Paris & France
On the eve of The Forgetting Flower‘s book release, the TFF T-shirt is in Paris with my dear friend Pierre-Marie Dufour! When he isn’t taking photos in front of flower shops and being a part-time model, he manages a magazine and travels the world. We talked about his first impressions of Paris, his translation of Dan Savage’s The Kid, a dreamy vacation home in Spain, and the secrets of the Vatican.
Who are you and what do you do for fun (either in your job or outside of your job)?
My name is Pierre, I’m 55 years old (already!) and I’ve been married to Frédéric for five years now (although we’ve been together for 15 years). My main occupation is being editor-in-chief of a magazine aimed at owners of second homes in south Brittany in France. It’s called Le Journal des Propriétaires de la baie de Quiberon.
As you can imagine, writing is one of my passions, so is culture in general. I translated the book, The Kid by Dan Savage, into French, a few years ago. I especially love to attend concerts featuring my favorite pop or jazz artists, visit art exhibitions … and read good books.
You were born and raised in France, and have lived in Paris for decades. How has the city changed since you first moved there?
I was born in Normandy, but since it was a period of economic boom, my parents moved around the country each time my dad was offered a better-paying job. They eventually settled in the Poitiers area.
In the late 1980s, I spent a year in Paris as a student. I hated it. I had very little money and thought everything was expensive. The people seemed unfriendly. Later, I moved to Paris in 1994 when I became the assistant to Fnac Music‘s general manager. After I settled in, I loved living in the City of Light. I’ve made many friends here, including my partner. Now, I love the fact that the city, as it’s one of the world’s cultural hubs, is much more environmentally friendly.
You also live in Mijas, Spain. Why did you choose Spain? What do you like about it? What’s not so great?
Through our friend Laurent, we got a chance to buy a small house with a pool overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. At first, we had no intention to buy a second home, as we thought it would diminish our opportunities to travel to other parts of the world, but we fell in love with the place. As we are now able to receive Internet through optical fiber there, I am able to work from Spain, and I try to spend at least 15 days every two months there. I even tend to extend my stay when the weather is beautiful — which is very often!
What’s not so great about Spain is Spanish people are very friendly but it is sometimes difficult to navigate through the administrative processes.
What are some of your favorite books and why?
Let’s talk about French authors. Most of their publications are not translated in English, but this one is, and it’s one of the last books I’ve read and enjoyed: In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexulality, Hypocrisy. Its author, Frédéric Martel, is a well-regarded journalist, who spent four years researching for the book. The title tells what it is all about, and I read its 500 plus pages like it was a captivating novel.
Do you have a website or project you’d like people to know about?
The magazine website is not kept up to date as it takes lots of effort to maintain. Most of our readers subscribe to the paper magazine and the rest buy it at newsstands anyway. That brings in half of our revenue. The other half comes from print advertising. Advertisers love the fact that we have a very targeted audience that they have no other way to reach. So our print magazine is still going strong after 15 years! If you’re in Brittany, you can check it out at a local newsstand.
This summer I imagine a lot of people will be visiting Paris. It’s an easy city to get around in with a compact layout and excellent subway system. It, of course, has amazing history and architecture. There are hundreds of blog posts on what to look out for and what not to miss so I won’t go into the basics of visiting. But I thought it might be useful to offer some random small tips for visiting Paris that I discovered when I lived there.
- In a store or restaurant, always start off using ‘Bonjour’ and end with ‘Merci.’ I know it sounds obvious and you may have read this before but it really matters. Many of us get nervous when we don’t speak the language and jump right in with English. Don’t. That tiny display of respect will go a long way in endearing you to them. And trust me, once you break through with a French person, they will go to great lengths to help you.
- Ask for a courtyard room in a hotel or apartment. Unless your hotel is on a one-lane, out-of-the-way street, you will probably hear street noise. Scooters are the worst. They will roar right past your window and wake you up. You’ll also hear the rumble of trucks a lot. Best to be on the quiet side.
