A Tale of Two Christmases (updated 12/26/17)

IMG_0927Rockefeller Center, of course ūüôā

As Josephine Baker said, “J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris” (“I have two loves, my country and Paris”) That’s totally me!¬†Both Christmas styles are genius, if very different…

It’s taken longer than I expected to synthesize my pictures and thoughts, due to jetlag and holiday socializing, but, here goes..

I had to go to the Washington D.C. area in early December for a family funeral in Arlington. It was very solemn but heart-warming, bringing family together to commemorate a life well lived.DSC03934a

It was amazing to return to the area where I grew up and then take the Amtrak train north from Union Station, like when I was in college.


Seeing NYC from afar over northern NJ  marshes reminded me of the first time I saw it rising on the horizon like the Emerald City when I was a teenager.


This time I was on my way to see beloved younger family members who are building careers in the theater and IT worlds. Not having been in NYC at Christmas time for several years, I had to make every moment count: a long taxi ride Uptown from Penn station with a very chatty cabdriver:  DSC03945

A walk across Central park for an afternoon at the Met:


Midtown Christmas windows:


Rockefeller Center:


Bryant Park Winter village:


Visiting in Washington Heights (near GW bridge) and Queens:


Theater outings (The New School, The Public, Japan Society):


Thai “smashed” ice cream on MacDougall Street:


Shopping and pilgrimage to the Stonewall Inn in the Village:


A gorgeous fluffy snow storm:


Singing along with Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” at the top of our lungs with the crowd at a cool tequila and mezcal bar called The Ghost Donkey downtown, then Uber home on the FDR:DSC03983.JPGhttps://www.atabula.com/2017/10/31/images-panorama-de-11-buches-de-chefs-patissiers-stars/

Hours on steep subway stairways and deafening dirty platforms enlivened with occasional mozaics: DSC03954

Pounding the broken pavement between stations with a capella groups singing on street corners:DSC03978.jpg

And before I can blink, time to fly back to Paris: DSC03998

First adjustment: Paris is much farther north, so it gets darker earlier here and even a bright day is muted compared to NYC. Also Christmas lights seem to be more of a public than a private thing here. The shopkeeper in charge of ordering the display over our street has retired and no one has taken over. Local cafés, bakeries, chocolate and cheese stores did their best to cheer things up:


Our own little family invested in a very tall tree for indoors and a floor-to-roof outdoor string of LEDs for our balcony:


Driving around the city, I noticed posher neighborhoods all lit up with specially designed garlands, welcoming visitors and shoppers, but there’s less self-expression by private individuals here. It seems to be catching on slowly and the occasional bright balcony takes your breath away.¬†A welcome relief: hopping on public transportation to shop is a breeze in Paris, quiet, clean and easy to navigate:


But another adjustment: most of the good Christmas playlists are in English. Maybe because everything in France is still less commercial, holiday music is mainly religious with a few notable exceptions, including francophone Canadian, African and West Indian imports.

For me, the epitome of French Christmas spirit is the B√Ľche de No√ęl or Yule Log cake, a form of edible folk art reaching new levels of refinement every year. Star pastry chefs are now vying to create more extravagant versions in every shape and color, from electric guitars to Santa hats to playing cards, at astronomical prices.


The less expensive ones in our humble local establishments are good enough for me: rolls of sponge cake and butter cream icing or slabs of mousse and ice cream with fruit glazes and every possible variation of tiny plastic forest scenes, wrapped gifts, Santas and snowmen.


Of course Paris is the uncontested world capital of food and can’t be beat for the availability of fresh ingredients for home cooking along with gourmet restaurants at affordable prices. Chef Philou’s foie gras and smoked salmon:Philou_boutiquehttp://www.facebook.com/Philourestaurant/

Lunch at Yam Tcha, Michelin-starred Franco-Chinese fusion:



And on the 24th, our French relatives hosted a traditional Christmas Eve dinner for 18 of us with almost that many nationalities represented around the table:DSC04041

In former days, everyone would have attended midnight mass. Now we open presents at about that time and stagger home in the wee hours to recover.

