First Things First!

(Part One:  Mostly Non-Food Tips)

What you need to know on your first trip to France …

I have welcomed dozens of house-guests into my home over the 16+ years I have lived in France.  Many were well-travelled, having been to myriad countries outside of the US and North America, as well as to numerous states in the US.  A handful, however, were European “newbies” and, thus, had lots of questions, and a few anxieties, about their first time being across The Atlantic.  Being out of their element and wanting to avoid embarrassing faux pas, they naturally needed to know how things are different from back home.  Through this experience, I have learned to tell my “newbie” guests these things on their very first day:

Yes, You Can Drink the Tap Water

Although you might not be able to guess this by watching my French neighbors buying stockpiles of bottled spring water at the grocery store, you can drink the safe and frequently-tested tap water in France.  Many French buy bottled water for its taste and mineral content.  The water is safe to drink almost everywhere in western Europe.  Because the water from desalination plants makes the tap water taste “funny” on Malta, however, most residents drink bottled water there, even though the tap water is safe.

To encourage Parisians to drink more tap water, the city’s water utility company has informative exhibits on how Paris gets its water at its visitor center (popular with local teachers and their classes).  Add this to your list of little-known-but-interesting places to see on your next trip.  Before leaving, snap up one of the charming Made-in-France carafes and serve your own tap water in your authentic “Eau de Paris” carafe d’eau when you get back home.  The carafes sport cute designs (the Paris skyline and monuments, for example) and make practical souvenirs.  The visitor center is free; the carafes are 10 Euros each.  Link:

Say “Bonjour” First … ALWAYS!

You are polite back home, of course.  You often greet people with “Good morning” or “Hello” before asking questions; but at other times, just your smile, tone of voice, word choice, demeanor, or eye contact with a little tilt of the head is enough of a polite greeting or acknowledgement before asking questions or soliciting assistance.  Not so in France!  There’s just one way to be polite with shopkeepers, new acquaintances and strangers: “Bonjour!”  Even more polite is “Bonjour, Madame” or “Bonjour, Monsieur.”  Practice before you get on the plane, so you are ready when you land.  Follow up with practicing excusez-moi, pardon, s’il vous plait, merci, merci beaucoup, au revoir, bonsoir, bonne journée and bonne soirée … and then pack your bags.  Greet every shopkeeper as you enter his or her establishment with “Bonjour!”  Wherever you travel, using good local manners will make your interactions with residents more pleasant.  Your mom and your kindergarten teacher told you so!

You May Need to Pay to Pee

It can be challenging to find a public restroom while wandering the streets of Paris.  But cafés, brasseries, and bars are everywhere.  Pop into one, order un café (it’s cheapest at the bar, if they have one), and then go find les toilettes.  At some establishments, you’ll need to get a little jeton (token) to put into the lock-box on the toilet door.  Private restaurant “water closets” are for customers only; you pay to pee by buying a cup of coffee.  Some parks, shopping malls and department stores make you pay to pee now, too—but that also means they are attended, clean and well-stocked with the necessities.  This is a good reason to get a few Euros from an ATM soon after arrival; look for one in the airport.

Unisex Bathrooms Are Normal

There are many unisex restrooms in France.  The bathrooms inside your own home are all unisex, but you aren’t used to sharing them with complete strangers, of course!  Even when separate stalls are marked for men and women, in many restrooms the handwashing area is shared by all.  If a woman comes into the restroom and finds her designated stall already in use, don’t be surprised if she ducks into an empty men’s stall, and sometimes vice versa—which means no one will mind if you do it, too.  When in Rome, and all that.  Oh, and locate the light switches on the stall wall upon entering, so when the timer turns the light off you aren’t fumbling in the dark for too long!  Reflect on what a great energy-saving feature this is while fumbling.

Taxes and Tips Are Already Included in the Prices

The price tags on merchandise already include the taxes.  And, in restaurants, prices on the menus already include both the taxes and the tip (usually 15%).  You don’t need to leave extra, although many folks round the bill up to the nearest Euro or leave a few coins.  Americans will often leave an extra 5%, but it’s OK if you don’t.

