Le Livre des Huîtres

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

Month: June, 2013

les bons

Ahem. In reaction to the deep negativity of my last post several of you (I’m talking to you parents!) responded in defense of Paris. Of course, I was not planning to end things on such a bad note. Through a happy turn of events I have landed a spot in the Maple Leaf Lounge at CDG (there are three types of people in an airport lounge at 9:15 in the morning: those drinking coffee, those drinking wine, and those drinking hard liquor disguised as coffee). Thus with unlimited versus 15 minutes of wifi, I can take some time to tell you about the good things of Paris that I am sure to miss sooner of later (that, or watch the meerkat show on tv).

1. The butter. Last night I enjoyed a dessert of chocolate bread and beurre au barat. Though we ended up throwing more food than I’d like to admit in the trash, I took care to ingest every last bit of the good stuff. Even if it meant that my butter:bread ratio was more or less 1:1. I know good butter can be bought (and I know exactly where and which one, too) in New York, but it costs a pretty penny and I don’t think it is sparkled with those lovely crunchy salt crystals. One mystery of Parisian butter that I never quite understood is that the choice was always between sweet or half-salted. Does there exist a whole-salted? It would be very very salty (this meerkat show is very captivating–thank goodness the sound is off).

2. The history. As a resident of Paris the city became increasingly ugly. People and cars and confusing roundabouts and cigarette strewn sidewalks. Having visitors encouraged me to visit the more scenic corners and to look up. A Dominos pizza store (of which there are many–what???) might be housed on the bottom floor of a gorgeous late-19th century building. Though I eventually grew tired of running around and around and around the Île St-Louis, I was always delighted to read the dozens of plaques marking every other house (practically) on that tiny piece of real estate. The streets composed a discrete textbook of who’s who (my favorite explanation of a street, where normally they put the person’s dates and professions, was “Rue Bonaparte: Napoléon Bonaparte–oh thank you for the clarification).  The pharmacies were older than most American cities.

3. The libraries. Free research libraries are a wonderful thing. Quiet, clean, with friendly staff and a very decent selection of books. Oh and historic (see above).

4. The markets. Ugh! Now I am going to need to pick out my own apples and strawberries! Allez-y madame, un euro! Though these weren’t farmer’s markets by any stretch of the imagination, I do enjoy the social institution of outdoor food shopping. Plus, through my Ruche I was able to meet a farmer or two (you can tell the farmer’s by their fingernails). Finally, markets gave me the illusion of having halfway decent French, since I can understand food words.

5. The wine. So cheap, so mysterious, almost always drinkable and sometimes very good.

6. The bakeries. Though I never found my ideal bread (which perhaps does not exist), I did enjoy buying my ryes and boules. Yes, they smelled heavenly and symbolized the Parisian populace. I felt less like a foreigner when foreign guests necessitated I make one or two baguette purchases a day. Especially those at noon or in the early evening, when I line might form out the door. And when I felt like treating myself, not much beats a butter croissant for more or less 1 euro (see #1).

7. The size. I probably used public transit in Paris about 20 times all together and took a taxi once. The city lends itself to the pedestrian (in square kilometers, if not traffic laws), and I will miss that.

8. The adventure of shopping for cheese. My cheese success was hit or miss, but it sure was fun bringing home something new and different. (The meerkats are facing off with an owl!). Specialty shops in France aren’t just for the well-to-do or food obsessed, they’re for everyone. If you bought a tiny and inexpensive cheese (hello, rocomador), no one thought worse of you. Well, as long as you gave exact change.

9. The garbage workers. I don’t know how many people it took to clean the streets of Paris (pretty much on a 24 hour schedule), but those men and women in bright green sure put in a huge amount of effort. They were also very friendly when I ran past them early in the morning. Never a rude comment and sometimes a good natured bonjour or bonne courage. I also appreciated their amusing truck advertisements, which pictured refuse workers materializing out of nowhere to hose down dog poop or catch a plastic bag. I imagine that if the visitors and inhabitants of Paris were more diligent about not throwing their trash every which way (and maybe composting?), the city would sparkle.

