I came late to this amusing and informative book, I’m sorry to say. It’s an amazingly detailed compilation and exploration of what the French would call curiosités or choses insolites but it’s also a broad cultural overview. It’s an example of the best of a certain type of book designed to explain France to English-speakers.
Between A and Z you will learn there are more than twenty-five varieties of garlic grown in France, and that the guillotine was designed by a doctor shortly before the French Revolution as a more humane means of execution. Attaching his name to it horrified him, and his family rechristened itself to escape the shame.
From Absinthe to Zidane
On the way to Zinedine Zidane you will make obligatory stops at Mata Hari, the legendary Dutch dancer executed as a spy (she was really a double agent) near the end of World War I, and a longish section on the history of restaurants, before ending with the entry for Zidane, the former soccer star. He used to be best known for the infamous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final (which I saw on TV in Paris and will always remember), but he’s since become a respected soccer coach for Real Madrid.
Piu Eatwell is an Oxford graduate now living and writing in Paris, according to her website. She’s written several other books I was aware of but have not reviewed, including They Eat Horses, Don’t They, The Truth About the French, a well reviewed outline of the stories behind the myths Anglophones believe about the French. I found all of them on her list at Amazon.
F is for France was mismarketed, in my view. It should have been sold as a book of much broader general interest, like David Downie’s work, instead of a cabinet of curiosities. But I’m glad I came across it again. For a lover of France and Paris it is both an entertainment and a reference work. It will stay in my library.
My first exposure to F is for France was an advance reader copy I downloaded from Netgalley in 2016 and promptly forgot. When I ran across it again (while I was preparing Netgalley to support the publication of my next novel in a few months), I bought the Kindle version, which is the edition on which this review is based.
End of the line – the bank of the Seine, with Île Saint-Louis in the background
TWO YEARS AGO, when I had hardly started the writing of Last Stop: Paris, I was casting about for a good location to set the climactic, resolving scene. I needed a crowded urban site (not hard to find in Paris) where I could set a car chase that ended in the Seine. At the time I wasn’t sure that’s how the book would end, but it made more and more sense as I worked through the writing and revision of the manuscript.
Île Saint-Louis has long been one of my favorite walking haunts, even though it’s very crowded during during tourist season. The architecture is marvelous and historic, the shops are fun if not practical, and there are more than enough places to stop for a coffee or an ice cream, as my character Jeremy Bentham says in the opening chapter.
So the Île it would be. Starting the scene there would bring a certain roundness and sense of completion to the story because the first scene is set there as well. So, after hours of pacing its streets and quais, in the summer of 2014 I found my site.
I make a lot of photos of Paris, especially the parts that seem like they’d be good “characters” in a novel. Actually, that describes pretty much all of Paris, which is why I have thousands of JPGs stored in the Google cloud.
These are some of the photos I used in constructing that last scene.
Shoppers strolling on the sidewalk when a pistol came sailing out of a car window
Eddie’s near-miss when Khan was merging onto the Pompidou Expressway
The chase led around the City Hall, then down to the Pompidou Expressway
Last Stop: Paris is the sequel to Treasure of Saint-Lazare. Both are available on Amazon. The story will flow better if you read them in order.
I was walking through Place Dauphine on Île de la Cité when a bookstore display caught my eye — it was this book of “stupefying but true” prisoners’ last words before they ascended the steps of the “national razor.”
Its title is “Shortcuts,” which is witty enough, but it’s the last little lagniappe that makes it really humorous. The book is shaped like a guillotine blade, its bottom edge cut at an angle like the edge Dr. Guillotin designed just before the French Revolution to make death as quick and painless as possible.
Some bons mots from the book, relayed from its review in Le Monde last April (translation errors are mine):
“Voilà une semaine qui commence mal.” (This is a week that’s starting off badly.) Olympe de Gouges, woman of letters, feminist, executed on Nov. 3, 1793 — a Monday.
