"The evolving Francophile..."

My husband Jack has always wanted to live in Paris and learn French. I thought it would be good for him to achieve his life time dream. Hence, we moved to Paris in 2008. My first year was difficult. I started "missives" to relieve some stress and chronicle my life so friends back in the US could read what I am experiencing. I currently write about my food and travel experiences, which is my passion.

It is definitely a challenge to live here, but each year it gets easier, and quite enjoyable, in large part because I value friendships over locale. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris as do most Parisians, mais La vie est belle (but life is good)!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

May 19-25 1008

Monday: Had a difficult time getting up. Methinks, once again, I had too, too much wine at the Hungarian restaurant last night. Got on the metro to go to school, and it was packed. It seems everyone is back from their goo-gabs of holidays and vacations for late April and May.

Got to school and found out we were going to have a new student join us. His name is Steven from the UK; he is married to a French woman and runs a tour company. After a few sentences from his mouth (he was good), being the not-so-shy person, I asked, “did you make a wrong turn and wind up in the wrong class?” After an hour I was bolder and said, Steven you’re making us look like sh*t. After we returned from break, he was gone. Yeah! victory for the underdogs.

We talked among ourselves in class, and we all agreed that today’s session was extremely difficult. Last night, I ordered my food in French, and did really well and built up some confidence. Today I think my French is getting worse. Then a classmate reassured me that our lessons are getting harder. Well that’s a relief! Now I think I’m even dumber that I originally thought. I think the school’s strategy is to throw as much as they can at you in the beginning, to ensure you’ll enroll in the following classes to get more information on specific topics. Also, Repetition, repetition. I think our instructor was getting annoyed with us, ‘cause none of us seem to be getting the concept of verb changes with all the feminine and masculine tenses. I mean we’ve only been in class 10-days; we should be fluent, right? Well bless her heart; she did have a lot of patience, especially for a Monday. Methinks 4-hours a day is too much though. If I do enroll, it will be at a different school and for less time, ‘cause my mind can only take so much information a day.

Food for thought, as you get older, you think you’re getting forgetful. Unless of course you actually have Alzheimer’s. It’s actually because you have too much information and it’s taking much longer to retrieve. Isn’t it great to have an excuse, oops, I mean an answer for everything!

After school, the group who usually gets together for lunch decided to try something new? What a concept. So, where did we wind up for lunch? At a Turkish restaurant specializing in Kurdish food. It was a good deal €12.30 for a pre-fix meal of 4-courses. I always believe that when in doubt; order the “plat du jour”, plate of the day. We’ll that was a wrong move. Everyone except moi, ordered the plat du jour, which was a lamb stew, and guess whose dish wasn’t as good as the others, moi! Oh well. God’s punishing me for being a smart ass.

The group wanted to go for a walk, I was just too brain dead, excuse the pun, to think about going for a walk, and with a strong possibility it was going to rain, plus it was cold the decision was easy. So we went home, I took a nap (doing a lot of that lately) to give my brain a rest. Jack went for a walk in the “hood” and got a baquette for dinner. Since we had a pretty big lunch, made sandwiches and are watching French TV, to continue to train our ears to understand the words. Wondering if it’s working? Parlez is not the same as Parquet floors, who knew?

Tuesday: Same routine today, went to school. Only difference, today was a good day for me, Thank God, I need to start building up my confidence. After school a bunch of us did something really unique, we went to a bistro, imagine that, a French Restaurant in Paris, who knew? I, of course, ordered the plat du jour once again. Today for the entrée (starter) I selected a Nicoise salad, and for the plat de jour I order steak and pomme frit (French fries), basically meat and potatoes, how can you go wrong with that? My first course was good, but atypical of a Nicoise salad. First of all, in addition to tuna, they had cold rice mixed in with it. Thank God I like rice, but it was odd. My main course came and it must have been the toughest steak I’ve ever had. The fries were good though. What’s so amazing is that this restaurant is always busy. Then I remembered something interesting that a friend told me, by law, in France, cows are not allowed to eat any genetically altered feed, or allowed to get ‘fat’ unnaturally. Hence, they are not as fatty nor as tender as we have them in the US. Since they’re free-range, hormone free, and have a very lean diet, it makes sense that they’d be tough. No wonder I see so much veal for sale. So, if you’re in France, get the steak that’s served with gravy since it tends to be cooked longer and more tender with a nice sauce, albeit rich. I’m sure if you go to one of the more expensive restaurant ala Alain Bucasse than you can rest assure that that steak is going to melt in your mouth, ‘cause its probably farm raised differently. Oh well.

