Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I'm alive!

Here's a long overdue post. Well, I'm now an Occasional and Purposeful Parisian rather than a true Accidental Parisian. I've moved to the UK but Mon Cher Mari is still in Paris, and we're trying to spend as many weekend together as possible - which is not many. I've only been back once since my move at the end of August. (It was a fantastic trip, except for a shockingly bad dining experience, which I will post about later).

I haven't forgotten all about you, loyal readers, or stopped thinking about material for the blog. It's just that the move was a bit of a nightmare (as various bits of my apartment just keep giving up and snapping off) and, while the new job is great, the hours are long and the learning curve has been steep. I do want to get back into blogging every two weeks or so. The best way to stay up-to-date? Become a blog follower, then you'll get an alert when I write a new post. It will save you the hassle of checking back.

I've decided that now that I don't live in Paris, I like it oh so much better. In fact, I think I really like it a lot. Given that my career options were so limited, I always felt trapped in Paris. I spent a lot of time freaking out, visualising my PhD turning stale like the baguettes, pining for an academic community, and struggling with obnoxious bureacrats. Since I spent my time in Paris underemployed and searching for a job, I was constantly worried about money and I always felt guilty about doing fun things, when I could have been finishing an article. Now that the career issue is a non-issue (well, at least for a year or two), I can go to Paris and just enjoy it. Here's a new set of lists:

Things I don't miss about living in Paris:
1. The rules, and the constant feeling that I was breaking one but not even enjoying it.
2. The dog poo. Everywhere.
3. The dogs. (Sorry, Mazarine - not your dog! He's a sweetie).
4. All the boring black clothing. Not so chic and edgy when everyone is wearing it, non?
5. The Prefecture. I shudder.
6. The arguing. I'll never understand when French people are really angry or not, but I think my blood pressure has gone down since I left France.
7. The defensiveness, territoriality, negativity and self-centeredness I would encounter in dealing with people in service positions.

Things I do miss about living in Paris:
1. MCM. This has been so difficult.
2. My local boulangerie-patisserie, Le Chant du Pain, home of the best pain au chocolat in Ile de France, possibly the world.
3. The wine.
4. The archictecture.
5. The quality of the light, and particularly the late afternoon light as it hits the stone buildings along the Seine.
6. Velib, and in particular whizzing through the wide, leafy boulevards of Neuilly in the summer, or sailing over the Pont d'Alma.
7. The restaurant selection. I absolutely love eating out, and I miss what I had in Paris, compared to what I have in Cathedral Town here. (That said, it ain't London...).

Things I really appreciate about being in the UK:
1. The banter and easy conversation I have with people - partly cultural, partly just because I speak the language so much better. Buying a pint of milk is a pleasant experience.
2. The prevailing relaxed, laid-back attitude.
3. The beer. Oh yeah!
4. The fact that you can go into a restaurant at 2.45pm and say, 'Sorry, any chance you're still serving lunch?' without giving the owner a coronary.
5. The fact that people who work in service positions actually see it as their job to help you.
6. The fact that I am treated like a real person, not just the wife of Monsieur.
7. Being part of a professional community.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Of creepy men and mosquitoes

I am suffering from acute moving angst. I'm supposed to start my new job in the UK in ten days, and as of now I maybe have an apartment (they're having trouble getting a reference from my French landlord - well duh), I maybe have a moving company, I have an idea of when I want to fly out, but I am very worried that my work visa won't be ready in time. The visa folks have my passport, too, so no chance that I could go to UK, set up house and come back to France to pick it up. Nope. Sorry.

I'm also dreading going back to the visa processing centre to pick it up, since it's in a scummy suburban neighbourhood and I felt really uncomfortable going there before and taking abuse from the men who hang around the bus station. And this, dear readers, is one of my two major frustrations of France in the summer: creepy men. (I promise I will deal with the summery joys of Paris in a later post. Right now I'm cranky).

Creepy men were one of the reasons I was so unhappy when I first moved here. It's a seasonal issue: once the clocks change in October I can go about my business unharassed. But in the summer months I get catcalls, nasty comments, and vulgar gestures nearly every time I leave the house. It's humiliating and it makes me angry, and it touches on a much broader, very sensitive issue. Most of these men are not 'francais de souche,' or French in ethnic origin: they, or their parents or grandparents, are from the former French colonies in North Africa. As a colonial historian I understand all too well the issues facing this community: the way they fueled the economic growth of post-war France, but feel they reaped none of the benefits; the discrimination they face in hiring; the traumatic memories of the Algerian war; the way suburbs were poorly constructed and badly maintained, leading to ghettoisation. I'm also horrified by the language and arguments of the anti-immigration extreme right in France.

A few years ago French law was clarified to state that the 1905 law on secularisation (laicite) means that religious symbols should be banned in public institutions, like schools. This means, for example, that a teacher should not be wearing a crucifix. But the main reason it was controversial was that it also means that women and girls cannot wear the hijab, or Muslim veil.

Before moving to France I felt quite uncomfortable with this law. I felt that it was a violation of religious freedom, an unwarranted (racist?) attack on the Muslim community, a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11, and an infantilizing and neocolonial move: you, Muslim women, are oppressed and do not know it - you need our help to progress. We know what's best for you.

Living in a Parisian suburb has changed my feelings about this law, in ways that I'm not fully at ease with. Last summer I saw one of the nasty creeps who had made a vulgar comment in the morning, strolling around with his veiled wife later in the afternoon. I'll never truly understand the complex reasons why some women choose to wear a hijab, but I knew there was a problem when my first instinct in responding to the harassment was to change the way I dress. Maybe I was showing too much skin - maybe I was provocative? Ridiculous, MCM replied. It's summer. You should be able to show your arms without being harassed. We debated whether these men were trying to embarrass or intimidate me into covering up - acting as morality police - or whether they were getting off on Western women while expecting their own to cover up. Either way, it sickens me.

I feel extremely uncomfortable with some of the conclusions you could draw from this. But I do believe strongly in gender equality, and I've come to the conclusion that you don't have equality when women are expected to cover all their skin and face harassment when they don't. What I still don't know is how to deal with the issue when I'm faced with it on the street.

The other serious frustration in summertime in Paris is much more straightforward. Mosquitoes, biting, buzzing and waking me up in the night. Honestly, French people: screens! In the windows! How can you not have screens? Dr Mmm, who is visiting Paris, commiserates with me - she also has that mosquito delicacy, pale Irish skin, and gets enormous welts from the bites. It's awful and if anyone else tells me to just get a citronella candle, I'll lose it.