10. This blog. Thank you all for the dedicated reading, the lovely comments and the helpful suggestions. Without this blog, I would never have gone to the Puces (Clignancourt Flea Market) which housed a varying assortment of bric-a-brac including a disturbing taxidermied head of a bird on the body of a cat, some pretty fantastic prints of advertisements and illustrations, mostly hideous clothes, and enormous furniture pieces. I think I liked the laissez-faire vendors best of all as they sat reading paperback novels, greeting old friends, and generally ignoring the rest of us tourists. And knowing that I had an audience encouraged me (from time to time) to do things I might not ordinarily do (like stop studying and leave the house!). I will be back in Paris from time to time, but most likely will be switching my writing energies elsewhere. Where, exactly? I will let you know.

Gros bisous!

 

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la mauvaise

Tomorrow I leave Paris. That was fast. As an appropriate send-off here comes a two (or three?) part series of Paris associated lists. First, the ten bad things I shall not miss about Paris, a.k.a. why I am happy to go. Ahem, I’m afraid by it’s nature this isn’t the most upbeat of posts–except that all the below are coming to an end (more or less).

1. The weather. Yes, you have heard me complain often enough. And, yes, this means that I am in fact looking forward to thunderstorms in sticky 90 degree weather. But it’s the end of June. I am wearing blue jeans and a scarf and carrying around an umbrella. Plus, I have made a solemn vow never to complain about heat (this was made in Vancouver, and has held good since).

2. The cigarettes. Although, who knows, maybe I will start to crave a second hand nicotine high?

3. The homeless problem. I didn’t write very much about this issue of Paris in part because I found it depressing and disturbing. In short, there are a lot of people living on the streets of Paris and asking (with varying shades of politeness and desperation) for money.

4. The isolation. This was in part due to my professional situation, in part due to my language inabilities, and in part due to my rather stay-at-home personality.

5. The crowds. Please don’t tell me that I am moving to a city with 7 times more people.

6. The street stenches and trash. Though the garbage is collected daily, Paris is certainly the smelliest city I have ever lived in and early morning runs revealed obscene amount of refuse often unseen by later risers.

7. The pigeons (and the people who feed them).

8. The teenagers. Why are they never in school? On the other hand, the younger Parisian children are absolutely charming and adorable.

9. The time difference. Very difficult to keep in touch with you Californians nine hours away.

10. The tap water. I look forward to re-hydrating with the deliciousness that makes bagels taste so good (I know, of course, that this is not the reason why bagels taste good since bread in Paris can be quite lovely and the tap water is at best mediocre and at worst undrinkable).

l’été

Paris opens the summer with a festival of music at every other bar and street corner.

Strikingly, most of the singing was en anglais. Expectedly, the quality was varying. I was very impressed by the amount of outdoor grilling (the sky was hazy with smoke) and the duration of the drum line (we walked away after watching for ten minutes with no end in sight). The event seemed very family friendly, although the crowd that kept the party going until my 7 AM run was not accompanied by youngsters.

As this is Paris there was plenty of garbage. We saw children fighting over empty plastic plates. Some children will fight over anything that another one of them wants.

I suspect some of that merry making included rain dancing, since the summer so far can best be described as gloomy. The faintest hint of sunshine has us all racing out of doors (with an umbrella because who knows how long it will hold). If you don’t believe in climate change, please keep those ideas to yourself. The Parisians are angry. Summers were once sunny.

Long long hours of daylight though. We go to bed later and later, and I need to practice my naps to stay halfway coherent through the day.

Or else it’s all gobbledygook.

au revoir les fromages

Two nights ago my mother said, remember next time that the cheese place has a limited sheep’s milk selection. To which I replied with grave solemnity that, I am sorry to be the one to tell you this, there might not be a next time. By which I meant, our ample supply of cheese would probably last until Tuesday–our last day in Paris.

Oh, but it was a grand way to go.

I do not pretend to be a sage of cheese courses, but I will go out on a limb to recommend a general rule of thumb would be to represent as many animals and textures as possible. With that in mind, three cheeses can fit the bill quite nicely.

Food shopping with my mother is a breeze unless she says, you choose, because I know she knows better.

