Saturday, May 31, 2008

Audience Participation Time

I received an invitation in the mail today to attend a lunch at the French equivalent of the State Department -- le ministère des Affaires étrangères et européennes. While I'm usually not much of a socializer, my m.o. here has been to accept pretty much any invitation that comes my way because you never know what the experience will turn out to be. There's just one catch. I have to bring a typical dish from my country and it cannot be a dessert. I don't mind cooking; it's just that I'm a bit stumped about what to make. When I was at the American Library this afternoon, I picked up the latest issue of Gourmet for inspiration, only to find recipes for shrimp tikka with mango chutney, grilled kielbasa with warm potato salad, and carmelized onion and gorgonzola pizza. Now there's American food for you.

So please, if you dare, weigh in with a suggestion. I'm looking for a dish that:

a) can be made with ingredients that can be found in Paris (I have my sources for some of the things that aren't typically on the shelves here but there are limits);
b) can be prepared in advance and served at room temperature; and
c) is tasty and won't be an embarrassing addition to the buffet.

P.S. This marks my 100th post!

Update: I made cornbread. Don't know how it went over. There were so many people that there were three large salons, each with its own buffet and my dish ended up in one of the other rooms.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Vincent Van Gogh's Last Days

A friend of mine passed along to me tickets to the French Open for today. I know next to nothing about professional tennis but figured what the heck. The Roland Garros tennis complex is not too far away and I found another friend willing to go along for the ride. We had a good time but it was not really blogworthy. So instead today, we have a guest blogger sharing details about the school field trip to Auvers sur Oise, the town where Vincent Van Gogh lived last. Here goes:

Today, my class rode on a bus for about an hour. We went to Auvers sur Oise to learn about Vincent Van Gogh. He lived there for 70 days and painted around 70 paintings in those 70 days. We saw where he lived (just a room) and where his neighbor lived (again, just a room). They were very small and had nothing in them. We saw where Vincent Van Gogh painted a picture of a church and tried to find the exact spot where he stood. We also saw the place where he painted what we think was his last picture. We saw where Vincent Van Gogh was buried. He is buried there with his brother named Theodore Van Gogh. Theodore died a year later than Vincent. My teacher said she believed he died of a broken heart. The last thing we saw was a statue of Van Gogh and his clothes were done in impasto (which is basically the sign of Van Gogh).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

My French class ended today as it often does with discussion of a "petite article" from the news. The piece today was about La Fête des Voisins which is set for this evening. The purpose of this made-up European Union wide holiday (now in its 8th year) is to get city dwellers to be more neighborly. It seems to be an uphill climb as last year, the participation rate was only 10 percent and I can tell you for certain that there's no partying going on in our building tonight.

Come to think of it, I'm not really sure who actually lives here besides another American family above us and a British lady with two little kids somewhere else further upstairs. There's a doctor on the ground floor and an attorney on the first floor, but to tell you the truth, I couldn't pick them out of a lineup. I suppose it's not so different from living in a big apartment building in any large city although I think it's safe to say that the French are far more reserved than Americans and far less interested in starting friendships from thin air. When I told my French teacher that it was traditional in the U.S. to greet newly arriving neighbors with a cake, she was shocked. "Do they have to give you a cake too?" she asked incredulously. "Do you have to invite them over?" The concept of the block party really threw her for a loop, suggesting that the idea people behind la Fête des Voisins may have to go back to the drawing board.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Jardin de Bagatelle

The Bois de Boulogne is a beautiful expanse of green on Paris' western edge that often gets a bad rap as a dangerous place, home to hookers and cruisers and who knows what else. But during daylight hours, it's a lovely retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city and all that stone and concrete. At over 2,000 acres, its grounds include several lakes with rowboat rentals, a hippodrome for horse races, a sweet old-fashioned amusement park, several high-end restaurants as well as places to picnic, and paths for walkers, bikers, and roller bladers. Once we navigate the crazy couple of blocks in Paris traffic to get there, it's a great place for the whole family to bike, particularly on the weekends when several of the major roads are blocked off to cars.

