Archive for January, 2010

I love tea, which is fortunate, as my distaste for coffee means I drink lots of tea, partially because I enjoy it, and partially because the consumption of a hot beverage is a necessary punctuation in daily life in France.  I should go ahead and admit that I am an unabashed love of herbal teas, of concoctions that taste like you are drinking flowers or mint leaves.  I love a big mug of tea on a cold night, burled in a chair with a good book, but my ideal tasse de thé, would be a light fruity one served in a porcelain teacup from a dainty pot.

This means that I never pass an opportunity to go to a salon de thé, or tearoom. Paris is full of  beautiful overpriced experiences, and a salon de thé, is no different.  Yet even though I know that I could buy 3 boxes of tea for the same price as that one precious pot, I continue to seek out and frequent tea rooms.  I love how you step through the doors into a tea party, a lovely escape from whatever you should be doing, a chance to sit , chat, and sip without being rushed or pressured.  Sometimes it is worth it to pay a little more for the opportunity to enjoy something exponentially more beautiful. Sometimes it is worth it to sit still and have a cup of over priced tea in a beautiful corner of Paris.

This past week, my friend Emma and I went to a tiny little salon de thé near the Musée D’Orsay.  A paradise of pink floral tablecloths, delicate china,  and massive vase of tulips, the salon, Les Nuits des Thés, is run by a mother and her daughter.  Sitting there, not rushing off, just slowly enjoying pots of tea and yummy scones,  I thought of a quote I read lately, regarding the beauty in a cup of tea.  I apologize that my translation will be no where near as good as the original:

“And so, let us drink a cup of tea. The ritual of tea, this precise renewal of the same motions, the same tastes, this attainment of simple sensations, authentic and refined, this license given to every person, to become an aristocrat of sorts, as tea is the drink of the rich just as it is the drink of the poor, means that the ritual of tea has this extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives a moment of serene harmony.  Yes, the universe conspires to vacuity, our souls mourn the loss of beauty, and the insignificance that surrounds us. And so, let us drink a cup of tea.  Silence descends, we hear the wind whispering outside, the autumn leaves rustle and fall, the cat sleeping in a pool of warm light.  In each sip, we redirect time.”     -Muriel Barbery, Lélégance du hérisson


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Recently I went to the local grocery store to purchase supplies for a wonderful dinner I had planned with a friend. I want to pause and clarify that like every good American who fancies themselves very principled, I too decry the fact that Wal-Mart has prevented small businesses from thriving. Yet, that doesn’t stop me from shopping there as you can get everything you need in one spot without overspending. In France, I get to bask in living a much more principled life where I shop at smaller stores. The result is that I spend more, get less, and have to often go to several stores to find ingredients as the first store might not have any milk, or eggs, or cereal.

French produce is legendarily tasty, coming from a country blessed with rich soil. I love the tomatoes, greens, and seasonal vegetables like endives. Unfortunately, as a product of the Wal-Mart mentality, I have no concept of a vegetables natural season. Wal-Mart is an eternal harvest, with every fruit and vegetable coexisting year round in a perfect (though completely false) harmony. I mean, of course summer is “tomato season,” but that just means they are better, not that you can’t find them. I am not a kitchen dunce. I love to cook, know how to pick produce, yet having to know the seasons of certain fruits and vegetables is not a necessary skill for cooking in the states. Here, it seems like the French all know and abide by a sacred code to eat only what is in season. In my new cookbook, the first section talks exclusively about planning your menus around the season. Now I realize it has less to do with planning and more to do with submitting. The other day I went to go buy figs. Multiple grocery stores proved lacking, and when I went to a specialty fruit stand, the vendor – not to mention the several other more seasoned customers – laughed at me.

I left with a different menu, as is often the case when I go shopping in France. But I can’t really feel annoyed. There is something refreshing and beautiful about an entire country that has accepted the value that scarcity and temporality lend to things. Ease and convenience rank beneath quality. Who would want to eat something out of season when you could instead just have something that was better because it is in season?

Like with everything in France, there is a time and season. It is usually not when I want it. But in a manner very French, the seasons know better than I, when I should want things. I am removed the art of choosing because I am not up to making the choice, I suppose. And thus I learn the very French art of waiting. . . only I think that fig season is over. At least endive season lasts till May, or so I am told.