Not so long ago we had been waxing poetically of the wedding cheese–that is, the cheese that stole all our hearts at my cousin’s wedding last September. Fittingly, the cheese is called la tentation, and it is probably because it was so aptly named that I remembered all these months later.

Lo! Amongst the other soft cow’s milk there it sat quivering to break free of its feeble wooden crate and when we asked madame (one of the co-owners) for it she inquired whether we wanted it more firm or more creamy.

I do not think I need to answer that question for you, dear reader. Then she gently poked the top of each cheese twice and chose the creamiest of all. La tentation is made by the same geniuses who make St Nectaire, but it is twice as much cream. Goodness gracious.

Next, a brebis. Since our most recent soft sheep’s milk had looked unctuous on the outside but been instead amonious on the inside, whereas our most recent aged sheep had made us all wish to go immediately to its hometown of Corsica (as if Napoleon was not enough). Because of all that we decided on an aged (but not the oldest, which my mother knew was commonly available back in the states) sheep from the Pyrenees. Bringing it home, the scent was suspiciously pungent, which prompted my mother’s opening comment. However, the worries were ill founded as this cheese was absolutely pleasant.

Finally, a goat. There were many chevres to choose from of all sorts of shapes and vintages. We ended up with a plateau of sorts, displayed in an out of doors glass case which rose up with the press of a button. Like my favorite goat cheeses, this one boasted two tints, a bright white in the centre and around the edges a beiger (apparently not a word) tone. The consistency lay between firm and creamy. Something equally at home crumbled in a salad or spread on a tartine.

All of them raw and full of things guaranteed to satisfy each step in the digestive system. With a fig filled fruit bowl…heaven can wait.

l’échange de parapluie

What with all of Monday’s feasting, it wasn’t until we were halfway home (uphill) from Angelina that my mother realized she had left her umbrella there. Since the weather report forecasted showers aplenty, this was a serious matter indeed.

Only two days later I was hoping my mother had taken shelter in the rough weather when she burst dripping through the door (or rather struggled with the key and walked in–it is a difficult door to unlock.) Wisely, she had purchased a new umbrella on her way home.

And then there was one.

The next day my mother went to the Louvre, which is just across the way from Angelina. She stopped in and inquired (in French so I am told) after her parapluie. The host brought forth about twenty umbrellas somewhat in accord with her description, but unlike Goldilock’s porridge and Cinderella’s glass slippers, none were exactly right.

With admirable honesty, my mother confessed that these were not her umbrellas. To which the host replied, “Choisissez, madame.”

And then there were two.

lundi

(I wrote this post yesterday, but in a late night exhaustion unsuccessfully published it. So it goes.)

On Sunday mornings around 11 o’clock, I begin to freak out a little bit knowing that the grocery stores will soon be closed and the food markets wont open until Tuesday. Oh my goodness! I worry silently, will there be enough to eat?

The answer to this question is of course always yes.

Last Monday, as I stood in the Jardin des Plantes beside a damp bench wearing a damper dress (if only it had been a dapper dress) and eating a leftover spanikopita, my parents were heading down to Aux Tonneaux des Halles.

For those of you who do not read this blog assiduously (now is the time to start), that particular restaurant is where my sister and I enjoyed heartwrenching steak, frîtes, and broken bones. Our visit was a father sponsored expedition to suss out red meat and fried potato quality. According to my expert sister’s assessment, the place passed with flying colors.

Hence, my father and mother happily hurried down to Madeleine approved meat, only to find (despite the fact that they are open Monday nights and various websites state they are only closed on Sunday evenings) that there was no Monday lunch service. They found another spot nearby where allegedly the steak was perfectly correct, but no one shed a single tear.

Hot chocolate, which had seemed like a very good idea in the 9 o’clock thunderstorm turned out to be a rather unappealing decision under the blazing afternoon sun. Nevertheless, that is where we all met up and enjoyed a variety of other sweets better suited to tropical weather.

