hours a day. Special sale weekends are scheduled... every weekend. Deals, promotions, special events, beckon. Return and exchange policies are lenient. Credit rules. 

My favorite time of year to observe natives in shopping mode: Black Friday, a.k.a. the day after Thanksgiving. 

You may not realize this, but it is really worth your while to drive out of your house in the middle of the night and line up in the cold, waiting with hundreds of kindred spirits, for a superstore like Target or Walmart to open their doors. Besides, since you are still wearing your pj's and h.a.w.t. UGG boots, it will be a snap to return to bed afterwards, still clutching your Starbucks double tall eggnog latte, confident you snatched the best deals.

It's Black Fridayyyyyyyyyy!!! 

Granted you might get trampled to death during the traditional Black Friday stampede, and if you survive, a Target or Walmart employee might not. Incidentally, I wonder if the guy the store management sends to unlock doors, gets a special bonus or not? It seems to me he should.

Yes, shopping in America is easy, and encouraged. As someone who has been actively - and satisfyingly - purging closets, an attic, and every corner of my house over the last few months, I shudder when I picture the amount of merde the average [gigantic] American house must contain. 

But it is not just Americans. The French love shopping too.

Rue Ste. Catherine, Bordeaux, France
The winter sale has just started!

Unlike Americans, the French do not have guest bedrooms, or a three (or four) car garage, to store the overflow. They have to be more selective when they buy. Exchanges and returns can be challenging. Store opening hours are more limited than in the US.

And let's not forget the semi-annual sale is strictly enforced by the government. It is a concept that shopping-happy Americans have a hard time grasping. Say whaaaaat? French stores only go on sale twice a year? Well, they do, and they don't, but there is no doubt it is somewhat more difficult to shop in France than in the US. 

Soldes! The magical word!

All this may help understand why my countrymen spend so much time looking... but not touching. Le Lèche-vitrine, (window shopping, or literally, window-licking,) is a national sport, and a concept young children get introduced to early on...

This weekend, as I was sorting through mail, my mailbox overflowing with catalogues and brochures touting special Christmas deals, I spotted a particular publication because of its bright red cover. As soon as I opened it, I knew I had a winner. 

Now I know this is a reputable company. I know thousands of people will be ordering from that catalogue. But some of their products were too good to pass. I had to call Junior. Together, we flipped through the pages and had a good laugh. These were some of our favorites. I hope you enjoy them too...

If you like/own/are planning to order one of these products, 
please don't be offended by my remarks. 
To each his/her own.
Besides, I am French. What do I know?

Ready? Here we go...

French Girl in Seattle's 2013 Must-Have Holiday gift selection: 
(Or: The gifts you never knew you never needed.)

1. The most unhealthy Holiday gifts e.v.e.r

The United States government is waging war on obesity, a national scourge. Even if Americans are admonished daily to "shake their derrière," voilà several items that guarantee you will turn into the least fit person in America.

Do not walk or run around the yard. Ride your own miniature train with the kids instead!

The heated furniture cover: Will turn you into a couch potato for life
(and will keep the dog warm)

The remote-controlled beverage cooler:
If you don't go to your soda, your soda will come to you!

The rolling bedside iPad stand: Was the iPad too heavy?
Is this why Apple just launched the new iPad Air?

2. Gifts you absolutely do not need (nope, not even in your wildest dreams!)

The 15-foot inflatable Rudolph:
Scare the Christmas lights out of neighborhood kids in 30 seconds flat!

Canine Culinary Cupcakes:
Because everyone knows Fido needs his own cavity/tummy ache inducing treats for Christmas!

The hands-free hair rejuvenator (Don't ask!) 

Her Majesty's umbrella:
Because, at least in America, EVERYONE wants to look like Queen Elizabeth II

3. Gifts you should never, ever, get for your husband/boyfriend/hubby.

Astronaut's slipper socks:
"Houston, we have a problem!"
The wireless speaker ear warmers:
"Allo? Allo? Bob, do you hear me? Can you pick up milk on the way home?
Allo? Allo? You have Bluetooth! I KNOW you can hear me!!!"