- In a restaurant where the front door is propped open, if you can, sit far away from the door. There’s no smoke any longer in Parisian restaurants but people can smoke on the patios. That smoke can waft straight inside and onto your face as you eat.
- Speaking of eating, before I lived in Paris, I’d always wondered how they went from lunchtime until eight o’clock in the evening before they ate. Well, a lot of commuters stop at the bakery on their way home from work, around five o’clock. So, take advantage of the delicious pastries every three feet and have a snack, then eat late. If you walk in a restaurant at six or seven, they’ll barely be ready for you.
- One more thing on restaurants. You don’t have to pay to drink bottled water. You can order “un carafe d’eau,” which means you want water from the tap or sink.
- If there’s a little grocery store or restaurant that you like near wherever you’re staying, frequent it. French owners always appreciate return business and will want to get to know you.
- When visiting the Louvre, skip the tapestries and ceramics and (for me) Egyptian/Roman artifacts. Figure out the era or style of art you want to see and just visit those sections. You can be finished in three hours and not feel exhausted and overwhelmed.
- In terms of the different neighborhoods, I love Saint-Germain. It’s got the boutiques and arty quality I like in a neighborhood. But I think The Marais is the best place to stay if you’re a tourist. You can literally walk to Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Seine, The Pompidou Center, the Jardin des Tuileries, and the Place des Vosges. It’s an outstanding location for hitting all of the main attractions.
This summer if you’re visiting Paris, drop me an email! I’d love to hear about your travels! Bon voyage.
If you’re blessed to watch tennis in person at the French Open, you’re probably spending a lot of time near the Roland Garros stadium. It’s located in the lovely Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. This city formed by the merging of two former cities, Boulogne-sur-Seine on the north side and Billancourt to the south. I’ve spent a bit of time in Boulogne-Billancourt and fell in love with its quieter, more relaxed ways. If you’re a tennis tourist and don’t want to make the train ride to Paris, check out its local sights. It offers its own wonderful museums, gardens, and restaurants. Here are six things to do near Roland Garros in Boulogne-Billancourt.
A Great Crêpe Restaurant
Foodwise, there’s nothing more French than a crêpe and the restaurant Tant Qu’il Y Aura Des Bretons has outstanding ones. The restaurant, with its long name that loosely translates to “As Long As There Are Britons,” is a sophisticated yet warm establishment. It has a mid-size dining room and ample terrace. The wide selection of savory and sweet crêpes influenced by the tastes of Brittany will tempt you to order a variety and share. They also have gallettes, which is a buckwheat pancake with cheese, ham, fish or sweet ingredients. Top it all off with a great wine from their large selection and you have a delicious, authentic French dining experience.
Escudier Farmer’s Market
Whether the weather is sunny or rainy, you can visit the farmer’s market or Marché Escudier on Sundays. It’s on the Boulevard Jean Jaurès. Many locals shop here, picking out just the right strawberries and cheese and bread and breakfast sweets. They also have flowers and meats. But you have to arrive on the early side. The homemade pastries and such sell out early. In addition to the Escudier Market, an organic market along the Boulevard de la Reine takes place on Saturdays until three o’clock in the afternoon.
Botanical Garden of Paris
If you like plants as I do, consider visiting the Botanical Garden of Paris (Jardin Botanique de Paris). It’s in the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil gardens, a huge park with five greenhouses built in the late 18th century. The houses feature tropical plants, unusual palms, a desert garden, and an aviary with colorful parakeets. When I was there, an art installation of a plant vending machine surprised and perplexed me until I realized what it was. Sorry, I can’t remember which specific house it’s in, I think one with tropical plants. And outside, the cultivated grounds are spectacular, full of contrasting trees and shrubs and perennials. The garden is a quick walk from the Roland Garros Stadium so if you’re looking to get away from the busy crowds of the tennis tournament, check out the garden. It’s a hidden gem of Boulogne-Billancourt. I highly recommend it. Oh, and it’s free.