Our American background calls for stocking presents the morning of the 25th, then another round of gifts in front of a virtual fire, under the watchful eyes of our kitty, who got a new scratching box with catnip and lots of her favorite–ham:


This was followed by a late afternoon skype with the US family in their sparkling White Christmas landscape, whereas¬†ours was dreary and Wet. They were spending the day in the kitchen, we were still full so didn’t have to…

So… New York definitely wins the contest in terms of music, personalized lights, and great music. Paris wins in terms of deliciousness, cozy internationalness, and human-friendly transportation. New York has the big tree at 30 Rock (see above) but Paris has the world’s biggest artificial tree, the Eiffel TowerDSC01934

… Feeling privileged to spend time with loved ones in both places and enjoy both atmospheres…

Merry Christmas! Joyeux No√ęl! On to 2018! xxxxx Aliss



On the first day of Christmas

DSC03922My true love sent to me, macaroons and bonbons on a Christmas tree… under the stained glass dome at the Galeries Lafayette, Paris IX xxxxx love Aliss

Doing Dior?

DSC03904From the¬†Dior Show at Mus√©e des Arts D√©coratifs: One alcove in the floor-to-ceiling cathedral of mousselines or toiles (second wing of the exhibit) one of my favorite rooms… These are preliminary muslin versions of couture designs to test life-size patterns before cutting more expensive fabrics. Almost more beautiful than the final garment…

The good news… “Sublime” doesn’t begin to describe this show, staged with loving reverence for detail: 300 haute couture creations, from the house’s establishment in 1947 to the present, iconic photographs by Richard Avedon and others, every accessory imaginable (hats, jewelry, bags, shoes, perfume bottles), illustrations and sketches, plus a selection of paintings, furniture and art objects…DSC03905¬†(Salvador Dali, Buste r√©trospectif d‚Äôune femme et La Chaise atmosph√©rique, 1933)

A tribute to high style, tradition, craftsmanship, marketing savvy, and sheer French genius.

For a quick glimpse:




In a palette arranged by color, I fell for these miniatures in B&W DSC03906DSC03907

and this classic shape in pale blue:DSC03908

The bad news: You may not see very much of the show. Even with a “fast pass” ticket bought via internet, you will stand in line outside for at least 30 minutes, again at the cloak room if you have a backpack or large bag, then you will try to climb the stairs against a stream of fleeing attendees (you’ll understand why in a minute) only to shuffle two or three-abreast through a series of dark under-ventilated chambers linked by bottleneck passageways, straining to see the displays over heads and between shoulders. At the end of this ordeal you come to a narrow stairway down to a lower level of less crowded larger rooms, where you can catch your breath.DSC03909 Exiting this wing and crossing the lobby, you access another stairway leading up to a reading room on the left and another series of crowded rooms linked by bottle necks on your right, finally opening into the muslin cathedral mentioned above, and then a vast space called the “Dior Ballroom” where you can move around and admire exquisite gowns, historic portraits, and red carpet film footage of celebrities and royalty in Dior.DSC03903

I’m sure it cost a fortune to mount this event, so its success is great for Les arts d√©cos and for Paris. It’s unfortunate, however, that the museum staff in charge of ticketing and crowd control have so little respect for their audience. There are actual mathematical formulas to calculate flow in small spaces and set up schedules:


Why isn’t this taken into consideration? Trip advisor comments describe people fainting, disabled visitors who can’t navigate the passageways, long-distance travelers ¬†giving up at the entrance and leaving.

TIP: Judging by the graph on the museum FB page, the best time to plan a visit is 11am on weekends. http://www.facebook.com/lesartsdecoratifs/

Potential idea: other sites like the Parc Asterix post notices at the entrance when the crowds are overwhelming: “Complet” (SRO), so you can still enter, but in full knowledge of what to expect.