Summertime rant over. Thank you.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Julia Child made me write this blog

It's true. She appeared to me in a dream, held a wire whip to my head, and said, "Blog, woman, blog!"

Okay, it wasn't quite like that. But I thought it was time to pay homage to the great dame, now that the film Julie and Julia has been released in the States. The film stars Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as me. Oops. I mean as Julie Powell, the New York woman who blogged about cooking through Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (My mother went to see the film and said, "I kept looking at Amy Adams and thinking she was you, sweetie!" So once I finish Accidental Parisian: The Novel and sell the film rights, we'll have to give Amy a call. Reese Witherspoon will undoubtedly be disappointed, but that's just life. Romain Duris will play my handsome French hubby).

Anyway... Julia Child really did inspire this blog. Here's the long story. I had been really frustrated and down on myself and on France for my first few months here. MCM and I went to my parents' house in Massachusetts for Christmas and had a great time - we really benefited from the break, the fun, the time with my very warm and exuberant family. We made a great day trip to Boston where we saw the fabulous Tara Donovan show at the ICA, which completely restored my hope in contemporary art (in my book, she is in league with Barbara Hepworth and Anish Kapoor). We then went to a lobster shack on the pier and had chowder, beer and lobster rolls. It was, in total, a wicked awesome day.

Waiting for the train home at South Station, I started browsing the little book stand and made an uncharacteristic splurge on two paperback books - two books which filled two big voids in my brain. I have a huge stack of publishers' catalogues in my office here; how ironic that I found these two most helpful books in my hometown, in a train station of all places. The first was Linda Colley's biography of Elizabeth Marsh, a masterly work of world history that really inspired me and helped me to make the finishing touches on my own book manuscript, with which I had become frustrated in the final edit.

The second was My Life in France, Julia Child's memoir written with her nephew shortly before her death. Here she was arriving in France after World War Two, a newlywed, unable to work, living on a tight budget, not knowing anyone, literally sticking out in the Paris streets as she was a good foot taller than many French women. She even laboured on an intensely-researched book, with the frustration, loneliness and sense of accomplishment that comes with it.

The parallels with my own life here were strong, except that Paris was considerably less cosmopolitan at the time - if I was feeling self-conscious in 2008, how would I have done fifty years earlier? But the point is, Julia embodied what I've come to see as a great quality in American women: enthusiastic determination to succeed, even if that means looking a bit goofy in the process. She threw herself into mastering, not just French cooking, but France itself. She made French friends. She threw fun parties. She got annoyed with French chauvinism.

The book made me decide it was time to pull myself up by my bootstraps, seize the day, and stop feeling sorry for myself. I decided that I would start a blog to vent, chronicle and reflect on what I was experiencing here. It's worked: I'm much happier now than when I started writing. So thank you, Julia Child.


In other cooking-related news, my sister D just sent MCM and me our birthday presents: his-and-hers aprons that she made herself! I'm absolutely thrilled because they are the most adorable thing I've ever seen. Here's me modelling my super girly one:

Love it! Unfortunately the photo's a bit dark so you can't see the lovely gathering on the top. You're a genius, D.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

La Bretagne

Brittany, or la Bretagne, or Breizh, is a western region of France, jutting out into the Atlantic. One of the few parts of France to have maintained the language spoken before French was introduced, it has a distinctive regional culture, an identification with other Celtic parts of Europe, and a small independence movement. It's a pretty region: very green, slightly undulating hills, stone houses with slate roofs and blue shutters, geraniums and hydrangeas growing enormous, and a ragged coastline fringed with small islands.

Brittany has produced two particularly noteworthy things: the creperie and, it would sometimes seem, half the population of Paris. MCM's family hails from Brittany. The French secretary and the one French teacher at my school are both Breton. In one of the companies where I teach, 5 of my 16 students are from southern Brittany. "Why does everyone in Paris seem to be really Breton, or at least from a Breton family?" I asked MCM. "I never meet that many people from Picardie, or the Auvergne, or Normandy." He didn't know the answer, but we think it boils down to a few things: Brittany is close enough to Paris, it's a largely agricultural region and thus a lot of people migrated for work, it can be reached in 2 hours by train from Paris, and it's a place people are proud to say they are from. Unlike poor Picardie.

In fact, Stuff Parisians Like could easily satirise how so many Parisians, I suspect, play up their Breton relations to emphasise how they are so not like those other Parisians. They are authentic. They are more pure than other Parisians. They have an exotic, Celtic, mariner side - even though they cannot pronounce Breizh and are allergic to oysters.

Brittany is also a place where many French people choose to take their holidays. It's relatively unknown to American tourists most visitors seem to be French, German or English. MCM and I recently spent the weekend at his parents' house. They retired to southern Brittany, a 4-5 hour trip from Paris. It's a pretty area and reminds me very much of the Irish coastline or my beloved Martha's Vineyard.

It also has the Irish weather which, in my (narrow) mind, is its great failing as a summer vacation destination. A typical summer day might be 64 degrees fahrenheit and partly sunny. Before we go for a walk on the beach MIL usually tries to convince us that we need scarves, sweaters and, on our last visit, a rain bonnet. I'm pretty sure that if I spent my whole summer there I would have seasonal affective disorder. But I know people who hate the heat - for example, an Irish couple with little kids, who like that they can go there, hang out at the beach and not fry.

Our visit coincided with the annual village summertime fair. This involved: a procession from the village to a large field where there were tents and food (lousy food, the ILs warned), a performance of Breton dancing in the traditional black velvet costumes...

AND, best of all, a display of antique and modern tractors, all souped up for the big event:

I'd recommend a visit to Brittany as it's a quintessential French experience. If you like walking, sailing, or looking at the ocean it's a very pleasant place to be; it's not a great destination for wild nightlife or sunbathing. Leave your black Parisan gear at home and pack your walking shoes, a navy striped nautical jersey and a primary-coloured raincoat to look like a local. We had a little wander around the pretty town of Auray, which would make a nice base for touring; unfortunately I forgot my camera that day, but their tourist office has some nice photos.

Monday, August 3, 2009

How we eat in France, Part 2

MCM and I are just back from a visit to his parents' house in Brittany and, as promised, here's a report on what we ate.

