A Seine swim? Oui or non?

Paris wouldn’t be Paris without the Seine.

The river’s no less than the city’s raison d’etre—it all started with a fishing village on what’s now the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine, established by the Parisii tribe around 250 BCE. The Seine literally bisects the city, and in modern Paris, it’s truly a “working river”—a busy thoroughfare of commercial barges carrying freight and bateaux-mouches carrying tourists. And along its banks, people walk, jog, picnic, kiss, and fish.

What people don’t do, however, is swim in the Seine. Paris à la Nage (Swim Paris) is aiming to change that. A month after the Olympics, on September 2, Paris à la Nage wants to resuscitate an event that was started in 1905 and last staged 70 years. Basically, it’s a race in the Seine.

But the French police have issued a loud resounding “non.” Paris à la Nage’s modern-day organizers (who include a former French Olympiad) have planned two race distances (2.5 km and 10 km) and have had 3,300 people register already. But the official word from Préfecture de Police de Paris is that the waters of the Seine are “of manifestly insufficient quality for swimming” and the event would cause an unacceptable interruption in the river’s commercial and tourist traffic.

The Paris à la Nage organizers haven’t given up. They’re appealing the decision. They’ve set up an online petition. And they’re stirring the waters in the media. I’m betting that, no matter what happens to their appeals, there’ll be some swimming in the Seine in just a few weeks.

70 years after Vel’ d’Hiv

On several occasions in aimless walks around Paris, I’ve seen plaques like this one on schools. It’s not hard to make out the meaning.

Today, scrolling through French news sites (thinking it was time for a blog post, and I needed a subject), this is the headline that grabbed by attention:

Hollande acknowledges French role in Holocaust.

I was confused. “Acknowledges French role”? Wasn’t it completely common knowledge that this was a dark, ignoble piece in France’s history…that tens of thousands of Jews were systematically deported…that the Vichy government openly collaborated with the Nazis? But then I read the article. Until President Hollande’s speech, only former president Jacques Chirac in 1995 had publicly and explicitly spoken out about France’s culpability.

The occasion of Hollande’s speech was the 70th anniversary of of a two-day period in July 1942 when the French police rounded up more than 13,000 Jews. It was known as the “Vel’ d’Hiv” roundup, short for Velodrome d’Hiver, a cycling stadium that was mere blocks from the Eiffel Tower. It was a “holding spot”for thousands of men, women and children before they were taken to Auschwitz.

Just days before Hollande made headlines (“…this crime was committed in France, by France”), the French police archives relating to this deportation were opened to the public for the first time. Even a single photo of a few documents is painful to look at.

Names of French Jews deported by the police to Auschwitz, from the Archives of Paris Police Prefecture (photo credit: Remy de la Mauviniere/AP)

Paris’s only official “monument” to the 200,000 Jews sent to concentration camps is the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation—a tiny spot tucked behind Notre Dame, almost unnoticeable, but ironically on the site of a former morgue.

(photos of the Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation: Keith Miles)

Louis Malle loved bike racing.

Fifty years ago, in 1962, one of the greats of French film turned his cameras on the spectacle of the Tour de France. Louis Malle, it turns out, loved cycling almost as much as he loved filmmaking.

His 18-minute Vive Le Tour! is a sweet little gem of a documentary. About bike racing, yes…but just as much about Malle’s countrymen and women who stood outside their village café or boulangerie or farmhouse to cheer on packs of gaunt guys on bicycles. Then and now, bike racing is not a bourgeois sport.

I re-watched Vive Le Tour! tonight. Fitting, I thought, since this year’s Tour de France will end in Paris on Sunday. And because this year (barring a catastrophe), a Frenchman will be on that famous podium in the middle of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Thomas Voeckler will wear the coveted polka dot King of the Mountain jersey. He could run for president of France next week with that win.

If you want to watch the last days of the 2012 Tour de France, you can watch NBC Sports. If you want to see a glimpse of the Tour 50 years ago, you can see it here (in two parts)…

p.s. Just interesting…. Also in 1962, before he filmed Vive Le Tour!, Malle marked his return to documentary filmmaking by spending four months in Algeria, war-torn and at the height of its struggle for independence from France.

Big day on the roads of France

A big day in France. French rider Thomas Voeckler won the 10th stage of the 99th Tour de France. No, he won’t win the overall Tour. (The last Frenchman to do so was Bernard Hinault in 1985. It’s been a long dry spell.)

But it’s a big deal. A very big deal. Voeckler is already a sort of national hero, having won two stages in a previous Tour. A single stage win in the three-week race (no matter what country you’re from) puts your name in the history books…and guarantees someone will always pick up your bar tab in France for the rest of your life..

Red, white, blue…and stripes.

(A re-do of a 4th of July post I did for Nashville style blog, Stella Shops.)

In a long list of French fashion standouts, the striped sailor’s shirt hasn’t changed much in over 150 years. And like so many French classics, we have the independent style revolutionary Coco Chanel to thank. In 1917, she started carrying these striped shirts in her shop in the elegant seaside resort of Deauville—popularizing the French navy’s uniform item as de rigueur apparel for the vacationing chic.

I’ve love all the recent derivations of this striped wonder. But really, the original is where it’s at. After all, it was good enough for Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Bridget Bardot, Andy Warhol and the Ramones….

