a different kind of Christmas Eve

sapin chez Rana

Last night I spent Christmas Eve in the north of France (in Lille) with an Iraqi family in their beautiful new home.

Majid is the brother of my French-Iraqi friend, Kaïss. Rana is Majid’s wife. They have four children. Seeking asylum from the never-ending violence in Iraq, Majid, Rana and their kids arrived in France – from Baghdad – in October 2014. For the first few months they camped out in Kaïss’s living room. They had sold all their earthly possessions and were living out of suitcases. In 2014 Baghdad was an extremely dangerous place to be (Iraq is still an extremely dangerous place to be.) The lives of Majid and his family were in danger. A civil servant, Majid had been the victim of ISIS car bombing attempts. Another brother, Issam, was the victim of an Al-Qaeda attack a few years earlier. On a Baghdad street, he was randomly shot in the spine. Today, a paraplegic, Issam is confined to a wheelchair.

Not one single Iraqi family has been spared the violence and destruction inflicted on their country.

So Majid and Rana sought asylum in France. It required much planning and paperwork. With their children, they arrived in Paris via Istanbul. Kaïss met them at the airport, drove them to Lille and welcomed them into his small home. Eventually the four kids, not speaking a word of French, were allowed to start school. Majid and Rana took advantage of the free French lessons given by the Town Hall (in every city in France, free French lessons are offered to new arrivals.)

They eventually found themselves a teeny-tiny apartment to rent. The apartment was damp, dark, and full of mice. In the winter, the back bedroom was so damp, cold and mouldy it was declared a health risk. The kids had to move out of the back bedroom into the front room where all six of them slept. There was insufficient heating. (In Baghdad they had left behind a very nice house with a garden.) They lived in that apartment for two years while waiting for the decision from OFPRA (Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides) – The French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons.

Majid and Rana were summoned to the OFPRA office (based in Paris) many times for in-depth interviews. Their dossier was being studied for eligibility to be awarded the right of asylum. Due to extremely high demand, it’s a very slow process.

During this time Majid was extremely unhappy. He wanted to return to Iraq. “I don’t even want to be here,” he would say. “I want to be at home in my house with my mother and brothers and sisters up the street.” He was angry, and rightfully so. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq – when the Bush Administration decided, illegally and illegitimately, to pulverise Baghdad and remove Saddam – Majid and Kaïss lost their father. Out of the 12,125 violent civilian deaths that occurred in 2003, their father was amongst the victims.

The total Iraqi violent death toll since the U.S.-led invasion is in excess of 1.2 million. This statistic is before ISIS.

The number of Iraqis approved to resettle in the United States is shamefully low.

In the meantime and back in Lille, Rana excelled at French lessons. An engineer by profession, she was not content to follow the free French lessons at the Town Hall (overcrowded classrooms, inadequate infrastructure and non-personalized instruction). She sought and found a better language school which offers smaller classes and personalized instruction. She purchased her own textbooks, studied very hard, and today her French is near-fluent (both written and spoken.) Last night I was looking at her notes. She was explaining to me a complicated rule about French grammar.

She’s eager to find work and start earning a salary, as is Majid. (In France, while your dossier is being examined by OFPRA, you are not allowed to work.)

Six months ago the family was admitted into Lille’s social housing program, into a spanking new building located on the north-west side of the city. It’s a beautiful top-floor apartment spread over two floors with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large outdoor terrace overlooking the rooftops of that part of the city. One of the first things they bought was a barbecue for grilling lamb chops and kibbeh – minced meat ground with bulghur wheat and spices. Iraqis love all kinds of grilled meat (and fish).

The apartment gleams, and Rana has decorated it with tasteful furnishings and knick-knacks.

So last night we sat down to platters of rice, bulghur, roasted chicken, a chick pea and lamb dish, vegetables, salad, and a refreshing yogurt drink with mint in it.

table two Rana

me on the right, Rana in the middle, Kaiss’s wife on the left

dinner Rana

Majid foreground, his older brother Kaiss background

After dinner, we sat on the sofas drinking hot sugared tea served in small glasses. I admired the twinkling tree in the corner and said “It’s not often that you see a Christmas tree in a Muslim home. It’s nice.” Kaïss and his brother looked at one another and said, “Growing up in a tightknit mixed community in central Baghdad, we always shared some of the customs of the Christian Iraqis. They put up a tree, so we put up a tree.”