My MIL is, in many ways, a very traditional French cook, particularly in her insistence on many separate courses and on the strong emphasis on lunch over dinner. She would probably be surprised to hear that, because she likes to try new recipes and many of the dishes she makes are innovative - meaning, chiefly, not from her region of France. For example, she considers Provencale food quite exotic. But the fact that she still makes multi-course meals on a regular basis, as was the norm 50 years ago, is rare, even for her baby boomer generation. (I don't know any French people my age who do this - comment if you do!)

Note: portions are not enormous - this will sound like a huge amount of food, but actually it wasn't. If lunch was big, we had a lighter dinner. Bread is always on the table and eaten with most courses. We drank wine with the meals (not breakfast!) but they use very small glasses, so the actual alcohol consumption was very low.

Friday lunch:
- Aperitif (white wine); little toast rounds spread with tapenade and pesto; cherry tomatoes (all eaten in the living room, with the nibble passed around on a plate)
- Starter: melon (small canteloupe-like, served in a wedge, eaten with a spoon)
- Main: small local white fish, whole with the head removed, served with wild rice and some steamed carrots and zucchini, lemon-butter sauce on top.
- Salad and cheese: green salad with simple vinaigrette, plate of 5 or 6 cheeses.
- Dessert: a raspberry charlotte (a molded cake made with purchased ladyfinger-type cookies, cream and berries).
- Coffee or tea.

Friday dinner:
- No aperitif
- No starter
- Main: a provencale tian (casserole of sliced eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes, with lots of herbes de provence)
- Salad and cheese (cheese plate leftover from lunch)
- Dessert: kouing amman (a Breton pastry with obscene amounts of butter, mmm) and/or leftover charlotte and/or a piece of fruit from the fruit bowl (brought to the table) and/or one of the blueberry muffins I brought. First time in my life I've seen a muffin eaten for dessert with a knife and fork! (See my scones post for context on this one).

Saturday breakfast:
- Coffee (drunk from a bowl with no handles)
- orange juice
- toast (leftover bread from Friday and some brioche)
- a selection of jams (she makes her own and artisan jams seem to be popular gifts amongst her friends who come to visit)
- fruit from fruit bowl (white peaches and apricots)

Saturday lunch:
- Aperitif: olive-goats cheese cake (quick bread) from Picard, in little slices; a glass of white Port; dried apple slices.
- Starter: a special local, summertime treat: langoustines (like mini lobsters), steamed and served cold with a homemade lemony mayonnaise
- Main: rouget (red mullet) steamed, served with a roasted pepper and olive side dish, boiled potatoes (served in their skins - everyone peels their own on their plate).
- Salad and cheese
- Leftover charlotte or fruit.

Saturday dinner:
- Dined out at a creperie, the tradition in Brittany: ate the buckwheat galettes , filled with ham, cheese and mushrooms
- Dessert was a crepe filled with cooked apples and the local caramel, which is made with salted butter

Sunday breakfast:
- Same as Saturday

Sunday lunch:
- Aperitif: little toast rounds spread with tapenade; cherry tomatoes; rataffia, a liqueur made in Champagne
- Starter: melon
- Main: pork ribs, marinated in honey and herbs and barbecued (exotic!), served with green beans
- Salad and cheese (still working on the same cheese plate)
- Dessert: mirabelle plum tart (made with store-bought puff pastry) or leftover charlotte
- Coffee. A bar of chocolate was produced to accompany coffee.

So, is it absolutely amazing?
It's very nice. MIL is a good cook and I feel privileged to get to experience a disappearing way of life. That said, I absolutely used to dread these meals when I first started dating MCM - they are quite long, my French was limited, I knew that I was not doing a lot of things "correctly", and I created some diplomatic incidents by not trying all the cheeses. I feel more at ease now, although I can't see myself ever doing this on a regular basis. It requires so much time and organisation (even with some purchased foods and the use of leftovers), plus I just don't find it necessary. I come from a family that puts very strong emphasis on large family meals together, but they are much less formal and they're not structured into so many courses. It's a bit like how, on our honeymoon, MCM and I loved going to restaurants every day, but by the end we were quite happy just to have a simple meal at home after all the fuss.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lest you thought I was joking...

A photo of the crappy little fridge:

Note the freezer "door," the cheapo rose, the full range of dairy products, and the jar of mustard that looks enormous. Don't worry, it's an optical illusion - but that little jar is still strong enough to take out a few rugby players. Not that I would ever use mustard for ill.

MCM naturally wanted to know why I was photographing the fridge, and I explained the post. "But did you mention all the great food I make for you?" he pouted. "Ohh! Just about to do that!" I lied. It's true - MCM made some delicious lamb and veggies tonight. But the point was not how good our food is, but whether or not our eating habits had changed dramatically since we moved here. The answer is that, surprisingly, they haven't.

How we eat in France, Part 1

A few weeks ago, when we thought that MCM would be moving to England with me, he said, "We're going to really enjoy being back in the UK... cooking together... going to the market... trying new recipes."

If this were a TV sitcom ("a serie", as my French students like to say), you'd hear that tape-rewinding sound right now. Huh? Come again? Don't we live in France?

MCM and I have been keen cooks for a long time but our culinary skills have not improved here. We haven't radically frenchified the way we eat, such that we actually associate great homecooking with the UK. How weird is that? I've thought about why this is and here's what I came up with:

Culinary Bulwarks:
- We have a crappy little fridge with a tiny freezer compartment. This is the kind of fridge an American would buy for a dormitory.
- We have a crappy little oven - it's a combination convection oven, microwave and broiler/grill. When a French apartment says "unfurnished," it really means unfurnished. We're lucky we didn't have to supply our own crappy little fridge and kitchen cabinets.
- Paris has lots of great restaurants. Our former UK city didn't so we had much more incentive to cook.
- We used to entertain a lot, but here we don't have much space - our table only seats 4. We also don't have as many people to invite over.
- We've been alternately stressed/cheap/busy. Traditional French cuisine is based on great ingredients (often expensive), exquisite technique (time-consuming), and shopping almost everyday (are you serious?). As much as I love French food, I've often felt that it depends on someone, usually a woman, not working and having the time to do all that shopping and cooking.
- French cooking magazines tend to feature extremely elaborate foods, rather than nice ideas for weeknight meals. We're a bit lacking in inspiration for our normal life.
- MCM really appreciates French food but he is also very curious about other kinds of food and doesn't feel French food is the be all and end all. Plus, he was on a diet for a while...