“C’est mauvais pour la santé.” (It’s bad for the health.) Henri Landru, a serial killer executed in 1922, when he was offered a cigarette and a glass of rum just before the blade descended.
“Au revoir, monsieur, et bonne continuation !” (Goodbye, and enjoy the rest of my book.) The Marquis de Charost, executed in 1793 at the age of 23. He read a book in the tumbrel on his way to the guillotine and, when he arrived, carefully turned down the page and handed it to a guard.
“Si ça peut faire plaisir au curé.” (If that would please the priest.) Antoine Martin, who killed his brother, politely accepting the last rites.
The last person was guillotined in France on 10 September 1977. Capital punishment was abolished in 1981.
A toddler at one of the city’s 1,200 fountains (photo from Paris.fr)
Paris in July is normally a comfortable place to be, with high temperatures around 70 degrees, sunny days, and an occasional rain shower in the afternoon – which is why many people carry tiny umbrellas all the time.
But in recent years there have been all-too-frequent exceptions, with potentially fatal consequences in a country that doesn’t use much air conditioning. This year we’re experiencing a particularly nasty heat wave, or canicule, that pushed the daily high to 103 earlier this week. Today it’s milder — only 92 — and should cool down over the next few days, especially if we get the rain that’s forecast for tomorrow.
The New York Times’s Timothy Egan wrote this week of the unusual weather in his city. In a piece headlined “Seattle on the Mediterranean,” he points out that Seattle is farther north than Maine or Montreal, and had eight days of 85 degree highs or more last month. Last weekend, Walla Walla hit 113 degrees.
Paris, at 49 degrees north latitude, is even further north than Seattle, and the weather’s been warmer.
France’s government, led by the activist city government of Paris, has substantially beefed up its efforts to protect the people most likely to be affected by the canicule. Those are mainly young children, the elderly, the handicapped, and others that for one reason or another feel most threatened. A lack of adequate support contributed to the deaths of 15,000 people in the last major heat wave, in 2003.
This year, Paris has entire battery of measures in force. They include:
– A daily phone call to people enrolled in its Chalex register, a voluntary list of people whose health could be threatened by the heat. If the city’s callers find a problem, they dispatch a social worker and a volunteer physician.
– Cooler refuges are opened at the times of highest heat.
– Reminders are posted everywhere to stay inside, out of the sun, and protect yourself. Employers are urged to reschedule their outdoor workers to keep them out of the worst heat.
– 1,200 water fountain are available around the city, and a map is available on the excellent municipal web site, Paris.fr.
– 5,000 containers of water were furnished to the homeless, along with maps directing them to the nearest fountain.
PARIS is a great city for walkers. For me, its tree-shaded avenues and elegant stone buildings always turn an afternoon promenade into a pleasant interlude, particularly when I stop often for a shot of expresso or a glass of Bordeaux.
But when walking just doesn’t cover enough ground and the bus covers too much, it’s time to turn to the bicycle — especially the Vélib, whose chain of almost 2,000 parking stations (and 20,000 bikes) makes it easy to use, especially when you can pick one up from one station and return it to another.
The streets of downtown Paris are full of Velibs. Tourists ride them for sightseeing, locals ride them to work. A fellow student in the excellent language school I’ve attended for the last five years, Lutèce-Langue, rides one to class every morning.
Velib Birthday Party Blowout
Paris likes nothing better than a big outdoor party, so the city set out to have one of the biggest last Sunday in honor of Velib’s eighth anniversary. It has something to crow about, having grown from 10,000 bicycles to more than 20,000 since its beginning.
Under a nearly cloudless sky on a perfect spring day, the city closed the Champs-Élysées between Place de la Concorde and the Petit Palais (map) and set up racetrack-like courses for anyone who wanted to pump a Vélib’ around it. Two circuits earned a one-euro contribution to a charity. (There was something for the small ones, too — a “P’tit Vélib'” (“Little Velib) course.) I saw at least 400 bicycles while I was there — Velib is super popular, and a good reason to rent your bike in Paris.
