Archive for June, 2010

This past weekend I went to Bruges, a city in northern Belgium, in the Flemish speaking section.  I want to emphasize the difficulty of Flemish right away. I really do try to be a good tourist, always learning at least the simple phrases of politesse in the local language.  In Bruges, I was a failure.  I am not sure if it is because all the written text I looked at bore no semblance to the spoken word, or because all the words resembled Shlotzenpodrenstraatzerheligner, or maybe because the dialect flows in an impossibly hard to imitate lilting songlike pattern that sounds rather like yodelers singing Chinese, but whatever the case, I failed in the simplest attempt to not be a dumb tourist.  My friend Jessie is visiting from the States, and she and I just surrendered at blending in, wore our cameras around our necks, and walked around gaping at that most lovely, enchanting, and delectable city that is Bruges.

When deciding where to travel I have a foolproof system.  First, I make a list of cities in the distance radius I want to travel. Then I perform a google image search and pick the prettiest ones.  After narrowing it down to the pretty ones, I wikipedia them to look for any final deciding characteristics. You may scoff, but this system is efficient and rewarding. Thus, Jessie and I boarded a train to Bruges Saturday morning with absolutely no idea what was there or what we wanted to do, beyond knowing that it would be lovely – the “Venice of the North.”

With the help of a hilarious map from our quirky and friendly hostel, we quickly decided to forego museums to take in what Bruges is really known for: chocolate, fries, Belgium waffles (which I know actually originated in France, but that does not preclude their deliciousness in Belgium) and winding streets bordered by tall colorful houses. The city is a visual feast of colors and shapes, geometric perfection against blue skies and along shimmering canals.  It borders on surreal, as we encountered no trash, beggars, or seedy neighborhoods.  Bruges even has the highest fine for public urination in Flanders, 152 euro, so you are spared that eyesore which interrupts so many shady corners of Paris. Bruges seems to be the perfect picturesque playground of Europe, a retreat from the realities that sometimes mar the other lovely cities.  And we loved it.  Our entire weekend consisted of walking, boating, or biking through Flemish postcards scenes with frequent punctuations for the edible delicacies of Bruges and long talks sitting in grassy parks or along quiet canals.  I know that Bruges is as far from reality as cities come, but sometimes that is just what you want from vacation.  Then Monday morning, you return to the real world, and try to recover from 2 days of consuming nothing but Belgium waffles, fries, and perfect chocolates.


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At the risk of offending someone, I will admit that I never attributed much importance to the World Cup.  March Madness, the World Series, and the Super Bowl have already claimed what athletic championship passion I possess (which admittedly is not an overwhelming amount), and so I never gave the World Cup much thought.  It only happens every four years, which means that I easily forget it.

The French are another story.

The day before the Word Cup started, the girls I babysit went shopping to get their France jerseys, shorts, and socks.  The family doesn’t even care that much about soccer, but their children will represent national pride at school.  I did not initially know that the games had started and was left unprepared when ambushed by students at school who wanted to know my thoughts on the American team.  I tried to find an eloquent way to express that I had none. But because I too have a France jersey, I have been working on getting on board with this soccer mania. Sadly, my France jersey did not see many games as before they were eliminated.  The whole country seems disgusted with their playing, even the players themselves.  In case anyone forgot that these athletes were French, they reminded the world of their roots by going on strike from training in response to decisions made by the coach.  That’s right, the French players went on strike during the World Cup.  Perhaps they saw they couldn’t win and decided that they may as well go down fully exercising their rights.

The World Cup does bring out many interesting national sentiments.  The littlest girl I watch burst into tears today when her older sister announced that she would henceforth be cheering for the US. I tried to explain that it was fine because they hadn’t played against each other, but this only made her cry harder, sobbing that France was shamed before all the nations.

Very few of my students come from a family of two French natural born citizens.  Aulnay-Sous-Bois is populated by many who see themselves both French and Algerian, Moroccan, Romanian, etc.  On a small scale, this means I get a picture of the struggle France is dealing with as she faces this new era where her national identity, her social demographics, are shifting.  And naturally, the World Cup brings these tensions to the surface.  I asked one little boy if he was wearing France jersey (he had a jacket on and France had played poorly the night before) and he proudly and loudly stated that he was for Algeria and he would die before he would wear a jersey for France.  The teacher heard the comment and started yelling, calling this kid a racist, and admonishing him to “look around and realize what country he chose to live in” before making those statements.  At first, I thought that this tirade sprung from frustration at how France had played the night before, but the more I thought of it and mentioned it to French friends later, the more I think something more was at the heart of his anger.  His is a frustration and a fear that France will fill with people who refuse to embrace being French, will instead wish to retain all of their old lives in this new one.  His is a worry that a day will come when little French children don’t eagerly wear their national pride to school and weep over their nation’s defeats.

