Thursday, July 19, 2007

V is for Vendetta Venice!

We’re gearing up for our big trip to Italy. Today I called the hotels to confirm our reservations. I spent a good 30 minutes practicing my: “Buongiorno, parla inglese?” Fred and I finally will be on equal footing. I might even have an advantage. Yes, his native language is a Latin-based romance language; but it’s been quite some time since he’s had to mime for his food and suffer the constant humiliation of speaking in public, a craft I’ve been honing for 18 months.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Idiots Without Borders

For those of you wondering if France has a military, the answer is bien sûr. And last weekend it was out in full force to celebrate La Fête Nationale. Don't let the wimpy equipment fool you; these photos were shot in the 14th arrondissement long after the ceremonies had broken up. There was a ton of action on the Champs Élysées. We watched a bit of it in on T.V. It was bizarre to see the beauty of the Arc de Triomphe and all the crowds and realize that it was just a short metro ride away. Although I’ve fallen into a routine (which we’re trying to shake-up), when I take the time to appreciate my surroundings, I’m still awe struck.

Seeing the French soldiers reminded me of two encounters Fred and I have experienced with American tourists in Paris over the past year.

Most recently at Legrande Filles et Fils, a quaint wine bar tucked away in the Galerie Vivienne, a lovely consortium of restaurants and boutiques. It was early evening and Fred and I were the first customers. We grabbed two seats at the corner and ordered our wine. Shortly thereafter, two middle-aged American women walked in and plopped themselves and tons of shopping bags down on the stools next to ours. They picked up the wine list and made a big production about not knowing where the different regions were and whether Saint Emilion was in Bordeaux. I finally told them yes, mainly to shut them up, and then Fred politely explained the different regions to them.

This small conversation quickly led to an interview about who we were, how we met, etc. Fred explained that he was in the U.S. doing his military service (a requirement for all Frenchmen at the time), but before he could even finish the more obnoxious of the two facetiously blurted out: “Oh, does France have a military?” I haven’t met someone this funny since Kathy Bates made a cameo in my French class. She went on to reveal her stupidity with comments like: “Well, if it does, it must be small because I’ve never heard of it.” Fred kindly, without any sarcasm, explained that relative to the U.S., the French army is small because France has a much smaller population and geographically is smaller than the State of Texas. She continued to taunt him. Her friend, embarrassed, finally said: “I’m sorry you don’t know her; she’s really nice and is just trying to be funny.” Exactly. We didn’t know her and she didn’t know us. Before she laid down her “zingers” on Fred, she might have wanted to establish that connection, or at least learn how to say it in French. And reading an atlas on the plane flight over wouldn’t have hurt either.

The other encounter happened at La Fontaine de Mars. While waiting for our table in a cramped space, we started talking with an American couple who was on vacation. Again, the conversation quickly turned to how we met. Fred explained that he was at Berkeley National Lab in Northern California completing his mandatory military service. The woman quipped: “What do they teach you in the French military? Surrender Lessons?” Just prior to this, she was telling us about her 19 year old son who was studying abroad at a prestigious private school and who was fluent in three languages. She’s hardly the type of person that should be throwing around jokes about “surrender lessons” when her pampered son was studying languages in a foreign county; unless, of course, he planned on using those languages to be a windtalker. (Oh, and she was asking Fred how to say things in French, and to recommend touristy things for her!). Her husband was far too sweet for her, he hushed her and looked very apologetic. She was a doctor, he was a school teacher. I suppose he viewed her as a retirement plan, as there’s no other explanation as to why he was still with her.

As for the wine bar and the restaurant? The wine bar is mostly looks. It’s a beautiful dark wood bar in an arcade. The service is mediocre. If you plan on going, don’t order the cheese plate. The woman, who I suspect is the mother of the Filles et Fils, leaned down behind the bar and picked at her toenails, and then rubbed her eye, all in plain view. Disgusting!) As for the restaurant, La Fontaine de Mars, it’s a nice restaurant with good French food in a beautiful area of Paris (near the Eiffel Tower). It’s a good call for when your parents, or their friends, are in town. However, they stick the nonsmokers upstairs in a small room without a whole lot of charm, but that should end in February 2008 if the nonsmoking ban takes effect. Don't hold your breath!

