Friday, October 26, 2007

Tomatoes—the Sequel

Now I've done it. I went back to the open-air market this Sunday, and as usual, I went to the butcher. It was freezing cold and my family was waiting for me to get home and make lunch (yes, I have bowed to cultural pressure and actually fix a Sunday lunch), but I really needed to buy some meat to stock up the freezer. The butcher greeted me with a knowing smile, and waited for an opening. We chatted about this and that as he ground meat and sliced steaks, and then I mentioned that he must have a lot of work since theirs is pretty much the only butcher stand in the market. "There used to be six of us," he started, and before I could say "steack haché" he had launched into a long and involved discourse on the dwindling supply of butcher shops and how the kids these days aren't interested in working that hard, and the changing times, and lots of other stuff that frankly I couldn't understand because he took a quiet confidential tone and it was very noisy in the market. It was interesting, but I'm not sure that I want to get into a detailed discussion about the economics of the meat market and taxation of small businesses every time I want to buy some hamburger. I can't complain too loud, though, after all, I started it last week (see post below).

I have to admit I have a weakness for talking to the merchants at the open-air market. Now that my French is finally decent enough to be able to be able to catch most of what's going on, I like to get in on the running commentary that usually swirls around the stands, a combination of jokes, cooking advice, gossip, and simple math as your bill is totaled up. It's not all selfless camaraderie—the sellers know that the stronger the connection they make with the client, the more likely he or she is to become a regular, which is important when there are 6 other stands all selling the same green beans. Still, I really admire the people who work in the market. They have a killer of a job—they wake up before dawn, lug dozens of cases of produce or other foodstuffs into a truck, drive dozens (sometimes hundreds) of kilometers to get to work, then unload the truck, set up their stand, and then spend 5 or 6 hours selling their product at breakneck speed to hundreds of customers who are all impatient and need to get home. Some of the people I've spoken to never have a weekend (they work several different markets) and rarely take vacations. And yet, many of them truly seem to enjoy their work. If you ask them, they'll say, with a mixture of pride and resignation, that it's not an easy life, but it suits them. They throw themselves into their demanding lives with a verve that makes me almost jealous. They shout, they laugh, they curse, but most of all they seem incredibly alive. When I think of my own tepid forays into the job market, I feel pretty wimpy in comparison...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Le Divorce

Finally, a scandal that shocks even French people. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his wife Cécila, are going to get divorced. Hard to imagine the fallout if such a catastrophe should fall on an American president during the first six months of his or her mandate. As it is, it’s kind of hard to imagine what’s going to happen here. It’s not as if it wasn’t pretty obvious from the beginning that the royal (sic) couple were on the rocks. In fact, they were splitsville before the presidential campaign, and many found their miraculous reconciliation during the campaign season a bit convenient. Personally, I wondered how much he paid her. After all, she didn’t even vote for him (she stayed away from the ballot box on election day), and she looked utterly peeved during his inauguration. She stayed peeved, too. After a few well-planned photo opportunities, and a spectacular moment where she went to Libya to negotiate the release of the Bulgarian nurses, she pretty much disappeared from public view. She bowed out of an invite to the Bushes, saying she had a sore throat, and she didn’t even meet with the grateful Bulgarian nurses—perhaps to avoid running into her husband.

According to my sources (a well-dressed grandmother in the park this morning) Mr. Sarkozy is not exactly the wounded party, seeing has how he jumps anything in a skirt (hey, I don’t know, maybe she’s got the inside scoop). Though the tendency of politicians to make whoopee where they shouldn’t is anything but new, it’s still kind of amazing to think that for once, a political wife is not going to suffer in silence. On the other hand, this is the president’s wife. I mean, couldn’t she have waited until he finished his term? Or at least his first year? Interestingly, whereas Cécilia has looked cold and hard in just about every photo taken of her in the last year, suddenly this week she looks soft and gorgeous on the cover of Paris Match. What could this signify? An attempt to win public sympathy? Or a sincere personal renewal? In any case, her media-obsessed husband has not hesitated to use even this personal tragedy for his own purposes: in choosing to announce the divorce today, he has managed to turn attention away from today’s general strike which paralyzed traffic and many public services.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Decline and Fall of the Tomato, and other food tragedies

I’ve got to stop getting involved in political discussions with vendors at my local open-air market. Sooner or later, I’m going to get bopped on the head by an impatient customer behind me in line, waiting anxiously for their épaule d’agneau. It doesn’t take much. All I have to do is say, for example, how much I like a certain rather raggedy-looking cut of steak (araignée) that the butcher offers. “It’s not particularly beautiful, but it sure tastes good,” I say. That gets him started. “Exactly,” he says, "you won’t see this one in the supermarkets. You see, madame, customers are being trained by the supermarkets to buy according to what looks good. They offer nice, neat packages of pretty meat. But what about the taste?” Then we’re off and running. I nod my head vigorously and he goes on about how fruits and vegetables are getting more and more perfect-looking, and losing more and more flavor (“when something looks that perfect,” he confides, “you know something is wrong”) and I chime in about how in my country you go into a supermarket and see mountains of gorgeous, but tasteless fruit. Soon we are both bemoaning the rise of the perfectly round, utterly beautiful tomato that has a skin so tough you have to poke it with an ice pick and flesh so firm you could use it as a baseball. Before you know it, the butcher is providing me with arcane information on European Union regulations that the big industrial food groups are using to force the little guys’ hands. I look behind me sheepishly and apologize to the man behind me, who far from being annoyed, looks amused and says “I love it!”