Don’t Handle the Produce in the Market Stalls

In regular grocery stores, you select your own produce, and then bag it and weigh it yourself. The market merchants do this for you in most open-air markets.  It is rude to handle, squeeze and sniff the food there!  Market vendors consider themselves experts on the fresh produce and other foods they sell, and are proud of their offerings and service to their customers.  Ask questions, yes, but please don’t touch.  This holds true for the antiquarian booksellers or bouquinistes who operate out of those dark green, clam-shell stalls perched on the walls along the Seine—it’s best to ask to handle the old prints, books and papers … just in case.  Even better:  ask to handle only if you really intend to buy something!

Carry a Reusable Shopping Bag

France is moving away from wasteful and polluting, single-use, plastic bags and encouraging everyone to carry their own reusable bags.  I carry “stuffable,” washable nylon ones.  If you are not offered a bag for your purchases (very common now), and you don’t have any with you, just ask for them and you will be charged a nominal fee per bag for what you need.  The cashiers have a stash to sell you.

In Part Two, I will address some basic food tips “newbies” should have before venturing into their first Paris restaurant.  And, now for the haiku:


Wandering from home …

Step in the right direction

To avoid faux pas 


It’s La Fête de la Chandeleur (or Candlemas) Today!

And in France, That Means Crêpes!

It will be difficult to find a seat in a French crêperie today, February 2nd.  Families and groups of friends will be eating crêpes in restaurants, or at home; and crêpe parties are common among colleagues at the office, too.  Why?  Because it’s la fête de la Chandeleur, of course!  For Christians, the feast day marks the presentation of Jesus at the temple.

But why celebrate with crêpes, exactly?  A source of English-language news on France, “The Local,” enlightens us here:

While based originally on a religious observance involving the blessing of candles and candle-lit processions in churches, even the non-religious enjoy the fun of la Chandeleur crêpe-making traditions, and its associated good-luck game, too.  To play, hold a gold coin in your left hand while tossing and catching a crêpe in a frying pan with your right hand.  If you are successful, you will be rich in the coming year!

While crêpes with sweet fillings from stalls and open-window, take-away outlets in Paris make wonderful snacks and street-food, a perfect meal at a crêperie consists of a savory crêpe as your main course, a sweet one for dessert, and a bowl of cidre, or hard cider.   My favorite crêpe-on-the-run combination is banana with dark chocolate—it’s almost a meal replacement on a busy day!

A Typical Crêperie Meal

Main course:  The savory crêpes, called a galettes or galettes de sarrasin, are made with an unsweetened buckwheat flour batter, and are available with numerous combinations of meats, veggies, cheeses and sauces, often topped with an egg, if you wish.  You’ll typically find ham, tuna, chicken, tomatoes, lettuce, mushrooms, cheese and ratatouille among your choices.

Dessert:  The sweet crêpes, called crêpes de froment, are made from a slightly sweetened wheat flour batter, and are offered with choices such as butter and sugar, salty-butter caramel, berries, whipped cream, chocolate, jams (or confitures), banana, and a hazelnut-chocolate spread (often Nutella), among many others.

Beverage:  The traditional beverage to enjoy with crêpes is chilled cidre, a “hard” apple cider with alcohol content similar to beer.  The brut versions are drier and have slightly higher alcohol content than the sweeter doux versions.  Some restaurants offer it in pitchers, while others offer it only in full bottles.

And, now for the haiku, of course!

B&W gargoyles haiku

Crepe-maker 2012


August 15, 2014

Still enough summer left for a picnic or two! 

A quintessential summer joy, picnicking can be enjoyed by almost anyone, within any budget.  Parisians love picnics; and Paris is very “picnicable.”   Whether simple and impromptu with bohemian flair, or extravagant and well-organized with white linen, le picnic is très chic and tourists can join right in!

While parks and gardens are natural picnic spots, I zero-in today on one place where picnicking is especially popular among young and young-at-heart adults–the riverside quays around the western tip of the Ile Saint-Louis–and point you to a few shops nearby that can outfit you deliciously for a perfect Paris picnic.  (Families with young children, however, may want to pick safer, grassier locales away from the river banks.)

Instead of carrying all of your picnic provisions on the metro, try making the “treasure hunt” for your perfect picnic repast part of the day’s adventure and fun by buying what you need in the little shops on the island itself. (The closest metro stop is Pont Marie on Line 7.)