The Boulogne Forest or Bois de Boulogne is a three-mile preserve of natural land, which is also technically in Paris but again a short distance from Roland Garros. It’s like the city’s Central Park, where people go to relax by a lake or jog the winding paths. On the northern edge in the Jardin d’Acclimatation is a small amusement park for kids with rides, a huge playground, and horseback riding. At Lac Inférieur, one can rent a bike or a boat for the afternoon. It’s also a great place for a picnic. If you don’t want to pack food, the Bois de Boulogne has several cafes and food stands.
Louis Vuitton Museum
Though it’s named after Paris’s most famous fashion designer, this museum has little to do with fashion. Instead it’s a modern art museum run by the Louis Vuitton Foundation. Housed in a building designed by Frank Gehry, the museum structure resembles a collection of clear sails cascading over on one another. It’s been called “the iceberg” and is meant to bring in the natural beauty and light of the surrounding forest. The museum’s water feature is particularly interesting. Water flows down a series of flat wide steps into a reflecting pool at the foot of an outdoor courtyard. Inside are exhibitions of both permanent and traveling modern art. An intriguing place to visit.
Museum of the 1930s
The 1930s Museum or Musée des Années Trente houses art and crafts from the Art Deco era. It’s in the Espace Landowski. Landowski was the sculptor who designed the famous giant statue of Christ that sits atop the mountain and overlooks the bay of Rio de Janeiro, an ethnic Pole born in Boulogne. Inside the museum there are hundreds of sculptures, paintings, and thousands of drawings. Plus, there’s a great collection of ceramics and furniture.
Overall, I highly recommend Boulogne-Billancourt. If you’re near Roland Garros and not in the mood to take the train back into Paris, this sleepy suburb offers a wealth of interest and activities. It’s fun and charming and still very very French.
One of the most beautiful features of Paris is its streets. I love the ornate buildings, I love the beautiful landmarks, I love the stately cathedrals, but I also love the streets. They are cobbled unevenly, smoothly paved, or somewhere in between, geometrically decorated with modern pavers. They are grand like the Haussmann-designed boulevards and averagely wide like the Rue Milton or narrow like the Rue de Nancy. They each have their own little personality in the decorative facades or foliage or parking or modern features.
My favorite streets are the tiny pedestrian alleys where you can cut through quietly while dwarfed by the stone cavern rising up around you. Those are secret and mysterious, especially at night. In fact, the passages are one of the reasons I set most of my stories in Paris.
A Real Life Street That Wasn’t Quite Right
So, as I began my novel The Forgetting Flower, I knew I’d need the perfect street for my protagonist Renia and her plant shop. I’d walked the Rue Saint-Placide, named after Saint Placidus who was rescued as a boy from a lake in an alleged miracle, and I liked it. Saint-Placide is jammed with businesses and had a deep terrace, which my character used a lot for displays. It even had a real life plant shop, thus inspiring me to use its name in the novel.
I also liked that the street implied the word “Placid” or “stillness.” It was a nice bit of irony to name a thriller that included a death and some nefarious incidents on a street described as “placid.” Recently though, in editing the book, I realized the street was too busy for what happened there not to be obviously noticeable and public. Also, the street is not technically in Saint-Germain-des-Prés though it’s very close. And my protagonist’s desire to live in chic Saint-Germain was integral to the story. So, I nixed it.
The Search Continues
That led me on a Google maps goose chase. I knew the Rue du Bac. It nicely captured the spirit of Saint-Germain with its boutiques and hotels and restaurants. It runs in a snug narrow lane. Fewer cars travel it but tourists do, which was in my story. It had great sunlight and one of the first acts Renia does is look up at her friend’s balcony against the sunny blue sky. It had the makings of the perfect size and culture of the street in my dreams.
But the Rue du Bac bustles with tightly packed businesses. In my novel, a certain liquid rolls down the limestone wall of a building. There’s little if any limestone wall space between businesses on the Rue du Bac. And that moment kicks off the story’s plot. Sadly, I ruled out the Rue du Bac.
