Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Christmas Underground

Forget the eggnog, Christmastime in France is when everyone pulls out all the stops and stuffs themselves with the most luxurious foods around: lobster and smoked salmon, caviar and champagne, fois gras and chocolates—it’s as if the holiday table were a buffet at the Cannes Film Festival.

This year is no exception, crisis notwithstanding. Supermarkets are at war over who has the best deals on oysters, towers of chocolates loom over store displays, and your waistline expands just browsing the aisles. That said, all that stuff adds up at the checkout counter, especially since when it comes to holiday entertaining, France is a friendly country, and those who don’t invite at least a dozen people over on the big day are considered slouches.

How to pay for all that without going into hock? There are ways. For one, I have detected a Christmas underground. There is an untold volume of undeclared traffic in holiday goodies. For example, friends of my in-laws, who are otherwise virtuous, church-going upholders of the law, seem to be the leaders of a chocolate smuggling ring. The details are shady, but every year a large Tupperware box of excellent chocolates appears at my in-laws courtesy of this couple, who do mysterious pickups at non-descript parking lots, and then sell their goods to their friends at bargain rates.

These networks seem to be very intimate, word-of-mouth operations. Just the other day, I was surprised to arrive at the home of an acquaintance and see a table full of vacuum-packed whole smoked salmons. Wondering if they had decided to have a bagel-and-lox-a-thon, I asked what was up. No, despite the recent frenzy for bagels (including an – urp – bagel hamburger) that was not it. It was another black market Christmas affair: I order a ton from my secret source, and you buy top quality at cut rates. I felt a pang of envy and wished that I was in on the deal. I wondered whose hands needed to be greased, and what the secret password was. I’m not usually one to defy the law for illegal or mind-bending substances, but good smoked salmon is an entirely different matter. Sign me up for next year.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Right to Shop on Sunday


There’s been a lot of talk about “repos dominical” around here lately.  Every time I hear the phrase I imagine a priest having a late afternoon cup of tea, but it really refers to the right of French people to relax on Sunday, and (most importantly) not work.  Worker’s rights have always been a hot subject in France, but this week the issue is not the right to work, but the right not to work.  While the original idea was to observe the Christian Sabbath (I wasn’t so off base with my tea-drinking priest), the holiness of this day now revolves around the idea that the government should keep workers from being overworked.  Thus, almost all stores and businesses are obliged to close on Sunday. 

When I first moved here from New York City, the thought of a store-free Sunday was frightening.  After all, I was used to being able to buy a toilet brush at 11pm on a weekday.   Then one Sunday I looked out the window and saw entire families strolling down the Promenade Plantée and it struck me that I rarely saw entire families doing much of anything in the Big Apple.  I thought, maybe it’s worth not being able to buy thumbtacks at a moment’s notice if it means strengthening family ties and upholding cultural traditions. (This was before I learned that those same traditions can turn around and kick you in the butt when you are married to them.) I got used to organizing my life differently, and enjoyed the quiet ambiance of a city Sunday.

Anyway, here’s what happened:  when the court ruled that certain giant DYI chains do not have the right to open on Sundays, said monster hardware stores defied the powers that be and opened anyway.  It was a sort of anti-strike, where instead of refusing to go to work, employees refused to not work.  You see, these mega-stores have been open on Sundays for some time now, due to a recent softening of regulations.  But one of the smaller chains did not get the same dispensation and went to court to complain that it was unfair.  Instead of saying, “gee, you’re right, why do only the big chains get to stay open?” the court simply closed down the big chains too.   Not surprisingly, the big chains were outraged, saying that not only would they lose money, but the workers would also lose precious pay.  Thus, the anti-strike (see ABC news article for details).