For all the moaning I do about annoying French people, I have to say that the rudest encounters I've ever experienced in Paris involved Americans. Ironically, Fred was treated much better by the Americans he met in the U.S. during the 5 years that he spent there than he has been by tourists in France that he's been trying to help!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Joy Ride

[Guest blog by Fred]

Today was the first day of Velib’, a low cost bike rental system installed throughout Paris with a small membership fee of 1€ for one day, 5€ for a week, or 29€ for the whole year. The first 30 minutes of use are free. Thereafter, the rider can return the bike to another station and take a new one at no cost, or keep the same bike and pay an additional incremental fee . The idea is to use the bikes for transportation not for tourism, thus the half-hour constrain. By the end of the year there should be 20,000 bikes at more than 1,500 stations so it should be easy to keep the bike all day long by going from one station to another and taking a new bike each time.

The trip started well, there is a Velib’ station 100 feet from our apartment. After 10 minutes trying to figure out how to get the bikes from the machine we were on our way. It only took us 100 yards to realize that Paris is a dangerous city for bike riders. Cars are flying everywhere and the rare bike lanes are shared with buses and taxis. We tried to take small streets, but when we had to be on a big street we drove slowly on the sidewalks, which I know is not a good thing but it’s better than being dragged 50 yards by a car.

We tried to find a Velib’ station to exchange our bikes before our free 30 minutes expired, but the stations we found had long lines of people waiting and few bikes available. Thus, we kept the bikes another 30 minutes. I now understand how the company running Velib’ is going to make money off this venture; 29 euros/year didn’t seem like a lot of money for a year membership.

As we attempted to get home before the second half-hour interval, we found ourselves at Port-Royal, a big intersection. We were driving very cautiously on the sidewalk when a guy from a bar terrace yelled at us for doing so. Knowing that we were in the wrong, I just smiled and said “merci”. But the old man found somebody to blame for something so he wouldn’t let go. I usually don’t react to these things, first because I am French and, even though we complain all the time, we are non-confrontational and, second, I just don’t want to waste my time with people like that. But today was different; I decided to respond. Yes, we were riding on the sidewalk but the sidewalk was 10-yards wide, there was nobody on it, we were driving really slowly, it was a freaking huge intersection, and finally the guy was sitting at a bar 30 feet away from us drinking a beer! How could we possibly have bothered him?

I told him that he was definitively in the right country to complain for no reason and that he could use a little common sense. He accussed us of “pissing off the whole world”. I was surprised. I admit that he was a big guy, but unless there was a legion of people hiding underneath his fat and his bald head it seemed a little pretentious to call himself a world so I just answered back: “you’re right, so piss off” to end the argument.

Apparently he doesn't know that Velib' is short for velo + liberty!

Mac Dough is Right!

We got milkshakes at McDonald’s today. Before you mock me, it's 90 degrees out and a Sunday, which means most places are closed. The man in front of us ordered a total of 6.10€. After counting his change, he turned to us without a hint of shame and asked if we had .10¢. I’d have expressed more discomfort asking a friend for it. I’m still not sure if he didn’t have the money, or if he didn’t want to break a bill, but I did know that he was the only thing standing between me and a milkshake so I gave him the money. What did I learn from my experience? France really is a socialist country and my French husband is more American than me (he was a little disappointed in the petit-ness of his one-size-fits-all milkshake, missing the super size of the U.S. of A.).

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Photos of my favorite fromagerie

A dog on the metro . . .

A wave of embarrassment and shock overtook the face of the ultra prissy Parisienne sitting just inches across from me when she discovered that she had picked up a hitchhiker who was now dining on her arm. It was no longer amusing, however, when she flung the flea in the direction of my bare ankles. There was no attempt to suffocate the little beast or sever him with a finger nail before doing so. What a bitch! No wonder she had fleas.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

vin246: Epoisses

This orange wheel smells like wet running shoes and has enough salt to require beta blockers (good thing France has a pharmacy on every corner and pills are cheaper than cheese). It may be stickier than melted marshmallows, but I promise you won’t care because this milky rich cheese is so good you'll want to lick the knife and the plate clean. Napoleon supposedly loved it and the man had taste, look what he did with Fontainebleau.

Epoisses Berthaut is a fermier cheese. Thus, it is produced with milk from the cows on the farm (versus an artisanal cheese, which also is made by an individual producer but can be produced with milk from animals raised offsite).

The fromager on rue Daguerrere recommended red Bordeaux so we drank it with a Ségla Margaux. However, our cheese book suggests Pouilly-Fuissé, Sauternes (a sweet white). I was pleased with the differing opinions as it shows that there are no hard rules for pairing wine and cheese, other than enjoying them both as you like.

Paris, we need to talk!