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June 21st, the longest day of the year, Midsummer’s.   Perhaps it was because Paris keeps clinging to winter in the form of cold rainy days and it was finally turning nice, or perhaps it was because I have loved the ever lengthening days, but whatever the case, I was excited about Midsummer’s Night in Paris. We were made for light, for day, for summer days that never end.

Paris marks June 21st with La Fête de la Musique, “The Festival of Music.”  As an unabashed fan of street musicians, I had high expectations.  I imagined violinists strolling the streets and pianos positioned under old archways.  I was wrong.  Most cafés had bands playing outside, attempting to blare their own cover songs over the band next door.  I am sure that my illusive violinists were somewhere, but I lost heart finding them as I fought my way through the cacophony that was Paris on Midsummer’s Night.  I even heard “Sweet Home Alabama” at least three times in a one-hour period.

But even if I found the circumstances not worthy of the magical power of Midsummer’s Night, nature was. After a couple days of uninspiring weather, Paris offered up a perfect evening of pink tinted crowns that spotted across a golden sunset.    I was walking through the Louvre after deciding that the concert inside had too long, when I was struck the beauty of this most lovely of Midsummer’s Nights.

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I am aware that my version of Paris is not what everyone experiences when they come to France.  I like the pretty things, the old streets, the lovely cafés, the beautiful museums and moments. I don’t really care for the flashy party side of Paris, nor do I feel particularly enticed by the high fashion side of the city (beyond my love of shopping).  I am constantly discovering entire new sides of the city, whole communities that I never knew existed.

Sometimes seeing these parts of Paris involves getting off the beaten path, I mean WAY off.  There are miles of catacombs that form a labyrinth under much of southern Paris.  A small portion is open to the public, where you see the artistically displayed bones of the deceased that overflowed the cemeteries of Paris during its various plagues. But the vast majority of these are forbidden to the public. But of course in France, nothing tastes sweeter than the forbidden fruit. Sometimes I wonder if the government forbids things merely to sweeten the daily life of her citizens.   The police do little about many of these minor infractions.  Entering the off limits catacombs falls under this category.  Thus when one of my friends obtained a map from a man online who facilitates illegal adventures into the ancient underbelly of Paris, I attempted to proceed discretely in obtaining a headlamp from the father of the family that I work for.  I told him I was going on an expedition, and without missing a beat, he assured me that he loved touring the catacombs and used to go regularly.  Just another law abiding Parisian.

I was told to wear clothes I could get really dirty and a headlamp. The plan was to hike around underground for a while, then have a picnic.  First, we had to get to the entrance.  This involved jumping a fence and walking down abandoned railroad tracks before descending down a hole in a pile of trash under an overpass. For the first couple minutes I am doubled over before emerging into a narrow pitch-black passage where we start walking. Periodically we would find ourselves wading through water that reached mid thigh, then we would be military style crawling on our stomachs through a particularly narrow passage. And why? Because the catacombs are like nothing I have ever seen before.  Graffiti, but of the very interesting sort, covers walls of some chambers leaving huge murals in brilliant colors. At one point we come across a castle carved out of a corner of the wall.  The passages have street signs just like the ones above ground and periodically you come across painted signs mimicking the ones all over Paris saying, “J’aime les catas, je ramasse” (“I love the catacombs, I clean up my trash”). We picnicked by candlelight at a table that was constructed who knows when out of big stones and chunks of wood.  I never really knew where we were, but the guys, with the aid of map and compass, directed us through the maze of black corridors.

Yet the most interesting part of the catacombs was the people who inhabit them.  They arrive late in the evening and many pass all night there, in a sort of odd camaraderie.  We passed those who seemed intent on doing inner city spelunking, complete with all the accessories.  Then there were those who just come to relax with friends.  At one point we came around a corner and found the carved castle I mentioned.  It was ablaze with light from the candles lit all around it and a group had gathered who had the appearance of being regulars.  When we would pass people in the passages there would always be a sort of instant politeness and friendliness that does not exist above ground.  Yes, I suppose many of the people we bumped into were partially enjoying obscure nature of the catacombs for less wholesome consumptions, but I don’t think that has to negate the friendliness of all of them.