After class we went our separate ways. After taking a quick nap, Jack and I decided to take a walk a few blocks on the other side of us which he had discovered. It was literally 2-blocks from us, but a world apart. It’s still the Montmarte area, but it looked almost like Pacific Heights in SF, but tight knit (smaller streets and alleys). It was one of loveliest areas I have ever seen. I just found my new best place to live. Unfortunately, the average homes were going for about €2.8 million or about $4.5 million, and most of those homes were inherited homes that are kept in the family. Well so much for that thought. We walked further down the Caulaincourt area, totally new area for me as well, and so close to our neighborhood, in fact it is technically still our neighborhood. There were cute shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. Definitely need to explore this are more.

We walked back to our neck of the woods to get a baguette and some cheese for a very light dinner. It was almost 8 pm so we weren’t sure if the stores would be opened or not. We got to the Fromagerie just as they were closing so we quickly picked out 2 different cheeses. One was robuchon, which I’m familiar with, but we selected another one which to this day I have no clue what it is, but it tasted good. So we headed to our favorite boulangerie, and they ran out of my favorite baguette. Oh well. Headed up our street and went to our corner Boulangerie and got a baguette there. Believe it or not, not all boulangerie’s are created equal. You can definitely taste the difference between Boulangeries within one block of each other, who knew? Also, after you live here for a while you start creating a list of your favorite specialty shops. It’s definitely not one stop shopping ala Safeway.

Got home, did our homework and will be ready for the tomorrow.

Wednesday: Another cool weather day. School was uneventful; however, after class we had the most wonderful experience. Our friend Maya, who is actually around our age 39 (lol), and who is originally from Georgia (not US), Georgia like in the old Soviet Union Georgia but now lives in the UK, took us to one of only 2 Georgian restaurants in Paris. Another classmate joined us, Ranji who is from the UK as well. We headed out towards the St. German des Pres, which is only one of the most expensive areas in Paris, think Rodeo drive, Beverly Hills. So, I’m thinking this restaurant is going to be trés cher (expensive). After we got out of the metro, we walked along the streets towards the restaurants and passed some of the toniest dress shops I’d ever seen. Very, very designer, for example a pair of shoes would cost you an average of $2,000, I mean you can get a pair of Jimmy Cho’s shoes for under $1,000 in the US, who knew? I was truly fascinated with the smaller fashion houses and their styles. Very, very different than California haute couture of “sweats” which is unheard of wearing in France, unless you plan on actually playing a sports game.

We got to the restaurant named, Le Maison Georgianne there was a red rope across the front entrance as if anticipation of a red carpet. We felt very special. Guess I need to take a second mortgage on the house. Think about this, our 2-UK friends have Sterling pounds which is about $2 for 1 pound. So, their money buys a lot, even more than the Euro. As we walked in, it was just gorgeous, frescos on the wall, dining tables with real linen et.al. It was close to 2:30 pm when we got there, so we were the only customers. They seated us on the 2nd floor level surrounded by interesting Georgian art and paintings. We got our lunch menu, and it actually wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be, albeit by American standards expensive for lunch, €25 for the formule (fix priced menu) of 3 courses: entrée, plat, and dessert. We all decided on the formule a fairly expensive bottle of wine €40, cheapest one they had. Our wait person was not French, she was actually Georgian, who knew? But I think our maitre’d was Asian, oh well. So Maya spoke to her for quite a long time. None of us understood what she was saying, but she later told us that she was introducing us to Georgian cuisine and asked if rather than getting large portions of entrees (first course) if we could get all of them, but in smaller portions. She agreed. We were surprised that we got an “amuse bouche” which is common in most higher end restaurants in the US and it means, amuse the mouth. It was a tiny cordial of cold pureed greens topped with a cheese similar to paneer (Indian cheese), it was excellent.

