Le béguin

image.jpegIf you want to say that you have a crush on someone, you can say “J’ai le béguin pour toi” (zjay luh bay-gahn poor twah). This slang term has really old roots that date back to the Middles Ages. Béguines were women who withdrew from the world in communities like nunneries in the area that is now Belgium. The women wore distinctive bonnets that were known as béguins. How the meaning leapt from a bonnet to having a crush is rather mysterious.


Copyright My Life in the Trenches

Cole Porter composed “Begin the Beguine” in 1935. Here, the word beguine refers to a close, slow dance. The lyrics croon:


So don`t let them begin the beguine
Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember
Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember
When they begin the beguine

The song became enormously popular and was recorded over and over in the following decades, including by smooth-voiced Ella Fitzgerald, above. So a bonnet became a dance and then became a way of expressing affection. The development of language is an amazing thing.

imageBegin the Beguine


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Une Rengaine

imageWe had a big snow storm here on Friday, but Saturday was a winter wonderland. I went for a walk next to the reservoir and heard the most amazing sound. The sun was loosening the snow in the branches, and snow plopped from them onto the barely frozen reservoir. As the snow hit the ice, it sang. It was amazing. I would compare it to the humming sound that train tracks make as the train approaches or the twittering of awakening birds in the morning. I’ve never heard anything so amazing and I wonder if just the right circumstances will ever be present for me ever to hear it again.

imageUne rengaine (oon ren-gen) means a tune or refrain. In her 1960 hit Le bonheur, Dalida sang “Le bonheur est l’echo d’une rengaine,” or “Happiness is the echo of a tune.” I felt ineffably happy in that moment by the reservoir with the singing ice.



Le bonheur

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Une rêveuse

imageI’ve been faithfully going to the gym since right after Christmas. I don’t love it, but I’m distracting myself from the tedium with books downloaded onto my iPad. A recent selection was My Paris Dream, by former Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor Kate Betts. After her graduation from Princeton, rudderless Betts returned to Paris after having fallen for the city during an earlier trip with friends.

The book tells how Betts found a room, then a job, then an apartment, then a better job. Along the way, she learned to speak French like a truck driver instead of a school girl, cracked the code of Parisian fashion, and found love with a Frenchman, at least for a time. What she learned most of all, however, was what made her tick. Once she had learned all of the lessons Paris had to teach her, it was time to return home to New York and pursue a new dream, although her job in the fashion world brings her back quite often.

imageThe book has some entertaining anecdotes, such as careening through the woods in a Citroën 2CV to follow a highly ritualized boar hunt in Brittany and turning down a pair of custom-made Louboutin shoes from Christian himself before he was the hottest shoe designer in the world. Betts certainly had amazing insider access to the biggest names in fashion when they were still at the beginnings of their careers.

imageThe part of the book that really struck me, however, was that Betts started her adventure in 1986, when Paris was going through a wave of terrorist attacks. Paris wasn’t on my radar then, so I knew nothing abou these events. A bombing campaign rocked the French capital in September 1986, killing 15 people and wounding over 150 others. The bombings were carried out by the Comité de soutien avec les prisonniers politiques et arabes et du Moyen-Orient (CSPPA) with the aim of forcing the release of terrorist Georges Abdallah from prison. Strangely enough, I found learning about these attacks comforting in light of the November 2015 attacks. Paris has been through waves of terrorist violence before and come through. Although she was afraid, Betts showed courage in pursuing her Paris dream.

The word for a dreamer in French is un rêveur (uhn rev-ur) and the feminine form is une rêveuse (oon rev-uz). My Paris dream gets lived out each summer when I work there, but maybe some day… I can dream, can’t I?



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Les Bas-bleus


If you’re near New Haven, Connecticut, you might want to check out the Yale University Art Gallery. Recently, we went to an antique market near the university town that rather underwhelmed us. We salvaged the day with a trip to the art gallery.

imageFirst up were European prints from the Arthur Ross collection. I loved the Honoré Daumier series satirizing Les Bas-Bleus (lay bah bluh) or Bluestockings, female intellectuals and followers of George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin) who were reviled as being bad wives and mothers. In the example above, the father drags his child from the room so the mother can write a treatise on the joy of motherhood.

imageThe permanent collection had several beautiful French works, like the one above, Portrait of Philippe-Grégoire Delaroche, the son of the artist Paul Delaroche.

imageRussian Ary Sheffer painted Napoleon’s Retreat from Russia, 1812. The desperation of the figures in the foreground is palpable.

imageI would agree to hang this beautiful seascape by Claude Monet, entitled Port-Domois, Belle-Isle, above my fireplace.

imageAnd this is the most beautiful Van Gogh I have ever seen, entitled Square Saint-Pierre, Paris. We certainly didn’t see anything this lovely at the antique market, but there’s always hope for the next time.

imageIntellectuelles (Bas-Bleus) et Femmes Socialistes, Daumier






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Un Dédale

Un dédale
(uhn day-dahl) means a labyrinth or a maze. The name comes from Daedalus, the builder of the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete. Daedalus was eventually imprisoned in the labyrinth himself along with his son Icarus. Being its creator, he knew what was and was not possible. He amassed a huge quantity of feathers, created wings and flew out of the confines of the labyrinth. Icarus flew too high. The fixative holding his wings together melted, and Icarus fell to his death. Poor Daedalus! He paid a high price for being a creative genius. First he lost his liberty, then his son.


There are some pretty famous labyrinths in France, including one at Chartres and Reims cathedral. Many chateaus had labyrinths as part of the garden, such as Chenonceau. The gorgeous image on top shows un dédale photographed by Frenchman Yann Arthus Bertrand. You can see how dédales inspired the famous French gardens, such as the one in the photo above that I took at the musée Carnavalet in Paris. From Greece to France, un dédale has serious staying power.



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imageDéchéance (day-shay-ahnse) is a hot topic in France these days. It refers to rescinding French citizenship to those who were naturalized as citizens after immigrating. It is currently only available as a punishment when people who hold two citizenships and have been French for less than ten years commit a serious crime. In the wave of terrorist attacks in France, François Hollande’s government is proposing that déchéance be extended to those leave to commit acts of jihad abroad or who engage in terrorist acts in France.

imageThe effect of this would be to create people who have no nationality it all. The measure, which would require a constitutional amendment, appears to be designed to curry favor with the far right, perhaps after the strong performance of the Front National in the first round of the regional elections in late 2015. Curiously, the Justice minister, Christiane Taubira, who is tasked with promoting the change, loudly and publicly opposes the measure. After all, the Partie Socialiste is supposed to be politically on the left, not the far right. Affaire à suivre. (To be continued.)

imageLiberty Leading the People 24 x 36 print



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Ça caille!

imageThe winter of 2015 was mythic in its severity. The winter of 2016, so far, has not been too bad. I’m totally OK with that. Being able to go for a walk in January is such a pleasure, even if I have to bundle up against the cold. This week, I’ve been watching the ice creep across the reservoirs as I drive across the causeway on my way to and from work. One day this week, I saw two foxes moving through the tall grasses at the water’s edge. Beautiful. Another day, I saw a swan swimming in one of the dwindling open areas. It flipped its snowy bottom into the air when it submerged its head into the water, looking for breakfast in the frigid water. Brrr, that’s cold. Ça caille! (sah kiy (rhymes with ‘eye’)) is how you say “It’s freezing!” in French. It’s only two months until spring! Hang on, little swan.

imageParis in Winter: An Illustrated Memoir

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