Dinner was no famine either. I managed to make enough more or less presentable though asymmetrical buckwheat crêpes for a three person meal. Meanwhile, my parents charmed the neighborhood cheese monger, wine shop owner, and produce vendor. Now might be a good time to tell you that my cheese lady and I have unofficially gone our separate ways. It was the last tomme de savoie and the fact that the market is now about 4 miles from home.

Anyway, greener pastures up here in the ninth along with a pretty funky pear cider, we managed to fill our bellies just enough.

And brushed our teeth and went to bed.

les pommes de terre et la politesse

Though my father does not approve of me saying so, potatoes are not my cup of tea.

You see, unlike the FDA, I do not consider potatoes as vegetables. To me, they are more of a starch. And my list of preferred starches only reaches potatoes towards the very very end. In fact, probably, last of all.

I blame Scotland, where each meal contained potatoes (and sometimes more than one style–you know, in case you want chips inside your jacket potato on a bed of mash.)

That said, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with potato chips is a comforting meal indeed.

Over compared notes this evening, my mother and I realized that while she almost always gets a vegetable side dish at Parisian restaurants, I almost always do not (with the exceptions of (A) ordering a salad as my main dish or (B) being in the presence of my mother’s vegetable magnetism). A plate of white or cream colored fish is not upset by the introduction of green to the plate, but is instead complimented by rice, potatoes, or a bread basket.

That said, I am not a bad guest and will cheerfully finish what is put in front of me without complaint. Secretly, I might even enjoy the excuse to pig out (pigs are very fond of tubers), but you’ll have to ask Freud about that.

le lave-vaisselle

Contrary to Hollywood’s portrayal, many parisien apartments are tiny.

Nevertheless, they manage to squeeze in that all important modern day appliance–the dishwasher.

Never you mind that there is no counter space in the kitchen. That pots are piled precariously on top of pans and that there is only flatware enough for four people anyways. Please ignore the fact that Paris water is hard and may calcify your glasses (or your skin). Oh, and the fact that the dishwasher may take several hours to run a load–c’est normale!

That said, our dishwasher currently stocks an ever growing supply of plastic bags to be reused at future dates.

The washing machine on the other hand…

les strates

In the past few days I have been deeply invested in The Great Devonian Controversy.

Very roughly, it’s about the history of geology in Britain during the first half of the nineteenth century. Since I know nothing of this science, nor of the resolution of the controversy, the plot unfolds with great suspense (so I am not even going to read that wikipedia link above). I am excited to find out how the earth shaped up after all.

Geology, so I’m told, goes somewhat hand in hand with meteorology, which in turn tells me what to wear in the morning.

The Bay Area, despite a substantial temperature range on a daily basis, is more or less predictable. In the summer it will be dry, in the evening it will be cool, and the hottest time of day will be around 3ish. The fog rolls in–it does not race.

In the summer months, Paris and New York share an abundance of scantily clad persons and sudden thunderstorms. Dressing in layers is good preparation for a cool morning, a warm afternoon, and a cool evening. But torrential downpours and 80 degree afternoons defy the cleverest of modeuses.

Thus I found myself thoroughly drenched (and worse, the pages of my library book did not escape unscathed) sitting in a puddle of my own making at a 10 o’clock conference, but happily bone dry five hours later thanks to a well situated park bench. In retrospect, the best course of action probably would have been to bring an entire change of clothes and a couple plastic bags for storing the unusable ones. That or join the ranks of the rain waiters who hover under awnings and elevated tracks, assuming the conditions will improve eventually.

Or invest in a stillsuit. Who needs a carafe d’eau? Not Fremen.

des fraises

For fraises fraîches you can’t do much better than a pot on the windowsill.

The wintery spring seemed to promise a crop of zero, and the taxi driver who helped transport my pot and luggage from one apartment to another surely had suspicions of what’s the point.

Ah, but who’s laughing now that there are five thoroughly red berries alive and within hand’s reach?

Not me, unfortunately, because the less than amusing punch line is that the one strawberry I’ve had so far was…okay. Very very cute, yes, but as I am an eater more than a painter of nature mort (or more literally, in this case, nature vivante), looks don’t count for much.

However, as this evening’s dessert proved, there is nothing a little (or a lot) of fat (crème fraîche) and a little sugar can’t fix.

Ha!