Another no-agenda Sunday.
The most stressful part is picking out the right cepes.
Sometimes it is best to leave it up to the experts.
This one included.
And anticipating the busy week ahead.
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A few months back, I was at the wedding reception of mon mari’s best friend. Although i had a few fleeting conversations about New York and its amazing ‘energie’ with the other party guests, I was stuck in that buffer zone of not clinging to the people i had already used all of my Pringles jokes on and targeting who my next victim would be. So I did what any normal expat in search of inspiration would do, i propped myself up next to the cheese platter. Time went by. Champagne came and went. I was both invincible and completely invisible to the soiree. Victory was mine! Until the host of the evening, the ever sociable best friend of mon mari spotted me out. “You know, Jessie”, he whispered discretely in my ear. “If you want, I can happily introduce you to some people. Although I often think otherwise, you cannot make friends with a plateau de fromages.’ Before I could translate “Try me, bro” into French, I knew I was thoroughly busted.
Unlike America where everybody says “I love you!” and inclusion is a virtue, I am still teaching myself to be a bit more proactive in social situations in France. If not, it will be just me and the cheese.
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A few months back, I was catching up with my friend in a café. Right as the second glass of Bordeaux turned into the giggles, my friend’s glass knocked over, completely destroying her beautiful suede shoes. Not only did our table get a roaring round of applause from the after-work crowd, a glass of white wine was promptly delivered to us. According to a very generous spectator, white wine apparently does wonders on red wine stains. We doused her soaked shoes with another glass of wine. Although I would not recommend white wine as a miracle stain remover, we quickly learned that my friend’s shoes could hold two glasses of wine much better than we could. Made in France; you get what you pay for.
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It all began with a Sunday roast, rather a rosbif (translation: ‘French’ for roast beef). Like always, mon mari was in charge of the roast and I was in charge of the accompaniment. Digging through the fridge, I exclaimed, “Hey! I’ve got all the makings of a ratatouille!” I’ve always thought that any combination of zucchini, eggplant, red peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic would instantly qualify as a ratatouille, even disguised as a the quick saute. But mon mari is always discouraging me from making it. As Mr. Meat & Potatoes himself, I just shrugged it off as an unsuccessful attempt at force-feeding him something green. But finally, it came out, “c‘est pas terrible! A real ratatouille needs to be cooked for at least a day or two. It should be like jam when it is done”, he insisted. Was this just another cross-cultural, marital culinary scuff?
Sure enough, in a country divided by 200-something kinds of cheese, the preparation of ratatouille has inspired a national debate, too. The ingredients can simply be sautéed. Or they can be layered and baked in the oven. Or simmered away for hours à la Joël Robuchon. I sucked up my pride and rescheduled the ratatouille, leaving it to stew away into the evening hours. Alas, Robuchon, I mean, my husband, was right. Although all the vibrant colors of the vegetables were lost in the stewing, what was left was a rich, meaty concentration of vegetables, leaving it with an intensely savory sauce evoking a boeuf bourguignon. I poached some eggs in the ratatouille and dinner was served.
Although I will still use all three methods, all of them should be explored to come to a personal conclusion. But the simmering method upgrades ratatouille from an unconscious side dish to a sophisticated main course.
Frenchie knows best.
I apologize if it comes across that France is all daffodils and Laduree. In reality, like all great capital cities, a quarter of my time is spent on the Metro. Another quarter is a bureaucratic wild goose chase. And as a freelancer, another quarter is spent working and/or stressing about not working.
The weekends are welcome change of pace. The only excuses to leave the flat are buying bread and attending the ubiquitous aperitif, or French house party. The apero is quintessentially French, reminding me of what I am not. In short, it is nothing short of a bowl of mixed nuts, carrot sticks, a strict byob policy, and a smoky room of heated conversations. Unlike the All-American, all-inclusive parties I know, at an apero, one must fend for oneself. I try not to read up so much on all the The French Do the Darndest Things books that stack the shelves of all the anglophone bookstores in Paris, but I did find a particular a-ha moment thumbing through Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow’s take Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. Nadeau and Barlow compare conversation in English-speaking countries to badminton. Both parties must keep the conversation afloat by tossing it systematically back and forth. On the other hand, conversation in France is a proper duel. Wit, knowledge, and general fun facts of Haussmanian architecture are used to formulate an attack to outsmart the rival. And conversation is not something that everyone can engage in. It must first be engaged with guile.
I am an extroverted introvert, finally accepting the fact that I lean more towards the introverted side of the pendulum, feeling like I must be crass and crude for people to like me. So this leaves me in an uncomfortable place at aperos. I cling to mon mari for a while, but my smiles and head nodding can’t initiate me into the conversation. I usually just plant myself next to the buffet and desperately make eye contact. One bowl of cherry tomatoes and a wine mustache later, I am still immobile and impersonal, kicking myself for not throwing myself into the ring. I try spotting out someone I can use my impressive knowledge of American primetime sitcoms from the 1990s. But no one’s even looking at me! I make eye contact with a few guys. All they want to know is the origin of my accent and if I’ve heard of Bon Jovi.
