Le Livre des Huîtres

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

Month: February, 2013

pas aussi simple que 1, 2, 3

You might have a list making problem when:

1. You are extremely frustrated when Skype turns (A) (B) (C) into emoticons, thus rendering alphabetical subheadings nonsensical.

2. When told by your thesis director that you should stop making lists you respond by nodding in agreement, going to a café(*), and making a list.

3. The foregoing events in item (2) were preplanned on a to do list.

(*) Ten Belles, for a 4 euro cappuccino. Delicious, yes. But first of all I have poor taste in coffee as evidenced by my morning ritual of equal parts chicory coffee and hot milk, secondly it was four euros, and finally the staff began talking distractingly in English so not the best list making working environment.


Frontières disciplinaires

There are certain occupations, like journalism or psychology, where one is specifically instructed not to become too attached to ones subjects.

Then there are other occupations, like microbiology and waste management, where professional boundaries are of little concern or speculation.

And then there is history, which falls somewhere in the middle.

I know you know I spend nearly all of my time reading the words of dead people. And though the subject is that pinnacle of objectivity–mathematics–the personalities nevertheless begin to seep in.

So while I don’t think of “my guys” as friends (yet), if I were to see one of them in the street I might invite him over for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. They all seem pretty heartily in need of some cheering up. Especially as the first empire crashed and the Bourbon restoration (not nearly as nice as a Bourbon restaurant) picked up. Most of these mathematicians were also engineers for which Napoleonic expansion signified the boon years (I am grossly generalizing). Fortunately, mathematics was a fairly politically neutral discipline, but that didn’t mean everyone escaped unscathed. As time travel hasn’t quite reached acceptable standards yet, my primary interactions are of the reading and commenting sort. Late at night I find myself scolding long-winded authors who never quite get to the point or chastising too brief authors who think they’re so clever. Since the early nineteenth century initiated an explosion in academic journals, the rules for publications weren’t quite codified. There are footnoted footnotes and author introductions that warn “these are some hasty notes I wrote down in moments of leisure or insomnia.”

Exceptional self-advertisement, that.

Le Bois Sacré

Yesterday at the French conversation atelier in the Bibliothèque Pompidou, “we discussed” (i.e. formed together a jumble of basic vocabulary words and long pauses) advertisements.

As an exercise the teacher handed out small slips of paper with the logos of international products with French names on them. One girl got a rectangle with “Le Bois Sacré” on it.

I’m afraid the internet wont even help you with this one.

As the only American, the teacher seemed surprised that I didn’t know…um, construction material for churches? I guessed.

Not even close. Le Bois Sacré is someone’s absurdist translation of Hollywood (the holy wood), a brand of chewing gum brought over by Americans after WWII. A quick internet search turned up no such translated variation, but I will henceforth scan the grocery aisles for this infallible and breath freshening product.



Manifesto anniversaire

Yesterday marked the 165th birthday of The Communist Manifesto, a book that made beards cool again.

220px-EngelsGo long like Engels!

Karl_Marx_001Or wide like Marx!

I live right off the Rue Francs-Bourgeois (named after people too poor to pay taxes–in the 15th century), so I find myself thinking about the bourgeois (and wishing I knew how to spell it) quite a bit. Like being called a hipster, the label of bourgeois, though strictly speaking is not an insult is never considered a compliment. While most of us are more or less capitalists, and some of us are very proudly so, no one would self-describe in a term that has come to insinuate shallow materialist with unachievable social aspirations (and that’s not even getting into the exploitation bits). There is a store on Rue Francs-Bourgeois called “Bourgeois”–this makes sense, but I will never shop there (also, the clothes are ugly). Why did those Germans want to ruin a perfectly decent French word? Couldn’t they have drawn from Deutsch? Unlike French, Germans are making new words all the time, as in eineneuesdeutschwort (a new German word I just invented). Couldn’t they have spared one good word to be turned bad? The French vocabulary needs all the help it can get (though as an FLE student, I’d certainly appreciate a smaller palette). Why just today at the library I learned that Playboy is called “Les Garçons Jouent”–sounds like a magazine about Monopoly, Clue, and Guess Who? (which I guess you could say is vaguely also the subject matter for the American version).

