Le Livre des Huîtres

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

Month: May, 2013


Three may be considered a crowd, but not when it comes to a 750 mL bottle of wine. In that case three seems to be the perfect number so that no one suffers from deprivation and no one stumbles home (unless the two happen to be my sister and I after one of us has eaten a steak–then we’d like a whole bottle, please).

I’d also venture to say (though surely at the risk of losing public support) that three is also a good number for dessert sharing. This can also help avoid the unfortunate, infinitesimal sliver scenario where dessert approaches, but never reaches, the limit of being finished.

Ghosts of departed desserts–Bishop Berkeley would be appalled.


compter à Paris

Today I went for a walk that went: nine, two, one, four, five.

And on the way back: five, six, one, two, nine.

God help the poor Parisian toddlers who are told that three comes before four, but then walk from three to ten with nary a four in sight. And after 20 comes les banlieus.

Even if you remain in a single arrondissement, there is the strange enumeration where address 11 may be infinitely distant from 42. On one side of the street are odd numbers in the double digits and on the other are even numbers in the triple digits. And then the street changes name and we begin again.

Bonne chance!

le son du silence

This new fourth floor (5th American style, where we don’t count zero) apartment is quiet.

That is, except for the tiny fridge which goes into a steady buzz for an indeterminate interval after being opened…sometimes.

Oh, and when other people run showers or wash dishes.

There is also a primary school next door from which the shouts of happy screaming children echo every hour or so from 8 to 17h.

Nearby vacuuming.

Most bizarrely, my new coloc and I could not decide whose stomach was growling. Each one claiming the strange guttural whines were our own.

And conversations, en anglais…vraiment bizarre!

la lumière

Despite Disney’s powerful storytelling and character development. Lumière is actually feminine.

LumiereWhen I first moved to San Francisco, I had a room in an apartment in the Sunset District, a designation apparently bestowed by a clever real estate agent (but not quite so clever as the one who baptized the “tender nob”) to disguise the sun’s perpetual absence in that part of town. Then, as now, I was prone to taking long walks, and one such long walk led me up into Noe Valley. Like no other city I have ever seen, San Francisco boasts the remarkable ability to sustain diverse micro-climates within 49 square miles. Suddenly, a gloomy 55 degree day became a cheery 70 degree afternoon. Everything looks better in the sunlight.

I imagine few of us enjoy the actual process of moving. At best it is a drag, at worst it involves sticking your head in the oven along with caustic chemicals to try to scrape up years of accumulated grease. However, having moved can be quite nice. Especially if the transition is from a room where electricity is mandatory to vision to one where only now at 9:22 pm am I beginning to consider turning on a lamp.

We describe bad apartments as holes, caves, cells, and so on–which makes me wonder whether a window or two might solve the problem entirely. One never hears complaints about a home having too much daylight or being too quiet. And if the 2007 best baguette prize winner is just down the block (with #6 and 8 from this year in close vicinity), well…perhaps if that doesn’t make lugging a suitcase up to the 4th floor worthwhile, then I don’t know what does.

l’entêtement ou le ténacité

How about an allegory?

Yesterday, after I bought a sheep cheese (my choice) and a goat cheese (cheese lady’s choice–much more delicious), my cheese lady added a small chocolate cake to the bag, gratuit. Happily surprised, I made plans for an afternoon tea. But upon arriving home and unpacking my wares, I could not resist a small pre-lunch bite.

The frosting was a nice ganache covering an unfortunately dry cake. Oh well, I thought, I will just eat the frosting.

Returning to my treat a little later, I noticed a new cream colored layer intermingled with the cake part. To my delight, this cake was in fact the French version of a black bottom cupcake–one of my favorites. Yet, had I not continued trying, I would never have experienced the delicious layers of cheese and chocolate that made the cake’s texture completely unproblematic.

And had I not continued trying to speak French I wouldn’t have earned the small victory today in someone concluding I was German (after I said all of “Bonjour, 115”)–I think this means improvement.

And if I wasn’t trying to come up with a third example here (since that looks more like a pattern and less like two anomalies) I wouldn’t have taken a brief walk around the block to see Paris in the golden evening light. The sun, one hopes, is trying to be more present these days.

Thus, with all due deference to Yoda, I’d like to recommend trying and trying and trying again–call it obstinate or stubborn, sometimes it’s necessary.