Smack in the middle is the Jardin de Bagatelle, an oasis behind gilded gates that includes a rose garden, meadows, and a little chateau built in just 64 days as part of a bet between Marie Antoinette and her brother-in-law, the Count d'Artois. This weekend, the peacocks were showing off their feathers, an exposition of kimonos was on display, and over 500 different kinds of roses, including those named after Monet, Pissarro, Dior, and Gina Lollobrigida, were in full bloom. The skies threatened but the rain held off until we were safely home, bikes stowed. Not a bad outing for a Sunday afternoon.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fête des Mères

It's Mother's Day today in France. My kids feted me two weeks ago according to the American tradition and it got to me to wondering why the two countries celebrate on different days. Otherwise, the commercial trappings seem incredibly similar. Flowers! Perfume! Chocolate! Clothes! You get the picture.

I did a bit of Internet snooping about the origins of la Fête des Mères and got a bunch of answers, none completely satisfactory. According to one source, Napoleon, famously devoted to his own mother, set the wheels in motion. Another story has it that after World War I, the French minister of the interior was inspired by the American doughboys to create an official mother's day in France to be celebrated in December. At a time when France had suffered devastating losses among its young men, Mother's Day had the not so subtle message of urging women to go forth and procreate. Mothers with four or five children received a bronze medal, six or seven got you a silver; those with eight or more scored gold.

In the 1940s, the date shifted to May under a proclamation by Marshal Pétain, the head of the Vichy government during World War II. The Vichy propaganda machine aggressively promoted the image of women as nurturers, subordinating themselves to the greater good of the family and nation. A twenty-something French woman I know told me that when she was little, she asked her mother about the appropriateness of celebrating the day when it was created as part of Vichy's collaboration with the Nazis. She said her mother told her, "I don't care. We're celebrating anyway."

So whatever the origins, bonne fête to all the mothers out there. May your gifts be given with love and no political agendas.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

In an old house in Paris, covered with vines.....

If you think Madeline is the quintessential French story for little girls, think again. She is nowhere to be found in Paris. Ludwig Bemelmans surely spent time here but he was a native of Austria and spent most of his adult life in the U.S. You can buy the books at but at least one customer review notes that the rhymes have no charm in French.

As Miss Clavel said, "that's all there is, there isn't any more."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Trees of Paris

I didn't really realize how many trees there are in Paris until the leaves came back a few weeks ago. The hard gray edges have all been softened up; you can no longer see the Arc de Triomphe when you look north from Place Victor Hugo. The plane trees, which are pruned within an inch of their life each fall, are just starting to sprout new growth.

Chestnut trees like these are in bloom everywhere with showy displays of either pink or white flowers.

These lime trees in the gardens of the Palais Royal aren't that old but you can imagine the assignations that might have taken place here in the days of Cardinal Richelieu.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Visit to Malmaison

Yesterday the whole family hopped on the subway and then onto a suburban bus to visit le Château de Malmaison, the country home of Josephine Bonaparte. We planned ahead to take the tour with Paris Walks, an outfit that provides daily two-hour walking tours in English, all around Paris and occasionally to parts beyond. I've taken quite a few of their tours over the months we've been here and enjoyed them all. You can certainly tour Malmaison without a guide but it was definitely worth the extra money (especially for the kids) to hear all the interesting and amusing anecdotes about Napoleon and Josephine and to learn about the customs and mores of early 19th century France that are reflected in the architecture and decor. Josephine kept the house after Napoleon divorced her and spent her last days there. Supposedly he still loved her but since she couldn't provide him with an heir, he disposed of her for a younger babymaking machine. Ironically, although his second wife Marie-Louise bore him a son, Napoleon's reign was so short, scarcely ten years, that the empire was gone long before the dynasty was built.

Upon her death, Josephine's son by her first husband had to sell off the house and all its furnishings to pay her debts. It changed hands several times, finally becoming a property of the French state and many of the furnishings were bought back. There are lots of interesting details -- a council room with the feel of a campaign tent, a library with a set of hidden stairs leading up to Napoleon's bedroom, and some rather famous paintings including Jacques-Louis David's portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps. If you've only got a few days in Paris, it's probably not worth the hike. But if you've got a little more time, put it on your list.

Friday, May 16, 2008

It's About Change

I'm doing my best to follow the U.S. presidential primaries from a distance. Not only is it the most important election in my voting lifetime, it is also so far the most exciting. While it's easy to keep track of the wins and losses, I'm sure I'm missing out on a lot of the subtext. As my mother used to say, all notes and no music. But Barack Obama's mantra about change has definitely come through loud and clear.