And a final word of advice, if you want to start a movement choose a last name with some pizzazz, I’ve never met an Engelsist.


1880s vs 1980s

I’m afraid this post has nothing to do with Paris except I saw a painting at the Musée d’Orsay:16_Snapshots2Shortly before seeing that I read this and then watched this.

From which I conclude that the span of 100 years lead to an increase in clothes and a decrease in dolphins (difficult to see in lower right hand corner of painting).

les livres en papier

As efficient and convenient as digital reading devices might be, books have several advantages (here’s one, they made 10 of these films two of which have old friends of mine in them (unfortunately not including Daniel Handler)…small world.).

Parisians enjoy books made of paper, and as they are extremely fashionable people I can see why. A small plastic rectangle makes a very boring statement: “I have some money and I am reading something.” Whereas REAL books have covers, or even more intriguingly–no covers, which face away from the reader and announce their intentions to the outside world.

I suppose anonymity is good if you like to read trashy romance novels. Once I decided not to check out Wide Sargasso Sea from the library because it was dressed like a romance novel. I still have not read it. However, not being able to show off intellectual prowess takes away 99.9999% of the point of reading Heidegger (unsurprisingly, not available in kindle form).

Why just this afternoon I checked out The Philosophy of Space & Time from the library. Whether or not this proves valuable for my thesis, I am certainly going to look very very interesting while reading it.


en défense de la célibataire

Regardless of the problem, one may find a fruitful solution in throwing money at it. Really. My Sunday afternoons reached a new low two weeks ago when I spent 45 minutes waiting in line outside for the Pompidou library only to have finished my book right before entering. As I trudged home with numb fingers, I resolved to invest heavily in café attendance for all Sundays hence.

Yet even this frankly uncharacteristic determination to spare no expense did not lead to a clear cut solution. I blame the Sunday problem on Brunch, which ranks up there on my list of despised practices along with leaf blowing and hogging the pole on the subway.

While weekdays witness spades of laptop users merrily sucking up free wi-fi, come weekends cafés are bulging with eaters of the frankenstein meal which is neither breakfast nor lunch and may be undertaken any time from dawn until dusk. I decided thus to be less intrusive and only bring along some notes to write (by hand). Even so, the pickings were slim. But after reading a review that the hot chocolate at Jacques Genin was too thick, I knew I had to go there and try it.

First, let me tell you the chocolat chaud traditionnel was delicious and far too indulgent as it came accompanied by a very small glass of water and two chocolate bonbons. The chocolate mint one was particularly revelatory being more chocolate then mint than chocolate mint. Happily it was served in a tall narrow teapot so that one could serve exactly the right amount and maximize the optimal chocolate sipping temperature. Reviews had also faulted the service, which on this occasion was flawlessly attentive without being intrusive or at all pushy. Plus the servers spoke to me in French, which I appreciate mightily.

Anyway, there I was jotting notes for a job application that I will probably put off until tomorrow and unintentionally eavesdropping on the cacophony of English that rebounded from the nearby tables. The two American girls discussed their respective travel blogs and flashed their fancy cameras at their diminishing tray of sweets while the British four-top was dominated by an opinionated young art student who complained of the difficulty of achieving good grades when one had to be creative whereas in maths there was only one right answer.

It is an oft and apt said phrase:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

And I couldn’t help but nod in single smugness.

P.S. Except as the Americans were leaving I asked the one who had mentioned having a favorite éclair shop, which one it was explaining that my sister was visiting who likes them very much and she gave me her BLOG CARD! Clearly, I am behind the times as an American girl living in Paris–although perhaps more patriotic to hand out a single leaf of cavolo nero.

La Actuelle Vague

Remember the sixties?

I don’t. And before you remind me that I wasn’t actually alive during the sixties, let me interject that I remember the 1820’s very very well.

