Saturday, January 28, 2012

American Onion Soup

I don't like to cook, which is unfortunate because I love to eat.  I can't quite put my finger on what it is about cooking that I don't like.  Maybe it's that I always think I'm doing it wrong.  Why do the recipes tell me it will take an hour when it clearly took me three and a half? Additionally, I think I'd like cooking more if there were some sort of guarantee that what I make would be delicious.  Otherwise, I whittle away three and a half hours (somehow) and my creation tastes like Tums-flavored cookies (which, incidentally, is not a joke - Matt once made me a whole batch of peanut butter cookies that tasted like strawberry Tums - and my polite sister ate them all.  Although, this wasn't because he did something wrong, per se.   He intentionally added the Tums to work as a leavening agent instead of baking soda, which he didn't have at the time.  Something about the chemistry behind the two being the same, so he knew it would work.  In the end, he was very proud of his scientific thinking, and I was very sad at cookies that tasted like science).

Needless to say, neither Matt nor I are great cooks.  Since getting married in September, my mom often asks me "What are you making your husband for supper?" to which I respond "Uhhh...... (silence)"  Since moving to France, Matt and I rotate three different dinners: pasta and sausage, rice and turkey cordon bleu, and vegetable soup.  After awhile, this gets boring.

Last weekend, while sitting down to a meal of pasta and sausage, there was a knock on our door.  Matt got up to answer it, and returned with a large bowl of homemade soup from our friendly neighbor Chris.  "She gave us this onion soup to eat," he told me.  Looking in the bowl, I saw the familiar onion and beef broth concoction with cheese on top that one can order all across the USA known as "French Onion Soup".  Apparently, our neighbor Chris, a Frenchwoman, only knew it as "Onion soup".  (Perhaps in other countries, there is a meal known as "American Chicken Noodle Soup".)


Needless to say, the soup was wonderful.  In the first place, I like French Onion Soup quite a bit.  More over, when you're accusomed to eating the same three meals on a rotation, it is amazing to have an unexpected new food option! 

The next day, I was disheartened by the fact that we would have to return to our usual dinner choices as we were out of soup.  "Wait a minute," I thought, "We have a whole bunch of onions and some beef bouillon.  I'm going to make French Onion Soup today!"

After looking on the internet for a suitable recipe, I began the process.  Cut the onions.  Saute the onions. (Incidentally, sauter is the verb "to jump" in French).  Add the beef broth.  Reading ahead, I realized I needed two key ingredients.  Bread and Cheese.  "Matt, could you go buy bread and cheese?"  I asked.  He agreed, knowing that the store is literally a 15 second walk from our apartment.  Unfortunately, it was Sunday afternoon.  No stores are open in France on Sunday afternoon.  And we live in Paris, not some rinky-dink little village.  P-A-R-I-S.  But it doesn't matter.  Nothing is open.  No grocery stores.  No bakeries.  No cheese shops (of which there are many).  After an hour, Matt somehow found a baguette.  But no cheese.  "But we need cheese!  It's French Onion Soup!" I whined, saying the words "French onion soup" as if they contained the word "cheese", making the connection between the two obvious.  "Ok", Matt replied.  After a second failed attempt at cheese buying, Matt returned, empty handed.  "There's no cheese to be had today, and I'm done looking" he growled.  "Ok, ok" I said.

As it turned out, the soup was pretty good even with out the cheese.  Basically, it became more of a condiment for the bread, but hey, what is soup really, anyway?  The fact of the matter is, I am now an expert chef.  However, I'm not sure that the soup qualifies as "French" onion soup.  It's true, it was made in France, but it was made by an American.  With no cheese.  A cheese-less American, if you will.  And so, our new, fourth meal in our rotation is now "American Onion Soup".