I think they like talking to me about this stuff because a) it’s a subject dear to them, and b) they are tickled to find out that there are Americans who like food (from what I’ve gathered, most French people think we all greedily gulp down MacDonald’s and Tastee Freez seven nights a week). What they don’t realize is how distressing it is for food-loving Americans to come to France and find that even here, in the El Dorado of gourmet cuisine, modern living is threatening the ability to eat well. Supermarkets are everywhere, fast food is invading, but mostly, no one seems to have the time or energy to cook anymore. It’s enough to curdle one’s béchamel. It’s not all doom and gloom, mind you—there are still lots of open-air markets, local farmers, and eager shoppers, but it is a little scary to see that people here are starting to eat like…well, Americans.

I could go on and on about this subject, but fortunately, a lot of other people have already done so, like the folks at Slow Food, and the radio host Jean-Pierre Coffe, so I won’t—at least not here. But that probably won’t keep me from talking tomatoes with the vegetable vendor at the open-air market, I’m afraid….

Monday, October 8, 2007

Rugby: What is it, and is it contagious?

Those of you back in the Old Country are probably unaware of the Rugbymania that has consumed France for the past several weeks. After losing out on the Olympics, and crashing and burning during the last soccer world cup, France is putting its all behind the Rugby World Cup, which it is currently hosting. People who before would never deign to mingle with the rugby crowd, like President Nicolas Sarkozy, are suddenly showing up at games and cheering at all the right moments. Rugby players, most of whom could easily be cast as The Hulk, are showing up on billboards selling clingy athletic wear. My favorite is Sébastien Chabal, a bearded, long-haired player who is a dead ringer for an early Cro-Magnon (see photo). Paris

But wait a minute, what is this game? It looks, to the uninitiated, like American football without helmets or other protection. In short, a bloody, gruesome brawl. In fact, it is an ancestor of the beloved American pastime, and though there is some quibbling about rugby's exact birth date, it seems to have emerged in the mid-19th century. Not ever having been able to master the rules of football, I cannot explain the exact differences (if you really need to know, look here). But I can tell you that usually within the first fifteen minutes of watching a match on TV, I get up and leave because I just can't stomach watching dozens of super-sized athletes fling themselves on top of each other, and wondering if the guy on the bottom of the pile is going to live to tell the tale. Paris

That was until last Saturday. That was the day when there were two major upsets in the quarter finals: the first being the English beating the Australians, and the second—even more dramatic—the French beating the New Zealand. The New Zealand team, the All Blacks, is a team that is known for it's impressive pre-game Maori war dance, which usually a prelude to death and destruction on the field. The dance/chant, known as the "haka," is wild enough performed by ordinary mortals; when 15 gargantuan rugby players do it you wonder how the other team, which is standing about a yard away, manages not to pee in their pants. (See the YouTube video for the full effect.) This was one time when the French talent for resigned indifference really served its country. While the Bleus didn't exactly look overjoyed, they did manage to keep their dignity. What followed was pretty amazing, even for a sports-challenged viewer like myself. Everyone had been sure that the French were going to get creamed, and yet...the score got closer and closer until it was neck and neck (not that there are any necks to be seen amongst the players), and then, at the last minute, they pulled ahead and won! Shrieks of joy were to be heard all over the apartment building, not the least of which in our living room, where my husband, whose family is from the rugby-worshiping southwest France, was going ballistic. Paris

So now I have to admit that I am eagerly awaiting the game this Saturday, when the French and the English will duke it out. I will watch in wonder as the two teams push and shove each other around the field, and as the ball miraculously emerges from the bottom of a heaving mass of bodies, and how it then is deftly passed around at lightning speed by players who may look like mastodons, but have the agility of panthers when, well, push comes to shove. Have I compromised my values? Or is this simply another example of my going native? Only time will tell....Paris

Friday, October 5, 2007

Thinking of having brain surgery during your stay?