It all seems pretty ironic to me.  The government, and the unions (who seem to have taken over from the church on the Sunday question), both trying to protect the worker, are keeping the workers from working.  Which seems like a strange stance to take in the middle of a huge financial crisis when unemployment is a national problem.   Not that I’m a big fan of huge chain stores, mind you.  I’d prefer to pay a little more and go to the local hardware store where I won’t have to wander around for an hour looking for a package of screws.  But I think all stores, big and small, should be allowed to open on Sunday.  Not only would it provide jobs, but it would take a load off your 9 to 5-er, who currently has to do all his or her shopping on Saturday (note to tourists: avoid shopping on Saturdays in Paris unless you enjoy hand-to-hand combat).  True, it means that Sundays would lose their hallowed Sabbath status, but if they can handle it in hyper-Catholic countries like Italy and Spain, I think they can deal with it in “secular” France.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ode to an Apéro

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I’m a mom with a kid just out of French primary school.  This means that for the last eight years, a gong has been going off in my head at 4:30, when school gets out.   If there’s study hall, the gong gets postponed to 6.  But when it goes off, someone needs to be at school for pickup/childcare, and since I work at home, I am usually that someone. All of this points to one grim fact:  no late-afternoon apéro for me. 

I realize this may seem selfish and petty, but on the rare occasions when I’ve actually been in the city in the late afternoon when the sidewalk cafés are crammed full of people enjoying an post-work drink, and watched the sun slanting through golden globes of Belgian beer, I have felt a profound and lasting envy.

Short for apéritif, the apèro is the French version of cocktail hour, without hard liquor.  In theory, it involves lightly alcoholic beverages and crunchy things to nibble on.   In reality, American-style cocktails are becoming quite fashionable, as are Spanish-style tapas, so the Parisian apéro experience can be many things, but for the sake of argument, let’s stick with tradition. 

I was first introduced to this tradition in Provence, where the apéro has been raised to an art form.  On a sunny afternoon, the cafe terraces in Avignon are filled with happy customers sipping bright yellow panachés, green perroquets, and red diabolos (which sound exotic but are actually beer flavored with sweet syrups or lemonade).  At the time my son was a baby and I wouldn’t have dreamed of indulging in such non-maternal behavior.  Recently married, my French mother-in-law was already shocked that I frequented cafés.  Apparently, in the old days, virtuous women did not drink coffee unattended, and here not only was I sipping in public, but I was exposing my tiny tot to my unorthodox behavior.  So a late-afternoon pastis was definitely out of bounds.

This year, my son has entered collège (junior high school), and not only does he get to and from school on his own, but he would prefer that I stay as far away as possible during his commute.  He has his own keys so I don’t have to be on hand when he arrives in the afternoon.  All this points to a new reality:  I can indulge in non-maternal behavior.

And so, yesterday, when a beautiful Indian summer afternoon presented itself, I took the plunge.  A friend and I parked ourselves on a café terrace and ordered an overpriced demi of rosé and indulged in a full-blown Parisian apéro.   We gulped down our doubts about our continued usefulness as mothers, and toasted our newfound freedom.  We felt young, daring and debauched. 

Then we both ran home to make dinner.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The French Grand Tour

Back in the 18th century, upper class Europeans were fond of making a “Grand Tour” that included visiting France, Italy, and Austria, with a little bit of Spain or Germany thrown in for extra flavor.  It was a rite of passage, a way of furthering one’s cultural education, and of showing the folks back home that you were a worldly sort. 

Today, at least in France, the Grand Tour has headed west—to the Far West, to be exact.   It seems like every French person I meet who has the means has been to, or is planning to go to, the American Southwest.  At first I thought this was due to an overabundance of cowboy movies being broadcast on French TV.  I still vividly remember the first time I saw John Wayne speaking fluent French in a dubbed Western—a shock like that leaves psychological scars that can take years to heal.  But I now think this obsession goes beyond Hollywood, and speaks to the mythic image of the US in the minds and hearts of millions of French people. 

After over a dozen years in this country, I’m still amazed when I realize how many people here and in other places see Americans as essentially cowboys.  And no matter how many times you tell people that your grandfather was a hat maker from Vitebsk, when they look at you they still see someone blonde and freckled who grew up on the Great Plains. 

But there’s another essential reason that tens of thousands of French people trek halfway across the planet to roast in southern Utah—it’s frigging gorgeous.  This fact was unclear to me until recently, when I got so tired of hearing about the Southwest from the French that I actually went there.  Aside from a visit to the Grand Canyon when I was five (when my main interest was avoiding falling in), I’d never been, a fact that made me burn with shame when faced with so many delighted reports from my neighbors.   So a couple of years ago, I packed up my French husband and son and took them on a mini-version of the French Grand Tour.  I say “mini” because we didn’t have the time to do the classic tour, a Herculean event that takes at least three weeks and includes the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches National Parks, Monument Valley, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Yosemite—and for the truly possessed—Death Valley.