Monday, January 23, 2012

My walk to work

Recently, one of my favorite singers has become Adele, a young British singer-song writer who has enjoyed quite a bit of success in the past few years.  A few days ago, in a bit of a gloomy mood, I turned to www.youtube.com to play me some of my favorite "bad mood" songs, one of which is called "Someone like you" by Adele.  A typical pop music ballad, it features Adele's unhealthy and scratchily beautiful voice with piano.  Noticing there was an accompanying music viceo, I clicked on it.  As I began to watch the video (which is made up of shots of the singer walking down deserted streets), I thought "Hmmm, those roads look so familiar".  About halfway through the video, I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the background, but I had already figured out that it was shot in Paris.  What had caught my attention wasn't so much that it was filmed in Paris, as many things are, but the exact roads and bridges that were used.   As it turns out, Adele was filmed walking along the exact same route that I walk when I go to my afternoon job on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays!
I've always thought while walking to or from work, passing the Louvre, Ile de la Cite, the Eiffel Tower, and the Seine, "Wow, this is the best commute I'll ever have."  I'm glad to see that someone else thought so too, and created a music video around it!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Selective Culture Shock

Tonight, as I swiped my magnetic apartment key in order to enter the building, I thought to myself, "I think there are some things about French culture that I will never get used to."  As I walked up the flight of stairs to my first floor apartment - because in France, the entry level is NOT the first floor - I contemplated my culture shock.

I can't get used to the fact that when I approach a store clerk to ask a question, it must be done in a deferential manner.  "Excusez-moi, Madame, " I have learned to say, "I'm so sorry to bother you."  Then, I wait for her response.  If it seems favorable, I continue with my question.  If not, I abort my mission and approach someone else. As an American, this seems ridiculous! Doesn't she want my money?  But, as multiple books and websites will tell you, it's not about the money.  In the US it might be the customer who has the power, but in France, it is the shopkeeper who reigns supreme.  This is something I just can't seem to wrap my mind around.

Another element causing me culture shock is that the French do NOT apologize, or in any way admit fault.  Example:  During choir rehearsal, someone invariably will sing a wrong note, or an incorrect rhythm.  When someone else makes them aware of their mistake, they actually refute it, explaining why they had committed an error - the music is too small, we had previously been in a different key and the music didn't properly indicate that we had modulated, etc - rather than just saying, "you're right."  As Matt so articulately put it once when ranting about this particular facet of French culture, "It's like they're five years old!"  By this, he was referring to their absolute denial of error, even when faced with facts and evidence to the contrary. In the US, not admitting fault is seen negatively.  When someone does not admit their mistakes, I usually assume that they're unaware that they've made a mistake, which leads me to believe that their learning curve is a flat line.  In France, however, to admit fault is to show weakness.  I absolutely can't adjust to this.

By the time I entered my apartment, I had decided that it is just these two things about the French culture that I can't get over.  As I began to put away the groceries that I had just purchased, I came across the bottle of wine that I had brought home.  The bottle of wine that I bought for 1 euro and 44 centimes.  The bottle of wine that I hadn't really wanted to buy, but the store was all out of the type that I usually get for 92 centimes.  "Well," I thought to myself, "I do like THAT part of French culture.  Wine is cheap."

Cheap wine then got me thinking (in more ways that one).  There are a lot of things that I really like and admire about French culture.  Other than the obvious plethora of museums, monuments, chateaus and art works of historical significance, I like the great planning that goes into everything they do.  The children learn to write in cursive, and never print.  They are taught to keep things neat and orderly, and that includes themselves.  France may be known for its high fashion, but even just taking the metro to work is a wonderful way to see some very beautiful clothes, which can all be purchased for a reasonable price.

While fashion, food, ad museums are all wonderful, what I really admire about French culture is the belief in the importance of community that they have, and the belief that individual acts play a crucial role in the creation of community.  Many Americans are adamantly against socialism, and it can not be denied that France is indeed a socialist country.  While I'm not much for politics, and don't wish to get into it here, what I have noticed is this:  The French help their poor, and they believe it is their civic duty to do so.  Certainly, the French are not overjoyed to see a bum on the street, however, they don't seem to have the attitude that many Americans have (myself included from time to time) of, "Get a job, whino!"  The French appear to think something along the lines of, "The poor will always be with us.  This will not change.  We should do what we can to improve their lot in life, as everyone has the right to life."  In fact, if someone sees a homeless person on the street who is in dire need - perhaps they have no blankets and it's very cold, or they are gravely ill, or starving - it is against the law for the passerby not to call the French equivalent of 911.  In addition to this, of course, is the universal health care guaranteed by the state.  As one French person told me, "It is such a terrible thing to be sick, or to have an operation.  One shouldn't have to deal with a heavy financial burden on top of that."

