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Archive for January, 2010

In January, the French celebrate the end of the holiday season with a special and très delicieuse dessert called la Galette des Rois.  Traditionally, this Kings’ Cake is supposed to be eaten on the day of the Epiphany to fete the tardy arrival of the three kings.  However, it seems like the cake is eaten all month, and it’s a great pretext to get together with friends or simply to indulge in a confection that resembles a giant round croissant, with flaky buttery crust, and a filling called frangipane, or almond paste.  We’ve partaken of the galette three times since our arrival on January 11, which probably would qualify as a very modest consumption rate.

Each galette comes with a fève, some sort of little figurine in porcelain or plastic, which is hidden inside the cake, and a paper folded-up crown (reminiscent of the ones you would get at Burger King) is slid into the bag or box of your galette, kind of like a cake accessory.  The youngest person in the household is supposed to sit under the table while the galette is being served. Then everyone eats their slice, looking for the fève. Whoever finds the bean gets to choose his king or queen, who then gets to don the paper crown.  In our household, Tadhg has found the fève every time, though fortunately, he has allowed me to be the queen.  Funnily, the fèves themselves vary wildly in theme: our first one was a miniature Spiderman action figure while our last one was a neon green angel.

We got our first galette from a run-of-the-mill boulangerie near our house and we shared it our first night in Paris. It was exactly what the galette should be, but nothing exceptional. We only had two slices of it so we ate the remaining two slices the next morning for breakfast, which was very appropriate, given its croissant-like attributes.

The second galette was enjoyed on our way home from the Prefecture de Police when we decided to celebrate our failure to obtain the carte du séjour.  This one was petite and billed as an ‘individuelle’ although it was shared amicably between the two of us. (I should note that this is indeed a very good scale for rating portion sizes of dessert because we have also encountered not so amicable sharing…although it is usually TD who deems a dessert to be truly individuelle.)   This one, from a bakery called Domique Saguin, was chocolate and it was excellent, with a rich, chocolately flavor penetrating into the buttery crust, but not overpowering the galettey-ness of the cake which would have made it just another chocolate cake.

Friends of ours came to dine last Friday and they also brought with them a galette, and this one may have taken the veritable cake, in terms of deliciousness. It had a subtle hint of pistachio in addition to the almond flavor and all four of us raked up the flaky crumbs from our plates in order to get every last bit.

We were thinking it would be nice to continue this January tradition once we’re back in the US, but I don’t know if TD or I could possibly bake something so flakily delicious.  We don’t have an oven in our apartment here and we’ve been told that this isn’t that unusual in Paris; this makes sense to me. Why bother trying to replicate something so good at home? You’d only be setting yourself up for disappointment.  The Parisian’s lack of an oven seems to be a way to avoid this depressing conclusion.  Self-reliance, that deeply American quality, is not for desserts.

And oh yes, should probably mention that the Kings Cake is also eaten in New Orleans on Mardi Gras.

PS: All this talk about the Galette des Rois convinced us to properly document the occasion so we’ll be posting the photos from our fourth gdr here.

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Mangia, mangia!

Josephine loves eating and we love taking pictures of her when she’s got food all over her face. Since her eight month mark, we’re incorporated some new things into her diet, including: yogurt, broccoli, cooked parsley, tahini, kiwi, egg yolk, and artichoke. At the moment, it’s still pretty clear that her favorite thing is simply a piece of French bread.

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Cher Serge

There’s a film out in France right now about Serge Gainsbourg called “Vie Héroique”… It’s an interpretation of the singer’s life and legend, à la “I’m Not There,” the Bob Dylan film. The tagline reads: “Avant le mythe, il y avait l’homme…” (Unlike “I’m Not There,” unfortunately, Cate Blanchett was not given the opportunity to interpret her version of Serge, which I’m sure she would have done with panache. She’s amazing.)  Because of the film, there was a documentary about Serge on television the other night. I’ve always wanted to know more about him (knowing about a man this mythic in the French psyche must be considered part of my job description, right?); I’ve heard his name mentioned reverently many times on my favorite French radio station and I’d seen photos of him with the incomparable Jane Birkin in Vogue.

So we tuned in after Josephine went to bed. While we’re certainly trying to expose her to a maximum amount of French pop music while we’re here (more on this in another post), I don’t think Serge is rated PG, or even PG-13 for that matter. I mean, one review on iTunes that fondly called him the “original French dirty old man.”

First of all, the documentary was pretty low budget. The main production involved interviewing Serge’s former lovers, friends, and colleagues and then playing this audio over footage from Serge’s numerous music videos, TV interviews and other TV appearances. Well, maybe I shouldn’t even call it low-budget because all of the footage of Serge himself is pretty fascinating. His evolution from earnest wanna-be in the late 50s (with a short haircut like the Beatles, looking trim in a suit and tie) to a totally over-the-top, old, greasy drageur with a blue denim work shirt unbuttoned down past his ruby pendant necklace in the 80s is utterly fascinating. Watching the singer totally self-implode is like watching a car wreck in very slow motion. It’s not pretty but you can’t turn away.

