Le Livre des Huîtres

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

Month: November, 2012

Le Métro

You know you live in a real city when directions are always accompanied by a metro stop (and along those lines the fact that I don’t know my closest metro stop is indicative I haven’t had any visitors here).

Citizens of these real cities carry around two maps in their head.

The roughly topographical one for walking:

And the completely abstract one for underground transit:

I can count on one slightly mutated hand the number of times I have taken the metro since arriving here (6). So far experiences have been positive. It’s very regular, affordable, and comprehensive. My favorite part is that sometimes the cars aren’t stopped when the doors open. Parisians like to live dangerously.

In New York, to the contrary, I took the metro all the time (let’s hear it for identical vocabulary between Paris and New York–take that London!). This was back when the M was brown and ran above my head, if you know what I mean. Many a cold night I would stand at the Harold Square stop hoping that the Q or W would arrive before the R or N, so I wouldn’t have to decide whether to go express or local on the yellow line…those were the days.

Well, dear readers, someone far and dear to me has just yesterday launched a product that captures the essence of the love and frustration generated by those trains and tunnels of public transportation. On top of its metaphorical resonance, it’s a handsome object and a clever toy.

I suggest you take a look.

Congratulations, Bobby. A free transfer is also available by walking to the 63rd-Lexington Street Station and using your metrocard.


Last weekend, before embarking over (under) to London to visit family, I had to make a big decision.

What to bring as a host gift?

First, I bought some fleur de sel avec cinq poivres from the farmer’s market. However, this seemed a little meager, and coming from Paris I would imagine expectations of wonders might be high (prepping for Christmas, too). On the other hand, I was arriving on Friday night for a belated Thanksgiving celebration–so a loaf of bread or box of éclairs or bag of duck confit might prove redundant (unfortunately, the latter can’t make it through US customs).

My cousin (hello Jenni!), coming from Switzerland, was bringing shortbread, which seemed circumlocutious until she explained it was candied ginger shortbread–and quite delicious I must say.

Cheese was also a smart option, but simultaneously risky. What if no one liked brie de mieux? Would I have to (get to) eat 500 grams of comté by myself?

So I went with those pretty little icons of Parisian chic–macarons. They arrived not totally intact, and were forgotten about until two days later when, with the leftover pie, cake, shortbread, and some mysterious chocolate gift, they weren’t the most necessary of presents.

To double my folly (I study mathematics, so making two negatives is a very logical decision), I decided to bring cheese back with me.

What?!? You exclaim aghast. You brought cheese TO France?

In my defense (defence?) it is British cheddar and it is a fine old piece of cow’s milk. However, at my current rate of consumption, I might not get to the whole thing before the mold does. Furthermore, I seem to be having a problem with my new cow’s milk in that it begins to curdle after about 5 days. It isn’t a stinky gone bad kind of curdling, just a “hmm probably shouldn’t put this in tea unless I want to eat my tea with a fork” kind.

The answer is of course macaroni and cheese. The question: Do you have a recipe to share?

Take a walk on the wild side


If you come to Paris seeking wallabies, old bones, well-mannered gardens, extremely slow joggers, and heaps of schoolchildren, then look no further than le Jardin des Plantes.

It was an anomalously sunny day, so you cannot quite see the dinosaur behind this stone scientist’s head. Let me assure you, there is one.

Should there be statues of me made in the future, please display them amongst the bones of fierce beasts.

I might say this is my favorite garden. It’s very low-key and there are wild animals hopping and scurrying about. Unfortunately, an attempt to jog here mostly failed, since Parisian park hours are at best ad hoc.

Here is a thought: touring tourists. Very meta, non?

La ——thèque

If there was a quiz to determine, say, personality traits and it asked:

1. What’s your favorite “______thèque”?

(A) disco

(B) biblio

And if you responded, “hmm, I wonder what the etymology of “thèque” is?”

Well, then, you don’t really need to answer that question, now do you.

Last Thursday I accidentally joined the bibliothèque of Paris. I was looking for a quiet place to work not too far from home, and a quick web search revealed I was not too far from the Bibliothèque Forney.

Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let me in when I told them I was studying the history of mathematics. This library was for the history of art. I couldn’t explain that I didn’t actually want to look at any of their books, just edit my paper, and so I grabbed a map and tried again.

