Le Livre des Huîtres

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

Month: December, 2012

un cadeau pour noël

I am leaving for California in the morning.


This presented no small problem in the form of grocery shopping on Sunday. You see, I try to shop for most of my weekly produce on Sunday at the Bastille marché (supplemented of course by my kale ladies on Wednesdays). I go early, before breakfast, when the stalls are still quiet (although I have seen a few amusing crowds of Japanese tourists). In the past months I have gravitated toward a particularly friendly produce stand. I originally chose it because there was a line. The quality of the food and the prices are no better (and sometimes worse) than other vendors,  even so I am lured time and again by how much fun the employees seem to be having (on the other hand, I buy my pomegranates, persimmons, and nuts at a very cheap place where two weeks ago I was overwhelmed by the fruit samples, having to put half a pomegranate in my pocket in order to not drop anything).


Well, after much much careful planning, I ordered 400 grams of carrots, 200 grams of mushrooms, 1 leek, 1 kilo of oranges (from Sicily–is it possible to fall in love with a place just based on a fruit? and of course The Godfather…), and a medium sized head of broccoli. The market gets absolutely packed later in the day, so I do not know if they recognize me (and if they do whether it is with dismay or fondness, ah there is that American girl who always orders a potiron when she means potimarron). However, they are very attendant all the same. Each item ordered is verified for confirmation, after which I usually (in typical American superlatives) say “parfait”!

After a “c’est tout” I received my receipt and fished around my wallet for the correct amount. Well apparently, this was actually not all. Perhaps my shopping list suggested a specific dish with missing ingredients? Or perhaps they had a surplus? Or maybe this was my first Christmas gift of the year. Regardless of the motive, the vendor then offered me some persil. Frankly I am not partial to parsley, but I am also wise enough to accept generous offers from the people who choose my vegetables.

Au revoir persil, jusqu’à l’année prochaine.


Fabriqué en ???

Je faisais des courses–but I must be vague about where and for what since it’s that time of year.

Speaking of vague…

I do not know when my mother decided to not buy things made in China, but I remember it as a childhood imperative along with not chewing gum and please putting down that novel to look out the window once in a while.

Some of that advice stuck more than others, and I find myself an easily aggravated shopper forever searching for the origins of my purchases.

Thankfully, I mostly just buy food, and food in France must be labelled with where it’s from. A simple law, quite easily implemented, for which I am very grateful. Non-edibles are exempt and so much more tricky.

There is the classic clothing trick of citing where the material comes from, and hiding where it is cut and sewn.

Or the classic electronic trick of citing where the object is designed.

Or the classic many different products trick where some items are proudly Made in France, while others appear to have never been made at all.

The elaborate hiding of this information further confirms my intentions to not get entangled in this shady business. Were a shirt to say, “proudly made in the PRC” well that would at least be honest (or another and more complicated type of dishonesty). However, the fact that it takes so much detective work seems to point to an acknowledgment of guilt. Or perhaps I’ve fallen sway to the Napoleonic Code.

Vendredi soir

Parisians enjoy a popular reputation of being très cool. Americans aspire to Parisian sensibilities, non?

So you Americans are probably wondering–what do they do? How do they pass the weekend? What restaurants and bars do they frequent on Friday nights?

But that is chasing down the wrong rabbit’s hole. Bars and restaurants are for les touristes ou les expats ou les provincials. Come 6 o’clock, l’heure d’apero, les vrais Parisiens are not drinking overpriced cocktails, they are shopping for eyeglasses.



These eyeglass shops are so jam packed Friday nights, that one wonders whether (A) they are actually speakeasies or (B) the locals spend the rest of the week inducing eye strain in order to necessitate a new prescription.

While I might make a half-hearted attempt to sample Parisian culture, I will forgo this particular pastime. Even 800 euro frames look little more than so-so when fitted with -7.5 prescriptions.


Musée des Arts et Métiers

Here is some data viz to convince you not to go to the Musée d’Orsay on a Sunday.

mdorsaySo I decided to stay closer to home and visit the much more modest halls of the museum of real work (as in, not art–lest the name of the museum fool you).

