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Past Postcards
May 21 - Tree woman April 02 - Gardening in a Warmer World July 24 - La Boucherie J.-C. Malavard June 13 - The Unsung Muse of Istanbul May 02 - Potager passion 2013 January 30 - Wounds and Wildflowers September 27 - Coq Story March 29 - The joyous lavender farmer March 27 - Consulting the oracle February 15 - Abdullah's olives November 10 - The living willow fence--one year later October 25 - Ode to crème fraîche September 08 - Le Grand Mechoui at Revest-des-Brousses May 10 - An island of serenity March 23 - Blood and guts February 10 - Birdie! January 13 - Planting a living fence November 25 - The clay connection June 09 - Bee story April 21 - Of dandelions and Camembert March 12 - The secret shops of the Palais Royale. February 01 - The pleasures of winter September 30 - Pigeon September 10 - Health care à la française June 11 - La Ferme aux Escargots June 04 - Nest of flowers April 10 - Potager passion March 25 - Pépette II--The sequel January 27 - Meditations on mustard January 14 - Provence wears it well...snow, that is. November 20 - Our part-time dog November 11 - A new university for the 21st century October 14 - Mushroom madness September 04 - Road trip with Paula Wolfert June 18 - The Pottery of Sampigny June 02 - Le Temps des Cerises May 20 - It's that intoxicating time again... April 23 - Where la vigne is queen March 27 - The joys of la cueillette February 14 - Bringing in the blue January 16 - Bonne année 2008! November 07 - Fire at the heart of the home October 19 - Manna from heaven... September 19 - My neighbor's lamb July 26 - The way to a woman's heart... June 18 - Guinée rocks the rue de Logelbach May 15 - A passion for farigoule April 16 - Sowing the seeds of content April 04 - Bruno's world March 14 - Putting down roots February 14 - La Fête de la Truffe December 20 - An olive branch November 30 - Happiness is a hot chestnut. October 31 - Uncovering the soul of a mas October 02 - High horsepower September 21 - The magic of Moustiers June 21 - The cencibelles of Cliousclat May 22 - In possession of a potager... April 26 - A spring morning amble through Aix-en-Provence March 20 - The staff of life en pays Berbère March 08 - Why I love my quincaillerie February 22 - Le pays de Forcalquier February 14 - Valentine surprise in Verona February 06 - La Truffe December 20 - 12/20/2005. La Source December 01 - 12/01/2005. The pool at the Club Waou November 26 - 11/26/2005. Fall Trilogy III--Le Chemin de Randonnée November 23 - 11/23/2005. Fall trilogy II November 21 - 11/21/2005. Fall Trilogy I November 15 - 11/15/2005. Jammin' November 09 - 11/09/2005. Civil unrest in France October 31 - 10/31/2005. Flu season October 10 - 10/10/2005. Our own little piece of Provence October 04 - 10/04/2005. China--a window on the future? July 26 - 7/26/2005. Elegy for a potager July 07 - 7/7/2005. La Bonne Etape June 27 - 6/27/2005. Our royal tourne-broche June 22 - 6/22/2005. La dermite des prés June 13 - 6/13/2005. A spring foray in the Pyrenees May 16 - 5/16/2005. Lights, camera, action! April 28 - 4/28/2005. April in Paris April 06 - 4/6/2005. Vinegar porn March 06 - 3/6/2005. The miraculous monarch February 16 - 2/16/2005. Valise de rêve December 15 - 12/15/2004. Diversity for all December 09 - 12/9/2004. Fécamp--Destination gourmande November 24 - L'Ostau de Baumanière November 16 - Rice, bulls, and gypsy caravans November 15 - 11/15/2004. And the winner is... October 27 - 10/27/2004. Lunch heaven October 13 - 10/13/2004. Oh-so-French pharmacies October 05 - 10/5/2004. Vézelay--la colline éternelle September 07 - 9/7/2004. Where in the world... July 15 - 7/15/2004. Road trip through Auvergne June 02 - 6/2/2004. La fête du pain normand April 26 - 4/26/2004. A sun-drenched weekend in Collioure April 14 - 4/14/2004. Denis' Easter card April 01 - Lights, camera, action! March 29 - My life as an enzyme March 18 - Life in a food-crazed nation March 05 - Marabout February 26 - Tale of two towers February 23 - La Fête des Violettes February 05 - My precious levain January 28 - Surviving the salon January 13 - La Poste and I December 01 - Home alone November 19 - Those dirty French! November 03 - Three years at 10 rue de Logelbach October 20 - A Paris weekend September 16 - Paris on wheels September 03 - The sleepy magic of the marais Poitevin July 29 - Dejeuner sur la (mauvaise) herbe July 23 - Blue is the color... July 10 - My famous hat June 10 - 06/10/2003. Dr. Death and the Giant Lobster June 04 - 6/4/2003. Summer in a skillet May 13 - 5/12/2003. Oysters for Breakfast. April 29 - 4/29/2003 Dateline Dakar March 27 - 3/27/2003. Le Moulin d'Arbalète March 17 - 3/17/2003. A spring day in the Pays de Caux February 26 - 2/26/2003. Residents of Nice take to the streets... February 14 - Some winter violets for turbulent times February 03 - Ramblings on the week's news from l'Hôtel de Ville January 20 - The mother of all vinegars January 07 - "Brrrrr...Il fait froid!" December 11 - La crise de foie November 20 - War of the waters November 13 - The weekend of three tails October 30 - Gender issues September 18 - Figs, green walnuts, and pêches de vigne September 18 - La rentrée August 01 - Paris in August July 25 - The Gymnase Club July 15 - French ads June 27 - Sojourn to Ardèche May 23 - France ushers in spring with muguet des bois. May 23 - The Concours Lépine--or the French at their most eccentric April 19 - Going to the polls in Paris April 08 - The bounty of Belleville March 28 - First the poubelle, now the tri... March 15 - For women only March 07 - French Country comes to Paris February 21 - Paris underground February 15 - Everything's on soldes! January 31 - A breath of spring January 25 - Paris...the soul of discretion January 16 - Winter rolling toward spring January 03 - Bonne Année!! December 10 - Christmas roses November 28 - Wild mushroom season in Paris November 16 - Leaving home November 06 - The Camondo cuisine October 23 - Paris, Post-September 11 October 17 - 10/17/2001. Paris Mayor Says NO to Doggie Turds October 05 - 10/05/2001. What am I doing here? October 05 - Why I love my butcher October 04 - A dog's life in Paris.

