Monday, March 30, 2009

Every cloud has a platinum blonde lining

For the last couple of months, I've been loathe to turn on the TV news channels for fear of being further depressed by yet another barrage of depressing financial meltdown news.

Note to CNN and BBC news editors: We get it. The world's going to hell in a handbasket. Move on already. If I am forced to watch one more besuited, newsreading automaton whip themselves into a faux frenzy about how a tumbling stock market means the end of the world is nigh, I am going to top myself.

So it was with some trepidation that I shifted my TV news viewing alliances to the French TV news channels - fully expecting that, true to French form, the French newscasts would be reveling in the misery (for a nation that has so much going for it, and so much to rejoice, it never ceases to amaze me how collectively morose the French can often be).

But after a week or so of trawling the French TV news bulletins, I discovered that while the TV news cloud hanging over France might be as grey and foreboding as everywhere else, at least it has a shiny silver (or rather, a platinum blonde) lining.

Ladies and gentlemen of my overseas blog readership - I give you Laurence Ferrari. The souped-up, go-faster, shiny, racing-stripe, flashy model of a modern TV newsreader.

Ms Ferrari was embroiled in somewhat of a scandale last year when she was parachuted into France's highest profile newsreading gig - the evening news bulletin on the main commercial channel, TF1.

Her elevation to this plum post resulted in the incumbent, Patrick Poivre d'Arvor being put out to newsreader pasture, and was apparently only coincidentally linked to the fact Ms Ferrari had spent the latter part of 2007 dating French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

And so Laurence sits in my living room every night, pouting her way through the troubles of the world. A perfectly positioned beauty spot atop her lip, a pair of brown eyes that seem to hypnotise, a voice whose timbre hovers somewhere between come-hither husky and supremely bored. It's incredibly sexy.

And so now each night, I find myself watching the world crumble, the markets crash, the environment dwindle with a misty-eyed stare and stupid grin.

Do I want the good news or the bad news? As long as Laurence is reading it, I don't much care.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Merci indeed ...

What would a Friday morning in Paris be without a visit to your local neighbourhood so-hip-it-hurts, uber-groovy design-concept-fashion-homeware store?

The creative brains trust behind the French children's clothing range, Bonpoint, have recently opened a vast new space which I think I can confidently predict will become the Paris shopping destination du jour for 2009.

Located on Boulevard Beaumarchais, just down the rue from our apartment, the store occupies an impressive 1500m2 - a fact only hinted at by the modest entrance and street exterior. From the decidedly New York-esque library space (selling all manner of fantastic second hand books for dirt cheap prices), to the Annick Goutal perfume lab, to the underground cafeteria space that gives onto a herb garden courtyard and the groovy men's and women's fashion departments, there's a little something for everyone at Merci.

And as if to prove that being de rigeur on the Paris shopping scene and having a social conscience are not necessarily mutually exclusive, a percentage of all sales at Merci go towards charitable causes in Madagascar (the country, not the DreamWorks animated film).

Together with our friend, photographer extraordinaire Carla Coulson, we lingered for a pleasant hour in the library-cum-cafe. One member of our party used the occasion to gurn in the shop window. For the life of us, his mother and I cannot work out where he gets his exhibitionist streak from.

To see what I mean, allow me to re-direct you to Carla's blog. Her photos do much greater justice to the Merci shopping experience, and capture the impromptu street performance turned on by the smallest member of the Corbett clan.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Showgirl cupcakes

Please excuse the laziness with this blog post. It's the end of a long day - a day when I took my first tentative steps to getting rid of some of the winter flab by working out with a personal trainer.

As a result of the torture - I mean, the carefully constructed cardio-vascular and muscular workout that Toni the-pocket-rocket-Spaniard put me through this afternoon, I can barely move my arms, much less type.

Hence, I am copping out by referring you to a blog entry that I wrote for the tastefully talented Mr David Lebovitz - food blogger extraordinaire and fellow inhabitor of Paris' intrinsically groovy 11th arrondissement. David lives just down the road - and as any of you who regularly follow his blog will know, he cooks and bakes like a demon - which is sure to ruin the monastic diet that Toni has prepared for me. On the subject of which, I have a question: is it wrong or somehow sacreligious to live in Paris, the food capital of the world, and be on a diet? Personally, I think so...
But I digress.

If you follow this link to David's blog, you can read all about the cupcakes that my exceptionally talented wife, Shay likes to bake. And yes, the accompanying photo is one of Shay at work, on stage at the Lido, where she high-kicks each night for a living.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Revealed: the real reason French women don't get fat

A couple of years back, an utterly irksome French woman wrote an equally irksome book called "French Women Don't Get Fat". Trading on a well-worn stereotype and playing to the collective fears of larger-boned women in other countries, the book tore its tedious way up best-seller lists all across the developed world.