I apologize for not bringing my camera. The museum was very striking. Here are some photos on their website.

Highlights included an original meter (nothing quite says la civilisation like the metric system), Lavoisier’s laboratory (including an air pump! I have just finished reading Leviathan and the Air Pump, so this was very nice), Fresnel’s lens (with which he proved the wave like nature of light), a human flying device from 1893 (inspired by a bat and a bicycle apparently), and floppy discs.

For those of you who’ve read Foucault’s Pendulum, this is where the opening scene takes place (I have only read the opening scene, so I can’t speak for the location of the rest of the book). Foucault’s pendulum is still there, still moving.

The museum also boasts the squeakiest floors ever. The collection has been housed on Rue Reamur since the 18th century, and I suppose that’s what happens over time to wooden floors.

History of science, especially seeing the actual physical tools and practices of scientists, inspires in a way that learning facts does not. Hey these people tried to learn new things and you can too.


les choux et les marrons

There is the oft touted example of how a culture must care a lot about a certain thing if it has many different names for its subtle types. This is particularly cited in regards to Eskimos and snow.

Conversely, but I think equally telling, is when many different things carry variants on the same name. Take for instance, the culture surrounding a certain brand of electronic devices, the names of which might imply that members of that culture care a lot about themselves.

But before there was “i—” there was “chou—.”


Le chou, on its own is a cabbage. Le chou fleur a cauliflower. Les choux des bruxelles are brusselsprouts (one of those always plural vegetables–because who eats a brusselsprout?). And I recently learned that kale might be called le chou hollandaise or le chou frisée (and kale with hollandaise sauce…). You might call a loved one mon petit chou, and that would be a very sweet thing to say.

English clearly doesn’t like cabbage so much. We kept the flowers and brussels, but managed to avoid the second half of the description. What is a cauli?


On a lesser scale, but perhaps more charming since not as closely related, are les marrons (chestnuts) and les potimarrons (pumpkins). I have been eating a lot of both of these lately since they require roasting and thus are winter imperatives. Apparently, their name similarity is based on similar flavors rather than appearance or genealogy.

The pictures are not scaled to any sort of size whatsoever.


Much ado about un truc

While taking notes at seminars, I usually leave some space in the upper right hand corner for unfamiliar French words. The intention is to return to this list and learn them.

It is a very good intention.

Sometimes, by the seminar’s end the word has been repeated enough that I have a vague contextual understanding. Un truc, was not one of these words. People spoke passionately about “truc/s” but without an underlying theme. There were many vague hand gestures and significant glances. Truc and trucs emerged all over the place, unexpectedly, without warning.

Those of you who know some French are probably shaking your heads or snickering.

Finally, I remembered to consult a dictionary on the subject. And I learned un truc ou deux.

This one’s for you Maggie

I do not think my cousin Maggie follows this blog. Maybe she’s never read it. But here’s her chance to tune in.

A while back Maggie told me a story about her animal advocating boss going ballistic about nudging an overly aggressive pigeon with her foot. He went on to give her a lecture about the delicate constitution of “rock doves.”

In Paris there are some people (read: tourists and homeless) who like to give bits of bread to the pigeons. As much as I adore Mary Poppins, I am strongly opposed to feeding the birds. Perhaps this dates back to being attacked by seagulls while carrying onion rings at the zoo many many years ago.

Whatever the psychological underpinnings, I see no logical reason to support these winged free-loaders. They are only going to turn that food into poop and drop it on your head.

Thus, I was ridiculously delighted to see this truck parked next to Notre Dame:

IMG_3034Is it full of hunting rifles? Let’s hope so.

le deux décembre

Although I am having a difficult time making my way through Lacroix’s essays on teaching and mathematics teaching in particular, I did succeed in opening the second window of my metaphorical advent calendar. That is, I indulged in some chocolate.

Again there are no pictures. Yes, I have a camera, but I decided it would be kinder to leave off pictures of delicious things.

Or maybe I’m just a bit forgetful.

