Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Guide Me!

I haven’t posted in a while, mostly because I did something I swore I would never do: I agreed to update my guidebook. As those close to me are aware, my guidebook-writing experience was an ordeal that nearly drove me (and them) insane. I know, I know, everyone says the same thing: “wow, you get to write a guidebook! How fun! You get to run around Paris and sample restaurants and museums all day! I’d love to do that!” I was having more or less the same thoughts when I accepted the job, truth be told. But think about this equation: 130 museums, plus 100 or so restaurants, plus about 80 hotels, not to mention a ton of parks, monuments, and assorted other stuff, all to be written up in six, count ‘em, six months. Yes, that’s 330 printed pages to write and research in six months. Add the care and feeding of a four-year old child and minimal marriage maintenance, and you’ve got a recipe for a nervous breakdown. I’m not saying that parts of it weren’t fun—there were even some sizable chunks. But after nine months (my six stretched into nine), I never wanted to see a guidebook again, let alone work on one.

Time heals all wounds, and a couple of years later my resolve has softened as my bank account has emptied. Employment has been elusive. My most recent writing job was a short article on the history and merits of marshmallows. Let’s just say Frommers made me an offer that was surprisingly reasonable and I took it. Mostly, I have even more time to do about a third as much work—updating mostly consists of changing prices and small details. So I’m back out on the streets, bothering busy hotel and restaurant owners with nosy questions. Yesterday I visited the newly remodeled Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature), a museum that tries to reconcile man’s love of animals with his desire to kill them. Food for thought. Well, it’s a start. I’ll keep you posted…

Monday, January 14, 2008

Christmas Stuffing

It’s been a while…I think excessive eating over the Christmas holidays has had a negative effect on my writing skills. As usual, we celebrated in typical French style: non-stop eating between Christmas and New Years. In France, this means pulling out all the stops. Forget roast turkey. Baked ham? Please. Here, Christmas means oysters, lobster, caviar, and foie gras—and that might all be part of the same meal. Chocolates and champagne are de rigeur—vintage cognac and eau-de-vie soaked sour cherries are normal finishing touches. It’s enough to send one’s soul—and one’s cholesterol levels—soaring aloft. But then, as everyone keeps reminding themselves, it only happens once a year. What’s a few thousand calories between friends?

The French Christmas menu item that is probably the most typical is also the most difficult for Americans to swallow, namely foie gras. The reasons for the current foie gras uproar in the US remain mysterious to me: after all, we are talking about a country where the delicacy is virtually non-existent. I would be willing to bet that a vast majority Americans have never even heard of foie gras (at least until the uproar) and that the percentage of people who have actually tasted it is infinitesimal. I know, I know, it sounds gross. Ducks and geese are force-fed until their liver becomes enlarged, and then once they are killed, the over-sized organ is sold at a high price to slavering food fiends. But let’s take a step back for a minute. Foie gras is an artisanal product: the good stuff is always made on a small scale, on farms where the ducks and geese live healthy lives running around real barnyards and eating real grains and greens. Can we say the same about that flaccid supermarket chicken that is sold all over the US? Is there anything even vaguely humane about poultry farming on an industrial scale? Or for that matter, about any industrial meat or fish farming? Hmm, if I was a farm animal that was eventually going to be slaughtered one way or another, would I rather spend my days outdoors on a small farm in the country, or penned up with hundreds, if not thousands of other miserable animals in an closed factory farm? If it meant my last days would include force-feeding, I think I’d still opt for the small farm.

I admit I have a certain bias in all this. My husband’s family comes from southwest France, which is arguably the foie gras capital of the world. While there are certain food historians who insist that the idea was first dreamed up in Alsace and then drifted southward, any true south-westerner will swear that foie gras emerged fully formed—like Venus on the half shell—from the dark waters of the Dordogne River. At our family gatherings the buttery substance is reverently served as a first course with a glass of silky Sauternes and some fresh bread. Being from the area, my in-laws have the inside scoop on where to get the goods. In a tiny town lost in the forest of the Landes, there is a foie gras maker who knows how to turn chopped liver into gold. It’s a word of mouth sort of thing, and believe me, they do a land-office business.

I’ve also met people who raise their own ducks and do their own force-feeding. When you mention that the city of Chicago and the state of California have outlawed foie-gras due to cruelty to animals (and now it looks like New York may do the same), they just look at you with incomprehension as if you are too stupid to realize that farm animals eventually die so we can eat them. While it is true that thousands, perhaps millions of ducks and geese sacrifice their livers every year at Christmas time, it’s also true that you can’t claim that you are being kind to animals when you bite into a Big Mac.

I think a lot of French people think that the foie gras bans are just another version of the Roquefort boycott or Freedom Fries, i.e., another case of Americans taking pot-shots at the French. I don’t know if this is really true; I’d wager foie gras bans have more to do with vote-getting and moral grandstanding. In any case, foie gras is prohibitively expensive in the US, so the price will keep more people away then the ban. C’est la vie.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The End of the Smoky Café

Since January 1, a new law banning smoking in public places has cleared the air in restaurants, bars, cafes, and other eating and drinking establishments all across France. Will Paris ever be the same? Has something essentially Parisian been swept away with the dirty ashtrays that no longer grace café tables? How will the city cope with the loss of one of its most lasting clichés (preferably filmed in black and white): a smoky, slightly dingy café filled with a world-weary clientele nonchalantly inhaling Gitanes? And more importantly, will anyone still go to cafés, or will they simply close up and die, while Starbucks storms the city, snapping up empty storefronts like Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo?

Having been a long-time fan of smoky cafes (though not of smoking), I have pondered this conundrum and have come to the conclusion that since suffering for the greater good is value deeply embedded in the French consciousness, smokers will continue to frequent cafes, regardless of the fact that they are no longer permitted to enjoy their vice. Sure, now that the smoke has cleared, you’ll be able see how dingy some of these cafes really are, but you’ll also be able to see your neighbors, not to mention taste the food you are eating, should you venture in at lunch time. I find it hard to believe that a cigarette is the spark that lights up a good café; good talk, good food, and good ambiance are far more essential to café success. As proof, three days into the new smoke-free era I can report that in my two local ex-stinky cafes, there is still plenty of clientele. And for more substantial proof, look at Italy, where a similar law was enforced three years ago and none of the black predictions of café-owners came to pass. In fact, many now say that they have more customers than before.

Perhaps I am painting this rosy picture of the future of café life because, admittedly, I am very relieved not to have to suck up second hand smoke every time I want to sit down for a cup of java. The irony is that I haven’t actually smelled smoke since my operation in June (see my post "Thinking of Having Brain Surgery During your Stay?") rendered me incapable of smelling anything, so I’ve been enjoying “smoke-free” cafés and restaurants since June. And though I regret deeply my loss of sense of smell, I gotta say, cigarette smoke is one scent I haven’t missed a bit.