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1. Simon and Garfunkle: I have very unspecified music taste, which means all my more musically particular (snobbish) friends and family are always giving me music to try to alter my taste. Living in an apartment alone means I often just leave music on a random shuffle setting, and I inevitably find music that I like but never knew I had. Such is the case with Simon and Garfunkle, no clue where it came from but I like it. This musical condition also means that one day I realized I own Lenny Kravitz’ greatest hits.
2. Speculoos: My love for nutella has not diminished, per se, but Speculoos is my new taboo craving. Formerly a cinnamon flavored Sweedish cookie, you can now buy spreadable Speculoos. Imagine spreadable Nutter Butter cookies. After too quickly going through one jar, I have banned its presence from my shelves . . . but I still love from afar.
3. My boots: They are perfect, they are brown, and I love them. The hunt was long and hard, but I was triumphant.
4. Miel de Lavande: There is a little store I discovered when I was here two years ago that specializes in honey. You select honey based on what the bees were fed, and nothing is as perfect as the honey from bees that have only eaten lavender blossoms. Little, one of a kind, niche stores like this are what make Paris so unique.

5. Cutco Spatula Spreader: Purchased a couple years ago from a friend selling Cutco (haven’t we all had to do likewise?) my spatula spreader is the one kitchen utensil I brought with me. It chops, spreads, flips, and provides the perfect companion to any picnic. A small kitchen teaches you to prioritize around the things that are really necessary, which brings me to . . .

6. . . . My Monoprix Plates: Ok, so maybe not as essential as my Cutco knife, but sometimes beautiful dishes become a different sort of necessity. Monoprix is like a French Target, and just before Christmas they had the most lovely plates with little red birds on them. Knowing I loved them, a friend gave me a set of four perfect saucers for Christmas. They are plates worthy of the yummy French things I serve on them ,and they keep merry company with my nice Ikea white dishes.
7. Macaron aux épices et fruits moulleux: Ladurée has seasonal macarons, along with their already amazing permanent collection. The Christmas one is a spice and “soft fruits” one that is the most lovely shade of violet. Eating macarons is like actually eating beauty incarnate. And I can never afford to buy more than two at once, so it proves a healthy snack.
8. Bright Umbrellas: After a several week flirtation with snow, Paris has remembered her place as a city of rainy winters. On the whole I don’t mind, as I have toasty warm feet in my boots (see #3). In fact, I think there is something singularly beautiful about walking through emptied streets on a dizzly day and seeing a blight splash of colorful umbrella reflected in the silvery streets. Why carry a dull umbrella, when you already know that a day which necessitates it is dreary already? Do your part to put color back into saturated days!
9. Grocery Bags: In the US. every store offers nice cloth bags you can buy so as to not use plastic and save the environment. But the majority of Americans forget and use plastic ones anyway. The French like to take the optional element out of conscientious acts, and thus you either bring your own bag, or you buy a plastic on at most grocery stores. Thus, most shoppers tote their cloth bags with them. I feel proud of the environmental consciousness and amused at how different the approach is between the two cultures. Of course, I always forget, but when facing environmental destruction, I usually opt for just trying to carry everything, thus dropping my poor Museli multiple times on the way home. Someday I will learn.

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This is a lovely picture of the jardin du Luxembourg to emphasize one thing: Paris is quite cold at the moment. There has been a fair amount of snow, that, while never more than 2 inches, has put everyone in a tizzy.  Yesterday snow was exchanged for cold rain, and all day I rather enjoyed it, as it provided a cozy background for a day of museum sketching, bookstore browsing, hot chocolate, and a toasty dinner in my apartment.  However, my happy cold day enjoyment died at 2 am, when I learned a valuable life lesson: always take the key to the bathroom.

My room is a chambre de bonne, literally, a “maid’s room” and thus it has its own shower but the toilette is shared in the hall.  Even though I never shut my door all the way, I always take the key just in case.  But last night, I was in the process of getting in bed — pyjamas, glasses, awesome bed hair, the works — and went to the bathroom minus the key. I blame it on the cold, and the excitement I had about climbing into my warm cocoon of a bed.  Whatever the case, that meant that at 2 am, I was standing in front of my door, toilet paper in hand, shivering, with no way to enter. I briefly debated going through my neighbor’s room and climbing out her window and scaling the ledge, but let’s be honest: that only works in movies. In real life, you fall all seven stories and die. I was not willing to die in my pjs, slippers, and glasses. This is, after all, Paris.   I went for option two, go down to wake up the family that owns my room and get a spare key.  What parent with three children under the age of 10 doesn’t love a doorbell ringing at 2 am?

