Archive for the ‘La France’ Category

We went to Orléans last weekend to visit the hometown of one of our friends here and we had a très lovely time, taking in the sights and enjoying the first truly warm spring weekend. We toured some châteaux, which dot the Loire Valley like raisins in a pain aux raisins. The first château we tackled was Chambord, which is second only to Versailles in size and opulence, so we’ve gleaned. It has 365 chimneys on its roof and many rooms dedicated to displaying the trophies of the hunt.

My favorite room in the château was the “bureau des enfants” (or office of the children) which came complete with miniature sized chairs, a tiny desk and resplendent red and gold wallpaper.  It makes sense for the royal children to have an office since, as we learned, they begin playing with toys that are fully functioning weapons of warfare, scaled down to a child-friendly size.  So they can learn how to deploy troops, amass land and create flourishing empires, naturally.

Other fun facts about Chambord: Leonardo da Vinci died there and before doing so, he designed this magnificent central staircase. Also, one of Chambord’s main decorative motifs is this adorable salamander, a mythical animal dating from Pliny the Elder and said to have the power to live within fire without being harmed.  The first king of Chambord, François I, chose the salamander as his personal emblem hence its ubiquity throughout, from the rooftops to the grates of the fireplaces.

We went on to Blois and saw the Château royal there, though suffering from château fatigue we merely admired the exterior during an afternoon aperitif.

On Sunday we went to a Gregorian mass at the Benedictine abbey of Saint Benoit-sur-Loire, where Saint Benedict, the founder of the monastic order, is buried.  We also moseyed over to Germigny-des-Prés, which happens to have one of France’s oldest churches, a tiny 9th century building with a stunning Byzantine glass mosaic in the nave.

Not to go too long sans château, we also went to Sully and saw the 11th century château there, which I liked best, with its more medieval-looking exterior, complete with towers, moat and donjon (oui, dungeon).

Josephine seemed to enjoy the greenery that the châteaux had to offer and she used her time wisely to practice her latest obsession, cruising.

If you can’t get enough of the Loire Valley, go here for more pictures.


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Le Fooding

The New Yorker’s got an article about a new French food movement called “Le Fooding.” The group’s aim: dethrone the three-star Michelin guide and bring spontaneity and feeling to French cooking.  Adam Gopnik tries to decode the movement and find out what it’s really about (with some of his usual preoccupations: he always seems to note the attractiveness of the French characters in question and he also usually finds a way to return to the idea that French culture in X way is tired and in need of re-invigoration.)  Not that I can totally disagree with this last preoccupation.  Indeed, it does seem like French cooking is desperately in need of a taste/flavor/liveliness infusion.  Given our limited dining out experiences during our time here, I have noticed a fatigue creep in.  In that reassuring French way, all of the menus begin to blend together — all of the usual culprits are always there: foie gras, steak frites, roasted lamb, some fish, scallops in their shell with a buttery sauce, parmentier de canard, tartare, etc.  The creamy pepper sauce on the steaks taste great but what about something else?  Or what about not ordering meat entirely? And this sort of eating, the head- to-toe cream saucing from entree to plat to dessert, cannot be sustained, especially once this tedious winter is over.  More temperate climes usually warrant a change in menu.  I am curious to see a shift in Parisian fare with warmer temps: will we see lighter dishes, less cream sauces?  Can we find some salads where the poor lettuce isn’t screaming “uncle!” under the layers of cheese, egg, giblets, and various varieties of cured ham?

Now, don’t take this post the wrong way. We’ve had some sublime eating experiences since we’ve been here (some yet to be written up for the blog but forthcoming, I promise!) Yet I can honestly agree with Gopnik that on a creative level, the restaurants here don’t approach the amazing meals we’ve had in New York City, Atlanta, Durham or Washington, D.C.  I’m interested to know what you guys think.  Is French cuisine dead? Can it be revived? Is Le Fooding the answer?  Will spring bring lighter dishes to our world? And, on a more pragmatic level, does anyone know if there’s any good little Lebanese places near the Bibliotheque nationale in the 13e?

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One of the many small perks that go with being an assistante maternelle is the ability to greet Monday like an old friend, not a dreaded foe. (Remember, it was truant schoolgirl Brenda Ann Spencer who didn’t like Mondays; stay-at-home Bob Geldof was just the messenger.) Here in the F, I look forward to Monday principally because it marks the resumption of my favorite show, “N’Oubliez Pas Les Paroles,” a gameshow in which earnest contestants sing karaoke with a live accompaniment and then, at an unknown moment in each song, are required to supply the lyrics themselves.