To enter the Bibliothèque d’Hotel de Ville one must first pass through a security scanner, then exchange an ID for an entrance card, and climb up five flights of stairs (or, take the elevator–as if!). At the top of the stairs on the left is a small room with a few computers and a librarian at a desk. I walked in, walked out (was this the library? where were the books?), and walked in again.

The librarian asked to see my card. I showed her the entrance card. No, the yellow one, she said. I did not have a yellow one.

“Comment?” I blubbered, “comment?”

“Asseyez vous,” she commanded. So I did.

Getting a library card was surprisingly easy. Easier than in the states where one must verify proof of address. Here, you only need to sign your name swearing that this is indeed your address. They trust people.

On the other hand, ones library card must contain a photo, which I didn’t happen to have. The librarian kindly explained how I could affix my own later, and then gave me a run down of the various library rules. The only one that I remember is that water bottles can be had inside, but not placed on the table. By the time all these preliminaries were through there were only ten more minutes until closing. The librarian graciously suggested that I go in and take a look. So I went through a doorway and climbed two more flights of stairs.

(Why are there no people in the library, you ask. Well, that is because I didn’t take these photographs–I was worried it might be one of the rules I didn’t understand. There are, in fact, many people in the libraries. And believe it or not, they are reading books. Books made of paper! This, my friends, is time travel.)


Choose your own adventure

I haven’t actually read any of the “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Killer,” or “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.” From what I’ve heard, the author (or authors?) take the original text and simply interject some extra detail here and there.

This seemed like a good idea to really vamp up the paper I just finished LaTeX-ing. I mean, do you want to read about the various constructions for inscribing a triangle to a given circle passing through three given points? What if there is also a torrid romance, a brutal murder, and a suspenseful chase scene? Dissertation, please!

Unfortunately, the plot didn’t quite flow with all that mathematics getting in the way. But that’s what the delete key is for…or even better, the amazing strike-through font function (in case, you wanted to glimpse the story behind the story).

Here’s a sneak preview:

In general the constructions of equilateral hyperbolas the future of human existence reduced to two cases : either to find the centre and asymptote from the given conditions (as above) nuclear ray gun and deactivate it, or, if this was not possible, to find another point on the curve or tangent to the curve planet to live on and from there proceed to repopulate mankind via the corresponding construction from Brianchon’s Mémoire. In both situations, points were located with calculations and graphic representations of proportions through the theory of poles Brianchon and Poncelet would need to gather their supporters and then find their way past the guards and out of the building along the only staircase of escape, although these steps were often concealed within earlier theorems secret passages. Brianchon and Poncelet were thorough in treating all possible cases their wounded companions, even when a finite construction the wounds were so grave that survival was not possible. For the case of an equilateral Hyperbola with two given tangents and two given points in a plane, their shared lover, the construction is her condition was not determinate. Hence, Brianchon and Poncelet instead showed that the locus of centres of all such equilateral Hyperbola would be a unique circle in the same plane–which was a very risqué thing to be doing in public, but they were French and the world was ending.


Music, please.

As you might have guessed from my heart post (and also, from the fact that if you’re reading this we are probably related), I’ve managed to score some pretty good genes (jeans, on the other hand, not so much). Sure, I have to deal with being totally asymmetric, myopic, and cold nosed, but on the flip side there isn’t much history of hereditary disease in my bloodline. My ancestors inform me that out of all those big scary incurable ailments out there, the one that I might need to fear is diabetes. But frankly, shouldn’t we all be a little bit wary of too many sweets?

Now that all the Halloween treats are safely devoured (or being doled out one by one in order of least to most favorite as I did as a (frankly somewhat insane) child), and before the Christmas cookies roll out the oven (as an eyeball on the floor?), let me share a few extremely judgmental remarks that bear little relation to one another except for C12H22O11.

First, I find perverse fascination in people who put obscene amounts of sugar in their coffee or tea. It is, I imagine, the way some people like to watch boxing. Is she really going to put in another spoonful? Oh my god! That’s incredible! Ladies and gentlemen we have a one-to-one ratio!

Along the same lines, I had no idea that adults still ate fruit candies until I met some in the mathematics department in Vancouver. I thought this was something like Santa Claus that we grew out of when we moved on to cocktails as a different brightly colored temptation. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing?

I have a secret fondness for condensed milk, which by the way totally mitigates my above statement about sugar in tea. My former roommate, one of the lovers of candy, detested the stuff because when she was a child in Jamaica there was fresh milk and so she had to use the sweetened, syrupy version in her cereal.

