Le Livre des Huîtres

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

Month: January, 2013

l’heure de fermeture

I like to wake up early, so I try not to stay up too late (the upstairs midnight stomper has lately been thwarting these efforts–more on that later).

Thus, while I’ve heard stories about bars throwing patrons out onto the street or locking them in after hours, I have never been privy to those sorts of experiences. At least, not that I remember.

At least once a week, on the other hand, I find myself in a library at closing time. I imagine their strategies to alert patrons to pack their things and go back to the places they will be from are somewhat different than those of more social, less literary places. Here are a few of them:

Bibliothéque d’Histoire de Paris: This is my favorite. An elegant older man comes to each table at 10 to 6 and whispers loudly, “nous fermons”. At the larger tables he might say it three or four times.

Bibliothéque d’Hôtel de Ville: This is my least favorite. At 5:30, 5:45, and 6:00 a terrible buzzer goes off for about 10 seconds. I am only guessing about it going off at 6 o’clock because I am always so annoyed by the second buzzer that I leave immediately.

Bibliothéque d’Institut Henri Poincaré: An electronic chime of sorts plays at 5:50.

Bibliothéque de Jussieu–Biologie, Chimie, Physique Recherche: From the front desk the librarian announces closing at about 7 to 6.

Speaking of announcing the time, it appears that Notre Dame just received a new bell delivery, from Normandy of course. They are very big bells, about half the size of my kitchen and a perfect addition to any quiet place looking to kick people out.


Le fromage encore

There is an apocryphal quote about having more wine to finish the cheese and more cheese to finish the wine.

So I’ll blame that last glass of wine on why after only a week I return to the subject of fromage.

As per my mother’s advice I returned to the same fromagerie as the week before. However, to be perfectly honest I had to learn from my own mistakes first. You see, some time around last Friday I realized that cheese was probably my favorite dessert (only if accompanied with wine, naturally). So I ventured out to a different outdoor market. My mind was set on something gooey, and as much as an adult as I pretend to be I could not resist the miniature appeal of what looked to be very small epoisses in little wooden boxes. After trying a sample of very strong comté, I asked the vendor whether this was the same thing as Epoisses (and how old that Comté was). She seemed to indicate it was the same only smaller.

But upon arriving home I noted that this cheese was pasteurized…it also smelled a bit too astringent. That is not to say that I did not eat it, but as I told my colloc, I would not buy it again.

Thus being convinced that all cheese merchants are not created equal (and that my mother is nearly always right) I braved a small downpour to make it to Place Monge before they close at 1 (notably the day became beautiful around 2). There was my cheese lady (I also may have spotted my kale people packing up, which gives me hope that they are still in business, just leaving early–in substitution I bought a bunch of what appear to be broccoli greens, will report later on how they measure up). I did not thank her for the prior recommendation for fear of being grossly misunderstood, but I did ask for another one. An aged sheep’s milk.

She gave me a very generous sample. Oh yes, it was perfect, I told her. The prices were not posted, so I tried to request a smaller portion, but embarrassingly ended up one euro short. I apologized and explained that I would just run to the corner bank and return shortly. It’s not a big deal, she assured me, just pay me the extra euro next time. Then she added a few pieces of a ripened goat’s milk.

Will you be here on Friday? I asked (not that I will be out of cheese by then since I am now in ample supply). She will be.

À vendredi! I exclaimed. And with two red and white checkered packages I happily headed back into the rain.

French words you should know, part I

I happen to spend a good portion of my waking hours reading French. Since most of this is mathematics, it has little to no bearing on my actual French speaking and listening skills (don’t pronounce the “-ent” if it’s a verb I tell that voice in my head over and over). Every so often, however, a nice little word pops in and I feel a touch smarter.

Case in point “napoléonien”–yes, a dictionary might tell you this just means Napoleonic and refers to the time period and actions of Napoleon I. But please, take a couple moments and try to say this word out loud (you can whisper if you’re in public, but please remember that last “e” is nasal!). It’s a mercury ball of a word, and I prefer to interpret it metaphorically.


We Anglo-Saxons sometimes talk about Napoleon complexes to indicate small men compensating for that deficit with large egos. The French and the history books will assure you that in fact (en fait) 1.7 meters was above average at the time. Regardless of national sentiment, it is incontestable that Napoleon was extraordinarily ambitious and overextended himself, and thus I take that quality as the root meaning for “napoléonien”.

So one might say,

“All of my to-do lists are terribly napoléonien.”


“Her napoléonien outfit managed to include every color of the rainbow–and then some.”


“Please try to refrain from being napoléonien in the tennis match today; it’s only a game.”

les mauvaises habitudes

Just between you, me and the world wide web, I’ve picked up a few bad habits in Paris.

No, I haven’t started smoking…at least not first hand. These bad habits are more subtle, less obviously ominous, but certainly just as likely to lead down the wrong path. To list the first three that spring to mind:

1. Hitting the snooze button. It is very very far north in Paris and the sun is never up when my alarm goes off. The button on the left turns the alarm off and the one on the right snoozes for ten minutes. I almost never hit the button on the left.

2. Blow-drying my hair. Ah, this is perhaps the best moment of every other day when I finally feel totally warm.

3. Generously buttering my bread. In keeping with the national culture I most often have bread and butter for breakfast. I must admit that the proportions have shifted in favor of the latter ingredient since first moving here.

On a different topic, I am delighted that Paris happens to be the only city that I can identifiably sketch on the computer (and you can too!).


Untitled drawingThat just has tourist t-shirt written all over it!

