Saturday, December 04, 2010

I feel dirty

One of the disadvantages of city living is the lack of space. Growing up in Orange County, we had a two car garage in which to store old yearbooks, tools, and Christmas decorations. In Paris, we have caves. In addition to the foregoing, we also use them to store winter clothes (something not needed in sunny Southern California), moving boxes (because either you or one of your friends will eventually need those precious pieces of cardboard again) and finally the blow-up mattress for visitors (when your home is turned into a B&B).

Some Parisians don't even have access to their caves. Garage sales not being the norm in France, landlords are sometimes reluctant to part with that wee bit of storage when they rent out their apartments. Fortunately, we do have a cave and most of the time I'm really grateful for the extra space, except when something like this happens:

I recently went down to get a few bottles of wine for a dinner party and was shocked to find them, as well as a few other negligible items like a computer and armoire, covered in mud - an odd smelling mud. The guardian of our building informed me that the main evacuation pipe (for les toilettes) had been clogged. When it was unplugged, a leak ensued. He concluded that was the source of the mud explosion. In sum, our belongings were coated in a cocktail of my neighbors’ urine and fecal matter. And probably some of ours too, but that was more tolerable. I was fine changing my niece's baby diaper, she's family. But the thought of changing the collective diaper of my 16 unit building made me want my mommy. Or at least my husband!

I had a real dilemma on my hands (ewwww!). Either act like an adult and clean it up myself or pretend like nothing happened and send Fred down to get the wine when he got home from work. In the interim, I would practice my surprised face for when he returned to inform me that our cave had been turned into a septic tank. As a teenager I would always leave one bite of leftovers in the Tupperware so I wouldn't have to clean it. Thus, I wasn't surprised to find myself leaning towards option two. However, there were two problems with this plan: (1) the guardian could place me at the scene; and (2) the bottles needed time to chill before our guests arrived. 

In the end, I decided I couldn't wait for Fred. I put on some rubber gloves and washed, scrubbed and doused the bottles in alcohol myself. The judging eyes of my French guests as I poured them a glass of white wine over ice cubes seemed far worse than having to handle human excrement.   

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Your Friend in Paris

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live like a Parisian? Unless you’re prepared to travel with a dog or take up smoking, I think the easiest and most enjoyable way to experience la belle vie while visiting France is by shopping and eating.

I’ve been living in Paris for five years now. While I’d like to pretend that I spend my days strolling along selecting cheeses and chocolates from small shops, I’d be exaggerating. Sometimes I’m forced to go to the supermarket due to time constraints, hours of operation, or the simple fact that I need to buy toilet paper.

On the weekend, however, I really do try to frequent the farmer’s market and small shops in my quartier. Little by little, you start to develop a relationship with the vendors and they remember you. With my accent, it usually doesn’t take all that long.  My second visit to the produce shop on rue Mouffetard, I was greeted with “Bonjour, Miss California.” I’m still smiling. And a few weeks later, after I’d paid for all my fruits and vegetables, I realized that I’d forgotten a lime. When I told him it was for my vodka tonic, he placed it in my hand with a wink and refused my money.

My cheese lady will slice off a piece of brie and let me taste it to make sure it meets my expectations regarding ripeness. She’ll also select a seasonal cheese for me – assuming she can understand what I’m saying. Some months ago, we performed an Abbott & Costello routine for those in line. I asked for a cheese “en saison” (in season). She kindly responded, with a straight face, that she did not have a cheese of “six ans” (six years old). The pronunciation is identical to my ears – and apparently to hers. Luckily, my French husband was there to clarify “Who’s On First,” but only after he enjoyed the show.

For me, these little interactions make food shopping in Paris fun. I admit, when I first moved here I was uncomfortable approaching vendors and asking questions – partly because of the language barrier and partly because I was afraid of encountering the infamous “rude” French person (which often can be chalked up to cultural difference and not actual rudeness). It was easier for me to go to the supermarket, throw things in a cart, hand over the cash and walk out.