Everything is different below ground and it is another world, as impossible to imagine when you are out of it as the Paris I know is to imagine when inside.  As one man told us Friday night as he was attempting to lead us off course and stay all night with their merry group, “In the catas, up is down and down is up.  Nothing is the same.” This was said in an attempt to debunk the indications of Timothée’s compass, but I find it a very fitting phrase to encapsulate the atmosphere on the whole.

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What to do the day after

In the apartment where I babysit, there is something that has long puzzled me.  Hanging beside the butcher’s block is a cloth sack where the family tosses the ends of baguettes.  A baguette has approximately 24 hours in which to be consumed, and after this small window, its lack of preservatives turns it into something more resembling a brick.  I am being generous with this 24-hour window; the girls I watch complain if I try to give them that morning’s baguette at dinnertime.   Therefore, I understand why you would have to throw away a surprising amount of baguette, but I don’t get the bag.  It will be there for weeks, and then suddenly be empty. My first thought was that they maybe take it to their country home and feed ducks, but then I remembered that ducks have no teeth, and would have no mechanism of dissecting and digesting the rock-hard month-old bread.  Maybe they eventually just throw it away.  But then, why not just throw it away in the first place? Is this some remnant of French peasant life that has seeped its way into bourgeois French society?  I wouldn’t be that surprised, as I am often shocked by very primitive elements in this most chic culture.

But the real question that I have is, how do they have leftover baguette? I do not need a bag for my dried baguette, because very rarely does a baguette endure longer than 24 hours before it is lovingly, albeit voraciously, consumed.  During my first couple months in Paris, the baguette barely made it 4 hours, as half was usual consumed during my endless climb of stairs.  What remained after my meal was then slathered in Nutella and enjoyed as dessert.   I excused this baguette frenzy under the disclaimer that my favorite boulangerie (as seen in the pictures)  was closed on weekends so I needed to profit from its days open.

I have calmed a little in my carb love, and as one person can’t (ok, shouldn’t – it is totally possible) eat a baguette in one meal, I am often faced with the question of what to do with my dried out baguette the day after.  Throwing it out is only an option that I reserve for inferior baguettes, or ones I forgot about until the fossilized.  To avoid the fate of the bread Nutella binge, I have found several ways for resurrecting dried baguette.  I originally tried to microwave it, which revives the interior for approximately 30 seconds before it collapses into a concrete state from which there is no recovery.  I learned my lesson.  Without a toaster or oven (wherein I could make bread pudding – yum) I resort to the following options:

For slightly dry:  Mixing olive oil, fresh Parmesan, and diced herbs atones for any dryness, as the bread becomes a vehicle for sauce.  This same theory applies to sopping up soup or fresh marinara.

For rather dry: Cut in chunks and sauté in olive oil to make homemade croutons. Then toss with spinach, smashed fresh cherries, balsamic vinegar, and feta.  Moral of story: when all else fails, just add more cheese

For very dry (we are talking 36 hours or so here):  Day after baguette toast, one of my favorites, made in a skillet with sizzling butter and then spread with lavender honey.

While I am babysitting, I submit to the unfathomable ways of the French and toss the rejected baguette ends into the cloth bag.  But not chez moi. A bag of dried baguettes hanging in the kitchen is a testament to a self-control that I have not yet developed, nor do I care to.

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Things happen slower here, they just do.  And I have learned to be ok with that, I really have.  But every now and then, I encounter especially inefficient French systems, ones that rekindle my indignation and annoyance.  To work in France requires approximately two hundred photocopies.  Ok, so that might be an exaggeration, but not by much. You send these photocopies to lots of offices, where they inevitable get lost, so then you eventually resend them, and the cycle continues.  Why have a computer do the work when you could have a massive network of offices, agencies, and paper handlers to employ one fourth of the population?

Back in October, I sent in a pile of paperwork to the OFII, the office that handles the long stay visas.  In theory, I should have received a summons within 4 weeks – 2 months maximum – to come for a medical examination.  I understand this idea, really I do.  Before giving me rights to one of the largest healthcare systems in the world, they want to know what they are getting in to.  So I sent my paperwork, and I even received the paper saying that they got it. And then I waited.

And waited.

And emailed everyone I could think of who might be able to help.

And waited.

And emailed everyone again.

And waited.

And finally, I went down to the office to see if perhaps there was a problem.  Realize, this is now eight months after I should have been summoned.  The office is a madhouse.  There is a Romanian young man, insisting that the woman with him is his wife and thus should get immigration benefits too.  This woman was at least sixty years older than himself.  The security guard is refusing and the man (who speaks no French) keeps on yelling that he wants to see the “Woman upstairs!!”.   There isn’t in fact, “a” woman upstairs. This is a government office building. There are many women upstairs, each as unwilling to help the screaming young man who doesn’t have any photocopies with him.  But I am ready.  I have a copy of every document I can even imagine being needed.  Which is good, because they have no record of my paperwork in the system. I sit down to fill out all of the same documents, and am assured that I will receive a summons within 2 days.