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with my dentist and his wife and we all shared dessert (tiramisu). Felt like a total rebel.

Umm, isn’t this blog supposed to be about Paris? Well, so let’s try to tie that in, shall we?

Insignificant circumstantial evidence leads me to conclude that despite the gorgeous proliferation of sweets over here, there is a real big fear of sugar. People are often saying, oh I shouldn’t and not too sweet and none for me thank you. I keep trying to offer to make dessert for my roommate’s frequent dinner parties, and she keeps slyly avoiding to tell me in advance. Sometimes they only have cheese for dessert. Although, if you know the cheeses here you know that is no sacrifice. Economics is at play too. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the cost of candies are prohibitive. Sodas aren’t expensive, but they aren’t cheaper than wine. Sweetened yogurts come in teeny tiny packets and all food advertisements contain surgeon general warnings.

Ah, but, dear reader, despite this French phenomenon and my natural ambivalence I will prevail! After all, I have said that I will try to find the best of Paris and I am a person of my word (sometimes) and the best of Paris is so often rather sweet. No, I am not talking about the locks of love, but the cannelles (are they really crisp on the outside and underdone on the inside?), the madeleines (I have a feeling that good ones exist, somewhere), the whiskey caramel marshmallows* (take THAT hot chocolate), and the various wintery surprises that are only now coming out of the woodworks. As hard as it might be for my genes (and my jeans), I will make more of an effort in this department (instead of telling you about the conference cookies in Germany).

Yours truly.
*Tried one yesterday. Blech! Tasted like peat moss.

Duck hunt (la chasse au canard)

In Wuppertal at a conference I chatted with the Parisians about their city (there is only so much you can say about Wuppertal–the subject is easily exhausted).  Turns out that I am not the only one neglecting to take full advantage of all Paris has to offer. None of us had been to the art museums even though we all got discounted (or free) admission (serves Paris right for not having a history of mathematics museum–jerks!). I admitted that the only museum I had visited since moving here was the museum of the hunt. No one else even knew of that museum’s existence, and thought it was bizarre for an urban area to have a museum devoted to such pastoral activities. It’s small, I said.

Well, let me tell you, Paris is, in fact, full of hunting.

On Sunday morning, back in Paris, I advertised that I would be having duck for supper. You shoot it? Bobby asked.

It might have been faster if I had. For you see, my local butcher, those men around the corner in their white bloody aprons behind their striped awning, they happen to be closed on Sunday. To make matters worse I had planned out my whole menu for the week. Monday night’s risotto relied on Sunday night’s duck, and without that I would be lunch-less on Tuesday. Yes, yes, I know that there are other butchers in Paris, other butchers on my street even. However, I am trying to cut back on the mildly insane pursuit of food items that seems to dominate my leisure hours. So I flexibly adjusted my meal schedule forward one day and had a nice salad for dinner.

The local butcher is also closed on Mondays. Now, of course, I was too committed to switch loyalties midstream. I don’t frequent butchers often (although I am tempted now by their saddles of rabbit), so if I am ever to obtain “regular” status, I need to buy all my ducks from the same spot (oh, and they do a mighty fine confit, oodles of fat…if anyone has any recommendations for using a quarter pound of duck fat send them my way). So it was salad again Monday night. This time followed by a fried egg I cooked up in my new cast iron pot (not so non-stick as advertised).

Much more insane than my duck hunt, is my pursuit of shelf unstable milk. Suddenly, it is shelf absent from the nearby natural food stores, and the Bio version at the standard grocery stores is sub-par. The other whole food grocery store near school sometimes stocks raw milk, but only ever one day in advance of its best by date. Is it that raw milk does not last, or that I happen to choose the wrong time and place to get lait?

The moral of the story, the secret of the successful hunter, is patience. Patience, patience, and you will someday get your duck and milk (though probably not in the same meal).




le cœur

In America (although it feels absurd writing anything general about the country as a whole), we use the word rendezvous to signify a casual sort of meeting, something to be anticipated with pleasure.

Here the only rendezvous I have experienced have been very formal appointments with the post office bank (who lead me on and then rejected my money) and with the OFII (Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration) for a medical screening as the final step in my infinite process toward obtaining the necessary paperwork to stay here for 10 months.

In both cases I had a slip of paper with a time on it. A time that, as an American, I believed had some significance for when I was supposed to conduct the rendezvous. In French reality, this time means something entirely different as, in this case, I learned upon leaving the OFII three hours after arriving there.