A food-truck plaza attracted the hungry, and the bikes attracted the adventurous in search of some quick exercise, as when they made the far turn (with Place de la Concord in the background) in this short video:
There was something for the children as well — their own course on the “Petits Velibs,” the miniature bikes made in four versions for the little ones. Note that Paris doesn’t require helmets for Velib renters — the city decided it would deter too many renters — but the small ones were outfitted with them:
Bikes Helping Improve the Environment
PARIS LOVES ITS BICYCLES. In fact, the new mayor has set her sights on a substantial increase in the number of trips Parisians take by bicycle – from 3% now to 15% by 2020. It’s all part of the city’s goal of reducing the amount of pollution in the air. It’s not yet New Delhi, but no one in Paris wants the air to get that bad.
Old diesel trucks, built more than 25 years ago, will be banned from central Paris during the day as of next month. The restrictions will get tighter as the years go by, next affecting vehicles built before 1997 and motorcycles built before 2000. From there more limits on polluting vehicles — mostly diesels — will be put in force. (The law won’t apply to new diesels, which have anti-pollution filters.)
But Velib is the most visible icon of the effort to reduce pollution and make the city more livable. The strange-looking name was cobbled together from the French for bicycle (velo) and self-service (libre). The Velib system itself is a highly automated tapestry of parking places where cyclists can pick up a bicycle and ride it for 30 minutes with no charge other than their low subscription fee, and similar stations where they can check in and leave the bike near their destination. (A subscription for an entire day costs about about the same as a single ticket on the métro — 1.70€ — but it’s good for multiple rides.)
For both Parisians and many tourists, it’s become an essential, inexpensive and quick way to get around. (Paris being Paris, the city is a web of bicycle paths, and bikes can use the bus lanes as well.)
At the end of 2013, Velib had almost 1,800 rental stations for the 20,000 bikes. They were used for 35 million trips (per the most recent information I have from the city).
Velib also has a good smartphone app that will find either stations with bicycles available or stations with parking slots available to leave your bike. Here’s a screenshot of the iPhone version, showing stations with free bikes (with an availability count) near Montparnasse Cemetery:
What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day in the most romantic of cities than with the author and photographer Alison Harris, whose most recent book is Paris in Love, and her husband David Downie, author of the forthcoming A Passion for Paris and many other Paris books.
Paris in Love, by Alison Harris
The English-language service of France24 interviewed both of them recently for its Encore! program, whose topic this week is the most romantic spots in Paris (there are many). The program has been running frequently yesterday and today. Alison’s interview by host Eve Jackson starts at 2:55 and runs about four minutes.
Alison and David have been working together for years on books about France
A Passion for Paris, coming April 28
and Paris and food in Italy, where the spend part of the year. My favorite remains Paris, Paris, a series of deeply reported essays on varied aspects of Paris life, from the families who drive cargo barges up and down the Seine to David’s on experiment of spending an entire day in Luxembourg Gardens, just watching. It’s not a guidebook, and he didn’t intend it to be one, but all the same it’s my favorite guide to Paris. Diane Johnson, author of the celebrated Le Divorce, a National Book Award finalist, liked it so much she wrote the introduction. David talks about his books at his main site.
I got to know them well in 2012, when Alison spent a morning making the pictures that would become my author photo for Treasure of Saint-Lazare and the forthcoming Last Stop: Paris. Her flattering portraits of me paled next to the outstanding she’s done of subjects both famous and obscure. My favorite is the one of Sophia Loren, but there are many others to see on her web site, AlisonHarris.com
The other side of their enterprise is tours. They lead a series of very sophisticated tours of Paris that show a very deep knowledge of the city and its history. When my sister visited us in Paris a couple of years ago she invited us along on their tour. I’m not a tour person, but I wouldn’t have missed that for anything. You can find out more about the tours at their own site.