What will you find for your picnic basket?  Baguettes; all types of charcuterie including dried sausages (saucisson sec), pâtés, terrines, and rillettes (“potted” meats); hard and soft cheeses; butter, jams (les confitures), tapenades and other spreads; yogurts, fresh veggies and fruit; antipasti, cornichons (tiny gherkin pickles) and olives; water, wine and beer; and desserts.  If you forget a knife or a cork screw, there’s a shop for those as well!

There are several places to get bread and baguettes on the island.  Try Auvray Delices at 35 rue des Deux Ponts, which also has sandwiches, boxed salads, wonderful pastries and some soft drinks.  For fresh veggies, fruit and squeezed-while-you-wait orange juice bottled on site, go to green-grocer Les Vergers de L’île St-Louis at 23-25 rue des Deux Ponts.  There are several fromageries for cheeses, but the one still open in August is La Ferme Saint Aubin at 76 rue Saint-Louis-en-l’ile.  Some sandwiches and little savory quiches or tarts are on offer here, too.

If you are a true gourmet, however, take your picnic up a notch gastronomically and head to 38 Saint Louis at 38 rue Saint-Louis-en-L’île.  Specializing in small-producer delicacies and excellent wines, 38 Saint Louis is serious about good food, produced with care and pride.  The stock at this épicerie fine shop has been carefully and personally selected by the proprietors, one of whom, Thibault, told me that “food is our first medicine; we should put only good food into our bodies.”  This is the place to pick up chilled rosé wine (and good chilled beer), fresh antipasti, top-shelf charcuterie, farm-made fresh yogurts, and special cheeses.  The brebis from Corsican sheep I brought home was tasty, complex, sweet, and firm, but melt-in-your-mouth creamy and smooth on the tongue—excellent!

If you need some basics, there is a pair of convenience stores on the island; one of which is Le Marché des Iles at 19 rue des Deux Ponts.  And, if you forgot either a knife or corkscrew, stop in and treat yourself to a true Made-in-France, quality souvenir at Coutellerie Laguiole Paris, 35 rue des Deux Ponts.  They have a huge selection of pocket-knives and corkscrews made with rare artisan craftsmanship!   They are among my favorite French keepsakes, and practical to boot.

And last, but not least—dessert!  Although you could take a dessert along in your picnic basket, you might want to pack up, stretch your legs and take a leisurely walk around the island in search of … ice cream.  Almost no visit to the Ile Saint-Louis is complete without sampling Berthillon’s famous ice creams and sorbets (about 40 flavors each, with seasonal variations), at 29-31 rue Saint-Louis-en-l’ile.

Using only fresh milk, cream, sugar, eggs and natural flavors (vanilla bean, chocolate, fruits, spices, nuts, etc.), these are some of the finest frozen treats in Paris.  Taking their annual vacation in mid-summer, however, this ice cream parlor and tea salon is closed this year from July 27 to September 3.  Don’t despair!  At least half a dozen other outlets on the island sell Berthillon products, most right through windows in their storefronts.  (Note:  Raymond “Papi” Berthillon (1923-2014), the enterprise’s founder, passed away on August 9, at age 91.  I wish peace and sweet memories for his family.  I don’t think he’d mind the little pun.)

To sum up this perfect Paris picnic experience, I offer these 17 syllables:


Haiku Picnic

March 7, 2014

Anyone meandering along the banks of the Seine in central Paris will come across the dark green boxes of the bouquinistes affixed to the top of the low walls along the river, a Paris sight almost as iconic as the Eiffel Tower.  Over 200 used and antiquarian book sellers operate concessions of usually four boxes each; the 900 total boxes are estimated to contain over 300,000 volumes (mostly in French).  There are also vintage prints, magazines and journals; rare engravings, collectible stamps and old postcards.

Spanning stretches along both the Right and Left Banks of the river, you can enjoy a total of about 3km of browsing–but please ask permission to touch!  Casually pawing through the offerings just for fun is frowned upon. 

While book-selling has been an activity along this stretch of the river since at least the mid-16th century, it wasn’t until 1891 that the city allowed thebouquinistes to attach permanent boxes to the tops of the stone walls.  There is a waiting list for available boxes and a hopeful bookseller might be on the list for several years before any become available.
Lost Generation writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald browsed the offerings in boxes very similar to these, and one of the earliest “Americans in Paris” bought books here, too.  While US Ambassador to France at the end of the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson purchased numerous books from bouquinistes which eventually ended up in the early collection of the US Library of Congress, where they remain today.
Haiku Bouquinistes