(Kaïss, Majid and Rana are Kurdish Iraqis.)

As I sat there sipping my tea I thought to myself, These brave resistant people – who have been through so much danger, heartache and horror – and it’s been relentless, just one conflict following the other – I wish for them, and all those like them, nothing but peace, a new life, a new hope and prosperity for the New Year (and all the future years to come) and a healing of their shattered, broken country.

P.S. Majid still hopes to one day return to his country and the family he left behind.

Trump will personally save up to $15m under tax bill, analysis finds

So … I’m wondering how all those Trump supporters feel about him now … not the rich ones, but the Rust Belt and other ones. Happy? Would they vote for him again?

Matthew Yglesias from VOX says – We’re witnessing the wholesale looting of America. Unchecked by norms or political prudence, it’s smash-and-grab time for the GOP.

The House speaker, Paul Ryan, praised Trump for “exquisite presidential leadership”. Exquisite. That’s an interesting word. Does he mean that Trump exquisitely managed to hoodwink large swathes of the electorate?

In today’s Guardian (the British perspective) – 


Astier restaurant

Restaurant? Bistro? Brasserie? I’d call it an expensive neighborhood eatery that serves up traditional French food from a limited menu. All Parisian restaurants are expensive, which explains why I don’t eat out much. (To be truthful, I love cooking. I really enjoy buying good wine and produce and making nice meals at home.) But we were celebrating our upcoming shared birthday, Andreas and I, and had decided on this restaurant in the 11th arrondissement near Place de la République.


Last night was cold and clear, a perfect winter’s night for walking outdoors. I took the metro to Parmentier then strode along the avenue de la République to this place.


The interior was warm and welcoming … with a décor that hasn’t changed since the 1970s (or earlier.) It’s small inside with tables placed in a somewhat higgledy-piggledy fashion.


I have a sixth sense about restaurants. I can walk in and pretty much know (more or less) what’s in store. This was my appetizer of snails. (Correction: I thought I was eating a modernized version of the traditional snail dish, because I had ordered snails. But I’ve just looked at the bill again and it’s marked “tartelette champignons” which means I was eating a mushroom tart!) In any case, it was delicious.


Delicious lamb to follow. Do you see that tiny tureen of gnocchi on the left? That was for us to share. And the wine was disappointing, I’m afraid. I called it “flabby.” “Flabby?” said Andreas. “Unstructured,” I replied. In other words, limp. At 33 euros for the bottle, I had expected something better.


The cheese tray was a hit.



After dinner we walked to the Place de la République for a nightcap in the lobby bar of a hotel. I had Drambuie on the rocks. A mouse was scampering around the lobby. The staff saw it and did nothing (actually, they laughed.) We said something, but they still did nothing, other than offer us a drink “on the house”.

Two of my favorite Parisian restaurants – reasonably-priced, delicious food, fun places with lots of ambience – remain the Bistro Paul Bert and Le 6 Paul Bert, both on the same street. I drank a memorable Saint-Joseph Côte du Rhône at the 6 Paul Bert exactly three years ago. Here’s the link to that fun evening and restaurant review –



fa la la la la


Why do I love the Christmas season so? Is it the decorations and light displays that transform Paris into a doubly-dazzling city? Is it the anticipation of visiting the Christmas markets of Lille and Ghent (Belgium) with the kids where we’ll buy hot chocolate, waffles and gingerbread from little wooden chalets? Is it the cold weather and walking briskly outdoors, swathed in woollen scarves and my snuggly winter coat? Or is it the memories of this season (magical) that linger still and fill me with gratitude for having lived such a happy childhood? Born a Christmas baby, December was always a doubly exciting month for me.

loolie 7 years old

me, party girl, celebrating my seventh birthday at Christmastime


I wasn’t intending on posting a holiday gift list, but as I move around the city I see terrific gift ideas everywhere. Such as this coffee accessory available from Nespresso. Swiss-made, the Aeroccino is a super-sophisticated milk frother for hot or cold milk. Pour in the milk, press the button and within seconds it prepares a divine, cloud-like milk froth ideal for your morning caffè latte or macchiato.