The French may be spoiled with le marché, but there are days when I miss Safeway more than my parents. My supermarket was recently out of Q-tips for two weeks. When they finally arrived, the employee recognized me and my waxy ears by this point (the fact that I could never remember how to say cotton swabs in French and had to mime it out by sticking my finger in my ear each time probably helped as well) and suggested that I stock up and buy three boxes to last me through winter. I never imagined that care packages sent from California would not only include taco seasoning and Cheez-its, but Q-tips too!

Living like a Parisian is not always perfect, but it certainly can be if you go about it the right way. The beauty of being on vacation is that you can choose what you’d like to do with your time and plan accordingly. For example, I recently took part in Context Travel’s “Baguette to Bistro: Culinary Traditions of Paris” walking seminar. The fact is there is always something new to see and, more importantly, taste here and I was curious to find out what Context Travel had on its plate. Plus, I’m often asked by friends and friends of friends for travel tips, I thought it would be a good experience and one I could recommend if I enjoyed myself, which I did – immensely!

The tour started at 10:00 a.m. I met my docent, Meg Zimbeck, in front of a café where rue du Bac hits the Seine. I was pleased to find that there were only three other participants joining us that day. Meg referred to us as "visitors" not tourists, which I thought was a nice touch and appropriate as it really felt like we were just a group of friends meeting up for a little shopping. It was immediately obvious that this was not going to be an ordinary tour. There would be no red umbrella to follow, no "bus leaves in 10 minutes" shouted through the end of a bullhorn, and no herding, corralling or waiting in long lines at the souvenir shop.

After introductions and a little small talk, the official tour began. Meg offered us some interesting historical information about the 7th arrondissement, the setting for our tasting tour, and we were off!

Picture yourself walking down a narrow street lined with boutiques and shops then popping into la boulangerie to buy some freshly baked bread.
Meg explaining what to look for in a good baguette regarding texture and taste at La Maison Kayser
After that, you visit la fromagerie across the street to taste a few cheeses that you selected with the aid of a master. You'll need something to spread all over the crusty baguette you just bought - although it really is so delicious you could eat it solo.
Window of Androuet - Master Cheesemaker
Partial view of cheeses at Androuet
You’re back on the tiny sidewalk again, but seeing all those delicious pastries at the boulangerie has awoken your sweet tooth (he’s small but demanding!). You could return to the boulangerie to pick up a pain aux raisins, but why look back when straight ahead there is a shop specifically dedicated to sweet things: la pâtisserie! You go inside and peruse the decadent offerings and have one boxed up for later.

Le Saint-Honoré at
La Pâtisserie des Rêves
(The Pastry Shop of Dreams)
by Philippe Conticini
Le Frutier de Saison (lemon, white chocolate, and dates)
After admiring creations that so closely resemble artwork they are kept under glass, you cannot be expected to wait until “later” to get your sugar fix so you take une petite pause at your local chocolatier for some instant gratification. 
Chapon Chocolatier

Like jewelry!

Several flavors of chocolate mousse
to choose from!
Ooh là là! It's already half past noon, but you have one last stop. La cave, of course.  You enter and admire the beautiful bottles of fine Bordeaux wines, while doing so the lovely caviste offers you a sampling of an hors d’age Armagnac which you gladly accept.  I guess it really is good to be French!
Armagnac tasting at Ryst-Dupeyron

There were three things that I particularly enjoyed about the tour.  The first, and probably the most obvious, was getting to learn about the products and having the opportunity to taste them on the spot and ask follow-up questions about ingredients, the process, etc.  Secondly, I liked that our group was small which meant there was enough time to stray off topic and discuss questions about culture, customs, and favorite restaurants (which is why I would recommend taking the tour early in your trip so you'll have time to put this wealth of knowledge to work).  Finally, going back to the relationship aspect I mentioned above, Meg (or Context Travel docents, in general) has a relationship with the shop owners/employees because she is a regular customer.  Thus, as her "visitor" you get a real French shopping experience. 