And  last but not least, the undisputed champion... 

Power nap head pillow:
E.T. meets Elephant Man meets... What the... ????

4. Gifts Junior and I would splurge on, if...

... we had $125,000 and $250 to spare, respectively.

The Porsche 917 Le Mans Raceway
(Note: This looks bigger than the first apartment I rented in downtown Paris.) 

The Fashionista Christmas tree...

And so you have it. Aren't these just fah-bu-lous? 

You should be thanking me, right about now, for inspiring so many original gift ideas. 

And since we started this post on a very American note, I choose to end it on a très French note...

Happy Thanksgiving, les amis! Watch out for Black Friday stampede! 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Meet Stromae, the new Maestro of Europe's music scene...

The smile. The voice. The long, lean, androgynous body. The elegant look. The smart, if mournful lyrics, both poetic and realistic, a sharp contrast to the catchy tunes, a blend of rap, hip hop, electronic music and Latin rhythms.  

Meet Stromae the 28-year Belgian-born artist who is taking Europe (and French Canada) by storm. 

Stromae - French slang for "Maestro" - has developed a cult following in most European countries. If the social media is any indicator of success, numbers are impressive: 2.6 million follow his Facebook page. His most popular video to date, Formidable, has received over 43 million hits on Youtube. 

Two albums (Racine Carrée, Square Root, came out last spring.) Awards up the wazoo. His public appearances are greeted with much anticipation. He can discuss his origins, his career, and the issues confronting European youth articulately. He seems surprised, and humbled, by his success, but exudes self-confidence and controls all aspects of his career.

The guy has talent, and smarts. What's not to like?

French friends recommended I checked him out. I liked what I heard. 

His first big hit was Alors on Danse, (Then you Dance,) a song he wrote about a friend going through a tough time. Some of Stromae's favorite themes are in the song: the rat race, divorce, loneliness, hopelessness. Yet, the pace is upbeat, and one can't help watching the short movie... Stromae sold three million copies of the first album. 

Stromae, it turns out, is a trained musician, an accomplished percussionist, a fan of poetry. He studied cinema once, and it shows. He loves acting. All of his video clips play like mini-movies. 

The Guardian nicknamed him: "The Morrissey of the Eurozone," because of his realistic and gloomy lyrics.

The young Belgian Dandy is also compared to one of his homeland's most shining star, the late Jacques Brel, and was recently featured in the New York Times in a flattering piece. Are the United States his next stop? 

The fact that Stromae does not try to imitate other European artists by singing in English, might limit his appeal. Yet I noticed English subtitles in his most popular video, Formidable. Didn't I tell you the kid had smarts?

Formidable happens to be an amazing song, thanks to Stromae's acting skills and creativity. The chorus is a clever play on words:

"Tu es formidable, je suis fort minable..." 
(You are wonderful, I am pathetic) 

(For those of you who study the French language, fort is often used in Belgium and the Northern part of France to translate très - very. Un minable is a loser.) 

The song tells the story of a painful breakup. The guy is drunk and mourns his failed relationship.  

Even if Stromae is acting (he grins at the camera at the end of the clip,) the video was shot with a hidden camera in downtown Brussels on a rainy morning (there are a lot of rainy mornings in Brussels, Belgium...) Passers-by did not know they were being taped. At some point, three policemen approach Stromae (they recognize him,) and offer to give him a ride home. He declines, and they let him go. 

Belgian cops are the most relaxed and understanding police force in the world!

The video clip went viral when leaked online, and the rest is history...

The young artist seems unstoppable. His new album tops European charts. My favorite song: Papa Outai ("Papa où t'es?" - Where are you, Daddy?) He draws on his personal experience to tell the story of a child with an absent father. 

The son of a Belgian mother and a Rwandan father, who later died in the Rwanda genocide, Stromae only met his own dad a few times in his life. The video clip is creative; the tune catchy and no doubt rocking all dance floors in Europe! My favorite line: 

"Tout le monde sait comment on fait des bébés;
Personne ne sait comment on fait des papas."

(Everyone knows how to make babies;
Nobody knows how fathers are made.)

