Sunday, April 6, 2014

Last post, I think

January, 2009: I think is my last post. At least, I think so. It's not like I don't have more to say about France. I could write every day about what makes us different, how we're the same, what makes French culture special, what little things are different about how they spend their days, and why their baguettes taste better. (We're not brave enough to make them thinner--we're obsessed with quantity and must make them thick. And that's just...bread.)

But for now, I want to savor my experience differently. I blogged when I was there, and now I'm remembering instead of living, still trying to conjugate the danm verbs, and having days when I vividly recall the little and big things I loved that we've let go or never had. For example: My coffee shop here in Fairfield, where I've gone every day since moving here, now has a sign saying, "We'll be happy to take your order when you're done with your phone call."

I was very sad to see that sign. The 21-year-old woman behind the counter, when I mentioned that it was a shame the sign was necessary, sighed the sigh of someone much older and beat down as she noted that some people "really are rude."

I liked living in a place where relationships, even with strangers, mattered.

And I don't even like people. But I liked knowing that everyone treated everyone else with respect, just because you were human. Not that there weren't exceptions--there are jerks everywhere--but in general, in France, people are worthy of eye contact, of a "thank you," and of real conversation instead of grunting and pointing while you schedule an appointment with your stylist or gossip with a girlfriend.

And now, I expect more. Maybe that's my 2009: Leading by example, showing others in line at the coffee shop what it means to engage the college student making my espresso in conversation, even if it's just a boring remark about the weather or wishing her a great day. Helping them realize that she's got classes, and a mom, and a car payment, and is stressed about her grandfather's illness, and may not get a job beyond this one when she graduates.

We Americans seem to revel in calling the French famously rude, but I think we need to look in the mirror.

But on a positive note, we adore their food, and they admire us in a million ways. We are destined for many more decades of our love/hate relationship. I can't wait.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Trip stats, attempt #1

I've been sloppily keeping track of certain things regarding my trip. Some data will require a little work (which I've not yet done) to get them into an interesting format, so here's the easy stuff.

Number of pictures taken and kept: 1819
Estimated number of deleted pictures: 95 (I won't explain the algorithm)
Number of pictures taken in Paris alone: 354 (19.5%)

More to come...
Number of pictures of food: ____
Number of pictures of monuments: ____
Number of pictures of toilets: ____
Number of pictures of animals: ____
Number of pictures relating to Joan of Arc: ____
Number of pictures of creepy internally lit lamps shaped like a baby: 1

Sunday, December 21, 2008

France: What I will NOT miss

  • Stepping onto the sidewalk or train platform and being surrounded by a pea-soup-thick layer of cigarette smoke (though I'm assured that far fewer people smoke now, especially younger people...which is really sad, because it feels like GAGILLIONS of people smoke, so if this is a reduced amount, yikes).
  • Stepping in dog crotte on the sidewalk.
  • Men urinating in public. In three months, I’ve seen four men do this. Somehow, in this very private society, peeing on the sidewalk is okay. (Yet another item that points to the contradictory nature of the French, usually in relation to their fierce independant streak--there are so many aspects about their culture and habits that are vastly contradictory in nature.)

Honestly, that's about it. It's pretty much, well, fantastic here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

France: What I will miss

  • Picking up a phenomenal, still-warm baguette on my 6pm walk home.
  • Knowing that out of 100 people who take a cell phone call in public, 97 will leave the room/train car, 2 will speak so softly I cannot hear them, and the other person will be glared or stared at because everyone else knows the deal.
  • Knowing I can get 50 kinds of cheeses in even the crappiest corner grocery store.
  • Exchanging formal greetings with shopkeepers. (I never thought I’d say that: I hate being formal just to put on a show—how dumb—but here they’re doing it to show respect and build relationships, which I appreciate.)
  • Seeing women of all makes and models and ages walking arm-in-arm on the sidewalk—oddly, I find it charming.
  • Happy, well-behaved dogs. They’re *all* happy…I think it’s because they are welcome in 95% of establishments here and are thus with their owners all day long (either at work or while doing errands).
  • Having long lunches with dessert and coffee. (though my waistline will not miss the twice-daily desserts)
  • Appreciating the details they have put into every shirt, building, and window display. The French are all about the details. (Except for Christmas decorations: Other than street lights, their decorations are rather uninspiring.)