If you'd like to do some "window shopping" or as the French call it "window licking" (lèche-vitrine, because they just can't keep their tongues in their mouths), to hold you over til your trip to Paris, here are the places we visited:

La Maison Kayser
La Pâtisserie des Rêves
Chapon Chocolatier

And, of course:
Context Travel's "Baguette to Bistro: Culinary Traditions of Paris"
Duration: 2.5 hours (minimum, my tour went over)
Price: €70, plus €10 tasting fee

Thursday, November 04, 2010

I feel sick

My friends with children often joke about how they eat their kids' Halloween candy or sneak licks of their ice cream cones.  They call it joking but I view it as bragging, especially since I always struggle to narrow down my ice cream selections to just two flavors.  Of course, triple scoops exist here but I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to order as many French people consider drinking a third glass of wine as unladylike behavior.  One of my lucky girlfriends has three boys all under the age of four, which means they're still young enough for her to order for them (i.e., select the flavors she wants) and she simply looks like an attentive mother as she eats junks of dried cookie dough off their little cheeks.  Needless to say, I'm jealous. 

This past weekend, Fred and I played parents to his thirteen year old second cousin.  At the restaurant, I tried to steer her towards a hamburger.  I was excited by the idea that I might get to help her with her leftover french fries.  But to my dismay and disgust, she ordered rognons de veau (veal kidneys).  She might be the only person I know who eats them by choice.  The only other person I've ever heard of eating them did so on accident because he forgot his dictionary while traveling in Montpellier and he still gags when speaking of the incident.  To put things in perspective, he considers pigs' feet a delicacy so his repugnant food threshold is pretty high. 

In the end, my experiment completely backfired.  Not only was I unable to eat her food, but I could barely finish mine.
Bobbing for internal organs!
So disgusting even the camera was weeping.
It refused to focus.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

BFFF = Best Food Friends Forever!

I moved to Paris in late 2005 and immediately started gaining weight. French women may not get fat, but apparently American women living in France do. The fact is I don't smoke and I enjoy eating too much to let food sit on my plate and pretend I'm not hungry.

I appreciate all kinds of food from kebabs, the French equivalent of a California burrito, to la grande cuisine francaise. My absolute favorite, however, is great food at a reasonable price without pretentious service. While Michelin-rated restaurants are definitely a treat every once in a while, why just eat one meal when you can have three or four for the same price? 

Based on the foregoing, my good friend Dina asked me if I'd be interested in writing occasional food reviews about my experiences in France for her San Francisco based food blog The Dish & The Dirt.  Dina is a former classmate, former roommate, played wing woman the night I met my husband, gave the toast at my wedding, introduced me to the writings of David Sedaris, and loves to eat as much and as often as I do.  I said yes and have been very excited about it ever since.  Basically, everything I've ever done with this woman has turned out to be a positive experience (except maybe the Atkins Diet) and I'm sure this will be no exception. 
I hope you enjoy reading along as I walk and eat my way through the streets of Paris, which I finally discovered really is the best way to indulge in all the French food I want and (mostly) still fit into my beloved American blue jeans! 

My very first review can be viewed here: A Room with No View.

Thank you!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Color me deformed!

Inspired by a wonderful blog post about Montmartre written by Linsdey at Lost in Cheeseland, I pulled out an old photo album for some good memories and some great laughs!

Like most tourists, I wanted to visit Montmartre my first trip to Paris.  It's more like a charming village rather than a quarter of a giant city. Because of this, along with its beautiful views, the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur and the film Amélié, it is overrun with tourists.  And where there are tourists, there are tourist traps.  I fell for the most common of all:  The Portrait.  

People used to tell me that I looked like Shannen Doherty. I was not thrilled by the comparison, especially since I thought she had a crooked face and a squinty eye. As I grew older, and Bevery Hills 90210 was no longer on the air, I didn't hear it quite as often. In fact, I had nearly forgotten about it until this sketch. 

Luckily, when viewing this work of "art" most people are so surprised that Greg Kinnear agreed to pose with me that they hardly notice my lop-sided face.  (That day I also learned that my neck is as thick as a linebacker's.) This worst part is I distinctly remember that the peanut gallery of tourists that had congregated behind the "artist" to judge his work were nodding approvingly and giving me the thumbs-up.   

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Guest Blog - Misadventures with Andi

I was recently asked to write a guest blog for Andi at "Misadventures with Andi."  She had a great idea for a post: "How to be Parisian in San Francisco" and asked me for a few suggestions given that I lived in San Francisco and currently live in Paris.  I was very flattered and honored to be featured on her blog!  Please click here to read my tips. 

