Monday, April 30, 2012

A Week in the French Countryside

It's day seven of our stay out in the Normandy countryside. Despite mostly gray skies and steady rainfall, this is a magical part of the country that I wanted to share with you. If you've ever spent time outside the bigger cities in France, you know the countryside is nothing like Paris. "L'hexagone" (as the French call their beloved country) is dotted with tiny, ancient towns that feel as though you've traveled back in time.
This is the restored 17th century farmhouse we've rented, l'Orgerie, located just outside the small town of Pont Farcy. The closest neighbors we've seen have been the sheep who graze behind the house several times a day.

The home is owned by a British couple who lovingly renovated it in the early 1990's. It's hard not to fantasize about buying and fixing up a little stone house of our own. Maybe someday? We found the house on this website which features holiday properties in France mostly owned by Brits. We've also used this French site that has thousands of listings all over France.

Here is a look at the house and some of its pretty details. The owners managed to keep much of what makes a house like this special: the old wide plank floors, huge chimneys, funky little windows and exposed beams everywhere.

The focus of our week has been on shopping at the marches and cooking delicious meals from goods from local, mostly organic farms. I'm not a nut when it comes it eating organic but prefer it when we can. (Of course, I have yet to find an organic croissant or pain au chocolat so I could never go all organic...). It's hard to beat the just-picked spinach, potatoes and asparagus we bought at this organic farm cooperative earlier this week. Just a handful of sellers in an old barn selling their wares once a week.
 I also bought some homemade jam and delicious, creamy goat cheese with just enough bite to perfectly complement the bread baked with love (as evidenced by his impassioned description of the process!) by this man down the road.
It's been a memorable, relaxing week but I'm excited to get back to Paris tomorrow. Can't wait to see all the new spring blooms since we've been away. Hope you've had a great weekend. A bientot!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Monday (er, mardi) à la Mode

Greetings from the French countryside! We arrived in Normandy on Saturday for a nine day stay. Despite soggy, gray skies, so far so wonderful. Later this week, I'll fill you in on the restored 17th century farmhouse where we're staying. In a word, dreamy.

For now, as promised, I wanted to share two great boutiques I discovered recently while touring the city by bike. (More on my Velib' adventure later...) Last week, I wrote about spring's vintage-inspired trend. It seems that more and more Paris boutiques are embracing the concept in the form of upscale second hand shops. We're not talking here about Goodwill style racks of malodorous cast-offs, but hand-selected items passed on by chic Parisians looking for a few extra euros in their mini-sacs.

The French resale shop (depot vente) is certainly nothing new; they can be found in every quartier. But these two shops have taken the concept and given it new life. The best news of all? Fabulous, fashionable, like-new quality items for a mere fraction of retail. What's not to love?

Violette et Leoni (27, rue de Poitue and 1, rue de Saintonge, 75003) in the upper Marais bills itself as a resale "concept store" and sells only current styles and great brands like Parisian favorites Maje, Sandro and APC plus a meticulously curated vintage selection. It's actually two shops located around the corner from one another both carrying a similar selection of women's clothing and accessories. (The rue de Saintonge outpost also has some menswear.) It's not the place to score Chanel or Vuitton but the perfect place for current, seasonal styles to update your wardrobe at seriously great prices. I spotted a Paul & Joe top for 40 euros and a Zadig & Voltaire sundress for 55. Both steals in like-new condition. Prepare to ignore a bit of attitude from the salespeople and focus instead on the great goodies. You can even shop online - they ship internationally! Here are some tempting items I'm coveting on their website.

Cute, huh? And really good prices, too. 

Now imagine shopping in the home of your most stylish friend. That's what it feels like to enter Les Gignettes (4, rue du Sabot, 75006) and browse the hand-picked items that include labels like Isabel Marant, Vanessa Bruno and Balenciaga alongside the very best of Zara and H&M. Housed in a super charming 17th century building, you'll also find framed art, home decor and some unopened cosmetics and perfumes at half price. (I scored a NARS lip gloss for 11 euros). Stop by on Saturdays and linger over mint tea or attend one of the regularly scheduled art openings. Details (and tempting photos) at
The downside of these shops of course, is the limited selection of sizes. With just one of everything, either it fits or it doesn't. Great bags, scarves and carefully selected jewelry however, offer ample consolation if you don't "trouvez votre bonheur" ("find your happiness," as the French shopping saying goes). But when you do score that coveted item in the perfect style and size, quel bonheur! Happy shopping.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Monday à la Mode: Vintage Inspired

Everything old is new again, or so it would seem in many of the styles I'm seeing around Paris. It's not that more women are actually wearing vintage -- they're wearing new items with a distinctly vintage-y look and feel (without the unpleasant odor and bad fabric.)