So I wait.

Finally, 2 weeks later, I am called for a medical examination.  I realize that it isn’t really that important now, as I will leave in another month, but I am an American.  We are rule followers. And I got to take a day off work to go in.  This morning I show up, with the third set of identical photocopies, which they have requested.  They take them, photocopy them, and keep them.  This means that they now have, theoretically, FOUR copies of my documents.  Then I sit and wait.  Finally, I am called to do the routine physical.  Basically, to decide if I can work in France, they check my eyes, height and blood pressure. Then they x-ray my lungs.  Now, if you are a medical person, correct me if I am wrong, but I am pretty sure that an x-ray machine can see through fabric — at least a hospital gown or something. I mean, it can look through our skin.  Not in France.  They continually remind you to be completely topless when you go in the exam room, where two ladies casually chatting will slowly take your x-rays. Then as I am standing against the machine, one lady tells me that she will tell me when to breath in.  I am expecting the typical “Breathe in, exhale”  thing but all the sudden, the lady starts shouting “Breath!! Inhale! More, more, more – breathe!!”.  In case I didn’t understand, she helped by making loud gulping noises.  And so I stand there topless gulping away at the air like my life depends it.

Eventually, after handing my stack of photocopies around from one desk to the other, I was finally given my long stay visa stamp.  This is a victory, but the really exciting thing is that they let you keep the x-ray.

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Though openly enraptured by many things French, I will not hesitate to admit that there are some things that Americans just do better. And I am not alone in this sentiment when it comes to television and movies.   Don’t get me wrong, there are French movies, some of which are quite good. Everyone who has studied French for any considerable length of time has seen Amélie, cried during Les Choristes, felt truly moved during Joyeux Noël, and laughed during Dîner de Cons.  But the list doesn’t get much longer.  I originally thought that this was just because they don’t make their way across the ocean, and this is partially true. But it is also because the French are often too busy devouring American cinema to watch their own films.

This week at work I was talking with some colleagues about why this is so.  The issue had come up because I mentioned that I had finally seen the series finale of LOST the night before and another teacher told me that she had all six seasons at home and was going to watch them while her husband disappeared over the coming weeks to watch the World Cup.  They started talking about their favorite TV shows and I was surprised to hear that they were all American, dubbed onto French TV. (Although when it comes to films, the French pride themselves on loving “VO,” voix originale, meaning in the original language with subtitles.)  I asked if there were any good French series.  Long pause.  One girl finally suggested a couple names, but the verdict was generally that American TV shows are such a hit that French shows don’t have much success.  One show that remains popular here is Little House on the Prairie.  Not even the stoic French can resist Pa Ingalls and his fiddle.

Americans, one teacher said, just know how to make you totally wrapped up emotionally in whatever they are showing.   Gad Elmaleh, a French comedian, has a skit where he talks about the same thing.  The music that fills American films has the power to make you weep over the smallest things, he says.  It builds up and then crescendos as a character falls to the ground, gripped in body wrenching sobs.  He demonstrates the American Movie Cry explaining as he dramatically sobs that, “Je pleure en Anglais” (“I’m crying in English.”).

To accompany the heart wrenching music, we decided that Americans are also the master of the Dramatic Plot.  A while ago I went to go see a movie.  Before the film, there were two trailers that perfectly embodied the cultural differences.  First, a trailer for the French movie Gainsbourg, in which we see the life of a musician who wanders from bar to seedy hotel room, to an open roofed car, and back again. Nothing actually happens in the preview, but an impressive number of cigarettes are smoked, an impressive number of women embraced, and an unimpressive number of words are spoken.  Directly after there was a preview for an American movie, The Book of Eli.  All of the sudden there is violence, thumping and escalating music, cars blowing up, flashes of a couple tearfully embracing as if it was the end of the world (probably it was), vaguely religious overtones, and stressful scenes of competent American bad boys angrily debating how to save the world.  By the end of the trailer you feel stressed, enthralled, and curious, all at once. This is the power of American cinema.

The result of American filmmaking is best seen in a movie like Avatar. The teachers I was talking to this past week loved Avatar (as did I) and one of them said, “Only an American film could have me totally caught up in the survival and personal happiness of big blue aliens with weird pony tails.”  But she’s right.  And thus, though France pretends to disdain much of American culture, she can’t stop watching our films, and who could blame her?