Courage! xxxxx Aliss

Noticing (updated 11/11/17)

DSC03876 (1)Funny sidewalk face,¬†Place des Vosges, on a recent autumn day…

Blog has been in slomo for several days, busy busy with other writing projects and life…

As promised, thoughts about noticing:

Since the Paris attacks two years ago, I’ve been meditating every day to stay calm and raise my vibes, in various ways. Tibetan compassion mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum:


Also the Oprah/Chopra (W&D) meditation series, which I highly recommend. It’s freeeee (and there are lots of free sample meditations to try out), and you can subscribe if you want to redo, which I do:



Then there’s the On Being site, with (not too shabby!) meditations by Sylvia Boorstein, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn and others:


And last but not least, Krista Tippet’s On Being interview with Ellen Langer, who says we don’t have to meditate to get the same and better results. To be mindful (instead of mindless) all we have to do is NOTICE. Notice 5 new things about our significant other, about our job, about¬†our neighborhood on our daily walks (see above, that’s what photography does for me):


…and question all our assumptions and received ideas… Her outlook reminds me of climate activist David Gershon’s minute-to-minute life question, “What’s possible?”


And Empowerment activist Gail Straub putting on “John Lennon’s glasses”


Noticing noticing noticing…

To be continued… xxxxx Aliss

Out of Chaos, Love

Recent full moon over our roof in Paris…IMG_0837For weeks now, with all the natural and human-made disasters, an endless loop has been playing in my head. It involves something I read long ago in a haze of sleeplessness and overwhelm following the birth of my first child.

I was emerging from after effects of an emergency C-section, trying to relocate my body and my self under the baby weight, through the pain of moving any one of my 700 muscles, every one seemingly connected to a stitched incision across my lower abdomen. I was completely in love with my baby daughter, but in a state of intense confusion about the birth. We were both alive, I had been conscious and greeted her when she was born, and isn’t that all that counts? But it hadn’t been what I’d hoped for us. I had prepared for the event like an Olympic athlete, but because her cord was around her waist and across her chest like a safety belt (which was a surprise because it didn’t show up on prenatal ultrasounds), there was no way I could have ever delivered her like the Super Mother I planned to be. ¬†To make up for this, I would be a breast feeding champ. That however, was not proceeding smoothly either, so I called La Leche League for help. My apartment became LLL meeting HQ for several months and among other perks, I got a subscription to their magazine. Somewhere in a file in my office is an article I cut out back then, in which a young mother of toddlers describes her toy and sock-strewn living room as the incarnation of Entropy, the Law of Thermodynamics according to which all systems tend towards greater disorganization. The word Entropy transported me back to 8th grade science class and my disbelief when our teacher tried to explain it. This seemed to go against every moral and spiritual principle holding the world together. The universe was disintegrating, everything was breaking down and there was nothing we could do about it. Very demoralizing.

On some level, I refused to accept it, pushing it to the back of my mind for future consideration. So here it was again coming from an exhausted fellow female. I read on as she described watching her little ones sleep, her paradoxical feeling of peace after a hectic day where everything seemed to be spinning out of control, knowing her devotion to these two little people would energize her to pick everything up and put it all in its proper place, once again. She ended the essay with, “The opposite of Entropy is Love,” love being the invisible organizing force that heals and restores in seemingly hopeless situations. This made me smile and gave me comfort; I’ve never forgotten it, and it’s been on mind lately, making me wonder if there’s a deeper truth here and how it relates to the world.

Among other ways to take my thoughts off the headlines, I’m working my way through a paperback collection of vintage NYT crosswords. P. 105, clue 53: “Offspring of Chaos,¬†to Hesiod,” four letters, the last two already filled in: “O-S.” Really, “Eros”?

Feed the clue into a search engine…yes, the poet Hesiod, thought to be a contemporary of Homer, recorded Greek religious beliefs (what we call myths) thus:

“In Greek mythology, Chaos (Greek: őßő¨őŅŌā), according to Hesiod, Chaos (“Chasm”) was the first thing to exist: “at first Chaos came to be” (or was) “but next” (possibly out of Chaos) came Gaia, Tartarus, and Eros (elsewhere the son of Aphrodite)…”


Eros, the creative force of love and life, what some people call the numinous. Realities beyond the Laws of Thermodynamics…Isn’t there a theory that even so-called “black-holes” open onto fountains of light?