Here’s one model of the Aeroccino, there are other models –


Here in Europe we love Nespresso machines. I have two: one at home and one I share with a colleague at the office. Why not buy one as a gift for yourself or someone else? Not only are Nespresso machines beautiful, they’re also practical and economical. Each recyclable aluminum capsule costs around 30 centimes.


CitiZ model, so sleek and sophisticated!

BOSE SoundLink Micro Bluetooth speaker. Big rich sound from mini portable speakers. I’m looking at these because my Philips mini speaker just conked out.


You’ll never guess what’s trending this fall and winter in Paris … berets! All the fashion mags are trumpeting “Le retour du béret” (The return of the beret.) They’ve apparently made a comeback (I didn’t know they had gone away.)

beret velv

agnes b

LOVE this look. Agnès B, Fall and Winter 2016-17 collection


CHANTECAILLE brush collection

CHANTECAILLE, a wildly expensive French-American skincare-fragrance-cosmetic collection. All I can afford is a single eyeshadow, but what an eyeshadow! “Unique ultra-fine texture never fades, creases, or runs. Available in a range of unusually true and vivid colors.”

The story behind Chantecaille cosmetics reads like a fairy tale:

They are a French family (all slim and beautiful, of course) who live in New York. At 25, Sylvie de Bois de Soheit’s travelled to New York, where she met the man who would become her husband, Olivier Chantecaille – ‘a lovely man from Bordeaux, who was working in the wine business’ – and settled with him in Manhattan. With Diane von Furstenberg she opened a little shop on Madison Avenue in the 1970s.

This perfume costs $185, and what a perfume! Whenever I find myself in an upscale department store, I make a beeline for the CHANTECAILLE counter and spritz myself with TIARE. “A wild, magical floral experience. The tiare flower’s understated sweetness mixes with salt air, wind, a touch of dry, warm, sun-bleached wood, greenness, and a powdery mimosa finish.” Wow. All that packed into a (beautiful) bottle.

tiare perfume

The bestselling memoir, The Mighty Franks by Michael Frank. Contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times Book Review for nearly ten years, Frank lives with his family in New York City and Liguria, Italy.

(I’m writing my own memoir, so I need to see how others write theirs.)

A psychologically acute memoir about an unusual Hollywood family by Michael Frank, who “brings Proustian acuity and razor-sharp prose to family dramas as primal, and eccentrically insular, as they come” (The Atlantic)

I’ve just ordered this book (love the cover.) Here’s a review from The Guardian:


Frank begins his story as a somewhat precocious schoolboy growing up in 1970s Los Angeles, with an inordinate love of art and eavesdropping. The glory of this book is its richly evoked world, from the descriptions of the once wild California land steadily encroached on over the course of the 70s – as mountain lions are driven out and replaced by swimming pools – to the intense psychodramas of an extraordinary family. Frank is a master of self-reflection, under the bowl of blue sky and in those closeted canyons. The final chapters – sad and glorious – capture a glitteringly dysfunctional family in a moment in time. The Mighty Franks is full of humor and brittle irony.


YSL Touche Eclat foundation


The best. I’ve been using it for years. It’s an illuminating foundation (with a lovely delicate scent) which means it’s light reflective, hence the name éclat which means radiant. bright. luminous. It blends easily into the skin with an almost-moisturizing texture because it’s gel, not water-based like other foundations. Touche Eclat is not cheap, but it’s worth the price (and so are you.)


AKILLIS Capture-Moi collection

big bracelet photo


two hands jewelery

LOVE these photos. They’re from the current advertising campaign for Akillis, a Parisian jeweler. I also love the jewelry.

And last but not least, here’s a gift I’m buying for myself: SCRIVENER. A powerful writing tool used by best-selling novelists, screenwriters, non-fiction writers, students, academics, lawyers, journalists, translators and more. Scrivener provides everything you need to start writing and keep writing.

I can’t wait to get started. Up until now, I’ve been saving my book project onto hundreds of Word documents and USB memory sticks. Not to mention indecipherable scribbles on post-its, scraps of paper and the back of envelopes.

