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Posts tagged ‘france’

Notre Dame and me

I’ve split my life between France and the United States, but with my business established in San Francisco and decades in California under my belt,  people inevitably ask me “do you feel more American or more French?” I invariably answer I feel I am both equally.

But that sort of 50/50 split is a convenience of conversation, not a reality. The truth is: it depends.

I had just arrived in Paris that afternoon, April 15th, when Notre Dame burst into flames, at that moment every French fiber in my body was awakened. You never feel more a part of your country as when it is threatened or when something catastrophic happens.

Most of my life in Paris was spent a 12-minute walk from Notre Dame and now, the air filled with smoke. I walked with my 85-year-old aunt to the edge of the Seine. We saw the roof collapse. The sun set, the fire raged on and we walked home, I read her Twitter updates. It really looked like it was going to collapse, especially seeing it with my own eyes. We kept the news on until midnight—when it finally became clear the cathedral could be saved.

The cathedral is still standing and it will be fixed. But the damage done to my national identity,  the fear and fragility I— we all felt—standing in the streets of Paris watching that towering inferno has stuck in the air.

looking at Notre Dame from the Pont Royal

It’s easy to feel more American on the days I am dealing with clients in Ohio and getting a burger at the Ferry Building. I forgot how fragile my world identity and sense of order is. It never occurred to me that Notre Dame and I were so intertwined. I took her for granted.  I would glance at her quickly as I walked by and my visits were always hurried (usually taking my mother to mass or showing a friend around). I never lingered. I thought she would be there long after I had passed, that there would always be another chance.

When she was on fire, I realized that if Notre Dame fell I would never feel quite the same. It would leave a hole in my heart. Even now, walking near the hulled out darken stone, I feel a sadness that is hard to understand. Tourists take pictures and without Notre Dame to envelop them, there is always standstill foot and car traffic.

I look away, walking out of my way, avoiding her. I feel guilt, as if I have neglected my own French identity by not being more careful when I had the chance.

Who knows where my national identity will go next week. All I know is, right now, I can’t say I am half American and half French. I feel a hundred percent French: grumpy, intellectual, cynical and very sentimental all at the same time.

Going Off Season

This November, I went on an architectural tour of Italy and Southeastern France. It included Venice, then La Tourette by Le Corbusier and astounding mines of Ronchamp.

This tour was first real off-season vacation I’ve ever taken and after it, I’ve decided the off-season is the only season! Especially you’re a bit of a seasoned and cynical traveller like me.

And having a vacation where I could truly relax and enjoy my surroundings, unfettered by other tourists, I was reminded of three important lessons.

  1. Timing is Everything

I normally travel in the summer and end up resenting fellow tourists almost as much as the locals. But France in November? No lines, no long waits, easy to nab reservations at great restaurants. On one of our last nights, we even had an 11th century Chateau all to ourselves!

Château d'Island Avallon Vézelay

Château d’Island Avallon Vézelay


It is a different experience, being in an almost-empty museum or taking a guided tour with no other tourists. There is more time for contemplation and pure appreciation. Your experienced isn’t marred or affected by others.

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France vs. US: Round One

The World Cup has brought out my duality. On one hand, I root for the French whole-heartedly but on the other, I feel an attraction to the ever under-dog American team (perhaps because in athletics, we infrequently are). Maybe it’s because I just got back from Paris, maybe it’s the unseasonable warm actual-summer San Francisco weather, but I am feeling torn.

Somehow comparing the two countries is a national sport in America. But I never feel that kind of zeal. The only way to reconcile these kinds of feelings is through careful comparison and observation. But where do I begin? Education? Health Insurance? Politics? No, the only way to truly do this is through food.

Which stacks up better? Where does France reign supreme? I am going to tell you the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the truly important differences between the two cultures.

The butter is better in France. I do not care what fabulous organic creamery lost in the hills of Vermont or the green fields of California made your butter, the average French butter, bought at your corner store, tastes better. I personally recommend Président.


I should note that there is a savory alternative to Président: Echirié. A butter so smooth, sprinkled with a little sea salt from the Camargue. Mon dieu, as we like to say.

With the butter there is another essential ingredient: the ham. And the ham is better in France. I know you trekked thirty-seven miles to buy that incredible organic ham, which is wrought from a herdof 15 porks. Or you found a butcher who exists in a cave in Wisconsin.  In France, you could go to your local French butcher and have gotten the best ham of your life. No trekking or cave involved.  The butcher might seem like an antiquated profession but trust me: you want someone in your life that knows how to slice leg of lamb, how to carve a cow and how to best present a duck breast.

And finally there is the bread. I don’t know what it is in France but even my daughter, who lives in New York, complains of never being able to find quality bread. It could be the water or the flour in France, or maybe the fact that thousands of bakeries are all competing for your business, but the bread is better here. Should I also note that the French people do not seem to be decimated by gluten allergies? Go figure.


Of course, there are some metaphors in these. The quality of food on a basic level is just better in France.

But best of all–these three ingredients? They combine to make the best sandwich, un jambon beurre on a baguette. Who needs all the fuss all the food trucks all the crazy ingredients, in France these thee basic elements are the holy trinity.


Maybe Modernism is More –

Maybe Modernism is More –

I recently went on vacation to a small hamlet in the south of France called Esparon. During the “off-season,” it boasts a population of 15 which swells to a daunting 45 during summer. Everything built on top of this little mountain is over 300 years old.

At first, you are overwhelmed by the antiquity of style – the stone work, the arches found everywhere, the low-ceilings and never-to-be-paved routes. But the minimalism also had me thinking about modernism. Not modernism with high tech cellphones and solar panels but architecture that is true to itself. Esparon is a place where buildings are striped of their pretentiousness so that they only reveal the structural forces that make it possible for them to exist. It is the antithesis of mannerist because here less is definitely more.

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