Friday, October 01, 2010

2kg ≠ 20/20

I need to learn the metric system or stop being so cheap. Last week, I bought 2 kilograms of carrot at the marché to save .60 centimes. I’m pretty sure my husband is sick of having carrot sticks and ranch dressing for dinner and I’m sick of having orange finger nails and washing the vegetable peeler. I'm always afraid I'm going to nick off a bit of finger skin. (I'm also afraid that my left kneecap will someday be ripped off by the back bumper of a car as it drives past me while I'm standing on the sidewalk). And for those of you who think there might be a silver lining, I'm wearing glasses as I type this.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ay Caramba!

"Looking for a cook in our Mexican restaurant.  No knowledge of mexican cuisine is necessary . . . "

This explains so much about the Mexican food in Paris.

Update:  Just read exciting news on Adrian Moore's blog about a new taqueria in Paris.  Can't wait to try it!

Update2:  I just walked by a new casual Mexican restaurant at 127 rue Mouffetard, 75005.  It's called BocaMexa.  It's not quite an authentic taqueria, more like a little Baja Fresh.  I'll have to give it a try and report back.

We tried BocaMexa, all I can say is that it was very average.  It tasted good, it just wasn't nearly as good as a burrito we could get back in California - or to be fair, it did not taste like what I am used to.  I will go back though.  The staff was super friendly and excited about the concept.  Plus, takes less than 10 minutes for me to walk there.  Those two points count for something.  Although, I am willing to trek to El Nopal near Canal St. Martin if it really is authentic. 

Update3: I also want to check out Casa Palenque over by Montparnasse. It looks like it could be good.

I'm just hoping none of these restaurants posted the ad on craigslist.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

One Way Street (heading in their direction)

The French are infamous for keeping their private lives private and for becoming uncomfortable if you ask if they have children or if they’re married or where they live or what they do for a living or blah, blah, blah.  I’m finding that this is not a two-way street. It seems that having an accent gives them free license to ask me whatever they feel like.  There is a pattern, but I’ll give the two examples fresh in my mind because they happened yesterday and today.  Yesterday, I was asked if I owned or rented my apartment by a complete stranger.  Today, while waiting for the elevator a neighbor whom I never met arrived in the lobby.  I asked him if I should hold the elevator.  He said no as he was taking the stairs. Then he asked me if I was Madame So-and-so’s babysitter on the first floor.  I said no, I live here.  Then he said “oh, because I called her house the other day and a woman with the same accent answered the phone – an accent from, from, from . . . .”  I let him stutter for a few moments before I offered: "American?"  Then he asked from which state.  When I said California, he asked if I was from Palo Alto. Because even though he couldn’t identify my country of orgin, he thought he'd nail the city.  No, I answered and provided the city.  Then he skipped away happy; his file on me complete.  I seriously wouldn’t care if they didn’t have such attitude about being private and accusing Americans of being prying.  I still don’t know his name, what floor he lives on, or why he cares where I’m from.  Maybe I'm jaded.  Maybe he was just trying to be neighborly.  But had the roles been reversed, I'm sure he wouldn't have been so jolly.  

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

If you can't beat them . . .

The other day on my way to a wine shop a woman stopped me and asked me where she could find a certain street. I said I didn't know. Presumably because of my accent, she interpreted it to mean that I couldn't understand and walked off in a huff for having wasted her time on me. When I arrived at the wine shop, I posed my question in French. The vendor responded in (bad) English and told me that he did not have what I was looking for. At the second wine shop, I again posed my question in French and the vendor responded in French, but corrected my grammar (I used the wrong gender).  I did get my revenge on my way home, however, when a Red Cross worker asked me for a donation and I responded "Sorry, I don't speak French."  Petty, I know, but it did make me feel better.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dreams of Advil meth lab thwarted!