I originally planned to go to a Schmancy chocolate shop to try their not too sweet chocolat chaud. However, just about half of Paris had made that same decision at 4 o’clock this afternoon. So I continued walking. Remembering my list from yesterday’s post, I changed intentions to get a pain au chocolat as an after dinner breakfast dessert. However, the shop with the best chocolatine in town (that is what there price list describes it as, though it’s a geographically inaccurate name) was closed! I suppose they sold out? However, now I was near another chocolatier. An open one. And since it is adjacent to the closed on Sunday afternoon Marché d’Aligre, it was not so busy.

I had a seat and was forgotten about for a bit, which is actually something I enjoy happening at cafés if I am alone. The chocolat chaud was nice and frothy, and it was a cozy, delicious smelling place. I would certainly go back with company.

But! I must say that I prefer the hot chocolate I have perfected at home. It’s terrible how I little by little whittle away any desire to go out by learning how to make the things I like to eat the way I like to eat them. At this point it’s just ice cream, sushi, and many ingredient cocktails that bring me out into public. Speaking of public, I may have celebrity spotted Dorie Greenspan on my way home.

Happy 2 December!


le decémbre


Yes, yes, I know it’s snowing elsewhere. But I am on my way to giving Rudolph a run for his red nose infamy. Thank goodness, I have a nice little chauffage in my room (plus going on 5 blankets) and the libraries (when crowded) do not necessitate an overcoat. But I really felt too akin to Bob Cratchit when I received this email from my graduate student representative:

“comme vous l’avez remarqué, le chauffage de notre couloir est en panne. À en croire l’administration, le problème est loin d’être résolu. C’est pourquoi l’IMJ nous a acheté des radiateurs individuels. Ces radiateurs ont été achetés avec l’argent de l’IMJ 2012. Comme c’est la fin de l’année, il n’y a plus beaucoup d’argent, et seulement 5 radiateurs ont pu être achetés. Normalement, le reste sera complété avec le budget 2013 (donc dès janvier). Au niveau des consignes de sécurité : normalement, ce type de chauffage est interdit.”

He helpfully followed up with an English translation (not just for me, I hope–it looks suspiciously like Google translate, one of my favorite websites):

“as you noticed, the heating system in our hallway isn’t working. According to the administration, the problem isn’t about to be solved any moment. That’s why the IMJ bought us individual heaters. These heaters have been bought with the 2012-IMJ money. Because it’s the end of the year, there’s not much remaining money, and so only 5 heaters have been bought. Others will be bought with the 2013 money (thus, in january). About security: normally, this kind of heaters is forbidden.”

There are 10 offices. Since this is a math department, the solution is that every pair of two offices will be sharing a heater until the new budget begins. Don’t expect to find me there before that happens.

The first of December does not only signal cold extremities and overt references to holiday personnel. Christmas, I mean, December, is also the month where one is supposed to eat one chocolate each day. I think it’s a law in some states.

I used to receive an advent calendar at Thanksgiving as a generous, but tantalizing gift. Actually, I am a huge fan of the rationing concept employed there, if not of the chocolate quality. Apparently there are now fancy advent calendars with a wide variety of flavors and cocoa origins, on the other end of the scale the one at my local Franprix costs 87 euro cents.

I had some intentions to make Paris my advent calendar and eat one chocolate each day (before I depart for California!!) thus sampling 18 different confectioneries. Upon further reflection, this is probably not going to happen for the following:

(1) The chocolate shops are not crazy about customers who purchase one euro’s worth of goods.

(2) I should probably focus on my research. But this IS research! The real research, not the chocolate research. The wine research? Mmm, sort of.

(3) I actually prefer plain very dark chocolate bars or hot chocolate or pain au chocolat to chocolate candies.

However, today I did go to the stunning Patrick Roger and bought a very pleasant chocolate covered caramel. The place smelled like the best version of heaven (I hear that in French there are different verbs for whether something smells good). If they’d let me, I might have curled up next to the chocolate hippopotamus in the window.

I have no idea what the chocolate I did order was called since there were no descriptions or names posted and I don’t understand everything people say to me in French. My sister and I decided it was probably jealousy or envy, but after browsing the menu I wish I had opted for mellowness, fantasy, or instinct. Maybe even atom. That might have been mind blowing.