Since 1871, these striped classics have been manufactured by a small French company that shares the name of the Normandy town where it’s based—Saint James. The original Saint James contract was with the Marine Nationale, the French navy. A government act degreed that sailors all wear striped shirts as part of their uniforms—the better to spot the unfortunate guy who fell overboard. The earliest version had exactly 21 stripes, one for each of Napoleon’s naval victories against the British (or so it’s said).

Saint James now produces a dizzying array of these classics, in varied weights, colors and styles (including some pretty swank collaborations like the one launched last year on Bastille Day with nightlife impresario André and The Standard—and completely sold out, btw).

I vote for the original model, though. Along with red lipstick, ballet flats, a cigarette, and an independent point of view.

Americans in Paris.

I feel sorry for people who say they don’t like to read. And that pity is particularly pronounced when I find myself in the midst of a book that makes me imagine the world in a whole new light. David McCullough’s latest, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, is one of those. (And, the fact that my copy came to me from Paris—a sweet gift from an American friend who’s lived there for decades—makes it even better.)

The book’s review in the New York Times was titled “How Paris Created America”—and the headline is apt. The Americans who crossed the ocean to the French capital in the mid-19th century were citizens of a very young country. They sought Paris as a place at the zenith—in the arts, in science and medicine, in literature. They studied, they observed, they wrote, they painted—and, like generations of Americans ever since, they were seduced, transfixed and transformed by their time there. Continue reading

Just a little 90-hour bike ride in France…

It’s Sunday, August 21. About 9 p.m. in my neck of the woods. In France, it’s early Monday morning. Still dark, and the entire country’s basically on vacation. But right now, on country roads from Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines (a suburb just outside Paris) to Brest (a city on the Normandy coast in northwest France), more than 5,000 people are on their bikes.

They’re participating in Paris-Brest-Paris 2011, the oldest bicycling event in the world that’s still regularly run. Their goal: ride 750 miles from the Paris suburb to Brest, and back again. If they’re tired, they’ll sleep by the side of the road. If they’re hungry, they eat what they’ve packed — or buy something along the way. If they have a flat tire, they fix it themselves. There are regular checkpoints, and they have to stop at each one. And they have to get back to Paris in 90 hours or less. Continue reading

Coco Chanel. Not so pretty.

It’s Coco’s birthday. The woman who gave us the little black dress, the pop of faux pearls (lots of ’em), the iconic quilted handbag, and that I’d-know-it-anywhere jacket. Not to mention the famous perfume. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was born 128 years ago today, and her imprint on fashion remains strong, pervasive and very lucrative.

This week, though, Chanel’s making news in a different vein. A new biography just released — Sleeping With the Enemy by Hal Vaughn — claims that the German military intelligence officer she was involved with was a Nazi master spy who reported directly to the infamous Joseph Goebbels, that Coco herself was a genuine operative involved in a number of clandestine missions, that she had her own code name (Westminster), and that she was fully and completely a German collaborator—with all the perks thereof.

I’m no Chanel expert. But reviews of the book’s research are compelling (though it’s not all new news). It is not a pretty story. And as you’d expect, its publication caused significant heartburn for the House of Chanel, with the usual statement of rebuttal issued. Continue reading

Happy 99th birthday, Julia Child!

Today, August 15, the great and grand American doyenne of French cooking, Julia Child, would have been 99 years old. She died in 2004, mere days before turning 94.

She was plenty famous during her lifetime, of course (thanks in no small part to those wonderful PBS shows). But with the talents of Nora Ephron (who wrote the Julie and Julia screenplay) and Meryl Streep (who played Julia with such lovely aplomb) and Julie Powell (who started the Julie and Julia blog project long ago in August 2002, which became the book, which became the movie) — Julia Child is now firmly and forever entrenched in the pantheon of culinary culture and history. And thank god for that….

I love the woman. When I think about that stupid question we’ve all been asked  —“Who would you like ot have dinner with, living or dead?” — Julia’s always on my top-10 list. Not Jesus, not Einstein, not Ghandhi, not even Shakespeare (well, maybe Shakespeare). But always, always Julia.

And yes, I own Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In two volumes (mine is the 1981 edition, the 32nd printing).

But now, for the blasphemy. As a cookbook, MtAoFC sort of sucks. Continue reading

Paris honey. Sweet local luxury.

And you thought all that “buzz” was about the monogrammed handbags…

When I read last week that the eponymous luxury company, Louis Vuitton, was harvesting honey from hives on the rooftop of its Champs-Elysées flagship, I imagined eager tourists swarming to purchase little monogrammed jars of miel, along with the latest “it” bag.

Louis Vuitton’s honey (yes, the monogram’s still there)

It turns out that Louis Vuitton’s latest product will only be shared with “friends,” however —and the designer’s not even close to a trendsetter in the Paris beehive business.

There are hives on top of the Opéra Garnier and the glass-domed Grand Palais. Even on top of the modern Opéra Bastille, homebase of Paris’s national opera. The beehives in the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens have been there since the mid-19th century and now produce half a ton of honey every year. It goes on sale each September for just two days and is a favorite gift item for French senators (the Senate is housed in the Luxembourg Palace). The beehive count across Paris is around 300 — with hives in public parks, on private rooftops, and on the grounds of a hospital run by the good Sisters of the Visitation. But the location that most intriqued me was the National Veterinary Museum (in line with that very Paris tradition of having a museum to just about everything). [David Lebovitz‘s Living the Sweet Life in Paris blog has more on this and the French passion for local honey.] Continue reading