Perhaps you're feeling guilty for the mass murder you committed in 2003. But, it's not going to happen again. There are public service announcements partout reminding Parisians to make arrangments for the elderly before heading off on vacation. You may not cause heat related deaths this summer, but I’m certain there will be a spike in accidents grave de voyageur if this gray and gloom continues. It actually hailed on Monday afternoon!

People are confused. They don't know what to wear. While a wool sweater may make sense in the morning, it's completely inappropriate by the late afternoon. The metro reeks of enchiladas. It is the most bizarre smelling body odor that I’ve ever encountered. One moment, you’re experiencing hunger pangs, and the next you’re thoroughly disgusted at the smell and at yourself for having craved a combo platter.

I'm begging you to stop this yo-yo. If you want it to be cold, fine. But just pick one.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Faux ami?

Our elderly neighbor entered the building as I was getting my mail. I greeted him with “Bonjour” and he responded with a lovely “Bonjour, Madame” followed by a remark about étiquette. Yes, it would have been more polite to follow my salutation with “Monsieur,” but I’m not Gigi, plus he caught me off guard. Still perturbed when I entered my apartment, I decided to look up the word to make sure that I wasn’t mistaken. Thankfully, smart ass remarks don’t fall out of my mouth in French as easily as they do in English, otherwise we’d be moving again. It seems that étiquette also means identification tag or label. The kind man likely was making chitchat about the makeshift étiquette that I’d stuck to the outside of our mailbox while we await the proper one that is on order from the engraver (or he was telling me that it’s bad etiquette to stick a homemade gummy label to the mailbox).

Monday, July 09, 2007

vin246: Boursault

It’s an industriel cheese, but not all things produced in a factory are bad, take iPods, Nikes, and Maybelline's Great Lash.

Named after its creator, Henri Boursault, this cow’s milk cheese is enriched with cream giving it the texture of homemade cake frosting. It spreads with ease, which is why it would do well sitting on a buffet table or at a cocktail party. Your guests could smother their crackers and chunks of baguettes in it (opposed to having to wrestle the serving knife from an oozing brie). The taste is buttery, a bit salty, with a hint of nut.

A red bordeaux is recommended with this one, we paired it with a cheap Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion which did the trick!

We purchased this cheese at Fromagerie Boursault, 71, avenue du Général Leclerc, 75014 Paris; Tel: 01 43 27 93 30. It's a beautiful shop with lots of cheeses on display and plenty of knowledgeable fromagers on hand to help you with your selections!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Scar Tissue

I think the clothes at Monoprix are cute. I’m tempted to try them on when I go grocery shopping. Since practically all of France frequents this store, however, I don’t want people to recognize my clothing as having been purchased there. I’m not name conscious (now that I have to pay for my own clothes), nor am I a fashionable dresser. I wear jeans and t-shirts most of the time. Thus, a Monop ensemble would be a step up. It must be the emotional baggage I still carry from a humiliating childhood experience. While sitting on the cold floor of the multi-purpose room during an elementary school assembly, a classmate informed me that my "cool" silver and blue sneakers were Kmart brand. I went to the school nurse to report the child abuse immediately. My mother needed to be held accountable for dressing me like a peasant, or at least come and pick me up so I could go home and change.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Make him stop . . .

Please, make him stop!

Many of you are familiar with Bilbo's fetish. He's been doing it since we got him 5 years ago. He insists that he be pet while eating. He cries until we give in. Recently, he's taken to waking us up in the morning. Crying at the foot of the bed. Walking across our pillows. Sticking his whiskers in our faces. He tries to herd me to the kitchen. We do the hokey-pokey. If I take a step towards the kitchen, he does. If I stop, he does. He'll arrive a mere inches from his bowl and then wait and wait.  He'll eventually eat without it, if we're able to withstand his demands. But that takes nerves of steel, and we nearly always blink first.

I've asked veterinarians about it. His French vet believes that Bilbo is an alpha male. Like a Lion King, he wants us to watch submissively as he eats his croquettes to reinforce his status in the pack. Apparently, you can get a medical degree in France via National Geophraphic telecourses. His San Francisco vet had no explanation. My theory is Pavlovian. I think it's because the first year of his life he was at the SPCA. Since the time spent with each animal is limited, I imagine that the caregivers try to do the best they can and feed and pet the animals during the same visit. He now associates eating with being petted. Or he's a pervert. Anyway, I'd love to hear your theories and especially suggestions on how to make him stop.

What we see:

What we hear:

*The first photo is the real Bilbo, the second is a crazy cat that Fred found on the internet.