Romance Today in the City of Light

PARIS–When Ella Fitzgerald wrote the lyrics to this wonderful song, which was made equally famous by Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, she knew what she was talking about. Not only is Paris the most romantic city in the world, it is the city which immortalized the loves of the world’s most famous couples, including Heloise and Abelard, George Sand and Frédéric Chopin, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky.

Still, one might ask: how do you find your own private Paris when you have to share it with over 40 million other visitors each year? Fortunately, the French capital is spread out in twenty different districts (arrondissements), each with its own unique characteristics, each featuring delightful restaurants, wine bars, museums and galleries, as well as parks and gardens. It is little wonder that Paris is one of the most photographed cities in the world, and has been used to film such classics as Funny Face and An American in Paris, as well as Sex and the City. That is perhaps why some of the most romantic couples return to the city year after year, and why some of them never leave.

The Jacquemart-André Museum: A Parisian Jewel

When the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay are on strike or closed for a national holiday, is there any place you can visit in Paris besides the Luxembourg Gardens and the Eiffel Tower? Yes, indeed there is, and what’s more it’s the kind of place that is both awesomely beautiful and delightfully entertaining. Now that’s a tall order for an art museum, but then again, since the Jacquemart-André Museum was refurbished and brought back to life five years ago, it’s been the talk of the international art world. And even those die-hard Parisians who have never stepped foot into the Louvre, love the Jacquemart if only because it boasts the only restaurant where you can eat beneath an original Tiepolo ceiling.

A house-museum, whose five thousand works of art and antiquities range from the Lower and Upper Egyptian Kingdoms to the Italian Quattrocentro to the Dutch School of Old Master painting and the Rococo of Boucher, Fragonard and Greuze, is definitely in a class by itself. The sumptuous edifice, built in 1869 by the architect Henri Parent (second runner-up after Charles Garner to the Paris Opera) was commissioned by Edouard André, the sole heir to a colossal banking fortune. (It was so colossal that in 1871, he and the Baron Rothschild ponied up-in a single week–5 billion francs in gold as a war indemnity to Bismarck, a payoff that prevented the Prussian army’s occupation of Paris).

With A Little Effort, Older Can Mean Better

Many women come to Paris wondering how French women do it.  How is it that they look so terrific and so much more fashionable than their often wealthier Anglo-Saxon sisters?

When I arrived in Paris in 1994 I had the same thought. At the same time, I didn’t imagine that my American approach to beauty and style had something lacking. Like so many women of my generation, I wanted to put brains before beauty, forgetting the old French adage: “A woman with intelligence is fine, but if she has intellect and charm, it’s even better.”

That piece of advice was told to me two years before I even thought of living in Paris, by a woman who had very little beauty, but a great deal of chic. She certainly seemed to know what she was talking about, telling me in a rather knowing way that Edith Cresson had been Mitterand’s mistress long before she became France’s first prime minister.

dddddStill, two years later, I was off to Paris with a very short wash and wear haircut dyed jet black to hide the growing number of gray hairs, and a wardrobe of Gap chinos, jeans, and blazers, tops and skirts from Ann Taylor. My goal was to learn about Paris after all–not to conquer it.

Even when I began working with a fashion photographer for Czech Elle, it never occurred to me to get a fashion makeover. I wanted to learn how the fashion industry worked from the inside, but I wasn’t committed to being a “fashionista.”

Moreover, as I was launching a career as both an author and a tour guide, who was going to being making more and more public appearances, it slowly dawned upon me that I was going to have make more of an effort.  And so I invested in some well-cut masculine-looking pin-striped pant-suits and some Hermès scarves and Agatha pearls, and assumed that I was set for life.

There Will Never Be Another Coco Chanel

Coco and Igor, the new movie

Coco and Igor, the new movie

“How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone.”  This statement, which came out of the mouth of the infamous Coco Chanel, remains a useful adage for ambitious and original talents of this world.

After sitting through a number of mediocre biopics on Chanel,  it is clear to me that even 40 years after her death in 1970, Chanel remains almost as much of a global brand and household name as Coca-Cola. When I was growing up, the only gospel I knew was the Gospel According to Saint Mathew; today, there may be more readers who know of The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, brought to you by author Karen Karbo.

If Coco Chanel came back to Paris today, she would surprised to see the store windows at 31 rue Cambon displaying bicycles, skis, jeans, open-toed platform boots and ultra-short, thigh-high miniskirts, all sporting her famous double C logo. Not only does this show a shameless exploitation of her initials, but also of her stellar reputation, one that has little to do with Karl Lagerfeld, the designer who is associated with her name today. As one savvy French image consultant opined recently: “The trouble with Karl is that he is too much of a show off.”

Yet, even if Chanel’s designs are a far cry from what they were 40 years ago, few people, except the couture connoisseur seem to care. Women, being what they are, may still judge each other by the state of their Chanel pocketbook, the style of their Chanel sunglasses, and the color of their Chanel lipstick.

A New Spin on Louis XIV: The King of Art de Vivre

Louis XIV: Man & MonarchLast Saturday on a foggy, drizzly day in Paris, my husband and I headed out to Versailles–the ultimate temple to excess–for a visit to a long over-due exhibition on the chateau’s creator: Louis XIV, or “The Sun King” as he liked to call himself.