Down the stairs I go — the outside exposed stairs — so by the time I ring the doorbell, I have enhanced my outfit by being soaking wet. Ring ring ring — no answer. Oh no. There are new tenants in our building who were having a huge loud party one floor above.  I think that maybe their noise caused every resident around them to sleep in earplugs, but whatever the case, no one answered rings 1-4.  Now I have two fears, one that I will never make it back, and two, that the cool Italian tenants will meet me for the first time in wet pyjamas, glasses, bad hair, and holding a roll of toilet paper as a sign of my pathetic state.  Ring 5, ring 6 . . .

Finally, someone comes to the door, takes one look at me and my roll of toilet paper, laughs and hands me the key with a smile before going back to bed.  I sprint away in to the cold, barely ahead of the cool Italians leaving their merry party.  Lesson learned.

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Je Sais Cuisiner

I love cookbooks. I realize that they are quickly becoming obslete archaic publications, as we can all be Google chefs who pull recipes from cyberspace with the click of a button. We have no need for glossy pages and indexes because the internet will offer us with a million choices when we want to make chocolate chip cookies. While true, I vastly prefer recipes from cookbooks. Recipes in print bear a certain gravity that those illusively floating on the web do not. Anyone could put a recipe on the internet, and you have no actual way of knowing if it is good. I could make a website and advise all kinds of terrible kitchen techniques and title it “Brownies in 60 seconds” or “Meatless meatloaf” and I am sure that someone would attempt my recipes. But with a cookbook, you know that someone has tested each recipe over and over before allowing it to grace kitchen shelves. Cookbooks mean glossy pages, photos, and turning pages dreaming of dinners. This vastly overshadows the enjoyment of clicking through Google search results. I am somewhat of a cookbook addict, always wanting more and different ones, or ones that specialize in one specific area. I also like cutting out recipes from magazines and newspapers, sometimes getting around to trying them, often not. But the potential is always there. I was the only high schooler I know of who eagerly awaited Family Circle each month.

Living in an apartment of ten square meters, my culinary ambitions have been put to the test. When one’s kitchen consists of two hot plates, a mini-fridge, microwave, and sink, one must dream small. I refuse, however, to let my kitchen dominate my cuisine. I will remain domestically daring despite my diminutive accommodations. I try to experiment with lots of French dishes, as they call for items hard to come by in the States, but easy enough to find in Paris. Knowing this, the family I babysit for gave me a cookbook for Christmas. Not just a cookbook, THE definitive French cookbook (or so they told me). Je Sais Cuisiner (“I know how to cook”) by Ginette Mathiot, is to French cooks what The Joy of Cookinge  is to Americans. It is basic and simple, but covers all the traditional dishes. I love reading my cookbook, looking up lots of words that I don’t know and dreaming of the dishes I will make. Of course, the lack of a stove limits my choices but never the less, je sais cuisiner!

The cookbook is often full of surprises. The other day I was reading through it and stumbled across the section on how to prepare cheval – horse. I gasped at the savagery of these French, but then remembered that these are the people who thought to shove a tube town a duck’s moth, pump it full of grain, then slaughter it and eat the fattened liver, aka foie gras. I quickly turned past those disturbing horse pages and settled on a pasta dish. My pasta niçois (“coming from Nice”) called for a delicious sauce of tomatoes, mushrooms, and fried eggplant along with sautéed garlic gloves. Yum. Furthermore, France is freezing at the moment. Cooking in my Polly-Pocket sized apartment has the added advantage of warming the space otherwise lacking in central heat. My dinner was a success, yet in choosing a recipe I did overlook another element factor pertaining to cooking in small spaces: you better like the smell of what you are making because it will be there for the next week. The pungent garlic gloves that so perfectly seasoned my sauce have continued to be so gracious as to rest with me ever since my dinner 5 days ago. At least my room doesn’t smell like cooked horse.

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I can shop with the best of them. I love shopping, revel in “the hunt,” am ok with fighting my way through crowds, and know how to seek out good finds. Yet nothing prepared me for the craziness of Les Soldes in Paris. Unlike American stores that run sales regardless of each other, sales in France are regulated and only permitted (with occasional brief exceptions) during the five weeks beginning on around Epiphany. That’s right, even shopping is centralized. Yet what this means is that stores literally put almost every item in their store on sale. Les Soldes, they are called, and every store boasts signs declaring reductions of 30, 40, 50, 60 and even 90 percent. Oui, c’est incroyable.

