Le Livre des Huîtres

Some pearls from a year in Paris. Advice and Requests most welcome.

Month: September, 2012

Toutes les femmes célibataires

In French, if you aren’t married, divorced, widowed, or PAXed then you are célibataire. I assume the word is left over from some good old Catholic wishful thinking.

Before moving to New York, my father uncharacteristically warned me that there is an excess population of 1 million single women to single men in that city (a statistic I never bothered to verify). According to Men’s Health (because who else would bother taking such statistics), San Francisco, where I was moving from, ranks just below (or above, depending on your viewpoint) New York.


In all honesty, I do not think this blog has any single women readers, but if one happened to pass by and wanted advice on being grossly outnumbered by the opposite sex, I would give them this piece of advice.

Study philosophy.


The disparity of women in the sciences gets a lot of press, and I have heard so many times about girls and mathematics. However, in practice I haven’t noticed so much of a gender gap. Yes, all the mathematicians I study are men, but I can spout off a good list of five dead female mathematicians (and I know a few living ones), while I cannot think of one female philosopher EXCEPT for Simone de Beauvoir, and she was a feminist to boot (one can see why).

Why is no one up and arms about this? Maybe because we all know philosophy is, ahem, useless? That’s not to speak poorly of philosophy. If I am not completely misinterpreting Aristotle, he thought the uselessness of philosophy was one of it’s strengths. Practicality was for the proles. Also the women, apparently.

I’m sorry, what does any of this have to do with Paris?

no comment.

A week ago, I attended my first of probably many seminars. This one was at Paris 7 on the philosophy of category theory as part of the group on 19th and 20th century mathematics. I managed to arrive just barely late and found myself in a rather small room with about a dozen French students or postdocs and an English professor (I mean his nationality, he too studied philosophy). So I casually sat down and proceeded to have absolutely no idea what was going on for the next two hours. I could somewhat follow the written logic, but as soon as the conversation left the blackboard my mind drifted away and I practiced “interested” faces. The worst was when someone told a joke, everyone would laugh, and I would belatedly shift my “ah, I know what you mean” face to a “my, my isn’t that clever” face. Or, try to.

By the time it was or was not the coffee break, I decided it might as well be over and walked as quickly as I could out of there back to the comprehensible comfort of my mathematics office at Jussieu.

Moral of the story: If I were Mrs. Bennett, rather than teaching my daughters piano and dancing and polite conversation and good table manners, I would read them bedside stories of Critique of Pure Reason and Leviathan, thus ensuring their inevitable ineligible status.



Mon dossier

Last Friday I took mes papiers to the Bureau d’accueil des doctorants to “reinscribe” for this school year.

When I got there, I greeted the last name E through M woman and gave her my cheque and reinscription paper, which had involved a very long online survey in which I had to include parent’s occupation (there is a discount if you’re under 29 and your parents work for the train), choice of social security package, and high school grades. She rifled through them (seemingly a difficult thing to do with two papers), and looked sternly at me.

Did I have social security?

Well, no, but that was what the cheque and papers were for.


She pulled out my file and noticed I was a Cotutelle exchange student. Did I have that papier? No, I did not.

At that point I had ceased to exist. There was no one at this woman’s desk. She returned to her computer.

Was it the same paper as the one she had? I asked.

Yes, she said.

And where can I get it? I asked.

Madame Zizzo, she said.

Where is she? I asked.

Jussieu! she said.

So I walked back.

By now it was after noon, and since it was also Friday the Bureau des étudiants étrangers was closed for the week. I could return Monday at nine.

Yesterday was Monday, and I returned. Lest you think all French administrators are really terrible, I must tell you that Mme Zizzo is as wonderful as her last name sounds. She encouragingly spoke to me in French with helpful English during the important parts, checked my form before printing, and wished me an excellent year.

Then it was back along Rue des Écoles to Rue de l’École Medicine and past the surgery rooms where they were (ironically?) drilling outside.

Mme E through M still manned the desk and was not a mite nicer except she accepted my papers and sent me to the front desk to drop off my cheque. Confused, I thought the interview was not over and left my bag by her chair, only to quietly shuffle back and nab it a few minutes later.