I was thinking about La Nouvelle Vague while walking through the older vague also known as French turn of the 19th into 20th century art at the Musée d’Orsay this evening. Since I spend most of my time thinking about history (and food), the paintings made me wonder what people at the time would have thought of them (and what the artists were eating).

While it’s easy to be empathetic to past shock and outrage over heliocentrism or non-Euclidean geometry or the uncertainty principle. I can’t quite put myself in the shoes of those who found pretty pictures offensive. Especially because impressionism and abstract art seems much more representative of my current life than say realism. Between French, mathematics, and extreme nearsightedness, I only ever have a blurred sense of what’s going on. So with all this opportunity for misunderstanding, I’ve learned to watch for the social cues of others, in order to respond appropriately. Are we laughing now? Clapping? Packing our bags to go? Picking our noses?

So if the artist says this is a nude descending a staircase, I will nod politely and step aside to let that individual continue on his or her naked way.


Du pain

There used to be un Musée du Pain in Paris. Hélas, no more!

Thankfully  there are still many purveyors of pain, or rather, boulangeries. More apt to call them baguetteries here since the boule shape is less prominent among les Parisiens. My preferred shape tends to be the pavé–but pavérie sounds a bit too misérable, non?

To be perfectly frank, if baguettes aren’t your bag(uette), then Paris offers a less than spectacular array. There is a good historic reason for the predominance of airy white bread over its dark dense alternative and like all historical reasons it can be traced back to World War II (which can be traced to WWI which can be traced to the Franco-Prussian war which can be traced to the difference between culture and civilisation). As a case in point, there are very serious awards for best baguette every year in Paris. But no prizes are distributed for best vaguely healthy looking bread perhaps with seeds or dried fruit, which is what I tend to buy. Though I haven’t experimented on a very large subset, I have been disappointed with purchases of somewhat-whole-wheat boules that do not live up to the sourdough miracle of the Bay Area’s Tartine or Preston. Every other week I buy a quarter miche of Poîlane, which is just so-so fresh, pretty delicious toasted (with salted butter, mind you), and amazing as croutons.

Someday soon I will venture to the 17th or 19th to try the wares of Veronique Mauclerc, who is not only one of the few female bread bakers in Paris (the world?) but also uses one of the few wood fired ovens in Paris and no yeast, only natural levain. If only they would legalize gay marriage here…

On another note, I found fresh yeast at my organic grocery store. It’s nearly impossible to obtain in the states, and I recall making some very tasty Dinkelbrot with it while in Germany. But at the cost of 1 euro per cube, this yeast would need to be destined for something very un-French like pizza, bagels, or pizza-bagels.


Despite the best efforts of l’Académie française, some mots anglais have crept into the Gallic dialect. Though “cool” “business” and “shopping” all have legitimate French equivalents, you are just as likely to hear the English version accompanied by an appropriate article and accent.

Other concepts are just so foreign that it’s English or nothing. Take, for example, one of the things I miss most about living stateside (or in Vancouver): le compost. Paris throws everything in the trash, except cigarette butts, which is quickly collected before any potential rat problems might emerge. In the Bay Area and Vancouver composting is effortless. Just put your food scraps in the appropriate bin and let the city figure out the mucky details (in San Francisco this even includes take out Chinese containers!). In New York a bit more effort is required. Compost is collected at some farmer’s markets. So I spent my three years in Brooklyn (and all subsequent trips home) with a freezer full of orange peels, peach pits, squash guts, and moldy tortillas. Then, once a week, I would schlep this frozen garbage to Union Square or Fort Greene Park and dump it into bins alongside other self-righteous conservatives. En route, I would imagine the bizarre ensuing scene should someone try to steal my bag.

Central Park is now the safest precinct in the five boroughs and New York is no longer the gritty hotbed of crime that it represented in all eighties literature and film. On the other hand, les pickpockets are still (allegedly) a reality in le Paris. And while my bag on le métro this morning did contain two macbook airs, they were accompanied by a bag of chicken bones. Happily, (and perhaps in part due to my very effective crime prevention strategy) all contents made it safely back to my apartment where some of them were put into a pot of boiling water for a few hours.

As the Americans might say, “Bon Appétit!”