After the amuse bouche, we got our first course. It was rolled aubergines stuffed with faux caviar of aubergines. They gave us 2 each, way too much. I thought that was it for appetizers, wrong! Then came the stuffed cheese en croute, followed by the meat en croute, than steamed buns one set with cheese and vegetables and another set with only meat, similar to pirogues. It was just incredible! Afterwards, we got our main course or as the French say, plat. Maya had the veal, Jack the lapin (rabbit) yes, he ate thumper, Ranji and I ate the lamb. Each course we had was accompanied with this interesting bread similar to a foccacia although shaped like a giant croissant. It was goooooooddddddd!!!!

Afterwards, Maya started talking to our wait person again. And, she convinced her to give us a taste of all the desserts. Well our wait person came back with 2 of everything. I’m a big eater and love desserts, but I was ready to explode, Nonetheless, I had a taste of all the petit fours and an interesting pudding made with grape juice thickened with tapioca flour, all very good.

As we were done, I had one last thing to check out, the bathroom. As in most French establishments, it was for men and women and there were only 2-stalls, albeit huge. Surprising, since the restaurant was so large. And, I knew we’ve gone upscale, since they didn’t have those silly blow-dryers to dry your hands, which is very common here, they actually had little cloth towlettes, the kind you have to launder, who knew?

We all decided we should come back, and thought about coming for dinner some night, until I saw the dinner menu, and the minimum formule started at €80 ($125) a person without any wine. Oh well, it was a great experience!

Came home, took a nap, did my homework, and it’s about 10:30 pm and I’m still feeling full. Imagine that!

Thursday: Another very humid day. School was uneventful, as the French say, ‘normal’ pronounced ‘nourmaaal’. However, after school a bunch of us took a city tour through the Republique, Marais, and Ile St. Louis. Granted, we’ve already been to all those places, but this tour was given in French, with a perspective of the history and its people. Jean, our tour guide was great. He spoke very crisply, and enunciated extremely well. He didn’t speak conversational French, he made sure he said every word so we could understand him.

The first area we went was the Republique. This is a working class neighborhood in transition, as most neighborhoods are. Basically, this area is where the new immigrants moved to, and as a result of work history et.al. formed unions for workers rights etc. As you probably know or heard about, the French love to demonstrate and strike at the drop of a hat. In fact, it took Jean forever to get to Paris to conduct our tour cause the RER (train to suburbs) was on strike. They have a lot of social programs for the working class at the chagrin of a lot of the conservatives. But I think they out number the conservatives.

Afterwards, we went to the Marais, he gave us an interesting history of how this area has evolved, good and bad. It use to be a not such a great area, but a lot of gay people moved in, renovated the old buildings and apartments, and now this area become very, very hip and gentrified. It is out of the price range for many working class people. Sound familiar, ever heard of SF or Baltimore?

After the Marais, we went to the Ile St. Louis and then onto to the Notre Dame. I could go on and on, but what I basically heard is that Paris is becoming a very socially stratified city of riche, nouveau riche, and a rising middle class, pushing the working back bone of Paris to the outlining areas of Paris the Banlieu (suburbs). In the past, people did not want to talk about their wealth because it was seen as being associated with the nobility, which was a no-no. Now people are starting to talk about wealth, possessions, or what areas they live etc. The French were always very status conscious, but now they’re also becoming “wealth” conscious. A week earlier, there was an article in the paper that broke down the wealth in percentages, e.g., 10% of Paris is at this level, etc., etc., this type of writing was unheard of just a couple of years ago. And, I actually saw interviews of people in newspapers (yes, I can now read French) about people discussing how much they make etc.