The secretary at the front desk attached a 2012/2013 sticker to my student card.

C’est tout? I asked.

Oui, c’est tout, she said.

Happy to have my library privileges firmly secure for the next calendar year, I rewarded myself with un petit chocolat chaud from Pâtisserie Viennoise. While warming up from the downpour and burning my mouth in a bittersweet way, I witnessed a young American couple having their own French foibles.

Parlez-vous anglais? The man asked.

A little, said the pleasant waitress.

Deux café crème and two croissants, the man said.

Crème? You want crème or café au lait, with milk? said the waitress.

The couple looked at each other and decided to indulge.

We’ll take cream, said the man.

A few minutes later the waitress returned with two coffee mugs overflowing with gorgeous billows of whipped cream.

If only I can be so lucky for my bank appointment Thursday!

Mon homme pruneau

The overarching goal in all this blogging is not actually to hear myself talk nor to (hopefully) amuse you, my readers, now and again. These are only happy side effects, in the elusive pursuit of “the usual”.

What I mean to say is, in one of my ideal worlds I live in a friendly neighborhood and have pleasant routines every so often. What I am imagining is something not unlike the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast. The baker, with his tray like always, the same old bread and rolls to sell. Except! (This is a crucial exception, oh goodness, I’ve been reading a great deal of mathematics lately and could go into great detail here on the subject of exceptions, but I will practice self-control (self-control, I say, as I eat an artichoke as an excuse for consuming a couple tablespoons of unmitigated butter.).) Except, the bread and rolls are incredible and you would be really really disappointed if they were NOT just the same as the morning that you came to this poor provincial town that happens to actually be a large city (and we can see why I am not a lyricist).

So before settling into the usual, as in “je voudrais the usual s’il vous plait,” I need to find the best possible usuals out there. Or within a reasonable radius. As I pointed out yesterday, the bread search continues. The butter search could stop, but wont. The hot chocolate search began today–more on that tomorrow. And so on.

Now, this is immediately to my benefit of course, but it could also be to yours. That is, if you come visit. Or, hell, even if you come to Paris after I am gone, though you really should come when I am here because if I am getting the usual then I am a regular, and everyone knows that regulars get special treatment, which extends to guests of regulars.

Being who I am, the usual will probably not extend to things like foie gras, steak frîtes, or dinners at Le Tour d’Argent. Instead, you must be content with knowing that I have found my provider of prunes.

I was at the market yesterday wandering around and around to see where to shop. After a somewhat embarrassing experience of trying to buy 100 grams of lucques and having to continually ask the salesperson to take a few more olives out of my bag, I walked past a vendor selling much more affordable lucques plus some lovely salt and all manner of sauces, nuts and dried fruit. I had been reading some prune recipes and heard that they’re much more interesting in France, so I decided to daringly spring for 200 grams even though I could not see the price. In this case, I was not ashamed of my meager purchase since the old woman in front of me had only bought 50 grams of harrissa at about 47 cents and the man had seemed quite happy to oblige and then wait for all that change to be counted out.

These were unquestionably the best prunes I have ever had. Red and almost juicy with a well-defined pit that reminds you where they came from. I will be back next Sunday and probably also to pick up some olives as well. That is, if I can find the place again.

Yes, I am soon on my way to becoming a prune regular. And if I keep eating prunes regularly, I’ll be regular in another way too.

Everything you always wanted to know about bread, but were afraid to ask.

Paris is a baguette kind of town. Of course literally baguettes here sell like hotcakes (if hotcakes were bought every day sometimes twice a day by everyone). Figuratively, Paris is fancy and direct and likes its wheat white and its sugar refined.

I am generalizing to make the point that not unlike Manhattan, Paris is a bit Disneylandesque. Or perhaps it’s better to say Disneyland is a bit like Manhattan or Paris, since the latter precede the former (and I did see some mice here this morning).

Continuing with this half-baked metaphor, I could say that I am a dense whole grain sprouted sour kind of girl, but, uh, that sounds awful, so let me just say that’s how I like my bread.