Vanessa Bruno, one of my favorite Parisian designers who I wrote about last week, nails the look best with floaty, feminine tops (that are never too cutesy) and 70ish slouchy shoulder bags worn across the body. Add some fringe for extra style points.
Photo By Alice Pfeiffer

Here's Bruno's 14-year-old daughter (yes, 14), Lune, in what she describes as a "vintage" Vanessa Bruno top and bag. Of course, she's 14 so "vintage" to her is probably 2008. Anyway, the vest (or as they call it here, sleeveless jacket) looks pretty vintage too, no?

We all know that when it comes to fashion, if you hang around long enough, everything comes full circle. I had that thought in a shop recently when I found myself considering buying a denim shirt. A denim shirt!? I couldn't help but wonder how many denim shirts I've owned over the years. But here they are again, even being worn with jeans. (Too much of a good thing is sometimes not good at all).

But, they do look pretty great paired with white jeans (a personal favorite any time of year but especially now) and worn-in leather accessories. Like this.
Photo By Frankies on the Park

Okay, so she's in New York but this looks fab (and very Parisian, if you skip the preppy belt.) P.S. Rolling back your sleeves is a definite Parisian style thing.

For more tips on how to dress like a Parisienne, check out Ines de la Fressange's book, the unambiguously named Parisian Chic, out last year. The former Chanel model-turned-muse is widely regarded as the French style guru and the book contains all her not-so-secret-anymore "style secrets," like shopping in kids' stores and wearing a leather jacket over a sundress.
Next week on Monday a la Mode, I'll share two amazing boutiques I found recently while touring the city by bike. One in the Marais, one in St. Germain des Pres. A bientot!

I also blog over at HipParis. Here are a couple recent posts you might enjoy. (And if you're looking for a fabulous vacation rental for your next visit to Paris or London, their places are gorgeous!)

French Lessons: An American Family Goes to School in Paris
Les Hommes Parisian are Seductive, Sexy, Cool

Friday, April 13, 2012

Am I a Different Mom in Paris?

I just dropped the kids off at school following our usual, harried morning routine. Hard as I try to get things running smoothly in the A.M., one of us usually leaves the house with their hair in a tangle, teeth insufficiently brushed and a wad of baguette in their fist (instead of their stomach).

This, I know, is a familiar scenario whether you live in Paris, Des Moines or San Francisco (except maybe the bit about the baguette).

But something this morning reminded me of a simple truth: Living in Paris has changed me as a mother. For better or worse? I'm not sure.

Today Adele's class will celebrate her 5th birthday, the designated day for April babies. On this day last year (with only two months of French school under our belts), I walked to school proudly holding my pride and joy -- the genuine, American style birthday cake I'd diligently baked and decorated the night before. OK, so it wasn't entirely homemade (thanks to the Betty Crocker cake mix we'd thrown into our moving shipment). But because it was so truly American, I rationalized that it was even more special having not been made with French ingredients. This was the real deal. I could be proud of it. And as importantly, I thought the other parents would be, too.

It looked something like this (but not as pretty). Mine was an imperfect, made-with-love confection that was sure to be fun and tasty, even if it's ingredients were a bit dodgy (a little like me, now that I think about it. But I digress).
Photo: This Little Life of Mine

Adele's classmates all loved it. Even her teacher was impressed by this ("so sweet!") gateau that struck them all as very foreign and therefore particularly amusing.

American moms are familiar with this routine, regularly accomplishing feats of logic- and gravity-defying wizardry to create Martha Stewart-worthy cakes of every shape and size. Back home, the originality and demonstrated skill behind the cake was often the very centerpiece of The Birthday Party. I've seen perfectly sculpted cake castles, multi-car trains, pirate ships and space shuttles. One particularly inventive mom even did the Great Pyramids of Giza surrounded by camels in a desert of sugary perfection.