C’est ma faut

It has been a long cold week. So there was not much hesitation this evening when a colleague who I intended to meet for coffee suggested getting a “cheap Parisian” (i.e. not cheap) cocktail instead.

Sensibly, she order a mojito, which if France had a national cocktail would surely be it. I, foolishly wanting something strong and not sweet, chose a Manhattan from the menu.

I should have been tipped off by the waitress’s blank stare. Manhattan? I repeated, trying to dull my A’s to something somewhat French sounding (the secret it turns out is to leave out the “h” Mahn-ahttahn (which in fact (en fait) has way more “h”s but so goes phonetic writing)).

Blech. It was definitely the worst cocktail I’ve had since high school.

I cannot totally blame the bar, as much as I’d like to. I mean, where did I think I was? Brew-clean?

Next time I will order a Paris.

On dit du fromage

The NYtimes published an article about the art of cheese description in that fare city which left me very nostalgic.

No, no, I am not hankering after a block of Vermont cheddar or a California style goat. What I miss are the accompanying words (even more so the accompanying words for buying wine–oh you loquacious Americans!). Almost every day I walk past at least one glorious expanse of beautiful aged milks of all shapes, sizes, textures, latitudes, ripeness, and so on. But which to choose? French cheese is cheaper in France than anywhere else, but it is still not inconsequential. More prohibitively than price, I hate to waste food. To add insult to injury I have had more than one misunderstandings in trying to say “un cent kilo” and ending up with “deux”–in a worst case scenario that’s nearly half a pound of unwanted dairy taking up valuable real estate

Before you remind me that I could just ask, let me tell you that I’ve tried.

Last Wednesday, high on the false sense of confidence gained from three consecutive hours of French lessons, I tried to ask the cheesemonger at the local outdoor market what cheese might go well with roasted vegetables.

He had no idea what I was talking about. So I trailed off and ordered a small piece of goat cheese, which was nothing more than unremarkable (I was happy to learn that although I am the only anglo-saxon in my French course, everyone likewise suffers from the Parisian tendency to respond in English to poor French. I thought they could tell I was American…but they just know that I am NOT French…bien sûr.).

Today, with an easier menu in mind, I asked a different cheesemonger at a different outdoor market for a recommendation for a goat cheese to have with salad. The thousand variables in these two cases should assure you that my French has probably not improved. Happily, she understood and recommended a fine choice. Though my salad is on tomorrow’s menu, I tested a taste and am well pleased with my purchase. For future reference (although the cheese must remain anonymous for the reason that I threw away its label without writing it down):

Le fromage anonyme a la texture d’un mozzarella di bufala, plus de structure que un chevre frais typique. Douce et doux. Le citron et l’herbe, d’accord, mais aussi subtilement différente. Peut-être vous devriez essayer encore? J’imagine il sera magnifique avec quelque chose de sucré comme de miel, des raisins du vin, ou une épaisseur de vinaigre balsamique de modena. Pour les jours où on espère pour le soleil.

Eee, Euh, Ooh

Today in French class we learned about aperture and where to put our tongues and lips.

I realize that might sound rather x-rated. However, it always makes me think of this:

Picture 37“But I can’t stand him!”

les seins

Today I stopped into the Musée Carnavalet, which happens to be nearby and free to the public. I followed signs straight up up up to the French Revolution. Once there I saw a lot of jacobins and, less expectedly, breasts.

The museums website doesn’t include photos of any of these (lurid?) paintings, but here’s a very well-known example of l’esprit des temps.


Otherwise, you will just have to trust me that this sort of imagery was all over the place (googling “french revolution breasts” was not a good idea…). There was even a rather complicated allegory with a six breasted lady. She seemed angry.

Something about liberty, equality, and fraternity does not go hand in hand with a modest top. Which explains a lot about college Greek societies I suppose.

Moi, je parle bellement un jour

Every other day I don’t speak English.

I didn’t notice this until recently, since I do plenty of writing and thinking in English (sometimes even reading). There is a whole anglo-saxon universe bouncing around in my head, but it rarely escapes my lips.

On the metro last evening I tried to tell a colleague that if someone else spoke English the way I spoke French, I doubt I would understand them. Remember, that is what I was intending to say…what came out was something like,

“If I hear one speaks English like I French I think this is stupid.”

Probably there was some sort of punctuation involved. However, with my constant pauses to recollect vocabulary, all commas, semi-colons, and periods are pretty much random as well.

When I consider the situation sympathetically, perhaps it’s more like beat poetry than the mutterings of an imbecile. During French class we were talking about French films we had seen. I mentioned Jean de Florette (staring the not yet extremely fat and greedy Gérard Depardieu), and the professor asked me to explain the plot.

“A man in the land. Rabbits, rabbits? Rabbits. He needs water.”

Probably after class everyone rushed to find a copy. Probably also the New York Times should hire me to write movie reviews.

Meanwhile, I need to study the subjunctive for next week.

un nœud, deux nœuds

I have begun taking a two week 30 hour intensive French class…well 28 since I have to go to a seminar on Friday.

But even better than learning French is learning about the French. Today the instructor explained the important signifiers of French dress. Namely social class and ties.

In French as in English there are white collar workers and there are blue (collar) workers. However, among the white collar workers there is even further differentiation. A white collar is not complete without a tie and one can “nouer une cravate” in a variety of ways. But be wary of your choice, since engineers use one knot while two knots are for bankers.

Unless it’s the other way around. I think I’ll be safe and go with three…that’s probably the norm for Americans living off of Canadian RA funding.