While it isn’t available at every bakery, with the help of the internet I’ve found a few choice locales and am happily working my way through the options. Another plus is that these loaves tend to last fairly well for the 3 or 4 days it takes me to eat one. Yesterday, my bread pursuit involved Le Viking (I have a much more difficult time pronouncing words I already know in English, Vee-king case in point).

I will tell you right now that Le Viking is disappointingly fluffy and tastes not at all of levain. But I did not for a minute regret my purchase once I noticed the piece of tissue it had been wrapped in. So that you all can learn as much as I did, I’ve transcribed these valuable life lessons below (with pretty lousy translations).

Le pain est le fruit, d’un métier et d’un savoir-faire. (Bread is the fruit of a profession and an expertise.)

Mieux vaut un demi-pain, que pas de pain du tout. C’est un long jour qu’un jour sans pain. (Better a half-loaf than no bread at all. A day without bread is a long day.)

Le pain est le pilier de la vie. (Bread is the pillar of life.)

Sans plat, sans pain, nulle bonne compagnie. Offrir l’amitié à qui veut l’amour, c’est donner du pain à qui meurt de soif. (No plate, no bread, no good company. To offer friendship to those who want love is to give bread to those dying of thirst.)

Mettre le pain à l’envers empêche les amours. Il faut cuire le pain tant que le four est chaud. (Set bread against preventing loves. One must bake bread while the oven is hot.)

My new track

There are many parks in Paris, but for a morning run they are all either quite far away or closed.

So it’s over the bridge and round and round the Ile St Louis for me.


Or follow along with Google street view (maybe someday the satellite camera will catch me!).



Mon (grand) plan

Every day now, sometimes more than once, I show someone my big plan.

Yes, exactly!

Before I mislead you grossly, what I mean is the French sort of plan, as in, “j’ai un plan” now a stock phrase in my lexicon.

Oui, exactement!

Because I walk quickly with my head up, people assume I know where I am going. So I am an easy target for directions. As far as a success rate, I’m currently about fifty-fifty–a few recent victories making up for initial cluelessness. I even trumped someone with an iPhone, who had initial doubts about my paper version. But he happily walked in the direction I suggested. Sucker!

As my knowledge of the city and vocabulary increase, I might even start offering unsolicited help to the many groups gathered around street corners looking lost and confused.

Don’t worry, I’ll tell them, I have a plan.


Les numéros

Politics aside, for a mathematically inclined individual it’s awfully nice to see Americans being aware of percentages these days. Now I only wish margin of error might enter the discussion.

To be generous, I am now an advanced beginning French speaker (although better to say French reader, writer, and listener since my speaking is mostly confined to monosyllables and edibles). As an auditing student in French last year, I was able to skip ahead the first two semesters, which was mostly a very good move except that I didn’t learn the alphabet or how to count.

Unsurprisingly, these are both very useful skills.

For one, the French and especially the French academics L-O-V-E acronyms. So I need to keep my achez and double vays straight. (How’s that for phonetics?)

Secondly, everything is numbered. From your arrondissement that might change from one side of the street to the other to your door code that must be known before a guest can ring the bell to your wifi password that will not be less than 20 characters.

I would wager that French school children take a bit more time when learning how to count to 100, but that once they do they are not too encumbered in learning basic addition and multiplication. While in English counting only consists of adding 1 through 9, in French one must know how to multiply 20 by 4 and add all the way up to 19. C’est un peu compliqué.

My strong lack of fluency means that often I judge what someone is saying by the tone of their voice, the look on their face, or the length of the noises emanating from their mouth. When buying things back home a longer number usually implies a bigger amount.

Fifty cents (3 syllables)

Two dollars and 50 cents (7 syllables)

Two thousand five hundred twenty nine dollars and 50 cents (15 syllables)


Here upon hearing, un euro et quatre-vingt dix-huit centimes (11 syllables) s’il-vous-plait, I hand over the largest piece of colorful paper in my wallet only to receive many many coins worth of change.

If I successfully manage to open a bank account here, not only will I be able to pay my rent without visiting the ATM four days in a row, but also I will have the sublime peace of mind in nonchalantly handing over my credit card in response to any number thrown at me.