Oddly, the experience was remarkably not souring because despite the inefficiency of the overall system, everyone there seemed to be working very hard and they were all exceptionally nice.

Nice, was the woman who asked me if I was pregnant and told me to take off my top, lock the door and wait.

Nice, was the technician who also asked me if I was pregnant, complimented my scarf, and positioned me smashed against a papered wall so that my lungs could be x-rayed for tuberculosis.

(I will show you the picture of my lungs tomorrow when I can photograph it in better light)

Nice, was the nurse who weighed me, checked my height (both with shoes on and so giving the impression of a larger person), and asked me to stumble through a few french letters and words to check my eyesight.

Nicest of all was the doctor. You know you have scoliosis, he said. Yes, I said. He also pointed out (nicely) that it appears one of my legs is longer than the other–no one has ever told you that before? he asked with incredulity. He then recommended (nicely) that I suck in my stomach in order to correct my posture. He even lied on my form to say my blood pressure was 96 instead of 95, since 95 might cause some people alarm (this seemed unnecessary, I’m sorry Mlle, we must ask you to leave France because your blood pressure is too low). But best of all, in this strange world of unpleasant niceties, was when the doctor checked my heart beat. “Incroyable” he murmured. Then he checked it again. What sport do you do? he asked.

It appears that my heart beats at a regularly lethargic rate of 42 times each minute. The doctor explained that the slowest heart rate he had seen before this was 50. So after three hours of waiting and then a rushed and somewhat humiliating examination, I earned one of the nicest compliments I have ever received.

“Your heart,” he said, “is perfect.”

There’s something strange in the neighborhood


The simple things in life are not so simple in Paris. On the downside, you might spend six weeks and a couple soles of shoes trying to open a bank account (take my money! make interest on it!). On the upside, if these seemingly menial tasks are ever successfully accomplished you will feel like a million bucks (unfortunately, not my bank balance.) And if your next door bank happens to be running a bizarre ghostbusters themed ad, why, all the better.


Americans in Paris (part one?)

Several Sundays ago, I was waiting at Shakespeare and Company for the speaker to arrive. Seated at the very front of the audience and with no alternative occupation, I eavesdropped. (Sure, I might have taken a paperback from the walls of books surrounding me, but isn’t that a form of eavesdropping too?)

The well dressed ladies behind me–one American, one French–were discussing some sort of chopped meat and where to get the authentic version, then a fabulous dinner party hosted by a wine maker in Bordeaux, then their too quickly grown children, then the astounding youth of General Lafayette, and eventually William Faulkner.

“Faulkner tried living in Paris,” said the French woman, “but only for a short time. He realized quickly that he didn’t need to know any more about the world than what his little hometown could tell him.”

“Ah, but at the end of Sanctuary,” said the American, “his description of Luxembourg Gardens leaves the others in the dust.”

“People think of Hemingway when they think of that time. If you ask me, Faulkner is in a whole different league. They’re incomparable.”

“Everyone has a Faulkner story,” replied the American, and she proceeded to tell hers.

If I had a Faulkner story, this would have to be it: Junior year of high school was American literature. We started As I Lay Dying right after the Great Gatsby, which I had loved. I distinctly remember reading the final pages sitting on the curb waiting for my piano lesson. At the time, Fitzgerald was like a well written romance novel and thus perfect for my teenage sensibilities.

As I Lay Dying was a wholly other beast. A short book without too much in the way of plot, I remember it was funny and that I had to put full faith in the author that things would make some sort of sense in the end.

Walking home the night before flying to New York, on a whim I popped into Shakespeare and Company to see about a book for the long journey. I was thinking Henry James’ The Ambassadors, or something similarly full of “oh I’ve been there” scenes. But with 2 euro titles abundant along the quai, I quickly discovered this particular American tourist destination exceeds my paperback price range. Besides, they did not have The Ambassadors. Not too far from the Jameses I found Sanctuary, and still curious flipped to the last two pages.

The picture above is highly ironic.

Here I wanted to quote you some Faulkner, but am thwarted by copyright issues. If you want a hint of the text see this heavily cropped version which makes a very sombre scene seem nostalgic and lighthearted. Or here in a more complete (though not entirely complete) form. However, I’d recommend avoiding reading novels on the internet, and instead traipsing down to the local library or librairie locale.