Here's what we do differently since we've moved here:
- Lots more wine! Recently it's been a nice little rose that costs 2.80 a bottle. We probably drink wine every night, as it's so affordable, accessible and enjoyable.
- We buy bread every single day. We love the fresh baguettes and, because they are preservative-free, you can't stock up.
- We have always been the type to sit and eat dinner together, but we're more likely to have a simple French starter now: a slice of melon, a bowl of vegetable soup, etc. I like this, as a good way to unwind when you sit down and a way to get more vegetables.
- We eat a wider range of meats, including guinea fowl, veal and rabbit, which are cheaper and more widely available than in the US or UK.

This weekend we're going to visit MCM's parents. His mother is a very good traditional French cook and always makes multiple courses - even at lunchtime. (MCM's dad used to drive home from work for lunch before he retired). I'll be reporting back on what we eat to give you a sense of what this kind of eating is all about.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Myths about La Francaise in the Summer

I need to blog faster, as soon as the urge hits me. I keep coming up with post ideas and then being beaten to it by someone else. Case in point: I've been meaning to write about topless bathing for a while now*, and then MCM noticed that The Guardian published this article just two days ago.

That's okay. I have lots more to say!

Most anglophone women seem to view La Francaise as an emaciated, effortless, elegant style icon, who brazenly bares all on the beach, in spite of a rather lackadaisacal attitude towards personal hygiene and grooming.

Wrong. Wrong again. Here, the Accidental Parisian debunks and updates some summertime myths about La Francaise:

1. French women all go topless on the beach: I was talking to two of my students recently about this - both of them women my age - and was surprised when they told me that their mothers always went topless when they were kids in the 80s, but neither of them would now. Why not? They shrugged. "I guess we're more conservative now," said one; "I just don't feel the need to," said the other. Hmm. Intriguing!

Le monokini is banned at my public pool, so I had to wait for my vacation on the Cote d'Azur to find out if there were true. My unscientific test results: going topless won't shock anyone, but very few under-35s do it. I quizzed MCM. What did he think? He shrugged. "I think women don't feel they need to. They know that they can, but they don't feel they have to in order to be noticed and to be sexy. Or maybe there are just lots of nice bathing suits available now." Would he mind if I did? "Of course not. It is your body and you are free." Yeah, but would he be a little bit embarrassed? "No, you're the most beautiful woman on the beach." (Awwww.)

I still haven't found a satisfactory answer to this cultural shift, but I'm quite sure that there has been a shift. Thoughts, comments and theories welcome!

2. French women are all really thin, even though they eat tons of cheese. French women come in all shapes and sizes, and many of them worry about, and struggle with, their weight, just like women in the rest of the developed world. They go about it quite differently, though. Pharmacies are stocked with dozens of weight loss tinctures, drinks and creams. French women's magazines recommend detoxing with asparagus and green tea and paying big money for spa treatments that claim to suck inches off thighs. Exercise? Whah dat? These magazine articles seem even funnier to me because French is written in the first person, present simple: "My first day, I eliminate. I eat asparagus and drink green tea. I offer myself an institute of beauty. Day 2. I prepare a tisane with three teaspoons of diuretic, purchased at my pharmacy. Day 3. I sweat. My hammam removes the toxins."

At one of the offices where I teach I ran into the snippy receptionist in the lunchroom. I was getting my coffee, she was decanting a brown liquid into an empty 1-liter bottle of Contrex. (Contrex is an appalling salted bottled water that is wildly popular, marketed as "ma partenaire minceur" - my slimming partner. Apparently the salt kills your appetite. Bring on the bloat). "Ooh, that's not something to drink, is it?" I asked. "Of course. It's for losing weight. It eliminates and cleanses," she replied, shocked, like I was a complete moron. Here's me thinking it was plant food. Now I know why she's always in a foul mood.

3. French women dress so well, all the time! Let me set the record straight. La Francaise is the queen of winter: black wool is her secret weapon, and she has no competition. But summer? Good gawd, it's awful. I was recently in London and the London summer uniform is: fitted, solid-coloured jersey, knee-length cotton print skirt, bead necklace, cute flats. Perfect! In Paris, women are either wearing their winter clothes (just less of them), or things that are better suited for a beach or nightclub.

I was recently wondering if I could get away with bare legs in an office (with brown cotton sleeveless shirtdress and wedge shoes). In some North American offices, you'd need hose. Well, any concerns vanished when I saw that the sales manager, a woman my age, was wearing a slinky halter minidress with glitzy sandals and a regular bra (with shoulder straps). A black lacy one. How do I know? Half of it was showing. I thought this was an aberration but I saw 2 other women sporting the same look while I was taking the bus home. Eek!

I am fascinated, in talking to French women my age, that they consider the right to dress sexily to be a fundamental one. In an office, I feel like I couldn't dress like that and be taken seriously - I also wouldn't feel comfortable. Talking to my students, they consider it their right to dress how they like in the workplace.

4. French women don't shave their armpits!
This is just outdated: I haven't seen a single female hairy underarm in France in the last five years. Not one. If anything, French women are a bit obsessed with above-mentioned instituts de beaute and epilation. Waxing is fairly cheap here, too - a bikini wax costs about 10 euro.

*I never in my life thought I would write a sentence like that.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Big News: Paris Is Working

Or, more specifically, MCM is going to be working, in Paris!

This is the wonderful news that we've been waiting for. After a really lousy year, professionally-speaking, MCM and I both have landed great jobs. Yes, they are in different countries, but I think this is great: I really didn't want MCM to move with me and be bored, lonely, frustrated and underemployed.

Employment and unemployment in France: a few general thoughts

Our past year has been completely shaped by the particularities of French working (and non-working) life. To recap, we moved here last summer when MCM got a job in a French company; I followed and hoped to continue my research, writing and academic job search from Paris. As it turned out, MCM hated that job, and he didn't get much love back, either: he learned in October that he would be laid off right before Christmas. At the time, I had no job and no work permit. MCM has been actively looking for a job since October and so, except for a bit of consultancy work he was able to drum up, it took him 9 months to find a new job. He's a bilingual professional with 3 degrees.