Jean took us to some of the most interesting areas we would have never thought of looking into. Secret courtyards, hidden gardens et.al. It was truly a nice experience.

After the tour a group of us went to the Shakespeare & Co bookstore. This bookstore is the sister bookstore of City Lights in San Francisco, which was made famous by Alan Ginsberg, the “beat generation” et.al. In addition to being crowded, it was really expensive. So, I just hung out outside and just people watched.

After the bookstore, we headed down to Rue Severin. A somewhat tourist area with quaint little alley ways lined with mostly restaurants and café’s. We were all thirsty and just picked a café where we could people watch. Unbeknownst to us they did not sell wine, only soft-drinks, beer and hard liquor. We were all in total shock, imagine this, a café in Paris that does not serve wine. Tres bizarre as the French would say. I wish I had taken a picture ‘cause no-one would believe me, but our waitress was so extreme. She was about 60-years old. Had her hair severely pulled back in a bun. She wore black with her sleeves pulled all the way down to her wrist and her neck was covered. Reminded me of a nun, and just as mean. She had exaggerated, black thick horn-rimmed glasses out of the 60’s. She looked like a stereotypical frustrated old maid. She had the personality to match. She kept condescendingly telling is pas de vin, (no wine) if she wasn’t so funny to us, we probably would have walked out. She almost didn’t let one of our women friends into the toilette. It was barricaded by a broomstick. Probably the one she flies on. She brought our order, and waited til we paid, unheard of in Paris. She probably thought we were crooks or something. She didn’t bother giving us the menu so I never saw the prices. €8 ($12) later for my watered down vodka and OJ, I got angry and decided not to leave any change (tip) and we decided to go to dinner.

Now dinner was another experience. We saw a wonderful window with a rotisserie of all sorts of wonderful meats. So we decided to go there. The restaurant was called Marathon. DO NOT GO THERE!!! We ordered our meal, it was just ordinary. When we got our bill, the bill was all wrong. Rather than charging Jack for a pre-fix menu they charged him individually. Our friend Maya asked if she could switch sorbet for her pre-fix dessert, and they said yes, but she was charged for that as well. French don’t like public confrontation, on the other hand, I have no issue with confrontation, nor did Maya who has lived in the UK for years. We argued with our waiter, but to no avail. I got pissed, and turned around and told the people behind me to look at their bill carefully. As we left, I made it very clear we were never coming back. They didn’t care, ‘cause it’s in a touristy area and most people won’t come back. Oh well! At least I got it out of my system nonetheless. Chalk it up to experience in a big city. The next day at school, our teacher told us that that area is extremely touristy, it’s like Fisherman’s Wharf in SF and locals do not go there.

Friday: today was uneventful. After school, we didn’t go out with our friends for lunch as we normally do. We went to the bank to get our bank cards. We’re official now, we have our own European bankcard. In Europe, most people have a chip in their bankcard. This chip allows them to debit from their account all expenses for groceries, restaurants, and the metro station. In fact, you see a lot of restaurants with these portable reader machines that looks like a calculator on steroids, you simply give them your card, they insert it, you key in your 4-digit code, and viola it’s paid for. Afterwards, we had to rush home ‘cause our landlady needed some stuff from our apartment.

So we went home, had lunch. I took a nap, how unusual (lol). Afterwards, had dinner. Jack wanted to go to the Eiffel tower to look at the light show. The Eiffel tower is lit up at night. It was already 9:30 pm and I just didn’t feel like going out, so Jack went out on his own. He came back and told me that a lot of the locals went to the park area, had picnics late into the night. The Eiffel tower light show was not a show at all ala Las Vegas, but mostly just lit up and sparkled. I suppose when my sister comes to visit, we can go and take look at it, so we can say we saw it lit up.