I’d also walked the Rue Gozlin, whose quiet, tucked away feel at the center of Saint-Germain seemed unassuming and hidden. It had a lovely, out-of-the-way quality where tourists might not travel and locals would. And it had lots of stone with some businesses too. But the street is a single-lane street and throughout the story I describe vans and cars coming and going. Parking a car on this street would be impossible because of the iron posts lining the sidewalk. And the sidewalk was too shallow as well.
An Imagined Street
I continued virtually visiting various streets, many of which I’d walked and some I hadn’t. But with Saint-Germain at the heart of the story, I couldn’t find the exact street I needed. This annoyed me. I wanted the setting to be as true to life as possible, somewhere I could stand and point and say, “That’s where it all happened.” As a literary tourist, you can do this with streets in Flaubert, Balzac, and Hugo’s novels. I wanted the same true-to-life accuracy.
Still, I had a lot of true-to-life accuracy with other streets and sites. It was just this central location that dogged me. But it wasn’t meant to be. Not in such a tight neighborhood. So, I decided to create the street in my imagination. It’s a one-lane street like the Rue du Bac with lots of sun and has parking. It has a deep terrace and bustles with commercial activity like the Rue Saint-Placide. And it has classic limestone building walls. It’s in Saint-Germain and ironically named. The Rue Sereine.
The World of the Story
Though I now can’t pinpoint the exact location of Renia’s plant shop, I’m okay with my fictional choice. It’s always disappointed me as a reader when I can’t place a novel’s street in real life and so I hope I don’t disappoint my own readers. But it can’t be helped. And most readers probably won’t care anyway. They’ll be following Renia through her trials of the plot. Hopefully The Forgetting Flower’s words and characters and story will engage them so wholeheartedly that they won’t notice or care whether the Rue Sereine even exists in real life. Time will tell.
In Paris, there are plenty of grand gardens to visit: Jardin des Plantes, Jardin du Luxembourg, the Tuileries to name a few. But there are also small gardens that offer a respite from the city. One such garden is the Square Boucicaut in the 7th arrondissement. It’s notable not only for its wonderfully central location near Saint-Germain-des-Prés but also for its unexpected plant specimens.
First off, dozens of different trees fill this park. Of note are the warmer weather ones. Being in Zone 8, Paris’s climate can support trees that are often associated with tropical places but in species that are hardier. Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) and palmetto palm (Sabal palmetto) punctuate the landscape with their fan-like leaves and hairy trunks. Monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) draws attention with its unusual scales and spindly form. A lovely curly leaved willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’) provides interest and shade. In addition, I’ve spotted Austrian pine, black locust, cherry, London plane, and some cultivar of Cercis as well.
A Cacophony of Color
In summer, the park’s interior border explodes with color via annuals: dahlias, salvias, petunias, geraniums, coleus, etc. A sweet little pond offers a cooling view. Its bank is planted with water-loving shrubs like paperplant (Fatsia japonica). Grasses like Japanese sedge grass (Carex morrowii) and giant cane (Arundo donax) either border the water or happily pop out of it. Perennials like sweet flag (Acorus calamus), coral bells (Heuchera), and dark-leaved spurge (Euphorbia) add varying hues of foliage and contrasting structure.
A central courtyard with plenty of comfortable benches attracts both locals and tourists. A sand area and playground offer activities for families. At an impressive staircase, a massive marble statue of Madame Boucicaut with children stands. She was the wife of Aristide Boucicaut and the sculpture depicts her performing acts of charity. His store, Le Bon Marché, was one of the first department stores, and still overlooks the square.
A Dark Activity in a Bright Place
The Square Boucicaut makes an appearance in my novel, The Forgetting Flower. When my main character Renia needs to have a secret meeting, she chooses this park. Why? Because it’s near her plant shop and a plant lover like she would like it. Unlike other Parisian gardens, it features undulating borders and a naturalistic planting approach. A pond to attract birds and wildlife. It also boasts unique botanical specimens. She would be drawn to all of that and visit often to eat her lunch or simply take in the natural world.
If I worked near this lesser known gem of a garden, I would probably do the same.
Photo by Guilhem Vellut, Paris, France.