After reflecting on all of the things that I admire about French culture, I realized that I have not experienced one single bit of culture shock regarding anything that I view as positive.  Although occasionally it can be frustrating that the minute I leave my apartment, I have to speak French all day, I genuinely enjoy the challenge.  In realizing that I've only experienced culture shock regarding things I don't like about French culture - more specifically , things that I prefer about American culture - I feel much better about the whole thing.  After all, when you sell your old car and buy a new one, there will always be things you miss about the old car, even though you like the new one.  There's never going to be anything that is, in every single way, better than something else.  So, you just have to figure out what's important to you, and find something, someone, or someplace that is best in those particular things.  So, I guess it's okay that I've had to learn to maneuver through various levels of niceties just to buy a loaf of bread.  I never really cared about bread, anyway!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Finding an Apartment

Imagine living in a dorm room with a bunk bed, bathroom and small kitchen.  Now imagine you're 30, and you live in this room with your husband.

Our apartment is 16 square meters, which is about 172 square feet.  Actually, it's not the smallest apartment that we've seen.  When we tell people back home about our apartment, they wonder why on earth we live here.  There are two reasons.  The first: we can walk to Notre Dame and the Louvre.  For that, I would live in a smaller apartment.  We might not ever live in as amazing a neighborhood in all our lives,  so we're happy to live in a small box just to be here. 

The second reason for our tiny apartment is a bit more practical.  Imagine trying to find a low priced, fantastically located apartment in Manhattan. Not so easy.  Now do it in French! 

When Matt and I first arrived in France on September 26,  we couldn't understand most of what people were saying.  Unfortunately, this caused problems when people were saying these things to us.  It's not that we hadn't studied the language, but lessons are a controlled environment.  There are ten to twenty new words, and the rest are already mastered points of grammar.  Unfortunately, on arrival in France, no one needs you to recite a grocery list or describe your wardrobe.  They need you to sign an apartment lease, open a bank account, fill out emigration papers and so on.  Countless times, I mentally thanked our Tampa-based French teacher Tina for teaching us the basics of apartment vocabulary - without her, we could have ended up with an apartment sans wc (without a toilet - yes, these apartments exist).  Within days of arriving in France, we needed to call people and ask to see their listed apartment.  This was, nine out of ten times, a disaster.  We would write out what we wanted to say and hope that the person on the other end of the line would respond the way that we anticipated they would, because we had no way of understanding what they were actually saying. 

This is the conversation we always hoped for:

Me: Hello, I found your ad on Craigslist for an apartment.  If it's still available, could we come see it?
Landlord: Yes, it's still available.  Can you come tomorrow at 11:00?
Me: Yes!  What is the exact address?
LL: 8 rue du Temple.  That's on Metro Temple.
Me: Great, thank you! See you tomorrow at 11!
LL: Ok, see you then!

This is a representation of the conversations that we usually ended up having instead:

Me: Hello, I found your ad on Craigslist for an apartment.  If it's still available, could we come see it?
LL: What? Who is this?
Me (mildly panicked): Hello.  I found your ad on Craigslist for an apartment?  If it's still available, could we come see it?
LL: No, I already rented it.
Me: Can we come see it tomorrow?
LL: No, it's already rented out, how did you get this number?
Me: Ok, could we come see it tomorrow?
LL: No! It's already rented!
Me: (Still not understanding, but noticing that the person on the other end of the line seemed angry) Ummmmm..........errrrr........................ Okay, thanks! BYE!!!!!!!!!!! (hang up in terror)

Thankfully, we eventually found an apartment using the internet, because the phone is still a disaster. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My photos

Random stuff and France 398Eiffel TowerRandom stuff and France 396Obelisk at Place de la Concorde, ParisRandom stuff and France 394Random stuff and France 393
Random stuff and France 392Random stuff and France 391Arc de TriompheMatt and JenThe Champs ElyseesLes Invalides (Where Napolean is buried)
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from WWI, under the Arc de TriompheTomb of the Unknown SoldierArc de TriompheArc de TriompheArc de TriompheTop of the Hotel de Ville, Paris
Paris Hotel de Ville (City offices, including the Mayor of Paris's office)Chateau de VincennesMatt at the Chateau de VincennesChateau de VincennesRandom stuff and France 376Random stuff and France 375

Now you can see some of my photos from our life in Paris!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Small Things

Occasionally, I panic.  About everything.