Yes! I’ve finally reeled someone in! An acquaintance of mon mari, you know, that chick with the bangs. Someone finally feels my desperation and comes up for a little chat. “What are doing at this moment?” “Uh, nothing really. I’ve just discovered steak-flavored chips. And you?” “No, what are you working on at this moment?” “Oh”, I say, whipping up the roster of expos I’ve seen in the last six-months to keep me in the intellectual joust. Before belting out how how fabulous the Matisse was at the Pompidou, I’ve lost her to the kitchen. After several hourly trips to the toilet and a bottomless verre, the soiree is over. Phew!
So what’s a conversationally disenfranchised expat to do? Fortunately, alcohol is welcome in these settings. And thankfully, not all aperos are like this. But after a long week, sometimes I would rather spend an evening with company of Don Draper and the gang at Sterling Cooper Draper Price. Much like sussing up the illusive extroversion inside of me, it takes a little bit more courage just to take a deep breath and be myself in my new social climate. But all in all, it is much easier to do, especially if I can scope out someone who speak intelligently of the Cosby Show.
France is known for many delicious things. There’s charcuterie with all its nuance and varying levels of porkiness. Then there is the abundance of cheese. Charles de Gaulle himself so famously exclaimed, “how can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” Additionally, there is butter. It is the undisputed backbone of traditional French cuisine. It is butter that gives a croissant its flaky altitude of layers. And then there is the butter of the unknown, that special ingredient that creates sensuous sauces and envelopes vegetables on a restaurant plate.
However, there is a new realm of butter that I have never known before. One recent morning, I whipped up a tartine for my husband comme d’habitude. I sliced a day-old baguette lengthwise, threw it in the toaster oven, threw a little butter on top, and let the oven do the work. I spread on a thin layer of plum jam and awaited my ‘merci’. “I don’t like it when the butter is melted”, he said. My jaw dropped. It’s toasted bread! The butter is supposed to be melted by the heat of the toast! That’s magic of breakfast right there. I shrugged it off; so particular, this husband of mine. Then over our Alpine vacation, over one of the many chats about food over coffee with my mother-in-law, she exclaimed the same disfavor for the taste of melted butter, like in pound cake. But butter is as butter does, non? I’m an intelligent person. I saw The Tree of Life. And I liked it. But somehow, I never thought about the difference between butter in its many mediums. Alas, at the end of the day, I have lot of work to do. And I am still as American as I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!® – Spray.
I usually have no problem putting my own foot in my mouth, but my phone has been helping me out a lot lately. Bless its heart though, the poor thing isn’t completely bilingual yet either. It has not adapted its predictive text to French yet. Consequently, I have sent a few doozies lately.
When a friend texted proposing to get a coffee, intending to reply “oui, avec plaisir” (aka “I’d love to!”), my phone responded with “oui, avec plaudit”. No, we did not plan a rendezvous, but rather a rigoletto. Comment-allez vous? Comment-allez voucher. Fortunately, my phone has a thing for the opera; he will do just fine here.
I have been on a bit of a bread-making kick lately. As of now, I have not whipped up anything to give the four boulangeries on my block a run for their money. Most everything has been a bit doughy and heavy-handed like all amateur homemade bread. However, I came across a terrific recipe for pita on one of my favorite foodie sites, Gilt Taste. (Check it out here at http://www.gilttaste.com/stories/4806-make-perfect-pita). ‘Pita, you say? How granola of you to make,’ you must be thinking. ‘You might as well start making your own Windex and growing your own flaxseeds.” But at the end of the day, it’s something a bit less traditional to mess up, right? To my chagrin, it’s more or less the same recipe as pizza dough. But with the dough, there is more rolling than the Harlem Globetrotter-twirling pizza treatment.
And what’s the greatest part about homemade pita? Although there is no instant gratification in bread-making, there will be instant gratification when it hits the table. And I can attest for a lot of friends who have minimal NYC and/or twenty-something kitchens. Pita can be cooked either in an oven or in a skillet. Alongside some store-bought hummus, tabbouleh, and other Mediterranean accoutrement, it’s an instant party!
Two months ago on Youtube, every subculture, city resident, ethnic group, and household item had a lot of shit to say. “Shit New Yorkers Say” “Shit My Nigerian Dad Says” “Shit My Towel Says”. And there were a lot of unfortunate wigs and accents along the way. As soon as “Shit Shit Says” came out, the trend was a bit tired for my brilliant “SHIT AMERICANS SAY IN PARIS!” Reviewing my shelf of Eiffel Tower bedazzled diaries from the past, I had enough material to whip up a script, a storyboard, and all both of my friends to make this thing viral. But alas, I saw today that someone by the name of Ludovig beat me to it. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rriaeKyRVis) Luckily none of our one-liners overlap. And don’t worry, this American here has a lot of Shit to Say, too. So here is my own material for your viewing pleasure, minus some unfortunate time of me on camera.
And we’re back. Phew! The worst part about all the vacations in France is the constant ‘rentree’ or begrudgingly going to back to reality. I can always sense the day of the rentree. Parisiens walk the streets grumbling with their heads held lower. I can hear more crying babies in the distance. The Paris sky is a little bit more grey than usual. Chatter is instantly consumed with talk of the next vacation. And ‘watch your step’ refers rather to the deposits of naughty dogs than to Alpine ice.
But Spring is about to put all the grey days to rest! The trees are on the verge of blooming. And the 5 bank holidays in May will swiftly bring the summer vacation. Oh, and there’s the two-week Easter vacation somewhere in between, too.