Many things were explained about Serge and the documentary focused for the most part on his very complicated, self destructive love life. But in typical French fashion, I felt like some majorly important things went unexplained and were left to be pondered as enigmas. For one, why, oh why, did he ever leave Jane Birkin? She was so pretty, so naive and seemed utterly enchanted with his antics and capable of looking past his thorny public persona. We were told that Serge wrote his best for women because it was a way of allowing him to expose his vulnerable feminine side, which he couldn’t do when he sang as himself. That’s all fine, but how does one reconcile his tender songs with his utterly chauvinistic and creepy songs (the infamous “Lemon Incest” duet which he sang with his daughter Charlotte for one)? And, most importantly, his decline into creepdom and terrible health (seriously, I think every time I saw him in the documentary he was chain-smoking) and his premature death aren’t touched on at all. Maybe I’m just too new to the Serge legend and these things are all givens?

The last surprising element of the documentary was that I found myself totally digging pretty much all of Serge’s music, expect for maybe the very last years, which sounds too much like Leonard Cohen’s late “There ain’t no cure for love” lounge music. Who knew? I’d be interested to hear from any readers your thoughts on Serge, the man, the music, the myth…

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Elle parle!

Major breakthrough last week, as our little Josephine, or José Bové , as we’ve taken to calling her here in France, expressed her first intentional word. Not with her voice, of course, but her hands. Specifically, with fingers pinched, she touched her two hands together, like this:

“More,” she said. “Give me more of that ratatouille, since I’ve earned it by performing your stupid party trick.” I complied. Of course, she was perfectly capable of saying “more” in her own way before, by grunting and pounding her fist on the table, but this command came off as much more civilized, even if she may have had orange gloop all over her face. (That she earned another spoonful of ratatouille in much the same way a circus seal earns another flopping mackerel only yellows my pride a little.)

In related news, since we’ve moved to France, her vocabulary has tripled, as “la” and “bas” are actual words here. Quel génie…

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The best graffiti seen so far:
This street sign is in the Marais, which is now one of Paris’s fanciest neighborhoods although the street’s name, “Rue des Francs Bourgeois” points to a more destitute past. In the 14th century, a wealthy nobleman donated a hotel particulier on this street which was converted into almshouses to take in the city’s growing population of poor people, who were named “francs bourgeois” because they couldn’t pay city taxes.

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Exercising the French way

“Getting involved with the bureaucracy takes the place of exercise. Every French man and woman is engaged in a constant entanglement with one ministry or another and I’ve come to realize that these entanglements are what take the place of going to a gym where people actually work out. Three or four days a week you are given something to do that is time-consuming, takes you out of yourself, is mildly painful, forces you into close proximity with strangers, and ends usually with a surprising rush of exhilaration: “Hey, I did it.” – Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon

Before we left for France, I spent a fair amount of time running around trying to secure a visa for myself, Tadhg and Josephine so that we wouldn’t run into any legal snafus during our time here. (Since Tadhg works in The Law, it also seemed prudent to try and be above board about the whole thing.) I was well on my way to amassing all of the proper stamped documents and photos d’identité (the French love affair with postage-stamp sized pictures that always turn out looking like you were having a bad day at the DMV is something else to discuss later, perhaps).

I made, with trepidation, our appointments at the French consulate in New York City to formally submit our request. However, our appointments had to be rescheduled and this necessitated a personal phone call to Tadhg at his place of business from an employee at the embassy. Since having one of these elusive employees available seemed too good to be true, he took advantage of the moment and presented all of our visa concerns to him over the phone. To his credit, this kind monsieur agreed to research the matter, for he thought that we wouldn’t need to apply for visas stateside since Tadhg also happens to be an Irish citizen. He promised to verify this flaunting of the visa process with someone in the mothership and then he would get back to us.

When Tadhg recounted all of these developments to me, I found it hard to believe that our problems could be resolved so simply. I’d heard way too many stories of visa headaches and I had even been warned that this year there were outrageous new measures – some sort of James Bondian bio-scan or retina scan would have to be endured — that both countries had put into place for those seeking a semi-long change of scenery. I’d prepared myself mentally for the bureaucratic battle at the consulate where we might perhaps argue over the precise size of aforementioned passport photos (this has happened in the past) or perhaps the fact that we were planning on bringing a small child along for the ride would necessitate unforeseen hoops to jump through, all the while vouvoyer-ing politely.