Sometimes, when the practical part of me comes out of hiding, I think to myself, "My God, what have I done?  What are we doing here?  Why did I make Matt come here, we have no future job prospects! What will we do next year?  We need careers and 401Ks and pensions!  This was so irresponsible!"   In these moments of terror, I look on Facebook at photos of my friends with their beautiful homes, successful office parties, and sometimes, their children.  Then I look at my 172 square foot apartment. 

And then a seven year old French student asks to hold my hand as we walk to our classroom after recess.  Carrying books, a scarf, my coat and my purse, all I can offer her is my pinky. 

"I'm holding Jen's little finger!" She laughs and tells her friends, who appear legitimately jealous, checking to see if I have any other fingers free. 

They ask me what the USA is like.  Do we have any of the same stores?  Do kids have the same toys?  Is it nice there?  Have I been to New York?  They tell me that some day they hope to visit the USA.  They want to see the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge.  The want to visit the White House and the Grand Canyon.  They ask if I like France.  Are the people nice?  Do I like the food?  Although the kids don't speak English, and I don't always understand their French, they always try to talk to me whenever they have the chance.  In these little daily interactions, I'm coming to appreciate why we're here. 

And then I don't worry so much about my lack of career.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The search for French Santa

For the past few weeks, I've been on a Santa hunt.  I was curious: Would the French version of Santa - Père Noël - be in possession of the proverbial 'bowl full of jelly' stomach? Or would French Santa, represented in a culture that does not struggle with obesity, be trim and fit?

In the weeks approaching Christmas, I came across various shop window displays including Santa, however these only added to my curiosity over Kris Kringle's physique, as he was often depicted in contradicting styles.  One store window would show his characteristic rosy cheeks and bulging tummy, the next would show a tall, lean man in red.  Unable to find a uniform characterization of Santa, I decided that to have my answer, I would have to seek out the real Santa - or at least the one who makes appearances at Christmas markets.

One evening while walking around, Matt and I stumbled upon the Champs Elysees Christmas Market, littered with various tents of vendors selling chocolates, beverages, hats, french fries and Christmas ornaments, and complete with a Carousel and Ferris Wheel.  Noticing a strong cable lining the tree tops, we followed it to see where it would lead.  Finally reaching the end of the cable, we came upon a sign claiming that Santa and his sleigh would fly through the sky every half an hour until 8pm.  Unfortunately, we read the sign at 8:45pm.  French Santa had eluded me.

The next week, we decided to attend the Christmas market in the 6th arrondissement, near the famous Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, a place that Hemingway once called home.  Besides being in one of my favorite parts of the city, this particular Christmas market was rumored to be the residing place of Parisian Santa, so of course, we had to go.  Meandering down the cobblestone streets, we saw boutiques filled with Christmas trees, ornaments, and winter clothing alongside cafes with coffee, tea and hot chocolate.  As always, we also saw the ever-present Starbucks. The streets were filled with tourists and Parisians alike, many of them doing some Christmas shopping, or just going for a stroll along the decorated streets.  After taking in the beauty of the market for an hour, I couldn't help but feel a pang of disappointment that French Santa had evaded me once again.  Père Noël was turning out to be a wily old man.


Day after Santa-less day, I had all but lost hope.  I decided that I should stop focusing on Santa and move on. After all, it's only Santa, and I am an adult.  As a result, Matt and I decided to spend a day in the Medieval town of Provins, about an hour and a half train ride to the south-east of Paris.  

Well known during the Middle ages as a fair town - a designated fortified city where merchants from around Europe would gather to sell their wares - Provins is home to a 12th century castle, and many surviving examples of Medieval architecture in the form of churches, houses, shops and taverns.  After spending an hour in the Castle, and then walking the ancient streets and having a Medieval lunch, I had all but forgotten my Santa quest as we entered the Christmas market of the medieval town.  While glancing around at the various cakes and candles for sale, suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him. There he was! French Santa!  He was sitting in a booth, having his photo taken with a small child on his lap.  As the child's mother thanked Santa, and the child got up, I gaped at the red man: he was decidedly not fat.  French Santa was thin!  Finally, I had my answer.

Apparently, I must have stared too long. Suddenly, French Santa spoke:
"You can come sit over here," he said, patting his thigh.
"Oh, no thank you," I laughed awkwardly.
"No, it's okay, women can have their photo taken with Santa, too," he said with a smile.
I laughed, politely declined, and walked away.

It was confirmed.  I had, without a doubt, met the real French Santa Claus.