As soon as I got the work permit I found a job teaching business English. I've really enjoyed this: my colleagues are mostly young women from a full range of Anglophone countries, my boss is a professional with a good sense of humour, and I enjoy going into different French offices and meeting new people. It's been an interesting glimpse into French working culture. I just wish it paid better.

1). On degrees, diplomas and formation: In the US, or even the UK, there are good universities and better universities, and they set their own admissions criteria, whether they are public or private. In France, all universities are public and are required by law to accept any students who pass the final high school exam, the Baccalaureate (le Bac). As a result, universities are not prestigious: only les grandes ecoles are (these include Sciences Po, for international relations, and HEC, a business school). University fees are nominal and students get social benefits, so some young people register as students without much intention of taking classes. It's a huge way of hiding unemployment.

2). What you do with your degree: Career paths are much more rigid in France than in the US. An American who majored in history and had a good GPA has virtually unlimited career options (provided she's done some internships or interesting jobs along the way). A French history graduate? Well, you take the concours (examination) to become a history teacher - this measures your subject knowledge, not your ability to teach. If you pass, you are guaranteed a job for life in your departement as soon as it becomes available; you'll make about $22,000 per year starting out. If you fail? You take it again. And again. And you maybe do some substitute or part-time teaching to make some money, or you enroll as a student again. You can't just work in a bank (need a finance degree), become a journalist (need a degree from journalism school), or work in a museum (need a museum degree).

I recently met a French girl who was waiting for her Bac results. She planned on doing a college degree in Writing Tourism Guides. She proudly told me there were very few programmes in France like it. When degrees are so specialised and you usually need a specific degree for a specific job, you can see why it's difficult to find a job here.

3). On unemployment: If you're going to lose your job, France is the place to be. There are two main kinds of contract in France: a CDD (contrat de duree determinee, or fixed-term contract, usually 6mo to 2 years) and CDI (contrat de duree indeterminee, or permanent contract). If you are hired as a CDD you can only have that CDD renewed once: after that your employer must terminate the contract or offer you a CDI. Many jobs start on a conditional CDD and are turned into CDIs after.

If your CDD is not renewed you are entitled to unemployment benefits, which I believe are calculated as 10% of the total amount you made over the length of your contract, paid over several months - it works out to monthly payments of about 60-70% of your previous salary. You get this regardless of how much money you have or made. You are also covered by the Securite Sociale, the state health care system, and you're entitled to certain reductions (like free museum entry).

This system is an enormous relief if you lose your job. Of course, if it were easier to find a job you wouldn't need this kind of safety net. I've also met some people who feel entitled to do exactly what they trained for - and would consider, for example, getting a job working at Starbucks to be humiliating and beneath them. Coming from the American work-is-healthy, work-gives-respect mentality, I had no problem teaching adults English when I'm trained to teach at a university; I was happy just to be working, and this both confused and impressed my students who were aware of it. Heck, when I was a waitress I worked with single moms pursuing nursing degrees part-time, and dishwashers who had trained as lawyers back in Brazil - if you want to talk about making sacrifices, start with them. But, given the specialisation of degrees and the availability of benefits, you can see why some French would be horrified that anyone with a PhD would be a waitress. After all, I didn't go to hotel school to train to do that...

4). On being cadre: My students often ask me how to translate 'cadre': you can't. It roughly translates as 'professional class' or 'white collar', but it's not a useful distinction to Americans. To a French person, it's a prestigious professional category that includes managers, doctors, lawyers, etc. I still haven't figured out the point of it, beyond pride and social status, but I get the impression it's easier to get a mortgage if you're cadre. As far as I know teachers and nurses are not cadre in France, though correct me if I'm wrong. (A nurse in France is more like being a nursing assistant in the US, in terms of the training and what you're allowed to do).

5). Salaries and benefits: Salaries are generally lower in France than in the US. Public health care comes standards and public charges are taking out of your paycheck at a rate of about 20%. These aren't income tax, though, which is additional but can be arranged to be paid per month based on an estimate of the previous year's income. (Still with me?) I don't have a clue what the tax brackets are in France: all I know is that MCM ran a simulation for us and we probably don't owe anything. Like in the US, there is room for error and it's a anxiety-producing topic.

6). The hiring process: appears, to me, often opaque and unprofessional. MCM also interviewed for a French job where he was offered the job over a boozy lunch, then the job was advertised, then he had an interview, then things dragged on, then the director decided to go on vacation the week he was supposed to make a decision... It was with a mix of bitterness and satisfaction that he withdrew from the search yesterday. The whole thing dragged on for months and was extremely frustrating for us - MCM was supposedly the frontrunner, but they were in no hurry to make a decision. Hey, you don't really 'need' a job if you can get unemployment benefits, so what's the big rush?

7). Productivity and vacation: French working life is not geared towards making the most money; it's more about having a decent work-life balance. My French students swear up and down that the French are the most productive workers in the world. In a game I played with some students where they had to rank bare necessities in life, one of my students put an annual holiday as her #1 choice, ahead of a winter coat and a refrigerator, and all of them put it in the top 8. French workers with CDIs get about 5-6 weeks of vacation per year and they are required to use them. (So they tell me). Nice work if you can get it!

Thoughts, comments and corrections are welcome.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vacation on the Cote d'Azur

MCM and I have just returned from a short vacation on the French Riviera. It was a much-needed, much-appreciated little break, as you can see from the photo above. (Taken by MCM as I was putting my hair in a ponytail - I don't usually go to the beach and stand around posing like that).

We took the train from Paris (I love trains!) and stayed in the twin town of Juan-les-Pins/Antibes. I wasn't really sure what to expect - I drove through Antibes once in 1996, but had never stayed there before and wasn't sure about its jet set reputation. It's actually a place of contrasts: the waterfront has huge, modern, luxury yachts, but there's also a charming old town with lovely stonework:

On the other hand, parts of A/JLP are seriously tacky, even run-down, and the entire place seems devoid of any kind of intelligent urban planning. As a result, our cute little studio apartment, 500m (1/4 mile) from the water as the seagull flies, was a 15 minute walk to the beach over a rather grotty railroad crossing. 'This isn't very romantic,' MCM remarked, as I was gingerly stepping along in heels on our way out for an anniversary dinner. Oh well.

Another, striking contrast is between the densely settled areas and the natural beauties of the area. It was stunning to swim in the Mediterranean - clear, cool and calm - with the views of both urban and untouched coastline and the Maritime Alpes in the background.