Forty-seven percent?

Put it on my bill.

Quelle est cette odeur?

In my youth I sagely observed that the truest thing you could say about a person is they smell.

By smell, I do not intend the verb (which is also true for my most, not all, people), but the adjective. Think about it. Most of that stuff coming out of the human body is a bit foul. At best it’s neutral–never pleasant. Even if you don’t smell on the outside, you most certainly smell on the inside.

Paris also smells. Unlike your guts, which unequivocally stink, Paris smells both amazing and terrible.

Let us start with the good news. According to fairly reliable sources there were 1263 bakeries in Paris in 2006. Probably some of them make flavorless baguettes, greasy croissants, or dry madeleines and others will blow your mind away with the power of wheat, water, and salt (and butter). Yet even the least inspired bakery is a welcome smell on an early weekday morning. If there was a freshly baked perfume I would buy it. And then I would have thousands of friends (and probably some unwanted rodents and ants as well).

Now the bad news. Everyday sometimes twice a day the streets are washed. This is troublesome for me since it usually happens early in the morning when I am running and would really like to blow a snot rocket except someone is hosing down the sidewalk and I worry that would be a very rude gesture. However, perhaps it’s better to keep the snot in my nose as a shield against the inevitable parts of my journey where I must pass into an area with less than optimal ventilation. This could be under a bridge, or along a narrow street, or even up a bounded stairway. All of these places, and some others too, are strongly scented with urine. There may be other gross odors in their, but urine is the piercing high note. I am sure, this being Paris, that the street cleaners have gone on strike and I am also sure they must have immediately had their demands met.

On Saturday I was in the park, and every so often this terrible rotten dog poo smell would draft in, which I concluded was from the flies who were carrying little pieces of it with them past my poor nose. Later, in the grocery store, I was disturbed to find that the smell hadn’t entirely gone away. Is it me? I thought, and began surreptitiously sniffing myself. I do not think that it was, but that is always a fear. Even though it’s inevitable to be part of the smelly billions, I do not want to be the smelly one.


Le sel

I have been treating myself.

Not extravagantly, of course.

None of these.

Or these.

Or these?

Just wine with dinner and something sweet afterward. The desserts are as much an excuse to try some French delicacy as to finish the meal. Over the weekend, I went to two specialty confectionery shops. Both times I found myself directly following an American who was REALLY treating herself (or buying gifts).

My seulement un marshmallow (Saturday) and seulement un caramel chocolat noir (Sunday) were both excellent specimens of their type, but I determined (as you may have guessed from the title) that they needed a little bit of salt.

It’s an addiction, and I am not about to give it up. Especially since I haven’t been to Brittany yet.

I suppose once you start having saltier desserts everything else tastes a little flat. I’ve even taken to adding a hearty dash of salt to my oatmeal in the morning.

In fact, the only thing that I definitely do not want salt in is my water.

Meanwhile, I continue the treat scavenging. Apparently, there is something called CSB–and you can guess what the S stands for!

Ils ne dorment pas

Thanks to this guy, and probably others before him, New York has earned the official title of the City that Doesn’t Sleep.

But did Frank Sinatra ever go for a jog at 6 in the morning? If he had, he would have noticed the streets were curiously empty. The people who are out and about at this hour are starting their day, not continuing on from the night before.

In fact, this was one of the primary motivations for waking up early to run. Less traffic, fewer people, a quiet city.

Paris is also quieter at 7 in the morning, then, say any time between 9 AM and 3 AM. The comparative being the key part of the adjective here.

While in New York I might see a small group at a café eagerly sipping coffee, in Paris I have run passed not a few groups drinking beer, wine, or the hair of whatever dog is still biting them. The party has not quite ended. Observing this curious cultural difference, I now play an interesting game of guessing which passersby are going out and which are coming home.

If someone were playing a similar game and saw me run past (or rather, the bolt of speed that I become while jogging) they would hopefully correctly discern that I am not finishing up a wild evening in which I chose to wear spandex and a clip on fanny pack.

On the other hand…