I've been thinking a lot about change lately too although not the kind that's on Obama's mind. It's the French retailer's obsession with change of the monetary variety. I don't know whether cashiers don't want to be bothered making change or they are saving it for something special. Just what that might be, I have no idea. In a typical situation this morning, I offered a museum clerk a 20€ bill for a 7€ admission only for her to ask, "don't you have anything smaller?" Now let's get this straight, ATMs here dole out 20€ bills the same way American ATMs dole out $20 bills, in other words, constantly. If you have a 50€ bill, good luck to you because you can't break it for something like groceries or stamps. In a moment earlier this week when I felt that I had finally crossed the French-American cultural chasm, I actually apologized to the clerk before she started ringing up my items that all I had was a 50.

The change issue goes deeper. Several months ago, I stopped in at a market and bought a few items with the total coming to something like 3.30€. I handed the clerk a five and stood there with my change purse open, waiting for her to hand me back my small change. And can you believe it, she actually pulled my wallet towards here and started rooting around in the change compartment for exact change. I was so taken aback, I didn't say a thing. She found what she wanted and handed me back my 5€ bill.

So what's the deal? I haven't got a clue. Which do you suppose will happen first, the U.S. elects its first black president or a French cashier, when asked to make change, responds, "Yes, we can"?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ticket to Ride

There are many reasons to applaud Paris's system of public transportation. The subway will take you pretty much anywhere with 380 stations on 14 lines. The buses fill in the gaps while also providing you with a front row seat on all the goings on about town. I still get a thrill when the bus goes around Étoile, the traffic circle at the Arc de Triomphe, in part from watching the madness of the cars and motorcycles jockeying for position and in part due to the grandeur of the Arc itself.

The week we arrived, my husband's assistant marched us down to the sales office of the RATP (the authority that runs the subway and buses as well as some of the suburban trains) and got us signed up for a Navigo Intégrale pass. (Well honestly, we were clueless; without her, our first few months would have been much more rocky.) At first, I thought it was just like the SmartTrip proximity card in DC but it turns out that it's so much more. For a flat monthly fee and a one-year subscription, the Navigo Intégrale gives you unlimited rides within the zones of your choice. If you take 20 round trips a month (and honestly, I take A LOT more than that), it pays for itself. Even better, it has a microchip instead of a stripe so you never have to worry about it being demagnetized. I never have to buy tickets (except for the kids) and it gives me a feeling of freedom that's far beyond the cost of the trips.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Delivery or Deliverance?

I had a life changing experience this week and trust me, I'm not exaggerating. A sign on the door of our corner market almost paralyzed me. Closed for renovation for six weeks?! Yes, I know. I'm supposed to be engaging in that charming European ritual of going door to the door to the greengrocer, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and all that. The plain truth of the matter is that a) doing your shopping that way costs a fortune and b) at the end of the day, you still need to go to the supermarket for toilet paper, mayonnaise, dish soap, and all manner of everyday essentials. While I've been shopping every now and then at the much larger supermarket about 4 blocks away, even with a shopping caddy on wheels, it's no picnic. The caddy holds less than you might think and it gets heavy fast.

Knowing that there would be no more running down to Franprix at the last minute for milk, a lemon, coffee, you name it, I summoned up my courage and my best French and headed to the service counter to figure out how to turn 70 euros worth of purchases into free home delivery. Oh my goodness, what a breeze. A few short questions later, I was headed into the checkout line with my stash of groceries. Two burly guys packed my groceries! I paid and walked home empty handed! An hour later, groceries were delivered to our front door! I could get used to this. Since I can pretty much spend 70 euros without sneezing, if I plan right, I see a future with no more bagging and shlepping. Praise the grocery store gods and say Hallelujah.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Don't Forget the Sunblock

The weather this past week has been amazing. After one of Paris's wettest Aprils ever, May has, so far, more than made up for it with plenty of sun, a gentle breeze and temperatures in the mid 70s. All these ladies (whom I believe to be the work of Parisian artist Niki Saint Phalle)need is a round of mai tais and cabana boy.