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The Concours Lépine--or the French at their most eccentric

Yes, the key words here are en principe, one of those alarm bells in the jungle of the French language. En principe, means literally, "theoretically." But anyone who's lived for a while in the labyrinth of French experiences a little internal warning sign that pops up at the utterance of this phrase. The warning sign says, "Watch out! The words following this phrase describe something that only exists in theory and in reality will never happen."

Well, that's a very complicated paragraph to begin to explain to you the quintessentially French event called the Concours Lépine, where the country's inventors get to display their latest Rube Goldberg devices in the hopes of attracting financial backing, customers, or just some attention.

In a country where reinventing the wheel is a way of life, the inventions presented at the Concours Lépine are for the most part likely to be taken seriously only by the French. As the American journalist Mary Blume, who wrote for the Paris bureau of the International Herald Tribune for many years so adroitly put it, quoting Jean Mantelet, the inventor of the Moulinex vegetable masher, these are the "luminous ideas" of the Concours Lépine. But if you want to experience the French at their Frenchest, the Concours Lépine is not to be missed. And not to be entirely mocked either, for it was here that contact lenses, the ballpoint pen, the steam iron, and the pressure cooker were first introduced.

A regular rite of spring, the Concours is held in early May as part of the giant annual Foire de Paris, a sort of huge commercial fair where you can buy just about anything from mostly small vendors. Held in the impossibly disjointed and confusing multiple-leveled buildings of the Parc des Expositions at the Porte de Versailles, the Concours Lépine occupies the farthest corner of the gadgety part of the Foire de Paris. As you press your way through the throngs, you'll note you're in the midst of myriads of marvel cleaning products, oyster openers, kitchen gadgets, and foot massagers, perhaps many of them past winners of the Concours Lépine. You'll see how-can-you-live-without-it items like the magnetic window washer that washes both sides of a glass pane at once, pictured here.

But when the carpet color changes to bright green, you know you're in the hallowed quarters of the cutting edge--the guys who are really--you know--out there.

And they really are guys. In all of my two years of attendance at the Concours Lépine, I've never seen any female inventors. Supposedly the contest is juried, but there is always a liberal number of entries that resemble nothing so much as junior high school science projects. Among there number I recognized some of the same entries I'd seen last year. Perhaps they're allowed in for tradition's sake, or for their own psycho-therapeutic benefit. An example is the gentleman with the plan (only) for the solar-powered car, and when I say "plan," I'm being generous, as you can see from the picture of his giant poster below.

In a similar vein, there was a sort of aged hippie type whose entry consisted of a truly Rube Goldberg-ish flower-shaped contraption which supposedly followed the sun and focused its light on a destination of your choosing. The "Tournesol", or "Sunflower," as he had appropriately named his somehow innocent brainchild, sadly wasn't attracting much attention.

The least glitzy but in some ways most practical entry was a sort of umbrella halter (worn by its inventor, below) which holds an open umbrella in perfect position over your head, leaving your hands free for whatever horribly heavy bags you needed to schlep about Paris in the rain.