We settled for the Grand Canyon and Zion, with a side trip to Joshua Tree on the way back to California.  We were enchanted, enraptured, enthralled, and every other over-used adjective you can think of.  Even though I grew up about an hour from the Mojave, I never appreciated the desert until adulthood.  A decade in the confines of New York City probably had something to do with my newfound appreciation of wide-open spaces.  In any case, I became hooked on red rock, and this past summer we made another excursion, this time to Monument Valley, Arches and Bryce Canyon.  The only part of the tour I take issue with is the obligatory stop in Las Vegas, but I will complain about that in a future post.  

So, thanks to the French, I am now a one-person promotional campaign for the American Southwest.  Go!  It’s beautiful.  You’ll never see cowboy movies the same way again.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The New Franklin D. Roosevelt

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The Paris metro’s Franklin D. Roosevelt stop used to be a step back in time.  You got on the train in the beginning of the 21st century and got off in the middle of the 20th.  The platform for the number 1 line, in dashing shades of bright orange and steely blue, was particularly evocative.  You half expected Walt Disney to step out of the wings singing “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.”  While Wikipedia tells me that this version of the station’s decor was unveiled in 1957, to me it looked like the mid-1960s, sending me on a magical mystery tour of my earliest memories, of cone-shaped paper cups at water fountains, of my dad’s Pontiac in the driveway, and snippets of the New York World’s Fair.  All I remember of that event are the dinosaurs at the Ford Pavilion (which later ended up at Disneyland), that Space-Age globe (which still hovers over Flushing Meadows), and terrifying fireworks that made me cry.   It was a time when technology was the key to the future, science could solve all problems, and messy wars like that one in Europe were a thing of the past.  Never mind that there was a seriously messy conflict going on in Vietnam.  That was something you could choose not to think about while you teased your hair into a beehive.

Until I saw that metro station, I never even realized that the Space Age arrived in France, despite having seen Barbarella.   It just wasn’t something you expected to see just underneath the Champs Elysées.  But there it was, with the words “Franklin D. Roosevelt” spelled out in bold American letters, lit up from below like a cinema marquee.   True, it was worn and somewhat seedy looking, but that gave it a ragged nostalgic charm.  It was as if you had come across a sunken relic of another age, like the forgotten New York subway in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. 

But alas, it’s close proximity to the Champs Elysées, that yawning commercial mouth dedicated to digesting tourist dollars, made it inevitable that someone at the mayor’s office would decide it was time to give Franklin D. a makeover.  Didn’t anyone tell them that “mid-century” design was all the rage?  Whose idea was it to turn the number 1 platform into a trendy club?  Black and gold brick, digital screens showing videos no one bothers to understand…it feels like a giant advertisement for something expensive.   I like the fact that the ceiling seems to have sprung a leak and the paint on the gold tiles is already peeling.  Serves them right for going against the glorious grain of time. 
 
But all is not lost.  There is still the number 9 line platform to admire.  An awesomely awful combination of grey and gold with bright yellow molded plastic seating, it still harkens back to the days of LBJ and Charles de Gaulle, of Ford Mustangs and Simca 1000s, of Ann-Margaret and Brigitte Bardot…ah, here’s to the memories, real or imagined…

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Parisian Grass Munchers

Yesterday, with a splendid sun soaring in the heavens, I wanted to be a sheep lolling in a pasture.  In weather like that, who needs to do anything else besides lie in the grass and chew?  To be precise, I wanted to be a Ouessant (pronounced “wessahn”) sheep.  Members of that venerable ruminant race have recently been hired by the Paris city hall to graze in the 19th arrondissement.  Not a bad gig for a sheep. 

On April 3, four fluffy Ouessants (also known as Ushants) were let loose in an overgrown, 2000 square meter field next to the municipal archives.  Their mission?  To cut the grass.  For two weeks, they will eat and eat and eat until the grass is shorn to crew cut length.  This herbaceous fiesta is actually an experiment in “eco-pasturing,” basically a non-polluting and fun way to mow the grass.  Look Ma!  No herbicides!  No noise, grass clippings, or chemical fertilizers either.  If everything goes according to plan during the next few experimental runs, our ovine friends may end up grazing in the Bois de Vincennes or the Bois de Boulogne.  