Even under the gray skies of Ile de France, the château’s new golden gates, roof and window decorations, proved so dazzling that I could have used a pair of sunglasses. Talk about the king of Bling! For years, Versailles survived quite nicely without that gold-topped roof–we owe this one to France’s last President Jacques Chirac, who embarked on a campaign to restore the palace to its former glory to the tune of 130 million€. (While some of the funds are coming from the private sector, our tax dollars are paying a hefty amount as well). This was more of a priority than housing for the homeless.

It is worth noting that on his death-bed, Louis XIV did regret this kind of prodigality, telling his great-grandson the future Louis XV: “Don’t imitate me in my passion for building and for war.” Being all of five-years-old, the adorable heir soon forgot this advice, growing up to commission multiple chateaux for himself and his mistresses.

A Lecture on Love: A Hot Dish to Serve in Paris

On a lovely winter’s day in Paris this week I had the great pleasure of attending a debate on romantic love starring the celebrated and glamorous French philosopher and author, Luc Ferry, whose book “What is Happiness?” was an international bestseller 10 years ago in 25 languages. A former Minister of Education under the Chirac government, the dashing Ferry seems to be more comfortable at elegant dinners than in the halls of a school in one of the rougher “banlieues” outside the French capital.Luc_Ferry

The luncheon debate, titled “What is romantic love today?” drew more women than any other previous luncheon speaker, including the former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Comfortably ensconced in the first floor dining-room of Fouquet’s overlooking the Champs-Elysées, we eagerly drank in every word of this brilliant orator, who has been married three times. Certainly, an expert on the subject of love!

The median age of the women in the room was over 50, and likely the persons attending knew almost as much as the speaker who had been invited. What struck me was how elegantly attired they all were–and it was clear that they were used to living among the cultured and monied. Luc Ferry is one of the few right-wing intellectuals in France–although he began his career on the Left. As they say in France: “Marxist at 20, Gaullist at 30.”

Ferry maintained that modern love began as late as 1840, notably with the opera “La Bohème” set to music by Puccini. Yesterday’s bohemians have led he believes to a society of  hyperconsumption–now that’s a stretch–and instant gratification. In short, their polar opposite, the bourgeois, was a saver and striver.

Eating Well While Staying Slim in France

parismarketMany people who visit Paris wonder how the average French person manages to staying slim when surrounded by so many tempting pastries, breads, chocolates and wines, not to mention outstanding bistros and gastronomic palaces. The short answer is simple: they don’t eat the stuff on a regular basis the way Americans tend to wolf down McDonald’s.

They also consume smaller quantities of food and rarely snack between meals. That doesn’t mean that everyone who lives in Paris lives healthily–many people do eat fast food–and while the French are loathe to admit it, the second most profitable division of McDonald’s is in France. Frankly, I don’t know why they eat the stuff: my one experience with McD proved almost fatal. After a hard day of painting my apartment kitchen, a midnight snack of chicken McNuggets and fries left me feeling as if my veins had been injected with congealed fat. Never again, I vowed, and have since that awful meal, kept my word.

Julia Won The Battles But Lost the Food Wars

Reading Noel Riley Fitch’s outstanding biography of Julia Child, “Appetite for Life”, I felt like I had been invited to a feast that I wished would never end. Julia Child–amateur cook, author, TV star and all-around educator–was both a larger than life personality and a mystery to many people, even those closest to her.book appetite for life

Still we can thank her for introducing TV dinner America to quiche and coq au vin, as well as boeuf bourguignon and mousse au chocolat. I can thank her for teaching me how to make my first cheese soufflé in college some 35 years ago, and for showing me how to make a mousse au chocolat even the French would rave about.

At the same time, I couldn’t help feeling a mixture of sorrow and regret knowing that the teachings of the indomitable “French Chef” have been lost upon most of American eaters in favor of Starbucks and McDonald’s. Learning that McDonald’s spends close to $1 billion a year on advertising, you can understand what public television must have been up against. Americans may have liked to watch Julia Child because she was great entertainment–even fodder for Dan Ackroyd on “Saturday Night Live”–but her approach to fine cooking never made it to their dinner tables.

Now her pots and pans are gathering dust in the Smithsonian Museum, and I expect that her masterpiece “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” will be used more to write theses on its author than in the preparation of meals.

The Camondos: A Saga of Splendor and Tragedy

c18Tomorrow evening, the Jewish Museum of Art and History in Paris is inaugurating an exhibition about a prominent and relatively little-known Jewish family, that could have figured in Marcel Proust’s great opus: “In Search of Lost Time.”

Known as the Rothschilds of the East, the Jewish Sephardic Camondos first made their mark as bankers to the grand vizirs of the Ottoman Empire, under the enlightened patriarch Abraham-Salomon de Camondo (1781-1873). Heir of the bank Isaac Camondo et Cie, he not only consolidated the family fortunes, but also participated actively in the modernization of Constantinople and the economic development of the Empire. In short, the Camondos became the indispensable go-betweens of the Sublime Door and the West.  They were particularly remembered for their contributions to secular education in both French and Turkish as well as the Jewish community.