There’s a neat new feature in Apple’s MAPS app under iOS – Flyover. It’s available for several major cities, but of course I think the Paris one is the neatest.
Open Maps on the iPhone or iPad and search for Paris. Under the city name you’ll see a line saying “3D Flyover Tour of Paris.” Press “Start” to the right and enjoy. The screenshots I’ve posted below will give you an idea of what to expect.
I enjoyed watching as the (virtual) overhead camera took me from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre, Notre Dame and the Seine islands, the Grand Palais and the Arc de Triomphe. It’s virtual reality with the emphasis on real, other than the missing throngs around the glass pyramid at the Louvre and the chaotic traffic bustling around Place Charles de Gaulle.
At 125 years old, the Eiffel Tower is under almost constant painting and renovation, but the most recent has a crowd-scaring twist.
The city has just spent 30 million euros updating the first floor, 180 feet above the ground. In addition to cosmetic upgrades and solar panels, part of the flooring was replaced with glass, a change that garnered mixed reviews from early visitors, as the AP report below shows.
For five years, lovers in Paris have demonstrated their eternal fealty by attaching padlocks to the Pont des Arts, an elegant old footbridge that connects the Louvre Museum to the Institut de France across the Seine, then throwing the key in the river — 700,000 of them so far.
Over time, they’ve multiplied like rats and spread to other bridges and sites. And they pose a structural threat to the bridge. Here’s what a full section of the fence looks like (it weighs a thousand pounds, and 15 sections have failed completely or had to be removed because of damage):
Photo by John Pearce
Don’t lean on it the next time you visit.
There’s been a publicity campaign against them, and in recent months the City of Paris has had to cover some of the panels with plywood to keep more from being added. The plywood, of course, has become the substitute for the locks — visiting lovers now autograph it and, Paris being Paris, the more assertive graffiti artists also visit. As a result, the bridge is much less welcoming to lovers or padlock vendors.
Here’s the view this afternoon. The crowd in the background is around the remaining locks.
Photo by John Pearce
The City of Paris announced on its web site a couple of days ago that it’s testing glass panels to replace the fencing that’s been there for years (and which provided somewhere to attach the locks). French architects do great things with glass, but this will be a challenge.
Paris has one of the most advanced public transit systems in the western world. Subway trains (the métro) run every one or two minutes during rush hours, and only slightly less often at other times. Buses on the busiest lines stop every four to ten minutes, and they connect seamlessly with each other.
It’s using all this sophisticated transport that can be difficult, but there are some apps that lighten the load considerably. (I’ve tried and discarded many of them during the smart phone years, always returning to the one issued by the métro system itself. This year, though, I’ve found a third-party app that is my winner.)
Transit (Samuel Vermette, free for iPhone and Android) is quick and intuitive. In a few seconds, you can enter your destination and choose “current location” as your starting point; it will find the nearest transit stops, tell you how long it will take to walk to the first one and how long you have until the next bus or train arrives.
This screen shot (planner) shows a trip Jan and I made from the Marais to Denfert-Rochereau, the prominent square near Rue Daguerre and the Montparnasse Cemetery. Our rented apartment is nearby, overlooking the cemetery.
The second screen shot is the route map Transit creates, showing that we took the bus to the Saint-Michel métro stop, then the Line 4 métro from there. This is the route we chose, adding a stop for a coffee at one of the many cafés around Saint-Michel, the busy student center surrounded by bookstores. There’s a terrific view across the Seine to Notre Dame Cathedral.
Second place this year goes to the app published by the métro system itself, which is known by its acronym RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens). I’ve used it for a long time, but this year’s update isn’t quite as intuitive as Transit. Both use the same RATP database, which is available under license to developers.
However, I do like its “around me” page better. Using your GPS coordinates, it shows a map of all the bus and metro stops in the vicinity. Click on the station icon to see when the next two buses or trains will arrive.