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There is a little street that I walk down at least four times a day called Rue Malebranche.  I use it to cut down towards my RER station and even though there is nothing really spectacular about it, I think it may be one of my favorite little streets in Paris.  It doesn’t have any special stores, restaurants, or gardens.  It is beautiful in its simplicity, in the quiet moment of calm that it offers in a bustling city.  Knit in between the some of the quartier’s louder streets, Malebranche offers a perfect moment of peace.  So many times I pause in the narrow, double level cobblestone passage to appreciate the utter stillness in the midst of an excitingly bustling city.

The street is a two level one, where the upper level dead ends and then has steps descending to a line of parking places below.   On a GPS this doesn’t show up, and last year a car actually vaulted off the steps, smashing the cars below, but miraculously the driver emerged alive.  Or so goes the story that the little girls relate every single time we pass the one smashed railing.  It seems so hard to imagine someone so unaware of their beautiful surroundings that they would drive off a flight of stairs.

This little street is often commandeered by movie sets, for probably exactly the same reason that I like it. It seems timeless, the Paris you see in old black and white photographs or movies. The Paris that everyone intuitively conjures up.  In fact, in the old Audrey Hepburn movie Love in the Afternoon, the apartment that she and Maurice Chevalier shared was on this little stretch of street.

But I liked it before I knew about Audrey, before I walked through a set on the way to work.  I loved it the first time I stepped into this empty passage at twilight, with the only sound being that of my footsteps on stones worn smooth from years of Paris sojourners walking slowly across them.

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After repeated relapses into chilly February weather, I think Paris is finally settling into the warm June days that one expects.   The sun is up by not long after 6 and stays light till 10.  When I walk to the train station in the morning there is that delicious hopeful feeling that comes with early summer, that excitement of leaving without a coat, and the joy of warm morning sunshine.  By August, we leave in the morning already wilted and hot, but in June, the warmth is still thrilling. By late afternoon, it can be uncomfortably hot, but this is forgiven in June because we have long been ready for it.  My room receives steady and direct sunshine between 4 and 8.  There is no place to step out of way of the rays that come streaming through the one wide window, thus I have discovered that I can actually lay out inside my room.  One of the mini perks of economy sized lodging.

Yesterday Emma and I, forever on the quest to find Paris’ best salon de thé, trekked out to the Bois de Boulogne, having heard a rumor that there was a tearoom in the Bagatelles garden.  There is not, in fact, but we were still able to take in the beauty of Bagatelles’ rolling hills (yes, you may sit on the grass), flowers, and most wonderfully – peacocks.  They wandered across the lawns with the grace and self-awareness that comes inherently accompanies possession of the most rapturous train of colorful feathers.  At one point, one especially striking bird strutted in between us and two other garden goers and all four of us just stood in silence, too in awe to even get out our cameras.

Later that evening I wandered slowly home through central Paris, this rambling path being on of my favorite walks.  I relish June mornings, I soak in sunny June afternoons, but nothing restores the soul like an early summer evening. Sometime long after the sun has passed its zenith the day reaches its most perfect moment. Even the tourists that now fill the city calm a bit and you find people standing still on bridges, reclining along the Seine, or walking slowly through the gardens.  The twilights of early summer are sweet and promising.  They make us forget that they will eventually fade to darkness, make us forget to do lists, or obligations.  June evenings offer an escape from time, a moment where the clocks of our busy lives stop.

As I crossed the Seine I stopped in front of a man playing guitar on the bridge.  He was singing the type of wistful poignant songs that are meant for such evenings, and I sat on the bench for a long while before even touching my camera.  Across from me a couple in matching striped shirts leaned closer to each other and listened.  A mother hugged her children close and rocked with the music.  Even a Michael Jackson impersonator (I am assuming, based on the Thriller-esque red leather jacket, black leather pants, and signature one glove) slipped onto the other end of my bench to listen. Every person on their way somewhere else, hypnotized by the golden summer glow and sweetly melancholy music.  Every one of us had somewhere else to be, but on June evenings, you find it hard to remember where that was, and even harder to care.

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A Box of Macarons

Because it had been a long time without a macaron photo, I give you a new one.  This past week has been a flood of visitors from Hillsdale.  Visitors offer a perfect excuse for a visit to Ladurée for some lovely macarons.  Usually my precious, but pathetic, one macaron is put in a little bag, but as there were six of us, we graduated to the box of twelve. What decadence.   In case you were curious, the current seasonal flavor is mint leaf (the teal one) which does indeed taste like you would expect.

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