Noob Pah, as we affectionately call it, is apparently a spin-off of an American show I’d never heard of, called “Don’t Forget the Lyrics,” hosted by the ever-lame Wayne Brady. In contrast, our dear émission is hosted by the totally cool, and mononymous, Nagui. Regarde :

Nagui actually is totally cool. He used to host some hip radio show, then his career tanked, only to be resurrected by Noob Pah. He’s appropriately wacky for a European gameshow host, and yet subtly hilarious when he ad-libs. At least that’s my impression. I can’t understand a word he says.

This brings me to the initial appeal of Noob Pah. As the contestants are singing karaoke, the lyrics to the songs are scrolled at the bottom of the screen, allowing me to read along and learn handy phrases like “je releve mon col” (“I pop my collar”), “mets de l’huile” (“Put some oil on”), and “j’ai une indigestion de disco” (“disco makes me sick”), this last sung by Johnny Hallyday, the French Elvis, who prefers “le bon temps du rock’n’roll.”

Though it was this didactic aspect that first drew us to the show, we soon grew to love it as pure (meaning pure) entertainment. I checked out the American show on youtube and the reason it sucks, aside from Wayne Brady, is that the emphasis appears to be on guessing the words, rather than singing the songs. The missing words invariably appear in the first verse, meaning the singing-to-deliberating ratio hovers at around 1:4. In the end, it’s just another game show, karaoke filling in for trivia or slug-eating as a means to winning a million dollars. Noob Pah, on the other hand, is less about the money (hardly anyone wins more than 10,000 euros) than about the performing. Because there are no commercials, and no sponsors to satisfy, the show can take on a free-form format, with the band routinely continuing to play even after the contestant supplies the missing words, so that the beaming karaokeur can finish on a high note. And these contestants, the vast majority anyway, sincerely love to rock out to cheesy French fare. You get the sense that they spent three nights a week singing karaoke even before this show hit the airwaves. The true prize of the show for them is the chance to sing with a live band, in front of TV cameras and a cheering crowd.

Chritophe Mai's "Mon P'tit Gars" brings Josie to her (mom's) feet.

Case in point, our favorite contestant to date, Laurent la Marseillaise. This jolly, yodeling cowboy, who hails from the Basque country, is about as supportable a game-show contestant you can find, short of a kid who’s appearing courtesy of the Make a Wish foundation. His job? Choir director at an old folk’s home. It was his performance of the epic “Comme d’habitude” (the melody of which was even more epically appropriated by Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra), which prompted us to finally share our love of Noob Pah with you. Click the link and skip ahead to the 2:30 mark. You won’t be disappointed.

Bonus footage: if you’re not already hooked. Check out the end of Friday’s show (at the 30:00 mark), where a contestant’s joker (a sort of “lifeline” assistant), who bears a striking aural resemblance to France’s own Andre le Giant, was invited to sing his own song, after his friend bowed out. Even this behemoth closes his eyes when he sings.

Way to end the week on a high note, Nagui. Bring on Monday.

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So the other day Josephine and her father were taking a stroll to Parc Montsouris and they saw up ahead of them on the Allée Samuel Beckett a woman walking with four dogs on leashes while simultaneously pushing a baby carriage. Tadhg said to Josephine, “It would be especially hilarious if, when we walk past, there turns out to be another dog being pushed in the stroller, instead of a baby.” And indeed, as they overtook this precariously-plied pedestrian, they discreetly took a peak at a tiny little dog all wrapped up in the stroller.

Tadhg also happened to see a very old dog, who was much in need of relieving himself in a solid kind of way, do so in the middle of the street. The light had been red so the old dog and his elderly owner (in fur coat, of course) were making their way, albeit très slowly, to the other side when the dog just couldn’t help himself and he took a squat as the light turned green. Cars and buses, in both directions, waited until the feller was done and the beleaguered owner was forced to pick up the remnants of his struggle. This, thus far, has been our only documented instance of actually seeing someone pick up after their dog, despite these charming little signs.

Lastly, we were having a fancy kind of Sunday this past weekend and we walked from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs Elysées to the Louvre and then up and down Rue Rivoli until we stopped for a wildly overpriced café crème at the Brasserie du Louvre (ambiance, dears, ambiance). As we were strolling, we noticed a woman in front of us with impeccable hair and a glossy, jet black fur coat. She was sauntering along and it looked like she was waiting for someone but we didn’t see anyone in her orbit. Then she turned and said “Alors, where are you? Let’s go!” and then we realized that she was talking to a disgustingly ratty little daschund who trotted up to her after she called for him.  How odd to picture her returning to her sumptuous apartment in the first arrondissement, tossing her coal black fur on the floor and then curling up on a divan with that little bedraggled creature.

Josephine, in her own chic fur coat, and her dad enjoy their coffee break at the Brasserie du Louvre

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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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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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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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