Saturday: It’s raining. We have a big evening ahead, we’re going to La Coupole, a restaurant in Montparnasse that seats about 300-people. The restaurant is famous, because it’s where Josephine Baker entertained, and where starving artists at the time (e.g., Picasso) would pay for a meals with their paintings. They’ve since taken the paintings away and replaced them with photos. I’ll go into detail later.

We had the afternoon to kill, so we went to a several photo and art exhibits in the 20eme arrondissment. Most of the starving artists have been pushed out of the Montmarte, where we live, for cheaper rent in the 20eme. As in most neighborhoods, it’s in transition and you only see locals, no tourists. The exhibits were in several different homes and studios, so we selected a few we thought would be interesting. There was only one exhibit which we thought was interesting, lithographs of portraits, very interesting. My problem, is most of these old buildings have no elevators, so after the 2nd or 3rd exhibit I told Jack, unless he can carry me on his back, he’d have to go up his own. So Jack went to the exhibits that were located in the 5th or 6th floor while I waited downstairs. Imagine walking up 5 or 6 flights of stairs with the humidity around 100%. You get the picture, excuse the pun.

With the upcoming evening, I decided to visit my Aunt. Yes, I do have an Aunt here and her name is “Clairol.” It’s amazing what a little dye will do for you. It will certainly make you look at least 5-years younger. It was still early and we weren’t supposed to meet our friends until 8 pm, so we decided to take a walk around our neighborhood even though it was raining. The walk made me hungry, and I decided to stop in a patisserie. Jack didn’t want to ‘cause he wants to maintain his svelt self, but the devil, namely moi, made him do it. I now have a new favorite pastry. It looks like a Danish only better. It had chocolate chips, not melted, just chips, with pistachios and caramelized sugar. Jack had his usual lemon tart. I swear I don’t know why the devil lures me into these kinds of illicit places. Oh well.

We took our weekly French bath, just kidding or maybe not. Then got all spiffed up in a sports coat and slacks rather than jeans. What a change. The Montparnasse is almost at the end of our metro line. It only took us about a half an hour. It seems it doesn’t take more than a half an hour to go anywhere in Paris on the metro.

Got to the restaurant La Coupole at 8 pm and our friends Maya and Jane were already there. There was one missing, Mary Jo from North Carolina who splits her time between Paris and NC. Maya told us they weren’t giving out reservations cause it would be a busy night, since it’s Saturday and it’s also Mother’s day in France. Needless to say it was packed, but the Maitre’d said if we ordered drinks in the bar we would bet seated within 45 minutes to an hour. Jack and Maya went ahead and went to the bar, and Jane and I waited for Mary Jo outside. It was about 8:15, so we decided to head in and get a drink while we were waiting. The bar was packed. Jack warned us that it would take forever to get a drink. But Jane said she had experience pushing burly men in Australia around to get her way, hmmm. We waited at the bar, and we almost gave up. Being the shy person that I am finally said, can we order a drink sarcastically So they took our order. Shortly thereafter Mary Jo showed up.

It was unusually warm in the restaurant, despite the very high ceilings. We later found out that the air conditioner wasn’t working. Wouldn’t you know it, one of the most humid nights in the century and there’s no air-conditioning. Like I’ve always said, we have immaculate timing. Oh well.

About an hour and half later we got seated. Typically you share tables with strangers, but tonight they had a wonderful table for us that was U-shaped and we didn’t have to share. Unfortunately, our table was the furthest from the door so it was sweltering hot. We were stripping layers of clothes off us, and the other patrons were all fanning themselves with makeshift fans. It was a scene out of a Hitchcock movie. The restaurant was packed. All the patrons were sweating, but the waiters didn’t even break out in any type of sweat. We were trying to figure out how they did it? Than Mary Joe told us, waiting tables in France is a profession and they are professionals, whereas in the US it’s a temporary job. Even though, inquiring minds want to know how they did not sweat? I guess it will be an unsolved mystery.