Beaches are a bit controversial in the South of France (which, according to MCM, is not to be confused with the North of France, an entirely different country). In theory, there is no such thing as a private beach in France: beaches belong to The State and no hotel, restaurant or individual can claim otherwise. Somehow, the centralised message never got to PACA (Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur). Explain that, Eugen Weber! Anyway, most of the 'public' beaches on the map we received from the tourist office turned out to be covered in loungers which you have to rent, usually for 10-20 euro per day. We caved in on one day when we arrived after walking for a few hours and found that all the available 'free' beach was taken. We rented 2 loungers from a municipally-run beach-lounger-cartel, at 5 euro each for a half day, thus soothing our champagne socialist consciences a little bit.

Here's a shot of the tiny, crowded beach, as taken from the loungers:

I'll have to write another entire post on beaches. Actually, I could probably dash off a master's thesis on the topic: I would title it Top-less? A Bourdieusian deconstruction of the myth of the French woman on the beach and a hermeneutics of le monokini.

We found the once we got away from the beaches, we felt like we had the place to ourselves. Compare the beach scene with this gorgeous coastal walk, just five minutes away from the crowds and the craziness:

We took one day out to explore nearby Nice. Like Barcelona, Nice is brash and fun, with beaches, some great architecture, seafood, its own regional language and a young population. Like Barcelona, it also lacks for cleanliness, smells of dog pee on hot stone, and occasionally feels a bit dangerous. Anyway, we had a good day - went to the Chagall Museum, ate too much at lunch, walked for hours around the city and beach, and got this shot of the Vieux Port:

All in all, a very nice little vacation.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Wedding Primer Part Deux

I have access to statistics on how many people visit my blog and the keywords they use to find it, and I'm absolutely astounded at the number of people who come here because they are looking for information about French weddings - and more specifically, what they should wear. So, let me respond to some of the questions and queries that are coming my way:

Wearing black: Yes, it is okay. You can wear black to a French wedding! I repeat, you can wear black. Black is okay.

Short vs. long dresses - what says the AP?:
Unless you're working the maxi dress look, short is fine. French women of all ages wear dresses that fall to just above the knee.

Can you wear flip flops to a French wedding? No.

Really? But I like flip flops.

Oh. But I want to be comfortable. Flip flops are comfy.
I'm not going to engage any further. Get some proper shoes, woman.

But what if the flip flops have rhinestones? I've called the fashion police. They're coming to escort you away from the blog.

Do I need to bring/send a gift if I am only attending the vin d'honneur? I would say it depends on your relationship to the couple. If you just live in the village, probably not. If you're a work colleague or distant friend, a small gift from the registry would be a nice touch, say under 30 euro. A nice bottle of wine or champagne, sent to their house, would also be appreciated.

How do I address the mayor? Monsieur le Maire or Madame la Maire. Or just Monsieur (Name) or Madame (Name).

How do you pronounce verrine?
Veh-reen, with stronger emphasis on the second syllable.

Should I bring my gift or send it? No set policy, as in the US or UK, but it's just more convenient for the couple and their family if you send it. If you bring it to the wedding no one will mind.

There are about thirty people listed on the invitation and no reply card. How do I RSVP? It's not always clear. French invitations often have grandparents and parents listed - this is a traditional convention. I would suggest that you send a nice card to either the bride's address or her parent's address. 'Monsieur MCM Parisian et Madame Accidental Parisian seront presents au mariage de X et Y, avec plaisir' would do the trick, I think.

I still think it's unfair that you say I can't wear flip flops. Security?

Cafe Panique photos

Finally, some photos...

Rue des Messageries
Cafe Panique sign
Lime mousse served post-dessert

Chocolate-orange tart
Carambar tiramisu
Lamb with spring vegetables
Veal with sage, ham and tagliatelle
Foie gras served two ways, with mango coulis

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Restaurant Review: Cafe Panique

After much research, MCM and I settled on Cafe Panique for my birthday dinner. We really, really enjoyed it. (I'll try to get some photos up soon, too!)

Cafe Panique is near the Poisonniere metro, in a slightly gritty-but-hip neighbourhood (but undoubtedly a gentrifying one, if not in the short term, then in the longer term). We know it well because MCM used to work close by, although he never would have noticed Cafe Panique unless we had come across reviews: it's on a residential street - in fact, it shares a front door with some residents! You do feel a bit smug and local walking into this smart restaurant, tucked away from the tourist action - so much so, that you don't mind sharing the place with a number of other tourists-in-the-know. It's a small dining room with a vaulted ceiling, open kitchen and small mezzanine level seating area. When we booked we were warned not to arrive too early, as the staff (of 4) would still be eating!

It was a very warm night and, like most places in Paris, Cafe Panique does not have air-conditioning, but our charming waiter (a student in finance who spent a semester in Chicago!) kept our carafe d'eau filled. MCM and I started with a bubbly aperitif, were served a complimentary shot of cold vegetable soup, and then each had the foie gras starter. MCM followed that with a veal dish, stuffed with sage and parma ham, served with fresh tagliatelle - a real success. I had lamb and spring vegetables, which supposedly had a thyme jus. This was the only disappointing dish we ordered - although the ingredients were all top, the dish was lacking a sauce or flavour to pull it together. We also thought the foie gras could have been deveined better. Oh well. Dessert was a chocolate-orange tart for me - correct - and a tiramisu for MCM - yuuuuuum.

The starched tablecloths, silver settings, and soft jazz music could make this place a bit austere, but the service was warm and the kitchen has a sense of humour: a Carambar wrapper was perched on top of the tiramisu like a little flag. (Carambar is a classic/nostalgic French candy). We enjoyed watching the chefs work in their small open kitchen - and they watched us, too. As I raised my fork to take my first bite of the foie gras starter, I looked up and saw head chef Odile Guyader watching me, expectantly, with a raised eyebrow. I tasted. I liked it. She knew that I would.

Cafe Panique
12 rue des Messageries
Paris 75010

Food: Modern, clever, but not too clever. Based on good ingredients and good technique. Tasty.

Atmosphere/decor: Light and fresh, a nice blend of modern and traditional. White tablecloths, simple placesettings. Abstract art on walls. Funky (purposely) mismatched chairs. No AC!

Service: Charming.