The author, a cringeworthy old matron from Paris' rareified 16th arrondissement, maintained that French women remain svelte by eating small portions and taking the stairs instead of the lift.

In my book* (*denotes gratuitous, self-serving plug), I argue that the reason French women are generally so slim is because of the nervous energy they expend worrying who their husband is sleeping with** (**denotes gross generalisation about an entire nation's apparent lack of marital fidelity).

But the truth it seems, is altogether more pedestrian.

While wandering down my rue this morning, I noticed this poster in the window of my local pharmacie. It's an ad for a pair of tights that in my home country might euphemistically be referred to as "control tights". In the interests of calling a spade a spade, these tights are essentially a modern day girdle - an item of apparel whose sole purpose is to suck in a lady's tummy.

"Two sizes less, WITHOUT DIET (and) WITHOUT SPORT" declares the advertisement.
Non-French women of the world take note. You can stop beating yourself up over why you appear to packing a few more pounds than your average French counterpart. The fact is, you're not. You're just not cunning (or weight-obsessed) enough to hide them behind a pair of super-tight stockings.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Who are the people in your neighbourhood?

Am I the only person old enough to remember a segment on Sesame Street called “Who are the people in your neighbourhood?”

It was the part of the show when Maria or Luis would sing this catchy little ditty about the people who comprised the Sesame Street quartier – the butcher, baker, the hip-hop music maker. Hey, it was set in Brooklyn afterall.

There’s not a day goes by here in Parigi that I am not entertained by the cast of characters that make up my neighbourhood. And so, gentle reader, I humbly present the first in a series of mini-portraits of the people that make up my neighbourhood.

But first, some context. We live on Rue Oberkampf – a lively street in Paris’ 11th arrondissement. If you were looking at a map of Paris, we are just to the north west of the Ile de la Cité (Notre Dame et al – generally considered the centre of the city). Our quartier, Oberkampf, is about a ten minute walk to Bastille and the Marais, a twenty minute walk to Notre Dame, and twenty five minutes to the Left Bank (but as confirmed Right Bankers, we rarely venture over that side of the river.)

Rue Oberkampf is what is known in French as a rue commercant ie: a street packed with grocers, bakers, butchers, patisseries, fishmongers, cheese shops, chocolatiers. It’s super convenient, with every delicious French foodstuff you can imagine at your feet – and makes for a colourful neighbourhood packed with all sorts of interesting characters. Not least among whom is Charlie – the local fishmonger.

Even in rue Oberkampf, a street packed with eccentrics, Charlie is a stand-out. He runs a little fish shop that functions as more of a stage on which Charlie performs than any kind of effective, seafood-vending small business. Charlie has been known to mount photo exhibitions in his shop

Charlie is also gay – and he proclaims it joyfully with rainbow flags and flyers for gay magazines and soirées and photos of him with his boyfriends plastered all over the shop. As far as I am aware, his sexual orientation has no bearing on his ability to monger fish – yet there it is everyday, hung out for inspection with his filets of sole and coquilles St Jacques.

Charlie is what the French like to call “une personnage” and “un animateur du quartier”, meaning his presence and activities in the neighbourhood liven the place up. As indeed they do.

And no more so than the current exhibit that Charlie has created in his fish shop. Installed back in February to mark Valentine’s Day (because he’s an old romantic at heart), the exhibit features large posters of semi-naked men and more red feather boa than you could poke a Vegas showgirl at. The posters are the blown-up, display covers of Tetu magazine – the French mag for gay men. Each poster – and there are about 40 of them - is framed by a long chain of red feather boa. A legion of dewy-eyed Adonises presiding over the perch.

It’s been six weeks now since the exhibit was mounted, and the boas are starting to sag. I can’t begin to imagine the kinds of health and hygeine laws such a display would be contravening in my home country. But here in France, anything goes. Vive Charlie, et vive la France.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A little ray of sunshine

Has the unseasonally early onset of spring made the French all just a little bit giddy (today was the fourth consecutive day of glorious sunshine) or are they losing their grip on their celebrated, studied aloofness?

Whatever the reason for this little ray of sunshine (see photo), it put a spring in my step today and hence I will simply be thankful for it.

"Protest recession!" implored a piece of street art, stuck to a wall on Rue Vieille du Temple in the 3rd arrondissement. "Please dress up!"

And it occurred to me that there, in that one simple sentiment, plastered to an unprepossessing grey wall in a quiet Paris quartier, was an example of so much that is good about the French.

So the world is falling apart, the global economy is in freefall and recession looms - but we can always frock up and make ourselves feel better. If we're going to go down, we might as well do it stylishly.

Vive la France. Vive the sunshine. Roll on spring ....

Sunday, March 15, 2009

In France, even the grass goes on strike...

Going on strike in France is a national past time. It's up there with drinking wine and eating smelly cheese as one of the inalienable rights of every French person.