I always admired this yet felt somewhat dumbfounded by it. Because really, does a three-year-old know the difference? Does she even care? Of course not. These cakes were made out of love, a desire to please and -- let's be honest, girls -- to impress. Who? Not the kids. Other parents, of course.

And this is the crux of how the experience of parenting here (for me) is different than it was in the States. French moms do not try to impress each other with their "mom skills." (In other ways, sure. But that's another story for another time).

Why? Because they do not fear the cult of the "Bad Mom." They don't hold themselves to impossible standards, then berate themselves when they inevitably fall short. Most importantly, they don't judge one another for their parenting choices or view self-sacrifice on the alter of mothering as a noble endeavor. They don't believe that things like baking a birthday cake worthy of Cookie magazine (yes, I know it folded) or skipping a shower because you put yourself last on the priority list, make you a better mom.

They raise their kids the way they themselves were raised and don't spend time and energy second-guessing themselves (a distinctly un-French pastime) or their fellow mothers. If they do, I don't feel it. And that, for me, has made a huge difference.

The proof for me was in the pudding (or in this case, the cake) this morning. Instead of baking, frosting and sprinkling a home-baked cake last night, this morning found me rushing through the aisles of Franprix, searching for a suitable cake-ish dessert for Adele's class party. Once I found it, I briefly entertained the idea of going home to grab a platter on which to present it and make it look homemade. But I didn't. And you know what? It doesn't matter. The kids will love it anyway.

Back home, I wouldn't have dared bring a Betty Crocker cake to school. Not if any other parents were going to see it, that is. (Never mind the restrictions that wouldn't have permitted it anyway). I would have feared being judged -- for not being "devoted" enough to put time into baking. For caring more about being well-dressed and rested than about slaving over a task that I don't truly enjoy (and that my kids won't remember or care about anyway.)

But here's the thing. I don't know if those judgments would have been real or not. They could well have been in my mind and no where else. But that's the point, isn't it? We undermine ourselves as mothers -- and as women -- because we fear harsh judgment by others (so endemic in our culture as it is) and then worry intently that what we're doing isn't good enough.

So, for me, being a mom is easier here. Slowly and without intention, I have become a mother who is less critical of herself. I don't berate myself for wanting "my own life" even as I devote so much of it to my kids. I don't obsess endlessly over the things I used to -- both big and small -- like whether the preschool curriculum is too "unstructured." Or whether my kids are scarred because I worked part-time while they were babies. Or whether I'm a "bad mom" because they eat a little chocolate most afternoons (yes, most). Maybe it's because my kids are a bit older now. Maybe it's because I am, too. Maybe it's because France supports parents better than we do in the States -- even foreign parents like me.

Whatever the reasons, and surely there are many, one thing is certain: I am a different mom in Paris, for better or worse.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Monday à la Mode

I'm often asked by friends at home what Parisians are wearing day to day. Since fashion -- and the city's devotion to it -- is one of the many things I love about living here, I thought you might enjoy a weekly post on Paris street style and trends. So, each week I'll do a short blog on something fab I'm seeing around town. (I'll try to sneak actual street pics that will be better than these!)

One trend I'm seeing a lot is colored denim. Pastels, bright fruity hues and floral prints, too. Once you get over the 80's flashback, it can be sweet and chic. My favorites are these cotton candy pink jeans by Athe Vanessa Bruno (love her). I went shopping with a friend at Le Bon Marche recently and convinced her to buy them. (They're not in my budget so this gave me a vicarious thrill!). They are super slim (and look best if their wearer is, too..)

I've seen these with heels and brogues but think they're cutest with ballet flats and a little jacket. As always, Zara is doing a similar look for a lot less in various styles and colors. Their jeans never quite work on me but the cut suits you, it's a bargain. (Just don't expect them to last more than a season).