Je suis perdue

When I take a wrong turn in a US city, I usually am able to get back on track by following the general compass directions. Streets tend to run in tourist friendly straight lines, so a premature left can be compensated for along a parallel street.

When this happens in Paris, the best advice, which I do not always take, is to turn around and get back on the original plan. Streets that might seem to be vertical slowly slope to the right until you find yourself back to where you started. The Marais, which survived the Hausmannian reconstruction almost intact, is particularly tricky to navigate. I have learned to completely ignore any so-called intuition or sense of direction, and instead stick to what I know works or a map.

That said, I have never been desperately lost in Paris, nor in any city that I can recall. I have been annoyingly lost and surprisingly lost, but not to the point of seriously doubting I will ever find my way. This has happened in the countryside, which is why I tend to avoid it.

The other day I was vaguely lost when a man asked me if I lived here. He told me where he was going and showed me his map–he was only a block or two from his destination, and I took the opportunity to orient myself as well. We departed, both more informed about where we were going.

Last night I found my way to the Odéon quite easily, found my seat in the front row (which turned out to be a slightly messy choice), and even found the program quite easy to understand.

Then Le Misanthrope began, and I was utterly lost. Had I been entertaining any illusions that I “understood” French, these were dashed within the first minute. I later learned that this particular Molière piece is unusual–more about character development than plot AND devoid of physical humor (so I guess I cannot yet jump to my premature conclusion that Shakespeare is so much easier–I developed a very plausible hypothesis during some of the particularly wordy scenes). Both qualities rather distressing for a FLE like myself. Reading the plot online afterward I was completely surprised to learn who had been lusting after whom.

I believe, nevertheless, it was well-executed. The actors projected with heroic spit, and the main character was thoroughly drenched in sweat after the opening scene. There was a fantastic (wordless) miming part set to very fast classical music where the violins did the speaking. Probably the only point in the play where I was on equal footing with the rest of the audience.

If you have never been to a play in Paris, I give you fair warning that you must be prepared to clap for a good long time at the end. The actors leave, they return, they leave, they return with backstage people, they leave, they return with other backstage people, they leave, they return with any of the backstage people who have not managed to escape offstage in time. People shout bravo! It is the spectators turn to perform, and they do so mightily.

les reniflements

On the list of loud noises in quiet spaces, sniffling in a library ranks way up there.

I had a mortifying experience a few months back at the Bibliothèque de l’Histoire de la Ville de Paris where a man across the desk angrily offered me a tissue. Ever since then I have carefully stuffed all my pockets with toilet paper, paper towels, napkins, receipts, really anything remotely absorbent. However, since these assorted paper products are almost always half-used there was nothing I could do to help or shame the woman across from me at the Bibliothèque nationale de France today who was not only in need of a nose blow, but was also sneezing (it’s like a very mild version of The Name of the Rose, where instead of dying you will just come down with a head cold).

Then the woman next to me began flipping pages rapidly. And this loud swat swat swat was nothing compared to a man a few tables away who fell off his chair.

People rushed over and helped him up. He seemed to be okay, and I wonder if perhaps he had fallen asleep. A nearly impossible feat with all that ruckus!

la colère

To paraphrase Mark Twain:

The coldest winter I have ever spent was a May in Paris.

I write to you wearing mukluks, two pairs of socks, two sweaters, a scarf, and a wool blanket draped over my shoulders. I am brewing a cup of chai tea to warm my insides too.

If you have spoken to me lately, then you know that I am foot stomping fist shaking angry about the weather. Perhaps you have tried to calm me down, this is nothing to get upset over, soon you’ll be in a full fledged New York July.

But I think it’s okay to be irrationally mad every so often. Just like it’s okay to be sad and it’s okay to be happy. Part of the human experience.

What makes me even more furious then steady rain and gray skies is a certain song featuring a tropical drink. The other day in a perfectly innocent context the conversation turned to piña coladas. To which I gave a very long winded explanation that I would probably only want a piña colada if I was at a beach, it was hot, I was in need of electrolytes, and the food options were mediocre. That was the last word on the subject, but ever since then I have been plagued by Jimmy Buffet.