Not bad, thought I, myself a car-less shopper. Another invention for car-less shoppers--an electric shopping caddy, which I found rather clumsy and impractical--actually won the Concours this year.

The winner, in my estimation of the "en principe" category was a gentleman who had entered the contest with a photograph--and only a photograph--of a public and self-cleaning toilet for dogs. The photo showed a large, panting dog emerging from the somewhat tubular toilet structure. How, I asked, as a long-time former dog owner, would one manage to get one's dog to, well, go (in the biological sense) in the toilet and only in the toilet, when the choosing of the appropriate spot always seems to be a very idiosyncratic dog behavioral process? Ignoring my question, he answered, "But look! The dog likes it! See, he is smiling!" He deftly avoided answering my discouragingly practical questions about the self-cleaning mechanism.

There's also an international contingent at the Concours Lépine. Last year, this included a Russian entry which we mocked at the time as being the perfect example of Russian paranoia, and which turned out to be scarily prescient: a portable sort of gasmask kit to carry you with you at all times in case of toxic emissions. Did they know something we didn't? No, now I'm the one being paranoid. This year, the international department was pretty dull. Even the Chinese, who in the past have proposed inventions as scintillating as magnetic socks to combat foot odor, this year offered nothing substantive.

Of course, no French public event would be complete without paying homage to Style, Design, and Beauty. This lofty position belonged to the Canon de Beauté, or Cannon of Beauty, mounted on a Ferrari car, pictured below.

Well, just what is the Cannon of Beauty? I don't get it, Denis and I shrugged at each other. Granted, this was only a "proto", as the French love to call "prototypes,"--one of their favorite concepts, because it remains in the domain of en principe and does not yet require all the dreary reality of practical details. Even though this display was accompanied by extremely long and complicated verbage, Denis and I remained unable to figure out what this design statement was all about. Which made it perfect, of course, for the Concours Lépine.

As these postcards have testified, dogs play a big part in the life of the French, and especially of Parisians. So it's no wonder that this year there was the afore-mentioned canine public toilet proposal, and last year a cunning device for collecting semen from prime male dogs and then delivering it to likely, distant females--a sort of AI (and that's not Artificial Intelligence) kit. But this year the real glory of the Concours Lépine, as judged by Denis and me, was the (drumroll...) Toutou Box (see proto in the main photo at head of article). As I have informed you faithful readers of the postcard, the mayor's office is embroiled in a difficult battle to reform the recalcitrant dog owners of Paris from being doodoo droppers to dutiful pooper scoopers.

Applying his genius to a civic call of duty, Monsieur Jean-Pierre Muscarnera has invented the Toutou Box, a truly ingenious device which combines all the best of French creativity and sense of style in a pooper scooper that is so clever and so beautiful that if it doesn't convince Parisians to scoop, nothing will. Unlike the fly-by-night canine toilet inventor, M. Muscarnera had several beautifully developed Toutou Box protos, all displayed in a very impressive booth designed to resemble a Greek temple.

The Toutou comes in three convenient sizes and three stylish colors: a bright, Chanel-like red, navy blue, and deep green. The box contains 30 specially designed plastic bags. Why is it called the "Toutou" box? Because "Toutou" is an affectionate, all-purpose French nickname for "dog," often crooned by lady dog owners of a certain age, as in Ah, mon petit Toutou..."

M. Muscarnera's representative helpfully demonstrated use of the Toutou (at left). The plastic bag is drawn out, covering the jaws of the box, the poop is scooped, and enclosed in the bag without the dogowner's hands ever coming in contact--even through plastic--with that distasteful byproduct of the beloved dog. The Toutou box--which remains impeccably clean--can then be stashed in a color-coordinated leather case that resembles a small under-the-arm handbag.

Will the Toutou Box be a commercial success? It will be available by the end of the year, and I, for one, intend to offer it for sale on this website. Of course, only the French can judge for sure. But if the comments of a Parisian in her 50's was any indication, Toutou has the potential to be a hit. Watching the demonstration of its use, she pronounced it "absolutely chic"--definitely the first requirement for French commercial success. But, she added, with a note of skepticism creeping into her voice, even the smallest model was too large for the miniscule excrescences of her little dog!

Next year, the new, improved Micro-Mini Toutou...


About Paris Postcard
Here's where I share the frustrations, humor, and sometimes almost heartbreaking beauty of daily life from the perspective of an American expatriate living in Paris. I'm writing to you exactly as I write to my family and friends, so what you read here is usually not about gardening. Rather, these weekly postcards are a way for you to get to know me, and I hope, to occasionally laugh out loud--both with me, and sometimes at me. Barbara Wilde
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