I am sorry that I didn't have my camera on Tuesday when I was sitting (most uncharacteristically) in a café on the Champs Élysées. A skinny 40ish guy with thinning blond hair strolled past laden with at least six shopping bags and wearing a white t-shirt, pink tulle ankle length skirt, and one of those cone-shaped princess hats with a trailing veil. Hey, even princesses need to shop.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Coffee Goes Way Uptown

George Clooney seems to be everywhere lately, including on the cover of the Wednesday entertainment section of Le Figaro and an overly long profile in one of the April issues of The New Yorker. I take it he has a movie out that he's plugging. In France, his face has become almost synonymous with Nespresso, the company that's taken the pod coffee maker into the realm of luxury goods. I've heard the coffee's pretty good (what do I know...I'm still dripping water from the tea kettle through a Melitta filter) but what's really selling this stuff is the image of affluence and savoir faire, well suited to Clooney's own brand of slick, smart sex appeal.

You've got to hand it to their marketing people. The whole experience is a far cry from picking up a bag of 8 O'Clock coffee at the A&P or even buying fair trade beans at Starbucks. Actually, I'd have to say that the closest thing to going into the Nespresso store is shopping for fine jewelry. When you walk in, the atmosphere is hushed; the spit and polished staff waits to serve you. The pods are wrapped in jewel colored foils and displayed in glass-topped cases. Thirty-one centimes a pop seems a small price to pay for the glamour, not to mention the caffeine buzz.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Manila sur Seine

North Africans (or those from the Maghreb as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are known in French) are said to be the largest group of immigrants in France. The statistics are somewhat murky since asking about race and national origin is simply not done, at least by the government that is.

But I digress. What I meant to share, before I got into this sidebar on race and ethnicity, is that my own unscientific assessment of immigration patterns is that most of the immigrant household help in our arrondissement is from the Philippines. This may be due to the high proportion of well-heeled English speaking foreigners in this bourgeois section of town. At any rate, there are three tiny little Filipino markets within an easy walk from our apartment, a good thing when you're in need of rice vinegar or soy sauce at reasonable prices. There's plenty of other stuff stuffed into these miniscule spaces, unintelligible to me but no doubt providing creature comforts to the hardworking ladies who are so far from home.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Mmm Mmmm Good

The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite. Without this, it is impossible to accumulate, within the allotted span, enough experience of eating to have anything worth setting down. Each day brings only two opportunities for field work, and they are not to be wasted minimizing the intake of cholesterol.

A.J. Liebling

Of course, later in life, Liebling developed gout.

Friday, May 2, 2008

A Week in Provence

In case you noticed a break in my blogging pattern, we've been out of town and just returned from eight days in Provence. We left a cool gray Paris, hopped on the TGV (the high-speed train) and emerged to sun and bright blue skies in Marseille. Just what the doctor ordered.

Thanks to our friends in Marseille whom we met in Washington when our first borns were babies, we had an all around great vacation. Although their apartment building, designed by Le Corbusier in 1952, is impressive, they had no room for visitors, instead putting us up at their parents' villa in Cassis, a seaside village just 25 minutes away. What's not to love about an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean with charming hosts anxious for you to sample their Provençal favorites? We drank the white from Cassis and Tavel, the rosé from Avignon; ate pisaladiere, the pizza made with onion confit, anchovies, and olives, as well as lamb and merguez sausage off the grill; and walked through the vineyards and gardens.

I think what really worked was striking the right balance between exploring and simply relaxing. We saw Cezanne's studio and his view of Mt. Sainte Victoire in Aix-en-Provence (not to mention eating some of the best strawberries ever); hiked and picnicked in the Calanques, fantastic chalky cliffs between Cassis and Marseille; and followed Van Gogh's footsteps in Arles. One day we went back in time to the 14th century to see where the popes lived during the time of unrest in Rome and the subsequent schism of the Catholic church, only to be thrust further back to the Greek and Roman eras when we visited the ruins of the town of Glanum. But I also had time to read A Year in Provence and the seventh Harry Potter book.

"Sur le pont d'Avignon" The bridge from the song you probably played on the recorder at some point. Here's one of the things that I love about France. This bridge has been out of commission since something like 1630, unable to withstand the strong currents of the Rhône. I mean, it goes out into the middle of the river and just stops. And yet, it's still standing in there. In the U.S., they would have torn it down after 10 years and put up a Starbucks.

The view of the Mediterranean from our host's villa in Cassis.

Yes, we even tried our hand at a little game of boule.
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