I have yet to see Michael Moore's film, Sicko, but from what I understand I could qualify to be one of the people he interviewed. Back in June, I had a golf-ball sized tumor (a meningioma) removed from my brain here in Paris, and though my insurance didn't pay for my laundry, it did pay for a cleaning lady to come and clean my apartment during the first three weeks post-op. OK, to be honest, it was my supplemental health insurance. Still, I must say, I felt very well taken care of by the French version of Social Security. Not only did I get to pick my surgeon and my hospital (considered the best in France for neurosurgery), but I got to be operated in a facility that was established by Louis XIV. In the left-hand corner is what La Pitié-Salpetrière looked like in Louis' day. Today it resembles a small city. The neurosurgery building is brand new (those 17th-century buildings are lovely, but would your really want to have brain surgery in one of them?), I had a private room, and the nurses were great. I was particularly grateful to them for their willingness to dispense nerve-calming drugs the night before the big op. My surgeon was a wonder, and I feel a special bond with him now. After all, how many people can you say literally delved into your mind? The rest remains a euphoric blur, a mix of relief and heavy anesthesia (there are those who claim I am still feeling the effects). All this, and all I paid for was the TV and the telephone. No insurance forms, nothing. Just in case someone tries to tell you that you can't good care under socialized medicine...Paris Paris

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Velib' liberates Paris

It took me a while to be willing to try Velib', the new rent-a-bike program now available all over the streets of Paris. I loved the idea: anyone can pick up a bike at any metro station or anywhere else there is a "borne" or stand, of bikes, ride around for a half an hour, and then leave it at whatever Velib' stand they want. And that first half hour is free. Not only that, the bikes themselves are extremely cool, a sort of futuristic Uber Bike that makes you feel like there is nothing more high-tech and advanced than a bicycle. But for me there was a problem: traffic. I have nothing against Parisians in general, but once they get into a car, these otherwise reasonable people become a hoard of aggressive louts with little concern for the lives of their fellow man, woman, or child. Merely driving in this city sends me into a state of extreme anxiety, now you are expecting me to ride a bike?

The program went into effect while everyone was on summer vacation. Then, when we came back—quelle suprise. Everywhere hip urbanites were scrambling to mount the silvery Velib' saddle. Suddenly, bike riding, an activity once relegated to idealistic fools and old men in berets, was utterly cool. Men in business suits, women in stiletto boots, and teenagers in strategically weathered jeans were all proudly sailing through traffic, hair flowing in the wind. Because, of course, no one is wearing a helmet. That would mess one's hairdo. So to recap: now thousands of people are willingly taking their lives into their hands every day, riding through crazy traffic on bikes, helmet-less. And what's more, they look like they are having fun. So much fun, that I really, really wanted to try.

After giving myself a million reasons why it was better to walk from Gare du Austerlitz to Luxembourg (this is a walker's city! I'll be there in a matter of minutes!), I spied a stand on a quiet street filled with glistening bikes. My feet hurt. There was no one around. No one to breathe over my shoulder as I tried to figure out how to use the machine that unlocks your bike. I slipped in my credit card. I followed the instructions. The green light started blinking. It was too late to turn back. I detached the incredibly heavy two-wheeler from its post, and sallied forth. And low and behold, it was wonderful. At first I carefully stuck to the small streets, but after a few minutes I was charging along a bus lane on Blvd St-Michel. Maybe it's the weight of the bike, or the glamor of it all, or just the sheer joy of riding around the streets of Paris without being a slave to public transportation, but I forgot about my fear and before I knew it I was on the Ile de la Cité and figuring out where to have lunch in the Marais.

I know what you are saying. Ah ha! This is going to be useful. What a great way to get around Paris when you are a tourist. But alas, there is a problem. To use the system, you have to have a credit card with a chip in it. French cards have it, American cards usually don't. Now it seems to me that some American cards, debit cards, for example, have chips. But I don't know if they work. So if anyone out there finds out, feel free to let me know. Not that I'm trying to be helpful or anything...

Monday, October 1, 2007

Starbucks attempts to invade Paris

In keeping with the spirit of this blog, there is nothing new about the subject of this post. Starbucks first set it's sticky, mochachino-stained fingers on Paris a couple of years ago, much to my horror and the seeming indifference of the average Parisian. I, a stalwart advocate for the preservation and advancement of the classic smoke-filled Parisian café, felt pain and agony for the local corner cafe owners, already an endangered species in many of the more upscale parts of the city. To my great relief, Starbucks has not seemed to have made a huge impact on this city, where the very idea of take-out coffee is strange and somewhat disturbing. It is mostly young people who are smitten with the place--the fact that it is American and modern makes it cool and hip, much like MacDonalds (yes, believe it or not, MacDonalds is cool here).

Still, there is something about the Starbucks presence that intrigues me. How does the average Parisian deal with the dizzying array of choices presented at the take out counter? This is a country where coffee basically comes in black, decaf or "au lait," and where a cappuccino is still pretty exotic. Starbucks has managed to convince Americans that it is perfectly normal to order a "skinny regular vente" when asking for a cup of coffee. Their marketing depends on it. But what happens here? Will they ever get French people to believe that a sugary milkshake is java? I forced myself to enter the giant Starbucks in front of the Gare St-Lazare to find out. Sure enough, there was a big sign behind the counter explaining very carefully how you too can become a demanding American Consumer. A chart with arrows shows how to choose your milk, your coffee, your syrup (!), your size, etc. Maybe it will work, but it just seems so very un-French. An abundance of choices usually throws the French mind into a state of paralysis, and who in their right mind would ever think of putting soy milk in their bodies, let alone their coffee! Only time will tell...