Disclaimer: List is not all-inclusive. All thoughts expressed are the opinion of the author, not authorized Blogger officials, who would add that they miss the stinky cheese most of all. Author reserves the right to miss things not specifically listed in this post. You, the reader, may miss other things if you visit France.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Food update: oh boy

This week has been pretty huge in the food department.
I had escargot (albeit chopped up in a puff pastry with gobs of butter and garlic)...yes, I ate a snail. And while I didn't run after the hors d'ouevres platter for #2, it wasn't bad.
Twice this week, I had fois gras. This is BELOVED here, despite (in my eyes) what it is: the liver of a goose or duck that has been force-fed corn. Though the practice has been around for over 4500 years, that doesn't make me any more comfortable eating it, though it is as rich and buttery as was promised. Pic is not my fois gras, but you get the idea.
Also, at the nice Rotary dinner I went to (where I had the first fois gras), the dessert was a massive cake covered with meringue that they lit on fire. Nice.
Presentation is king here, and not just in restaurants: I am astounded at the shelf space given to tiny hors d'ouervre plates, fancy single-serving spoons (think Chinese soup spoon), and all manner of accessories for serving food to guests. Sure, we have fancy food trinkets in places like Williams-Sonoma, but I'm talking about everywhere, including at the dollar store! If you have two nickels to rub together, you own (and use) cloth napkins, silver trays, and the rest.


Have I mentioned recently how insanely fortunate I am to have had these 89 days?

I have LIVED IN FRANCE for three months! It was truly an amazing experience, and Rotary International and the Rotary Foundation are responsible for my time here (especially the kind folks of District 7980).

My goals as a scholar were to learn the language (as much as possible) and the culture because Rotary thinks that knowing other cultures leads to understanding amongst different peoples and peace. I could not agree more.

During my time here, I have tried to accomplish the following (and have, with various degrees of success):

  • dispel any incorrect myths about Americans
  • help them understand why we do some of the things we do (when possible...some things, like why we elect certain people or chose certain people as our running mates, are inexplicable)
  • understand some of the reasons behind particular habits, traits, and customs of the French
  • ask lots of questions so I can understand the why of their habits, traits, and customs
  • be an American who is appreciative and respectful of and curious about their culture versus an oblivious American who expects the French to know English, is uninformed about the way things work in France, and all the other things that annoy Americans about foreigners on our soil
  • learn as much French language as possible
  • take millions of pictures and videos and copious notes and simultaneously share with everyone back home who'll listen so more people can get a taste of what France is like beyond seeing the Eiffel Tower and Sarko every once in a while on TV

89 days.

Time's up.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Art, even for non-art-lovers

It looks fake, it really does, but it happened this afternoon in the most perfect place.

I am a huge fan of the late, great artist Alexander Calder. (I even saved my pennies in 1998 when I was making no money to fly to DC and see the huge retrospective at the National Gallery.) Calder lived and worked in Saché, France (near Tours, where I'm living) for several decades prior to his death. His studio now hosts two artists' residencies each year, allowing creators to live and work in his space and take in the same breathtaking views.

The current artist, Briton Roger Hiorns, created several interesting pieces hanging from the studio's ceiling (for similar work of his, click the link and view the first picture in the last row), but the big news was outside: a huge vat that spewed large chunks of soap foam, which, sometimes, took to the wind, like this:

I don't have Mr. Hiorns' permission to post this, so if you want to share it, please just forward the link and don't repost...that way I'll get in less trouble. I hope. Thanks.

The Christmas season

Today, I took the backroads through the western part of the Loire Valley, passing through about 20 little villages. As I drove through one of the last ones (Artannes-sur-Indre) around 5pm, I looked to my right at one intersection and saw a small crowd and some colorful lights....

 I parked and walked down.

In the past two weeks I've realized that *everyone* has a Christmas market or fair, and Artannes-sur-Indre, a town of probably 2,000 people, was no exception.

Never mind that the fair covered a space half the size of a high school gymnasium, or that the commerçantes (shopkeepers) under one tent were 8-year-old girls selling bad handmade cards: Everyone was having fun, chatting with their neighbors, and taking pictures of their kids riding a tiny merry-go-round. The whole town came out to celebrate, despite the rain. The scene was similar when I arrived back in Tours.

So much for rumors that the French are unhappy...I've yet to see it. Hope you're enjoying la saison de Noël so far too.

Friday, December 12, 2008

On the road again

Tomorrow, I will drive.

For only the second time in three months.

This is big: The driving gene is in my Midwestern DNA and a necessity for survival out there (other than Chicago), unless someone (cough Obama cough) comes up with a much-improved intra- and interstate train system and infrastructure and community-building support for rural towns.

But back to me. I rented this little doozie (a Citroën) in Avignon and had a ball. Don't know if it was the stick shift or just being away from it for two months, but driving was *fun* again. This weekend, I'm renting (something) to meander around the Loire Valley, visit a few châteaux, and enjoy the countryside.

Come January, I'm ditching the Pathfinder.

Same: but what sounds better?

For dummies, or pour les nuls. Neither sounds great.

One of the many brands we share: the For Dummies series of books. Seen everywhere here, but this one was found at the Château d'Amboise, where Leonardo Da Vinci lived for a spell, did some work, and was buried.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Château? Gesundheit!

France's Loire Valley is home to hundreds of châteax (plural for château...yeah, it's much easier to just add an s like in English, but them's the rules here). These are, in general, amazingly beautiful buildings that range from small castle-like homes built by lesser lords when kings lived in the valley to massive, grand palaces. When the seat of power returned to Paris, these essentially turned into country homes (kinda like Litchfield County, Connecticut, minus the Friday traffic).

The Loire châteaux are a veritable who's who of the rich and famous. One is said to be the inspiration for Cinderella's castle; one look and you'll see why. Another hosted Leonardo Da Vinci and is where he is buried today.

And don't forget about the soap operas: King Henry II gave Château Chenonceau (one of the more beautiful and interesting ones, as it's built over a river) to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. But upon Henry's death in 1559, Henry's widow Catherine de' Medici forced Diane to swap Chenonceau for a lesser château: drama!

While the elaborate displays of wealth are astonishing today to us middle-class citizens, I shudder to think of what the peasants thought back in the wonder many châteax were trashed during the French Revolution.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Oompa band at Christmas market

A cup of hot mulled wine in your hand as you weave through the quaint wooden cabins, deciding which cute little grandma makes the best Bavarian pretzel or bredele, the traditional Alsacian Advent's a tough day, no?

Here's a little oompa band to get you in the mood. Hum this tune as you battle rude drivers in crowded parking lots or self-absorbed pedestrians and (hopefully) you won't hurt anyone.

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Smoking & Flammeküeche

While in Strasbourg, France, this weekend (more about this beautiful city later) I went to Germany. Basically, you have to (if you haven't been to Germany before): You can throw a meringue across the's that close.

It was only a few hours, but they were productive. We went to the Woolworth (a throw-back, for moi, to my childhood, as they used to pepper the Midwest), where I snapped this photo. The Germans are also interested in making sure that people with bad eyesight can ready their smoking warning labels. I'll need my German-speaking friend Alex to confirm Google's translation, but their "Smoking may be deadly" is a bit softer than the French version.

While in tiny village of Kehl, I also went (bien sûr) to a bar for a German beer and a game of darts and to a tiny Christmas market in their town square.

The French in Strasbourg speak with a very different accent than that of any other region in France I've visited. I'm pretty sure I heard some German (allemand) words thrown in with the French, and the accent sounds heavily Germanic. Everything reflects their closeness to Germany, from the architecture to the Alsacian food (holy cow...really good). I love the combo.

Example: flammeküeche. You can, and should, make this at home. Now. It is easy, and you will suck it down and wonder where it's been all your life. This recipe (recette) shows you how and also features a nice picture of Strasbourg's Marché de Noël (Christmas market), which has been going strong since 1570 and is a must-do if you're in France in December. I just uploaded some photos to Flickr featuring the Christmas market, a huge Christmas celebration in nearby Nancy (also beautiful), and some other lovely items (including a flammeküeche I ate at a homey Nancy tavern that was a taxidermist's showpiece).
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Food: USA-like convenience

Back in the day, when I catered for a very talented chef in Stamford, I was known to [ahem] test for freshness his delicious and crispy fried onion strings while working a gig.

Here in France, I have found the next best thing, given that I don't like the burning sensation that deep-frying onions leaves on my tender hands. I can get fresh fried onions in an easy-to-pour-directly-into-my-mouth container, no less! (Can you see the spout? I can just pop and pour. I'm sure that's to make garnishing a dish easier, but my use is more fun.)

Maybe we have this in the US--I don't know. If so, I guess I'll be lobbying Stop N Shop or someone to place an order.
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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Macarons: Popular in Paris, but a Loire Valley speciality

Regular readers know I took a couple of cooking classes offered by the language insitute where I'm studying. I actually made this macaron cookie with vanilla filling! It was extremely delicious. The cookie part manages to be both crispy on the outside and edges (because after you pipe it out of the bag onto the cookie sheet, you let it sit a bit) and soft inside and underneath, where it nudges up against the vanilla cream (which has many pounds of butter in it, and the leftovers of which we ate using spoons and cups post-baking).

I'm not sure I can get the appropriate type of almond powder when I return to the states, so my ability to re-create it may be limited. There are two kinds of macarons: one with filling, and one that has fewer steps and ingredients (but mainly uses almond powder) and comes out very differently. I like 'em all. As previously reported, I'm on a macaron tasting binge; more flavors will be added if possible in the next 18 days.

The French pronounce it mahw-kuh-rhon, while us Americans (used to the double O we use in the US) keep saying mack-a-roon, which really confuses them until we point and grunt to get what we want. Charming, eh?

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tonight's cheese course

Tonight’s cheese course: my local favorite, a Saint-Maure chèvre, paired with a purple fig and walnut jam and, of course (bien sûr!) a baguette. (Trust me, it tasted plate-lickin' good, despite my mediocre picture.) There’s a sticker on the jam jar noting that it’s made to accompany not just any cheese, but “les fromages de chèvre secs ou demi-secs.” So don’t go and screw it up trying to eat this with anything other than a dry or semi-dry goat cheese.

Seriously, they are, uh, serious about food, and it makes for some awesome meals. Everyone here is a foodie. They care deeply about the quality of the ingredients and know the cuisine story of every region in France: These regions are best for Emmental cheese, and this city has the best sausage. They want to know in what country the beef or clementines originated; not only is it on grocery store labels, but it’s also on menus in restaurants.

In short, they have a relationship with food. Actually, they have a relationship with everything, which makes the way they relate on a day-to-day basis a bit different than the American way.
But that's another post.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Language: Can you say poubelle?

Learning French is proving difficult for me.

I'm sure I sound about as fluent to the French as Sarah Palin sounds to Americans. (Actually, I hope I'm doing better than she is, also too.)

But while it may be hard, it's a beautiful language, and when I get it right, it sounds simply lyrical. I could sit in a cafe all day long and listen to native speakers: Even when they're going so fast I only get every fifth word, it's poetry.

There are plenty of words you'd recognize, and some are spelled exactly the same as in English but with different pronunciations: bandit, cul-de-sac, flash, poème. Because I like lists, I've of course got a word list going. Here are my favorite entries.

poubelle [pooh-bell], or trashcan

pilote [pee-lot], or pilot
bougie [boo-jhzee], or candle
nerfs [nairf], or nerves

toiture [twah-tour], or roof
douche [doosh], or shower
fauteuil [fooh-tai], or armchair

oiseau [wah-zoh], or bird
muguet [moo-gay], or lily of the valley

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving & the French

I hate to break it to you on the big day, but in case you haven't seen the New York Times in the past few days, it's time to knock the Pilgrims off their high horse and give the French Huguenots their due for discovering [not discovering...EDIT: settling] America. (My Presbyterian mother will be happy to hear that the Huguenots were Calvinists escaping religious persecution by the French Catholics in what were some really nasty 16th century battles....does anyone else see a pattern here? Religious wars killing millions, causing strife, breaking bonds of family and friendship...hmmmm...)
Seems there's proof positive that the French landed in Florida (really? Florida? It just sounds weird.) in 1564 and stayed (unlike Leif E.). So today, if you're raising a glass of wine and eating stuffing with chestnuts, you can thank the French three times: twice for delicious cuisine, and once for your freedom. (Sorry, Mayflower descendants and Boston.)
Image surely copywrited by the illustrator and the NY Times.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Salad dressing: a whole post dedicated to the topic