Papa Outay (Stromae) 

This week, to promote his ongoing French tour, Stromae made the headlines, and once again created a big buzz in the media, when he appeared at a popular talk show. Thanks to creative visual effects, he was able to introduce the audience to his "moitié"  (his better half,) in a hilarious skit. They both sparred in front of the audience for a few minutes before he/she launched in an entertaining rendition of "Tous les Mêmes," (They are all the same.) Stromae's carefully cultivated androgynous look and acting skills came in handy. He brought the house down. 

Stromae and his better half (amazing special effects!)

Click here to watch the live performance.
(Song starts at 1:37)

Stromae... or Stromae?

I would love to hear what you think about my new friend. I am adding his new CD to my Christmas list and can't wait to listen to the other songs on the album.

In the meantime, I know Stromae would approve the ending of this post: I will leave you with an iconic live performance by the great Belgian artist Jacques Brel, Amsterdam. 

A bientôt.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Mieux vaut en rire... Laughter is the best medicine...

I worry about France. I really do.

I browsed the web today, and learned a few fascinating facts. 

There was some sad news , like the kidnapping and murder of two French journalists by Al-[$#%&@]-Quaida in Mali. 

There was some depressing news: Brittany (Western France) was hit harshly by the recession, and the whole region is in uproar. French authorities are having a terrible time negotiating with angry protesters, nicknamed les Bonnets Rouges (the Red Hatsafter local peasants who rebelled against the French crown in the 17th century.) Still, François Hollande, the unpopular French president, and Jean-Marc Ayraud, his Prime Minister, must realize how lucky they are they do not have to deal with other famous locals, pictured above. Any political or military leader in his right mind would avoid confronting these two (ask Julius Caesar!) 

There was disturbing news... We already knew French eating habits have changed. I wrote about the recent French obsession with the Am-Ba-Ga (hamburger) here

McDonald's is proud to call France its second most profitable market after the United States. McDonald's has been very, very smart, and that strategy has paid off.

Les Macarons chez McDo France: Where else?

This week, McDo announced customers will now be able to order food online at most restaurants. Fast food has become even faster! Bravo, McDo. You have just created the first "e-Burger!"

Meanwhile, Burger King, who deserted France in 1997, wants a slice of the fast food cake. The company returned last year, and opened a restaurant at the Marseilles airport. Business is booming, they say.

This fall, Burger King inaugurated another restaurant. The location choice remains puzzling to most. Why would  you open a fast-food restaurant at a freeway rest area, 25 kilometers (15 miles) outside of Reims, in Eastern France? [Note to monolingual readers: kindly refrain from pronouncing "Reims." You won't make it!] 

Reims, my friends, once played a pivotal role in French history. Many French kings were crowned in the city's magnificent cathedral...

Reims also sits in the heart of Champagne region. Wine tasting is a local sport: Veuve Cliquot, Taittinger, Pommery, Canard Duchêne and hundreds more Champagne houses are based there (we are talking the real stuff... not sparkling wines produced everywhere else in the world.)

Les Caves à Champagne (Champagne cellars) 

You've got to give Burger King serious points for adapting to the local culture: Check out their creative new advertising campaign. Burger King arrives in the city of [French] Kings

Get it? 

Maybe I am reading too much into this... 

Notice the warning: "To remain healthy, exercise on a regular basis." 

The most amazing thing about this story? When the Huffington Post featured a story on Burger King this week, I read many comments by French readers praising the brand over its competitors, Mc Do, and the Belgian-owned Quick. These people sounded elated Burger King was returning to France!

It must be the fries. Who would resist those healthy fries? And the name is a lot easier to pronounce than Freedom fries!

Upon hearing the news (and the rumor claiming a third restaurant would open soon in downtown Paris at the St. Lazare train station,) some argued that once the Whopper became widely available again, French customers would tire of it. 


But the hamburger is here to stay, and from what I hear, there are many appealing options. Last year, the New York Times ran a story about American-flavored food trucks, a revolutionary concept two years ago. Today, they are all the rage in the French capital. Hamburgers. Tacos. Cheesecake. Brownies. You name it. The Americanization of Paris is underway...

If I understand the concept right, people patiently wait in line for at least 45 minutes, or one hour, in the cold and rainy Paris weather, just to get their hands on one of these...

Fast food it is (well, once you hold it in your hands that is...) but fancy and trendy food too. Prices are high, as befits the French capital. Young French people (who have always loved everything American,) praise these innovative businesses by bestowing on them the greatest compliment: "C'est très Brooklyn!" (It's very Brooklyn...)

This makes sense: I have never met a French person who did not l.o.v.e. New York City!

At the risk of sounding close minded, I'd still pick French fast food offerings if I have to eat and walk in downtown Paris... After all, it's taken me years to perfect the art of eating a "galette complète" (ham, egg and cheese crêpe) while indulging in a session of lèche-vitrine (window-licking, or window shopping...) 

When all else fails, there is always the reliable "jambon beurre" sandwich, ideal while on the go - if you must! - or for picnics at a local park.

Sorry, food trucks, but as long as there will be park benches in downtown Paris, or a local café to enjoy lunch on a cold and rainy day, I do not see the point of switching to this:

(Photography credit: Out and About in Paris) 

This may be "très Brooklyn," but it certainly isn't "très Français..."

Eating while standing: How convivial!

Le Jambon-Beurre may be predictable and a little boring, but - unlike the onion-loaded Am-Ba-Ga or even worse, the dreadful onion rings - it won't give me the foul breath of a Notre-Dame gargoyle when I return to the office! 

Take heart, my friends, there was also some heartwarming news. 

I heard about a young American expat who has embarked on a challenging mission: Convincing the French to eat kale. Again, the New York Times, always prompt to point at France's misguided ways, wrote a story about the "Kale Crusader!" 

Meet Kristen Beddard, the "Kale Crusader..."
"Pssst... Kristen, dear, you know you can buy actual flowers at Parisian food markets, right?"

Kale, c'est très Brooklyn, aussi, you know! 

I smiled often as I read the readers' comments following the article. 

On the French side, they ran from total indifference "Kale? Pfffff... [Insert Gallic shrug,] to angry retorts: "Are we to learn about healthy eating habits from the nation that invented McDonald's? Don't Americans know the French already eat balanced and healthy meals?!"

On the American (or Anglo-saxon) side: "The French, leading a healthy lifestyle? B.S.! [Insert American version of the Gallic shrug] They ALL smoke!!!" or: "French women are not skinny because they eat well. They are skinny because they starve themselves!" (now, now...) 

Finally, the voice of reason. A Frenchman replied: "The French already know kale. They call it "Chou Frisé." They grow it here in my region, but it is used to feed rabbits. Call it cultural differences." 

Le lapin et le chou frisé

Finally, some comforting news: French rabbits are the healthiest rabbits on the planet! And they are wiser than French teenagers. 

French rabbits know that kale keeps you in great shape, and that kale chips are better than Burger King's Satisfries. Besides, the alternative is too scary to contemplate...

In closing, one last story I found this week. And an entertaining one at that.

In Bordeaux, a group of inebriated teenagers kidnapped a llama named Serge from a local circus (the kids live in BORDEAUX! Can you blame them?) They took the llama for a stroll around the beautiful city, and Serge even got to ride the fancy local tram before they were arrested! 

It turns out the French needed some distraction from all the bad news: Serge and his new friends became instant hits in the social media. A Facebook page was created to support them, and over 800,000 people already follow it! Then the international media heard the story and shared it with the world. Serge got his own meme on the internet. The animal was finally returned to the circus (I am sure he will miss riding the tram for a while...) and a few days later, was reunited with his kidnappers. The circus owner dropped all charges. Tout est bien qui finit bien. All is well that ends well. 

Serge and "Les Boys"

I can't think of a better way of ending this story. Bordeaux wine. Llamas. Kale-eating rabbits. Traveling Am-Ba-Gas. C'est très Brooklyn!

A bientôt. 


Meet Serge Lama, the popular French singer Serge-the-Llama is named after. I heard Monsieur Lama (who happens to be a Bordeaux native,) fully supported the cause of the five kidnapping artists.