When Spring arrives, Parisians put away the boots in favor of les ballerines. They're everywhere and perfect for mid-season when we're not yet ready for sandals. The hands down faves around here are Repetto, the very French line of ballet wear. They're not cheap but you can usually nab a pair during the sales for around 130€. These are the BB Classic Flats, originally designed for Brigitte Bardot (hence the name).
I'm also loving a fuller cut leg that's finally (hopefully!) nudging skinnies aside. These are the 70s flare jean by Comptoir Des Cotonniers.
Comptoir Des cotonnier

What do you think? Are candy colored jeans big where you are? Like 'em or hate 'em?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Becoming Bilingual

March marked one year since our kids started school in Paris. How time flies! When we arrived, they spoke barely a word of French. Maybe "bonjour" and a garbled "comment allez-vous?" but that was about it. After a year in French schools, our two little monsters are essentially fluent. What a journey it's been.
Ready for take-off at Logan Airport in Boston, Jan 2011
First impression of France? "It's stinky!!"

Since bilingualism for kids has been in the news lately, I thought I'd fill you in on how we got here -- the highs, lows and a few recommendations.

In the Deep End

Since our kids are young (3 and 5 when they started school here) we decided to put them straight into the French schools. No bilingual education, no outside language lessons. Just learning by total immersion. Amazingly, it has worked and both now speak French incredibly well (French friends confirm this) with virtually no trace of an American accent. People told me this would happen but to be honest, I didn't believe them. I could no more picture my very American 5-year-old speaking fluent French than, well, just about anything. But he does.

The lesson for me? Kids are often capable of far more than we imagine.

Don't get me wrong; it hasn't all been easy. We've had many teary mornings and excruciating preschool drop-offs, especially during Adele's first few months. There were days that she had to be literally peeled off my body and forcibly kept in her classroom. Those were very tough days. I left that school building many mornings in tears myself, imagining my "baby" lost in a foreign environment unable to understand a word being said around her. I fought the urge everyday to grab her in my arms and run to the nearest English language preschool just to ease the pain of that early transition.

People kept telling me it would get better. "Give it three months," they'd say. (Three months!? I couldn't imagine.) "One day, she'll run into that school with a smile on her face and even forget to give you a goodbye kiss. You'll see!" You know what? They were right.

Adele, now almost 5, loves her French school and sings and dances her way to school each day (well most days, anyway). But boy was it tough. There were many times I felt like the most horrible mother on the planet. I had to remind myself constantly that this was a "gift" to the kids in the long run; that one day they'd *hopefully* be grateful for this experience.

Say what?

Since both Cole and Adele were (and still are) learning new words in English in addition to French, there's some serious "Franglais" going on in our house. Sometimes they just forget the English word, like "I want the rouge one!" or the languages just get mixed up in their little heads, especially with school-related words, like "Mommy, I got a new cahier (notebook) today for my devoirs (homework)."

It's truly amazing to watch them play and interact seamlessly with their French friends. They know the same songs, playground chants and games. Many are just like ours, of course, just with a Gallic twist. "Rock, paper, scissors," for example, is "Un, deux, trois, puis fait....ciseax (scissors)!" (Same intonation and hand motion.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise is how Cole and Adele speak French with one another, even with no French pals around. Or how within a chosen game, they'll float effortlessly back and forth between the two languages, using whichever seems more appropriate for the activity of the moment.

Sometimes I worry about their English skills and what this will mean for them when we return to the States someday. But this, I figure, is yet another bridge we'll cross when the time comes.

Appetite for English

So while our kids are busily immersed in French, parents here are desperate for English. There's a clear understanding -- albeit bittersweet -- that English is the language of the future and that to excel, speaking English well will be essential. I get asked almost weekly if I'm offering English lessons or would be willing to do language exchanges.

I finally decided to give it a shot and have formed a weekly English playgroup for kids ages 4 - 7. One afternoon a week, we meet in our local park and spend 90 minutes singing, playing and interacting in English. The experience has confirmed my personal (and totally unscientific) theories for learning a foreign language.

There are two short cuts: 1) If possible, start young. Before age 7 or 8, the brain will absorb the new words without translating from the mother tongue. This allows kids to assimilate the new language (and its proper pronunciation) without filtering it through their native framework (as adults do). 2) Immersion is best. An intensive, immersion experience is going to yield results much more quickly and effectively than months spent studying in a classroom. That said, it's going to be much tougher initially than a bilingual environment. But if you can ride out the tough months, it will pay dividends over the long haul.

Having now spent years "studying" French myself, I know I'll never speak it as well or with the same ease that my children do. (Alas, my kids seem to know this, too). Ah well, I keep trying...