I hate this song so much! What is this guy’s problem? Why are the lyrics so catchy? In the alternative version I make up in my head (that is tuneless and rhymeless) his “lady” kicks him out since he has become obese from tropical drink indulgence while she has become svelte from practicing yoga. As he steps outside carrying his bag of clothes a downpour begins. Now who likes getting caught in the rain, mister?


A better strategy for dealing with anger than yelling at fictional characters is to exercise. Lately, I have been doing some core strengthening every other evening and it is really very soothing. For one, I am instantly warmed up. For two, the strategy of these various exercises seems mostly based around the principle of almost but not quite falling over and counting at the same time. This requires focus, which happily crowds out concerns over whether it will rain again tomorrow.

So there am I, red faced and stumbling over while trying not to think of certain combinations of coconuts and pineapples. To quote Mark Twain precisely:

Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.

Mozart et…ravioles?

My friend Jesse sent me an article about a secret supper club in Manhattan founded in the glorious heyday of the well-heeled nineteenth century by the one and only Edward Elmer Potter. It is called the Zodiac Club, and none of us will ever belong.

In transcribing an 1887 menu, the article’s author points out that up through the 1960s Italian foods were translated into French to seem fancier. Hence, ravioli became ravioles.

The series of holidays that close down libraries and universities in France throughout the month of May are finally over. This also means a return to construction in my apartment building.

Thump! thump! thump! goes the ceiling.

Since I spend my research hours in the early nineteenth century, I think it’s only prudent to cover up the background noises with period music. I should probably consult some historians of music on this point, but assuming fads were not so quick to change I imagine Mozart was still a popular choice by 1817 (but maybe I should really be checking out this new kid on the block called Beethoven…). They also say that Mozart helps with learning math–a gamble I am certainly willing to take.

Pardon? you say in your best French accent (so many of my pardon?s receive a response en anglais), but what do ravioli and Mozart have to do with one another?

This is exactly what I thought this afternoon when I saw an advertisement on a billboard that read something like, If Mozart made ravioli, we would make them better.


I can’t tell if this is a brilliant use of logic (all my children are sleeping) or a terrible one  (if the global temperature is rising how come it’s so cold in Paris).

To which Mozart replied, if ravioli played wrote symphonies, I would eat them.


Levure chimique

It’s a well known story that Paris cafés generally serve bad coffee.  Like any good French rule (and unlike good mathematics) there are numerous exceptions. Every arrondissement has one or several cafés boasting brews as good as anything in Italy (or Brew-kleen, as they say).

Since I begin the day with a café au piston, and since I exhausted my American imported supply a long time ago, I make my trek to recommended locales where I fork over large sums of money to taste things like apples and milk chocolate at breakfast-time (the apple part is redundant since I almost always eat a real one first thing in the morning).

Just between you and I though, it’s a complete sham. I drown my coffee in warm milk and merrily enjoy the stuff they serve at conferences (which judging by the looks of the pastries, is absolutely the bottom of the barrel).

But though I could probably be satisfied with instant granules and though I finish my day with dangerously cheap wine, I do not lack taste all together. Which brings me to baking powder.

Many grocery stores in France (and perhaps Europe in general?) do not stock baking soda. This is (my theory) why the chewiness of American cookies makes them so American. Baking powder, on the other hand, is readily available and often packaged like yeast in small envelopes. I bought a packet of 10 shortly after moving here to make cake. The cake tasted slightly off, and I thought perhaps I had misjudged the recipe (since there aren’t teaspoons and tablespoons in the precise sense around here). However, last night’s pancake disaster confirmed that actually, no, this baking powder is noxious.

How noxious?

Well! After spending what felt like eternity flipping very small pancakes (the batter was like division dumplings) to eat with my boullabaisish soup for dinner over the next few nights, this morning I decided to throw them out. (I never throw food away. Honestly, I have slogged through terrible dishes of soggy sautéed radish greens because they are “edible”. On a similar note, I only just yesterday finally replaced the laundry detergent that I detested but was determined to use up.) Having wrestled a lot with this decision, I will spare you the details of the heaps of self-justification provided with before tossing the lot. Afterward, though, I knew I had made the right decision since the tupperware they had formerly occupied smelled like a chemistry lab.

I must note though, parenthetically, that the last chemistry class that I took was in high school where we made ice cream and peanut brittle (and I have a scar to prove it).