Mais non, the gentilhomme at the consulate in NYC called back cheerfully and told Tadhg that “we had done it perfectly.” There was, quite simply, no easier way to gain entry into France than with Tadhg’s Irish citizenship. All Josephine and I would have to do would be to drop in at our local mairie and apply for a carte de séjour.  A sigh of relief all around.

Hence, last week we devoted a day to this process. First, it was discovered that we couldn’t go to the mairie to begin the carte de séjour but we’d have to go to the prefecture de police instead. We set out for the prefecture in the 14th arrondissement on a sunny, chilly day – Jo in her stroller, Dad at the helm while I trotted along with a thick plastic dossier containing all of our documents plus three photocopies plus our photos d’identité, all of which I had been told over the phone to bring.

It’s a lovely walk. We’re enjoying our new environs, we’re mentally noting cafés and restaurants that we’d like to return to.  All of a sudden the charming 19th century apartment buildings that line the avenue give way to a horribly ugly, cement building with concentric rectangles and 70s era color-scheme. It must be the government building at hand.

We enter. We go through security and are instructed to the foyer where we will take a number (something most of us do at the meat counter in America). There are many people waiting in chairs and the room is silent despite how many people are there. Because we’ve come on the tail end of lunch hour, only one window is open and the numbers are ticking by painfully slowly.  We wonder how long Josephine’s good humor will last. Two o’clock comes and goes and then a handful of French employees saunter back in from their lunch break. The pace picks up. As our number creeps closer I’m growing more and more nervous, frantically scanning the room to see if other people have other things I may have forgotten – is there some sort of form to fill out that I missed? Why have some brought their lawyers with them? I go out into the hall and approach a woman sitting at a desk marked “Information.” I ask her politely if I can ask her a question about the carte de séjour process. She shakes her head and tells me with a smile that Non, she is not allowed to know anything that takes place in that room. Obviously.

I return to the room and we’re able to sit down as two chairs have opened up. Josephine’s beginning to make some noises but she’s still behaving quite nicely. We can tell that a woman sitting across the aisle from us is admiring Josie.  All of a sudden she swoops over and takes Jo off of Tadhg’s lap. She’s holding her and singing to her. She’s smiling at Jo. Josephine doesn’t mind one bit. The woman takes Jo over to her chair and lets her friend dote on her as well. I can’t tell exactly what they’re saying nor what language they’re speaking but sometimes I hear some things in French. She marvels at the color of Josephine’s eyes.  Several numbers tick by and ours is getting closer. Tadhg asks me what I think will come first: will this woman bring Josie back or will we have to get her because our number will be called?

The woman had her friend take a photo with her holding Josephine on her phone. I wondered what she would say to her friends when she showed them the photo. Tadhg and I couldn’t help but feel a strange mix of emotions as we sat there and watched Josephine with her new friend. We were proud of her for being so friendly and not displaying any of the dreaded “stranger anxiety” that one might expect at this age. But it was also a little disconcerting to watch her having a ball and appearing not to miss us at all.  The woman was so sweet to her, singing to her, getting up with her and bouncing her a bit if she made the slightest noise.

In the end, I decided to go over and chat with the woman before our number was called and we had to spirit Jo away. Josephine’s friend name was Fatma. She also had a child, a son who was 15 months old. He was at home, she told me. She also told me that her son had had cancer of the eyes and his eyes had to be removed. She told me all of this matter-of-factly, and when I expressed to her how terrible I thought that was, she told me, ‘It’s ok now,’  reassuringly, as if she didn’t want to upset us nor was she looking for condolences.  She was just one mother telling another about her child.  She was, all in all, a thoroughly lovely woman. I’m glad Josephine got to meet her.

Breaking our little spell of camaraderie among mothers, our number is called. Ack, we’re to report to the one window I was dreading, where a smart-ass looking Frenchman was seated. The three of us approach and I begin explaining why we were there, what had transpired in the US at the French embassy, etc etc. He looks us up and down. He asks what we’ll be doing while in France. He doesn’t seem to believe Tadhg when he says that he will be taking care of Josephine while I work on my dissertation. “So you are some sort of assistante maternelle?” he jokes, but you can tell that he’s a little flabbergasted by the choice. Tadhg smiles gracefully in affirmation. At this point I worried if things were going to go sour as I had feared. Fortunately our man decides to break the tension and he will go ask his supervisor about our situation.

In the end, to make a long posting a bit shorter, we’re told that we should have applied for visas after all, back in the United States. We can either return to the US and do so or we can wait three months, take a quick little trip to Switzerland, a non-schengen country (maybe you boire un café, have some chocolat, the fonctionnaire suggests) and then it’s fine. All of which is to say that we spent a good several hours learning a lot about ourselves and our daughter without having truly resolved our official status in France.  But it was a workout, and as Adam Gopnik wrote, we emerged from the prefecture feeling like we’d accomplished something.  So we celebrated at a café on the way home with an afternoon café crème and a petite galette.

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