We recently finished our 500 tablet bottle of ibuprofen that our friends smuggled in from the U.S. last year so I went to the pharmacy to pick up more. Yes, the pharmacy – the actual pharmacy where pharmacists stand behind a counter in white coats and drugs are kept behind a counter. I requested the largest box permissible: 30 tablets. I then listened as the pharmacist gave me instructions on use (6 per day max, 2 at a time with water, preferably with a meal). In the U.S. people will file lawsuits if you don't warn them that coffee is hot so I get why it could be necessary there, but even we’re trusted to purchase and use Advil at will. Fortunately, France doesn't have the frivolous lawsuit problem so I'm not sure why such measures are necessary here. It does explain, however, why there is a pharmacy on nearly every corner.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Welcome to the IRS Watch List

TurboTax is officially dead to me. Last week I received a letter from the IRS. The type of letter you hope you never get, especially a few months after tax day. I was informed I owed an additional $400 as I am ineligible for the Making Work Pay Tax Credit - a credit I never even knew existed until TurboTax told me I was eligible for it. The letter prompted a quick Google search, which confirmed that nonresidents do not qualify for the credit. You would think that having a foreign address and completing the Foreign Earned Income schedule would have served as good indicators that the credit did not apply to me. If the Glee kids can tell I live in France and are savvy enough to enforce international licensing laws thereby preventing me from watching full episodes for free on their website, you'd think that Intuit, a publicly traded software company with a program specifically designed to do taxes would be able to figure it out - it's certainly obvious to them that I live abroad when I try to enter my foreign billing address.  Honestly, if I wanted to make a stupid mistake on my taxes, I would have done them myself. And it’s not worth calling to complain as I’m already up to speed on the Sandra Bullock divorce/custody battle saga.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Big Bread Theory

My friend recently reminded me about a conversation her husband had with my husband, Fred, when her family was visiting us in Paris. Her husband asked Fred what the French thought about Americans. Fred said that French think Americans have big bread. With all the history between the two countries and the stereotypes flung about by their people, I found his answer original (as did my friends, hence the subject's reprise).

Perhaps Fred was serious, or being funny, or searching for something neutral to say as not to come across as “the arrogant Frenchman”. I could ask him, but the idea that he could have been serious makes me laugh so hard that I prefer ignorant bliss. The truth is the French do seem to have bread envy, although I’m not sure why given the shape of a baguette.

Even Fred likes to use big ol' American bread for his sandwich making. That's Mount Rushmore on the bag. The problem is the bread won’t fit into the French sandwich bags, nor do the king-sized slices fit into my French toaster. I have to rotate the bread mid-way through to make sure the half-inch towering out gets grilled.

In fact, everything large in France is "American" - the American refrigerator, the American washing machine, etc. – and French people love them. So the next time you hear a French person say that Americans are big, you should consider that they aren't being rude or making an insulting generalization, they're delivering a compliment.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I’ve used TurboTax to file my taxes every year since moving to France. And every year I run into the same problem: after spending hours entering my information online, I’m barred from finalizing the transaction because its system will not accept an American credit card associated with a foreign address. In the end, I pay with my mom’s card which is fine -- despite us not having the same name or address or proof that she’s agreed. Every year my complaint is met with the promise that the glitch will be resolved by next tax season and, in return, I vow to never again use their services.

As I sit here today, preparing to file my 2009 taxes via TurboTax and checking the hour to make sure my mom will be awake when it comes time to pay, I recalled a conversation I had with one of their representatives a year ago while sitting on the phone begging her to take my money. Here is what she told me:

I’m Mexican and American Indian. Well, my grandfather was Irish. My parents divorced when I was a baby. I lived with my Mexican father in Florida. Later my mother came to get me and brought me to Georgia. I didn’t talk until I was 4. Now I can understand Spanish, but I can’t speak it. I have some Italian friends. Sometimes their friends talk about me in Italian and I just listen. I know they’re talking about me, but I don’t tell them. Well sometimes I do.

I’ve been dating online. I’ve gotten some “flirts” and “winks” but that’s all for now.

I saw the "Lake House". I wasn’t going to watch it because I hate love stories. I prefer horror movies. But then I saw Sandra Bullock was in it and I love her so I decided to watch it.
This conversation reminded me of something I often hear here about Americans. It is perceived that we will share details about our lives within the first 5 minutes of meeting someone. In general, I agree. And, in general, I don’t mind. I’d prefer that people be warm and open from the get-go, opposed to cold clams that require a sharp knife and gloves to pry open. I’ve attempted friendship with a few Françaises and in most cases it’s been difficult to get past their lukewarm receptions. By the time they finally decide to open up, I’m bitter from having had to work so hard and usually don't follow through. I'm sure they don't care, or even notice.