Value for money: Quite good, given the quality of the products. A three-course menu is 33 euro - starter, main, cheese or dessert. A main and a starter or dessert would be 32, so you might as well get the third course! Wines start in low 20s for a bottle, though most are around 30. We liked that they offered a Vouvray fine bulles at 6 euro a glass as an aperitif. Normally a coupe de champagne costs 8-12 euro a glass in Paris, so we thought this showed an effort to provide good value.

What to wear: Whatever. Most people were casual (jeans, even shorts), but in the smart decor you wouldn't feel out of place more dressed up. In the interest of full disclosure I should note that I looked totally hot. Of course.

Good for: A romantic meal; a meal with a small group of friends; a meal to impress your in-laws.

Not good for: Vegetarians, children, people with loud and annoying laughs, extremely picky eaters (menu is not very long and typical ingredients include lamb, foie gras, goats' cheese...).

Handicapped access: Toilets are to the side of the kitchen - it would be very hard to maneouvre a wheelchair through there. There is a mezzanine with some seating but otherwise no need to use stairs.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Housekeeping, and some questions for you

Let me begin by saying: The Blog Will Not Die, Long Live the Blog.

Yes, I know that I'm supposedly moving, but not for two months, and anyway I see no reason to kill the blog. I still have so much to tell you all - about my civic training day, the kamikaze pigeon that hit me on the head, the melon we've been eating, and the way Parisian women wear scarves in the summer time. Plus, if my prayers to Saint Genevieve (patron saint and protector of Paris and former resident of our very own `hood) are working, she is interceding on our behalf with some of MCM's potential employers. He has 2 interviews next week. In Paris. Both for fabulous jobs. Aieee!

So favoritise me, bookmark me, follow me, send me virtual thoughts and flowers... I'm not going anywhere!

Except on a little vacation. Next week the Accidental Parisian will turn vingt-huit ans and the week after MCM turns 3. Three-and-0, that is. Three days later, we'll be celebrating our first wedding anniversary. For these milestone events, MCM and I are hopping down to the south of France for a few days of sunshine, sea and seafood.

This is where I need your help, dear readers! I am looking for recommendations for restaurants in or near Antibes. Ideally, I'd like some place somewhat with outdoor seating, yummy and traditional food, romantic vibe, not outrageously expensive. (I've been reading southern French food blogs and found one about a retired couple who likes to go out for 300 euro lunches. Hello!)

We're also accepting recommendations for my birthday meal in Paris. Current ideas are Bistro Paul Bert (12th arrondissement), Je The Me (15th), Le Violon d'Ingres (7th). Thoughts?

Monday, June 15, 2009

A moving condundrum

Here we go again....

So, I'm moving to England at the end of the summer. What else is new? I've moved house - and often country - every single summer since 1992. I'm an old hand at it now. I should just be glad that the body of water between me and the new location is relatively small. And that pain au chocolat are just a one-hour flight away.

The question remains, still, about whether MCM will be joining me or not. He had a great interview today for a job in Paris; unfortunately, it turns out to be only a short-term position to cover someone's maternity leave. "That's okay," he said over the phone, calling to report after the interview, "I could stay in Paris for a few more months and join you after." Right, that's true. But consider these facts:

1. My new employer is paying for my move. Thank goddess!
2. We have furniture which we don't want to sell or give away (along with enough books to open our own school or bookshop).
3. Apartments in the UK can be furnished, unfurnished or semi-furnished.
4. Apartments in Paris are rarely furnished.
5. If MCM were to get this job, he could end up finding another job in Paris after. Or not.
6. If we moved all our stuff to England, MCM could rent a vacation or short-term furnished apartment in Paris for a little while. But if he ended up staying in Paris after, we'd have to get new furniture for a new apartment for him.
7. If MCM stayed in Paris with all of our stuff and then didn't get a job after, we'd have missed out on the chance for my new employer to pay for our (expensive) move.
8. MCM might not get this job. He might get another, permanent job in Paris instead. Or not. Or both. Or whatever.
9. I can't remember if I took my vitamin or not this morning. Maybe I should switch to the gingko biloba formula.

I know that I am making wild hypotheses based on lots of what-ifs and maybe-who-knowses. It just goes to show that a little bit of logic and analytical research methods can be a dangerous thing.

Or maybe it's France rubbing off on me... I recently went to attend my *mandatory* French Civic Training day - required of all resident permit holders. I showed up at 9am on the appointed day to find that I had been given the wrong date. There was no course that day, the confused (but very kind) staff told me; my letter was wrong, and it was not my mistake. Okay, I understand. I wrote to the office in charge of scheduling to explain the mix up. They have now replied to me, warning me that I was not present at the training day, reminding me that it is obligatory, and assigning me another date. I'm now writing to them to explain that I was not trained because there was no training. I'm tempted to write that, out of respect for French culture and traditions, I actually was present through my absence, or that I attended what Baudrillard might call a simulacra of a training day (an exact replica for which the original no longer exists), or that I was on holiday, or that I was on strike, or that hell is other people. C'est normale. C'est tout a fait normale. What do you think?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Wine Post #3

Wine, wine, wine... My baby sister recently came to visit and, as she is not really a baby at all, but a new college graduate, we decided to take a trip to the Loire and sample the region's finest offerings: the beautiful Abbaye de Fontevraud, the chateau of Chenonceau, and, of course, the Loire wine. Very grown-up stuff befitting a woman in possession of a Bachelors of Science degree, I say.

We had brought along the Hachette wine guide, an annual bible of wine produced in France, rated and described. (I was reading this before bed for a while, but I was having really weird dreams. Fruity ones, with cherry noses, great legs and full bouquets.) Anyway, the plan was to just phone some vineyards in the book and ask if we could stop by for a taste. Eagle-eyed MCM was rereading the Loire guidebook before breakfast (while waiting for Baby and I to dry our hair - serious stuff, you know) and realised that, by marvellous coincidence, our trip coincided with the Vouvray wine festival. We decided that we would check it out on Sunday morning before proceeding to visit a chateau in the afternoon.

That's right. In the morning. This was either brilliance or madness: who goes to a wine festival at 10.30am? It must have been brilliance because we had an absolutely fantastic day, completely forgot about the chateau, and left at 4pm.