The city hall website has supplied a charming video showing the sheep capering about their temporary home.  The sheep themselves look like they could use a little mowing.  The Ushant breed was chosen for its hardy “rustic” quality and its small size—also known as the Breton Dwarf, this is one of the smallest sheep around.   In other words, they are very cute. 
  

Des moutons dans la ville ! par mairiedeparis


To my surprise, I learned that this sheep has a tie, albeit a loose one, to the American Revolution.  It seems that Ushant, a tiny island off the coast of Brittany on the south end of the English Channel, was the site of a nasty naval battle between the French and the English in 1778.  France, loath to pass up a chance to attack the British, had recently decided to enter the war on the American side.  The British sent out a fleet to keep an eye on French naval activities in Brest, and the French sent out a fleet to see what the British were up to.  They met up somewhere around Ushant, where the weather got so bad that neither side managed to do much damage to the other, nor could either claim a victory.  Each fleet came home to cranky officials and much political squabbling.

The Battle of Ushant by Théodore Gudin
Where do the sheep fit in?  Well they don’t, really.  They do come from the island though, and I can imagine them mournfully bleating while the battle raged at sea.  I’m sure they are much happier munching on grass at the archives.

Friday, April 12, 2013

April Showers


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After an interminable winter, people are wandering outside this week to get a taste of sunshine, an element that now feels as priceless as caviar.  Like goldfish bobbing to the surface of their aquarium to gobble down food, we turn our heads up and gulp down the few rays of sunlight that pierce through the clouds. 

This was one of those record-breaking winters, not just in terms of quantity of snow and cold, but length.  No one has ever seen anything like it, not the vegetable guy at the market, not the old lady downstairs, not even the weather service. It’s been so cold that it is mid-April and most of the trees still have no leaves.  Plants whose buds usually start to open in late February are only daring to flower now.  Who knows what kind of havoc this is going to wreak on food prices in the coming months, not to mention hay fever season.

Not only has the cold and grey had a serious impact on health and happiness on an individual level, but it seems to have also eaten a hole in the country’s psychic ozone layer.  The number of scandals and predictions of doom has skyrocketed in the French media, which is not known for its sunny outlook even under the best circumstances.  First there was the dreadful revelation that the budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, the guy in charge of cracking down on tax evasion—has been hiding money in a Swiss bank account and not paying his taxes.  Apparently, he has been sleeping in his car to avoid the press.  It is still unclear which is his worst sin:  hiding the money or admitting that he lied about it.  An elected official being linked to financial scandal is not an unusual occurrence in France, in fact it is so common that no one seems to think it’s a problem for a president to be under suspicion of fraud, or for a jailed politician to be elected again once he gets out of the clink.  But what is unforgivable in this case is that the guy not only lied, but then he admitted that he lied.  That is simply not done.  What usually happens is that an official investigation drags on for so many years that by the time it goes to court, everyone has forgotten what the original fuss was about.  What was he thinking?  Must have been the weather that got to him.

But if that wasn’t bad enough, today's revelation is that the Grand Rabbi of France is not only a plagiarist, but also he lied about his academic credentials.    I can only imagine the Talmudic discussions that are going to come out of that one.  If you can’t trust the Grand Rabbi, who can you trust?  Really, what I’d like to know is who is this guy in the first place and why is he so grand?  What makes him any grander than any other rabbi?  Why is this night different from any other night?  If not now, when?  All I can say is—feh. 

You’ve probably noticed that I’m casually sauntering away from any discussion of the overall atmosphere of gloom and dismay that has settled over the current president, François Hollande, and his cabinet.  (On top of everything else, the president's camel got eaten in Mali).  I don’t feel qualified to even begin to sort that one out.  Though he seems pretty OK to me, I hesitate to say that out loud or I could get punched out in my conservative suburb where half the population turned out for a march against the legalization of gay marriage.  Don’t get me started…

Instead I think I’ll just sit on my balcony and soak up those rays and think about what plants I’m going to pot this weekend.  That is, if it doesn’t rain.