We all ordered and Jack was the only one that got the “formule” pre-fixed dinner. Surprisingly, the menu was in French despite the large number of English speakers in the restaurant. Thank God we’ve been taking French lessons. I was going to order a starter of mixed cold seafood and a main dish, then I decided against it. Thank God. The mélange of seafood could have fed a small island. It had every conceivable shell fish imaginable. I guess at €46 almost $70 a platter it should be plentiful. Thank God I didn’t order anything else.

The lights suddenly dimmed, we thought it was for romantic atmosphere, but it turns out when someone is celebrating a birthday or anniversary, they dim the lights and all the wait people gather around and start singing and parade a gigantic cake with a gigantic sparkling candle to the table. Nice touch, albeit, there must’ve been 100 people in that restaurant that were celebrating a birthday that night. One third of the patrons couldn’t have been born today, me thinks some of them lied to get a free cake. We were trying to convince Jane to say it was her birthday, but she and I do not celebrate birthdays. Oh well.

After dinner, I just could not eat anymore. Too much food. With the exception of Jane and myself the others ordered dessert. Despite the sweltering heat, the food was great and the company even better. Two out of three isn’t bad odds.

Excuse the pun, but food for thought: Have you noticed that the best times spent are always spent with friends, despite anything else, e.g., bad food, bad atmosphere etc.

Maya wanted to go to a piano bar, but it was already 12:30 am and I was concerned about getting home, plus I was just too tired and lost 10 pounds of fluids through sweating, so I needed to go home and replenish all the lost liquids with some hearty wine…

Sunday: Low key day. We plan on having dinner with our friend Sue and her Parisian fiancé tonight. This gave me a chance to do my laundry. I decided to iron my clothes, what a concept. I did find some spray starch, I think, but when I used it smelled a little bit like insect spray. I used it anyway. Who knows, either my clothes will stay nice and pressed or it will repel fleas and mosquitoes. Either way, I’ll be a winner.

Sue and her fiancé Xavier, pronounced zahvee-a live in the suburbs. So we got a call from them that they’d be a little late. It takes about an hour to get from the suburbs to Montmarte. Sorta like Concord to SF. No problem. Most people don’t eat dinner til late anyway. So we are to meet them at our local metro station, Rue des Abbesses at 7:45 p.m. While waiting for them we sat on a bench in the plaza and listened to a fabulous street musician playing flamenco guitar. Waiting in Paris isn’t all that bad. Ah, la vie c’est bonne!

When they arrived shortly thereafter, we walked around the Sacre Coeur and then down the Place de Tetre when it started to rain. Jack went back to our apartment and got some umbrellas for us, what a gentleman. Afterwards we down the famous Rue Lepic made famous by the fact they have the smallest winery in the world, hence, produce the most expensive wines in the world, and it’s also the street where Van Gough’s brother lived as well as where the film Amelie was made.

Xavier speaks 4 languages fluently, of course in addition to his native French, he speaks Dutch, German, and English. And, we can barely speak one language, hate him. Actually, he’s quite nice. Sue is American, but has been living in Germany for the past couple of years and speaks German fluently, and is in French school with us.

We decided on a Tibetan restaurant a few blocks from where we live. We got there about 9:30 pm, good dinner time, and the 3 ordered a salad and a vegetarian dish. I don’t do vege-terrorist food and so I ordered chicken curry. Good food, prices reasonable. We had a great time chitchatting about life in the US vs. in Europe and making all those wonderful comparisons, like why are Americans so violent? Answer, because we have guns. In France, it takes an act of God to get a gun, hence, France, and especially Paris, has the lowest murder rate in Europe. It truly is safe here. Who knew?

It was about midnight, and Xavier mentioned a 4-letter word, WORK. So we decided to take them to the metro so they could get home at a reasonable time and Xavier could get some sleep work.

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