And while the almost constant stream of protest marches can be a tad annoying, you have to admire the average French person's fervent belief that taking to the streets is an effective way to have their voice heard. You may not like the fact that your Vespa ride across the city is interrupted by yet another bunch of chanting refuseniks, but you respect the attachment to and belief in democracy that spurs them on.

But when lawns start to exercise their right to strike, you have to ask if it hasn't all gone a little too far.

I wandered into the Place des Vosges this morning. It was a glorious morning. It felt like the first day of spring. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, the Parisians were borderline pleasant (I even saw one or two smile ... no, really). I thought I would celebrate this uncharacteristically warm March day by stretching out on one of the Place des Vosges four identical patches of finely manicured grass.

But a sign informed me that the grass was off duty. It was having it's winter vacation - its "repos hivernal".

The lawns of Paris clearly have excellent union representation.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Getting fit - French style

If you've had the unmitigated pleasure of reading my book, A Town Like Paris (available now at all good book stores, mention my name and you might get a discount...) you'll know that I occasionally like to drop into my local gym for a spot of anthropological research.

It's always amusing to watch Parisians go about the business of getting fit. As with most activities requiring actual physical exertion, the Parisians go about it with about the same amount of gusto as most of the rest of the world reserves for the eating of offal (ie: not very much).

So it shouldn't have come as a huge surprise when yesterday, at the end of one of my infrequent sessions at the Club Med Gym (or Club Merde as it is known amongst locals for the semi-permanent stench of shit that hangs like a pall over the change rooms) the receptionist handed back my card with a complimentary bar of chocolate.

Swiss chocolatiers Milka had obviously brokered a deal with the Club Merde gyms to hand out promotional bars of their new "sugar free" chocky bars to the Parisian gym-going public.

Now, I'm no nutritionist - and it's true that I have been known to follow up a gym session with the occasional beer session - but chocolate? After a workout? At a gym? I mean, surely even the fact that it is 'sugar free' does not qualify chocolate as a wholly recommended foodstuff to follow up a workout.

I'd just spent half an hour flailing about on the treadmill. I was red-faced, sweaty and exhausted from my attempts to shed a bit of winter fat - and here was the gym offering me a chocolate bar as reward for my efforts.

Only in France ...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fashionably confused

One of the many perks of being a journalist in Paris is the occasional invitation you receive to fantastically over-the-top fashion shows.

It's Fashion Week here in Paris. The astute among you may in fact wonder if it is never NOT fashion week in Paris ... but this week is when the fashion press, the buyers and the international celebs keen for a free frock flock to the City of Light to sashay around the city for a couple of days and hope the paparrazzi notice them.

You can usually tell how fundamentally groovy a designer is by their choice of venue. From my several years experience attending fashion week shows here in Paris, I have learned that if you are a designer, there is a sliding scale of grooviness that is inversely proportional to the grottiness/obscurity/inaccessability of the venue you choose.

I once attended a Vuitton show in the run-down concrete shell of what used to be a municipal swimming pool. I've otherwise sat through shows in former convents, drafty market halls and museum basements.

Leave it to Karl Lagerfeld then - the grand-daddy of Paris fashion - to do his show in style. Along with 500 other carefully-selected chosen ones, I trooped on down to the Grand Palais on Tuesday to take my place in the audience for the Chanel ready-to-wear autumn winter collection.

Now, I don't know much about clothes, but it looks to me like the man knows what he is doing. I also don't know much about models, but I do know if some of them lean any further back while walking down the catwalk, they are going to be flat on their backs - stillettoes to the wind. Some of the girls loped down the runway as if they were engaged in a permanent game of limbo. What's with that?

Monday, March 2, 2009

No wonder he's in rehab ...

While riding my Vespa through the streets of Paris this morning, I found myself stopped at traffic lights next to the number 96 bus.

Inside was the usual collection of grey-faced commuters - wrapped in scarves and coat and clearly relishing the prospect of another exciting week at work. On the outside of the bus was an ad for the new Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston romp, "Marley and Me" (or Marley et Moi as the French would have it).

Most of you probably don't need to be told it's a silver screen adaptation of a best-selling memoir about a man who gets a dog (I haven't read it, but as far as I can gather that's about it as far as plotline goes ...)

But as a fellow aspiring sometimes writer, I am in a glass house, so I'm not about to start throwing stones at the book or the author.

What I feel more than comfortable throwing stones at is Owen Wilson. And his agent. And the momentary lapse of reason that was clearly responsible for him agreeing to appear in this film. I mean, look at that photo! How could any self-respecting Hollywood type (much less one that has appeared with distinction in several brilliant Wes Anderson movies) allow himself to be photographed and plastered on buses all over the world in such a simpering, vomit inducing pose? Cheese-a-rama. I want to gag every time I see it.

C'mon Owen. I know you've been having a rough time of it lately - but really??