My new mantra and field of research in the face of current events: Out of Chaos, Love, Out of Darkness, Light…

An endless loop playing in my head xxxxx Aliss

Harvesting Truth and Denial


For several years now, I’ve been spending summers in Ulster County NY, about 2 hours northwest of Manhattan. To attract tourists, the Hudson Valley often refers to itself as the US equivalent of Tuscany, quite a stretch of the imagination, but justifiable in terms of natural beauty and abundant local produce and wines. As a fan of history, I’ve enjoyed exploring the area’s heritage.

When I was there this summer I visited the Mathewis Persen House in Kingston, NY, a site recently excavated and opened to the public.¬†DSC03682The house stands a block from Main Street at the “Four Corners,” the only place in North America where four pre-Revolutionary houses face each other across an intersection. This part of town is called The Stockade because the first European settlers built a fort here to contain and protect their dwellings. It was burned down twice, first by the Esopus tribe and then by the British. The house itself is made up of five different constructions, from the original stone walls built by a Dutch apothecary in the 17th century to more modern additions used as an inn and then for municipal offices. Student¬†interns guide visitors through the different spaces, pointing out building materials left exposed to tell the story through architecture, century by century.

As a child, I loved learning about Early American history and imagining heroic pilgrims seeking freedom of conscience in the New World. When slavery was mentioned at George Washington’s Mount Vernon home on the Potomac near where I grew up, or when we drove by the statue of a lone Confederate soldier called “The Thin Grey Line” in front of the courthouse in my first home town on the Mason Dixon Line, I was able to file it all away in the back of my mind as vestiges of a past that no longer defined our country. When I visited the Huguenot Street historic site in New Paltz NY, as an adult, I was touched by the rough hewn homes and church built by French refugees fleeing religious persecution. DSC02879A mention of slaves sleeping on the stone floor of a cellar in one of the 17th century stone houses was chilling, but wasn’t it a reminder of how far we had progressed now that our First Family was African American?

Here in Paris in July 2013, I attended an evening with author Ta-Nahisi Coates at the American Library. Mr. Coates had planned to talk about his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle¬†and his move to Paris, but as he told the mostly white audience, following the recent acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, he had changed his mind. Instead he would describe his research and conclusions about how White Supremacy was woven into the very fabric of our country’s institutions from the beginning and had never been erased. All through his talk, I kept remembering how ecstatic French political commentators had praised America in November 2008 for wiping out 400 years of karma overnight by electing Barack Obama. When other voices here foresaw a devastating backlash down the road, ¬†I was disgusted by their cynicism. Obama’s reelection in 2012 seemed to vindicate my pride in my country’s evolution. Now it was as hard to listen to Mr. Coates as it was to read the headlines and watch smartphone footage of young black men being shot down over and over in our streets…but I refused to despair, focusing on what I wanted to believe.

Then Trump was elected…

During the Mathewis Persen house tour this past summer,¬†we climbed up to an attic-like second story and our guide showed us a small room near the master bedroom where slaves were thought to have slept. Neo-Nazis and Klansmen had just marched through Charlottesville. The word slavery could no longer be brushed aside. Clearly it is embedded in our collective consciousness, as deeply here in “The North” as in “The South”.

At the end of the tour, I slumped down on a bench in front of a film about Ulster County history. It was very moving. I learned Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in a Dutch-speaking household just a few miles away. She was freed as an adult, but according to the heartless custom of the time, her children remained slaves. When her son was sold illegally to a plantation owner in Alabama, Sojourner Truth brought suit with the help of her employers and was the first African American woman to win a case against a white man. (For more on her life story and slavery in Ulster County, see links below, worth your time!)

Another sequence showed how a few decades later, volunteers in the 120th Infantry regiment from Ulster County NY fought for the Union at Gettysburg. Hundreds were lost, half the recruits, plunging the entire county into mourning.

A few steps away from the Four Corners, a monument to Sojourner Truth stands in front of the old Court House where she won her case.DSC03687

Across the street at the Old Dutch Church, an angel honors the 120th and their fading banner is displayed reverently on a wall inside the sanctuary. DSC03683DSC03685

It’s not over. We are still harvesting evil and courage, denial and truth…

To be continued xxxxx Aliss