But as with many things French and American, somewhere in between would be nice. I acknowledge there are limits. For example, it wouldn't be wise to divulge too much personal information to a disgruntled customer who might be crazy enough to open a account as a strapping University of Florida graduate with a degree in Spanish, who has a soft spot for slow learners and southern belles, who wants to name his first born Rob "Red Cloud at Sunset" Zombie and describes his ideal mate as Sandra Bullock.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Dirty Dozen

There are certain moments in life you’ll never forget. For example, I remember exactly where I was when I discovered what was in a hot dog. It was revealed to me in the midst of a Trivial Pursuit game while I was sitting at a marble table in my grandma’s parlor. Up until that time corn dogs were a part of my regular diet. They were sold in my high school cafeteria along side the deep fried burritos. I ate one or the other nearly every day for lunch, washed down with a mint It’s-It or a box of Hot Tamales. After that game, however, I didn’t touch one for years. It took the San Francisco Giants, peer pressure, lots of onions and mustard, and several pints of strong microbrew before I could finally eat another one.

Knowledge has tried to ruin my appetite once again. While on an oyster eating trip in Cancale, I read a plaque that described the oyster farming process, as well as the anatomy of an oyster. That's how I learned that oysters have anuses and I had just eaten 12 of them.

There are some things we just don’t need to know or see. It reminds me of dining experience I once had at a restaurant near le Jardin du Luxembourg called La Ferrandaise, which is named after a type of cow from France’s Auvergne region. I chose the restaurant because it prides itself on its beef - so much so that it has adorned its walls with photos of cows with their big, brown eyes. When the waiter came, Fred ordered a nice rare steak. I had the fish.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

An oral exam worse than a trip to the dentist

The oral portion of my French exam was odder than anticipated. Instead of sitting alone with my professor, the scenario unfolded in front of the entire class. I haven’t felt group humiliation on this level since showering after my 7th grade P.E. class - and just like then, the only person who seemed to enjoy it was the teacher. After all of us had spoken, some better than others, the graded written exams were distributed. The professor started with those who had failed. Arriving in front of their desks, she handed over their heavily marked exams and explained what they had done wrong. In most cases it was uncomfortable, but delicate - like an eyebrow wax. But then, from the front of the class, the professor told one student a few rows back that she would never advance to the next level because it was clear from the essay portion she suffered from dyslexia.

Just in case there were any doubts that the French are frank - and that medical advice is free here.

Monday, February 01, 2010

I'm too old for this!

Being with Fred for the past 8 years, I figured my days of doing the Walk of Shame were long over. But to my chagrin, it seems the Gods of Humiliation aren’t quite finished with me yet. So tomorrow morning, I’ll slip on the very clothes I’m wearing right now (and I really mean that because I haven’t done laundry this week, and this is France so I can), fold-up a square of toilet paper and wipe the flaking mascara from beneath my eyes and head out into the cold morning air. Embarrassed and tired, I’ll dodge upstanding citizens walking down the sidewalk on their way to work. Except this time, instead of walking from a regrettable experience, I'll be returning to the scene of one: Le Lycée Municipal d'Adultes de la Ville de Paris (The City of Paris High School for Adults). And, yes, “lycée” really does mean “high school” – would it kill them to leave me with a shred of dignity?

It was on the foregoing premises, in Room 10 at 10:30 this morning, where I took a 2 hour written French exam. After every other post high school exam, I've received the results via mail or posted on the wall next to an anonymous student I.D. number. But not here. And not tomorrow.

Tomorrow, I'll sit for the oral portion of the exam. More precisely, I'll be sitting face to face with the very professor who administered and corrected today's written exam. I can only imagine how awkward it's going to be as I look her in the eyes, searching for my words, trying to pretend that all that I did and all that I said the day before never happened.

And when it's all over, she'll grade my performance. To my face.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

American Psycho

When I'm riding on the bus and I hear another passenger giving his or her phone number to the person on the other end, I want to memorize it and call them later for no particular reason. The urge is especially strong when they're obviously trying to be discrete by talking in a low voice.