Here’s the link. Watch the video to see how it works.


Yule log / bûche de Noël

buche one.jpg

Yule logs, called bûches de Noël here, are big in France over the Christmas holidays. Light and creamy, they concorde beautifully with a glass or two of sparkling wine or champagne. Prepared in every pâtisserie around the country, they come in different sizes and flavors. I like chestnut flavor. I was watching my favorite New York Times cook and food writer, Melissa Clark, make her yule log (with the help of a pastry chef) and thought it would be fun to compare her log with the log of a French chef.

What Melissa didn’t do, but the French chef did, once the cake was rolled up, but also before it was rolled up, was to brush it generously with a syrup made of sugared water and Cointreau. This moistens the cake and gives it added flavor. If children are eating the log, substitute the Cointreau with a mixture of sugared water, orange zest and vanilla. The French chef rolled his cake a lot tighter than Melissa did hers (I thought her roll-up was too loose.) He also used a silicone cake pan. But what’s really interesting is the icing (or frosting, as Americans call it.) The French chef used a pastry piping bag and piped lines of icing onto the cake. This is niftier than using a spatula. He made the whole operation look, well, effortless. Either way, the end result of both logs is a decorative and delicious work of art.  

Esraa’s sins

But what, exactly, are Esraa’s sins?? Her intelligence? Her thirst for freedom? Her refusal to be obedient?

Listen to the mother, the one who had Esraa genitally mutilated: “If I die tomorrow, will I have to pay for Esraa’s sins?” The mother is more fearful of GOD than she is for her own daughter’s safety and well-being.

This is precisely the type of person Egypt wants. Unschooled, backward, indoctrinated and pious. Submissive and with the fear of GOD in their hearts.

As for Esraa’s boyfriend, if she marries him all her efforts for liberation will be in vain. He’ll put the veil back on her head and turn her into a baby-breeder. He is a major impediment to her advancement. As for the thuggish brother? Outside of the Middle East, he’d be thrown in jail for GBH (grievous bodily harm.) What is the reaction of the parents when the brother physically assaults his two sisters?

Come to Europe or Canada, Esraa. Come with your sisters and girlfriends. I will sponsor you.

I thank my lucky stars every single day for being born – free, and a girl – in Canada.

Thank you, New York Times, for featuring this video-reportage.

can Tony Blair redeem himself?

tony blair

Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Tony Blair, the most hated man in the UK because of Iraq, is trying hard to save the British people from what he considers a trainwreck: Brexit! The British economy is suffering a notable slowdown and there is growing scepticism over what Brexit may bring. Something that was unthinkable a few months ago is now being discussed openly: reversing Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

Many business leaders believe that Brexit will cause serious damage to the British economy. The business community is fast losing patience and has demanded a recognizable plan by the end of 2017. They say they cannot continue to delay decisions on whether to relocate some of their operations outside of the UK, though several banks have already made the decision and shifted many jobs away from London. (FRANKFURT will be the big winner from Brexit, as the German city lures banks and jobs out of London.)

Morgan Stanley, Citigroup Inc., Standard Chartered Plc and Nomura Holdings Inc have picked the German city for their EU headquarters to ensure continued access to the single market. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and UBS Group AG are weighing a similar decision, said people familiar with the matter, asking not to be named because the plans aren’t public. HSBC Holdings Plc is the biggest non-French bank so far to opt for Paris, while Barclays Bank Plc has plumped for Dublin.

London could lose 10,000 banking jobs and 20,000 roles in financial services as clients move 1.8 trillion euros ($2.1 trillion) of assets out of the U.K. on Brexit, according to think-tank Bruegel. The implications for the U.K. are substantial: finance and related professional services bring in some £190 billion ($248 billion) a year, representing 12 percent of the British economy.

A steady stream of politicians in the 27 EU member states have said that Britain could still change its mind. One of the most prominent is Donald Tusk of Poland, the president of the European Council, who said in late October that it was now “up to London how this will end, with a good deal, no deal or no Brexit.” 

A second referendum? Why not? It would be truly interesting to see, a year and a half on, if the numbers change considerably.

See Blair in this video clip talking about Brexit. There’s also an interview with him on today’s BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend.