Wednesday, December 26, 2007
One of the first things the kids noticed when we got here was the number of people who smoke. There are smokers everywhere -- on the street, in the restaurants, in the shops. I even saw a lady smoking the other day at the hairdresser's. (The stylist actually gave her a light.) And for the record, Marlboros seem to be more popular than Gauloises. But things may be about to change; on January 1, a new law is set to go into effect that will ban smoking in bars, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, and cafés. Although some doubt whether it will actually be enforced, it will be a huge change. What is most interesting to me is the language of the opposition. In both the U.S. and France, those against smoking bans use economic arguments. But the primary argument in the States is about individual rights -- it's my right to smoke and the government shouldn't be telling me what to do. Here, the arguments are about the threat to a way of life. Take a look at these excerpts from an article that ran in the International Herald Tribune.
"People say that a café is the thermometer of a country," said Cécile Perez, 54, owner of La Fronde, a bar-tobacco store in the historic Marais district. "In a café, while we smoke, we meet new people, we exchange ideas, we learn, we listen, we talk about everything. If we stop that, what do we have left?"
"Smokers are more passionate," said Véronique Moran, 51, who has smoked for 40 years, and is a regular at Le Cyrano, a café in Paris's bustling Place de Clichy. "We're more sensitive, we think about things and talk about things deeply, we get carried away, we rebel against things."
But today these rebels find themselves more marginalized than romanticized. "The ban on smoking in cafés is the end of a type of person," Moran said. "Now, people think about working more to make more money, being competitive, staying in shape, being good-looking."
I don't know about that. Personally, I'm just looking forward to a little less smoke in my face, my hair, and my clothes.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
I've been having a bit of a cultural mind melt the past few days. Paris is definitely all abuzz for Christmas -- lots of lights (a million I'm told on the Champs Élysées alone), decorations, Christmas trees, and Parisians carrying shopping bags. The only odd thing is the persistent soundtrack of American Christmas songs including White Christmas, The Christmas Song, and of course, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer. Craziest of all was hearing some country singer twang away about the holidays. That Tennessee accent just didn't seem the right soundtrack for buying a bûche de noël. Happy holidays to all ya'll mes amis.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
A French diplomat once remarked to my husband that he found living in Washington, DC more difficult than living in Tokyo. How so? Well he knew that Tokyo would be completely different from France. He was not so well prepared for the many differences between the U.S. and France.
I felt his pain today as I cooked what should have been a simple dinner to share with two families: jambalaya for the main course and lime mousse for dessert. I've made both of these recipes many times but never in France. The sticking point for the jambalaya? The sausage. After a trip to the open-air market and the supermarché, I came home with three alternatives: a smoked sausage with no particular name, a thick slice of bacon (which is more like ham than the thin and crispy variety you find in the States), and a package of sausages marked "andouillette." The smoked sausage and the ham cooked fine. The andouillette fell completely apart in the pan and had a funny taste that did not say jambalaya. I put that one aside.
The lime mousse presented a different challenge: whipping cream. I knew that the French call it "Chantilly" but there was nothing on the shelves indicating which cream was for whipping. Asking the lady stocking the shelves did nothing to dispel the mystery. I asked a neighbor who has been here for awhile and she said to buy the "crème entière" with the red cap. Well that cream came out of the carton as thick and as sour as sour cream. I whipped it anyway and folded it into the mousse. Everything worked out fine in the end; the red wine and chocolates brought by our guests didn't hurt either.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Once again today, a French person (this time a shopkeeper) made a bit of friendly conversation with a comment about my last name. Because of my concerns about the security of the Internet I'm not going to mention it but if you have any business reading this blog, you know what it is. His comment? "That's not an American name." Of course, there are pages and pages of the phone book in most major American cities filled with folks who share my last name. So what do you suppose the French consider an American name? Smith? Jones? Hmmmm...wonder what they think of Obama, Giuliani, Leno, O'Brien, and other names on CNN's top U.S. stories tonight.
Monday, December 17, 2007
One of my favorite books is Ex Libris, a slim volume of essays by Anne Fadiman about the connection between readers and books. One of these essays talks about the thrill of what she calls "You-Are-There Reading." "The consummate You-Are-There experience requires us," she writes, "to see exactly what the author described, so that all we need to do to cross the eidetic threshold is to squint a little." (Eidetic? Okay, I had to look that one up too. It means "vivid" or "persistant.")
Well, I've been doing quite a bit of You-Are-There-Reading lately, actually beginning in the weeks before we arrived with Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. After we got here, I moved back in time to The Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo and then forward again to Abundance, Sena Jeter Naslund's novel about Marie Antoinette,and further ahead to Susan Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party which imagines the story behind the creation of Renoir's famous painting. I've just finished the second novel in Sandra Gulland's three-part fictionalized narrative of the life of Josephine, Napoleon's first wife.
Just so you know what a geek I am, I'll admit that I've taken to using a Paris map as a bookmark so I can check out just where all the action is taking place. And then of course, when I'm out and about by myself, I'm often tempted to tell some complete stranger, "Hey, do you know where we are? This is where D'Artagnan waited for Constance or where Renoir found his model." (Of course, I would have to stop and think how to say this in French which pretty much keeps me from making a complete fool of myself.) The other problem is that I'm never quite sure what is truth and what is fiction. Guess my next read should be something from a slightly different genre, maybe "Someone (But Not You)Really Was Here."
Friday, December 14, 2007
Seeing how it's getting to be the end of the year, I sat down this morning to write out some checks to charities back home. I always do this once a year in December because it's the only way I can keep track of to whom I've given. Suddenly I found myself confused because the last dozen checks I've written have been on our French account, and like so many other things, the French checks are just a bit different. How so? Well, you start on the first line with the amount in text, giving you a chance to practice your numbers. The second line is for the payee. On the date line, you must of course remember to write the date with the day first and then the month and then fill in the all important "à" (not to be confused with the "à" who is the payee) showing where you wrote the check. (Why? I have no clue.) Then comes the tricky part....the signature. Naturally this is the most important part of the check but there is no line for signing! So just slap that John Hancock somewhere in the lower right hand corner and you're done. Now I just have to remember not to write "le 14 decembre" on my Chevy Chase Bank checks.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Okay, so I think I've done a pretty good job of disabusing you of the notion that life in Paris is all high fashion, haute cuisine, and luxe everything else. As a matter of fact, lunch yesterday was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk. Today was another story as we cashed in on the bon voyage present given to me by my colleagues in DC: a three-course lunch at the three-star Taillevent. Three courses was really an understatement, however, since before the first course, we were greeted with gougères, little bits of puff pastry with cheese, followed by an amuse-bouche of cream soup flavored with chestnuts. Then between the main course and the dessert, there was a small cheese course. And then coffee (which always comes after, not with, your dessert) came with its own little plate of pastries.
All in all, it was a lovely experience. From the umpteen people who greeted us on our arrival (doorman, coat check lady, maitre de, waiter, bus boy....did I miss someone? so many wishes of "bonjour madame" I couldn't keep track) straight through to the offer of an additional cup of coffee, it was one big treat. The dessert itself was a beautiful little work of art. It'll be back to the ordinary tomorrow; for now, I'll just savor the after glow of paté, Vouvray,and chocolat.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Ads for this delish special Christmas pizza with salmon from Pizza Hut are plastered all over the métro. (You really need to click on the photo above to get the full effect.) The print ads have fine print that reads "cheese = spėcialitė du fromage" for the unsuspecting. Nothing says Christmas like "double cheezy."
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Just had to share this image of an apartment building door on Avenue Rapp in the 7th arrondissement, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. What you can't see are the two giant oxen heads holding up the third floor loggia. If you look closely, you'll see that the door handle is a salamander. This 1901 building was designed by Jules Lavirotte. I go by it every other week or so and always have to stop and gawk.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
I guess I thought potato chips were a quintessentially American food but it appears that they are the canvas for the expression of cultural tastes. If you are wondering what the heck I am talking about, let's discuss chips saveur poulet rôti. Yes, roasted chicken flavored chips. I've been intrigued with these since we got here and this week, I finally broke down and bought a small bag. Well, guess what. They taste exactly like the skin of the chickens roasting in the window of every boucherie in town. Frankly, I'll stick with the chicken. But again, maybe it's not that weird when you consider that some Americans like to snack on fried pork rinds. Other chip flavors readily available here are mustard (but of course!) and bolognaise. The Belgians go for spicier fare; when we were in Bruges last month, the flavors on the shelf included Heinz ketchup, paprika, pickles, and Thai sweet chili. Stay tuned and I'll be checking out the contents of the chip aisle in other locales.
Monday, December 3, 2007
The subway system here is full of musicians of every type. You've got your guitars, accordions, violins, saxophones, you name it. And it can be quite nice sometimes when you've got a long way to walk between trains to hear some folk music or a few strains of Mozart. Of course, there's also the guy with the electric piano who's always at the Charles de Gaulle — Étoile stop singing "Feelings" or Elton John's "Sacrifice." (Or maybe it's "Candle in the Wind.") And then there are those times when a whole combo boards your train. Last weekend it was a trio with euphonium, trumpet, and clarinet, plus their accompaniment on a boombox, that jammed for three stops until they switched cars. Actually, my favorite musical moment so far was not on the subway but in the Place des Vosges where an entire string ensemble set up on the sidewalk and serenaded those of us in the park with Pachelbel's Canon, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and other classical chestnuts. Now that was a time when it was worth digging out the spare change!