Normally Parisian stores open around 10ish, close as soon as possible, and don’t open door Sundays. During Les Soldes, everything changes. Doors opened at 8 am Wednesday morning and the shopping continues late many nights and all through the weekends. I first went to a big shopping center, intending to look exclusively for a winter coat. But the escalator dumped me in front of a high-end shoe store with sale signs, and it being my first Les Soldes encounter, something snapped. Before I knew it I had my arms full of shoes. Did I need yellow heels? Of course, they were 50% off. Were those patent red flats the most divine footware I had ever seen? Naturally, they were 60% off. Did I have to have these brown boots – wait those were the same ones I got and then returned just before Christmas. But now they are 50 % off. Yet as a woman lunged over me to seize a sequined pump, I lost hold of my pile and as they fell I collected myself. I have 10 square meters of apartment space and two suitcases that all must suffice to move home in July. Au revoir yellow heels, red flats, and second-time around boots.

I have never seen anything like French women going after Les Soldes. Many large shopping centers have provided men’s sanctuary centers, where husbands can get a shave, watch sports, or play video games so as not to confronted by their wives insatiable shopping drive and subsequent ferocity. Yesterday I went to Galleries LaFayette, one of the obscenely priced grands magasins. Prada bags where flying, Jimmy Choo shoes going for a steal (well, comparatively), and the lines for dressing rooms where so long that women where just trying things on in the aisles. Yet it wasn’t until I reached the sixth floor that I struck gold. I had been following signs that read “GRANDE BRADERIE.” Now, I didn’t really know what braderie meant, but I followed my intuition and road the esclators past floor after floor of focused hunters. Braderie, it turns out, means final clearance. Oui, merci. I proudly left with a big sac of three jackets and two skirts. Original total cost: 210 euros. Hannah paid: 18, 20 euro. Success.

After my hard work, I stopped by Mouffetarte to for some sustenance. The Quiche Lady congratulated me on my finds. I told her I needed to know not go near any stores, because I didn’t want to buy more. She left me with this profound advice: “If you want to be sure to not buy anything, just take a man with you. They do not understand Les Soldes.”

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One of my classes in Aulnay-Sous-Bois has a partner class stateside. The French teacher is one of my best friends and when we realized our classes were the same age, we set up a letter swap. Both classes were given the same assignment: write one simple letter in the language you are learning, and then one letter in your native tongue where you could say whatever you wanted. This way, both classes would have a chance to practice writing the opposite language, and trying to translate something written by their peers. The results were not surprising. My little French students wrote perfectly penned and spaced letters on neat graph paper with headings carefully underlined in red. The French may refuse to wait in line or follow most rules, but they forsake this rebellious streak when confronted with graph paper and red pens. Though I emphasized that they could say whatever they wanted in their second letter, the one written in French, almost every child merely provided a translation of their simple letter in English. A few embellished it with things like, “My teacher is super nice – is yours?,” but for the most part, they strayed little from the specifically stated exercise. In the French elementary schools, deviation is detrimental, not creative.

When I opened the packet of letters from the American kids, written on neon colored index cards, which pleased my students to no end, I laughed aloud at the differences. They too had carefully penned short letters in French. Yet in their English letters, they had taken the prompt seriously – you can write whatever you want. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“I had a freak air-soft fight with my brother. I shot him right in the head. He went running all over when I was shooting. An air-soft gun is a gun that shoots plastic bullets. I shot a bird and it blew up.”


“For Lunch I ate prosciutto, cheese, and French bread.”

“Hi. I got three new cats last weekend . . . They are fat cats but they are cute. I went to our neighbor’s house and there were two horses that I wanted to buy. I had to kick three chickens because they were jumping on me so you have to kick them.”

“My favorite food is boneless buffalo wings. They are not really buffalo, they are chicken.”

“One day I shot a bird in the head and you could see the brain.”

“It is loud in my classroom. Augustine is talking about cheese. Diego is talking about shooting a bird. Diego scares me. Ariana scared Zach.”

And my favorite, because I love that he was inspired to say this, though I am not surprised, given the other stories: “I have killed no animals in my entire life.”

Needless to say, my French kids think that our American partner class is exceedingly cool, though they may be a little frightened.

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