Look left, please. You've just seen the salad dressing section, in its entirety, of the largest grocery store I've ever been in. (Think five times as large as the largest Stop N Shop in Fairfield County.) And this is it for the salad dressings. (Their cookie section? A full aisle, both sides. And that doesn't count chocolate biscuits, which are cookie-like but, wisely, recognized as its own category by the French.)
That's because everyone makes their own dressing. Usually, it's a light vinaigrette with mustard (the mustard section is at least this big), often with chives--very simple. There are probably 40 kinds of vinegar. Ninety percent of what you see at left is mustard- and cream-based. Not much variety here (but that's not a's truly delicious).
[And, FYI, the section with the meats in a jar (duck, etc. but no Spam) is three times bigger than this. Priorities.]

Food journal: recent memories

  • a mixed green salad with rounds slices of warm goat cheese (chèvre) covered in honey and a drizzle of fig sauce
  • hare stew (yes, the thing related to a rabbit only bigger and, unfortunately, usually uglier)
  • macarons (chocolate, pistachio, raspberry, violet, and rose—not kidding)
  • a baguette sandwich with salami, camembert cheese, and cornichons (little gherkin pickles)
  • quail (caille) in a light apricot sauce
  • pain du chèvre (a flatbread with chèvre rounds, ham, and onions)
  • Jarret de porc (pork shank) braised in cider
  • pear cooked in red wine with cinnamon ice cream and spun sugar
  • Le Grand Chocolat CELAYA (liquid Valrhona chocolate served with warm milk—here, they call hot chocolate chocolat chaud) [the adjective following, in most cases, the noun it modifies is one of the less annoying rules of the French language]
  • La Tartine Bergere: tomatoes, chèvre, and pesto on a thin slice of country bread

They put butter on their sandwiches (ham and cheese, cheese, etc.). While it sounds gross, it’s awesome. As much as they love mustard, they don't seem to put it on sandwiches. Odd.

I have a different pastry every other day and a different type of chocolate biscuit every week. (Gotta try 'em all...what if The One is in the next box?) Below is a sable (about 6" x 4") from the boulangerie and pâtisserie down the block. The strawberry confiture filling is between two thin, slightly crispy sable wafers.

Beneath my feet...

Here it is: The entrace to the cave, or wine cellar, at the house where I'm living. But that's not the whole story.

In this cave lies the remains an ancient Gallo-Roman ampitheatre. (Yes, another one.) Descend the first set of stairs, then down the second set (built in the Middle Ages, so practically new, by French standards) to the gravel pit where you see the arches (bottom picture, near the floor) where observers entered and exited the ampitheatre.

The walls and ceiling are all original, as are the cobblestones you see at left, which form a unique and interesting cross pattern that you can't see. The house is near the city's cathedral and was built in the 1500s to house priests.

So if I believed in the supernatural (which I don't) I'd assume I'm living with the spirits of priests and ampitheatre guests from centuries past.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Olives: live and in person

After that one really cool thing on Friday, I thought I had met my weekly quota for cool things. But I was wrong.

I'm again driving down some gravel road, no clue as to my whereabouts, when I see a truck deep in an olive grove. (Yep, a grove of olive trees--silvery, tiny leaves that make the whole field shimmer when it's sunny, and it was this weekend.) SO...the truck. I turn around and pull over to find a very nice man on a ladder harvesting olives. Jackpot!

You can't eat an uncured olive (<blech> he basically said when I suggested, in imperfect French, that I taste one), but it was neat to watch him harvest. Here's a short video of him harvesting plus the olive bread I bought in Avignon (yum), a closeup of some olives, and a field of olive trees. Apologies: I don't know how to rotate the video, so it's sideways (but it's only 20 seconds long--you'll survive).


YouTube link to video (also sideways--sorry):