Vouvray is located near Tours, in a region known for its troglodyte dwellings: houses, garages and wine caves that are built into the local rock. The festival was held in a huge cave that snaked through the rock, and there were 19 winemakers exhibiting, offering tastes and selling their wine. Entrance was free but you paid 3 euro for a wine glass, which you used to taste the wines and then took home with you; nearly all the wines cost 5-8 euro for a bottle. Definitely a bargain.

Baby, like me, is an expert list-taker and noted down the name, style and year of each wine we tasted. And we tasted... weeeeel... about thirty-five wines. It was fabulous! I loved being able to ask the winemaker questions and the atmosphere was very friendly and not at all snobby. We told the winemakers that we had come to learn and discover new things, and they were all very happy to answer our questions. Baby was initially hesistant: "I don't know anything about wines! I won't be able to tell the difference!" Let me tell you, by noon she was musing about the merits of the 2006 over the 2007 vintage. It goes to show that you learn about wine by tasting it and it's really easy to learn to distinguish both quality and your own personal preferences.

Vouvray makes exclusively white wines from the Chenin grape. There are 4 styles: sec (dry, i.e. not sweet), demi-sec (sweeter), moelleux (quite sweet), and what is variously called petillant, cremant or fines bulles (sparkling). The dominant taste in the dryer wines was fresh green apple; the more mature and the sweeter wines are more floral (like honeysuckle) and honeyed. (Think that's all wine jargon hooohaa? Try one of these next to an oaky chardonnay or lemony sauvignon blanc, and you'll taste the difference). You serve them all quite chilled - say 8-10C/46-52F. Most of the wines have a sweet, inviting aroma, taste fruity but fresh, and pair well with food - not too complicated that they overpower the food, not so light that they taste watery. They're lovely as a pre-dinner drink (aperitif), with fish or shellfish, with light east Asian foods, or with poultry with light creamy sauces. The moelleux wines could be drunk with dessert.

All the wines we tasted were good; of the 35, there were only 1 or 2 that I didn't enjoy. But here were our favourites:

In general - 2008 - A better year than 2007. Vouvray grapes are picked really late - in October - and need a nice warm September in order to fully ripen. The weather was lousy in 2007 but 2008 was just right.

Fabrice and Laurent Maillet - these guys have won lots of praise from Hachette and they deserve it. Their sparkling brut wine, at 8 euro a bottle, was great and would be a perfect Champagne substitute for those on a budget, provided you like fruitier (rather than dry or citrusy) Champagnes.

Alain and Christophe Le Capitaine - Ahoy! We really liked their demi-sec - very balanced. They import to the US under the name L'Aumone. They are still recovering from a trip to Boston to meet their importer, where they went to Au Bon Pain. "Normally this name is very comforting and reassuring to us French, but we were very mistaken," Le Capitaine told me sadly.

La Grande Taille - As well as producing a lovely and very food-friendly demi-sec, Messieurs Bonzon and Boitelle cheerfully answered my inane questions for about twenty minutes. Lovely people, lovely wine.

The moral of the story is, go to a wine festival if you're visiting France. It's a fantastic cultural experience and a lot of fun. The Vouvray fest happens three times a year and is highly recommended. Sante, mes amis!

Au revoir, Paris!?

Big news here: I'm leaving Paris in two months.

After spending a few years playing that fool's game known as searching for an academic job in the humanities, I've done it. I've got a lectureship in the south of England (in the US, this would be called an assistant professorship). I've dealt with job rejection for so long that I'd actually forgotten that getting that job was a possible outcome. I'm still slightly in shock!

This actually happened two weeks ago but right after I had my dad visiting, then my sister visiting, and then a visit from a very nasty stomach virus. Plus, there's been work to be done immediately, designing syllabi to get my courses listed for the autumn semester and making preliminary enquiries about moving. I've been swamped.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. Professionally, it's fabulous. I've finally found what I have been looking for. I'll be taking a huge step up the career ladder. I'll be putting my degrees and talents to work. I'll be moving closer to many friends who I miss dearly. I'll be moving back to an English-speaking country, and in some ways that feels like going back to an even playing field.

But... but what? After ten months of struggle, I feel like I am finally getting the hang of Paris and I have the satisfaction of knowing that I've done it mostly by myself. So where's my prize? It's as if I've been allowed to look but not touch: I've been so consumed with bureacracy, trying to publish and research independently, applying for jobs all over the place, and worrying about money that I haven't been living it up. Now I'm ready to, and it's time to go. It's a bit like climbing a mountain, getting almost to the top, and then being told that you have to descend before you can see the amazing view.

In other words: I'm sad to leave Paris.

There is a small catch, though. We don't know yet if MCM will be joining me or not. He's freelance at the moment and will probably come - although, for his professional prospects, the new city is terrible. But there is a small chance that he is going to get his dream job in Paris. It's all very hush-hush and I'm almost afraid to think about it, as it brings up so much vulnerability and emotion; we just can't take much more drama.

If MCM stays in Paris then we would try to see each other most weekends (there are direct flights), and I would spend much of my (very generous) summer break writing in Paris. It would be tough but it would be temporary, and I'd rather we both have wonderful jobs than he be lonely and miserable in a new city. After all, I know just what that's like. And we've spent time apart before: I calculated that one year when we were both doing a lot of research and family travel, we spent nearly five months apart. We can do it.

There's also the fact that Paris will always be here and I'll always feel, I think, that I have staked my claim: that now, I've got some kind of knowledge of this city that no one can take away from me. (That sounds dangerously like I might break into song...)

So, final point: the fate of the blog. I'd like to continue, but as you can see I'm not able to post as much as I'd like to. We'll see. If I end up spending weekends in Paris there will be many more tales to tell and things to taste, and I'll keep sharing it here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

On yer bike!

Once upon a time the Accidental Parisian lived in a small city in northern Northern Europe and used to zip around town on her trusty little Claud Butler hybrid bicycle (with rattan basket). She battled strong winds off the North Sea, high humidity and helmet hair, but she also benefited from slow, considerate drivers, a good cycle path network and the fact that none of her colleagues were really that fashion-conscious. (Okay, one major exception - Rubber Girl, if you're reading this, forgive me).

Ahh, but Paris is a totally different can of sardines in a light tomato sauce. On the one hand, you have the new, wonderful and exciting Velib network for public bicycle rental. There are hundreds of station dotted around the city and you either buy a annual membership for 29 euro or pay 1 euro per day. It's not perfect; my friend Fifteen says the bikes are very good but heavy for climbing hills, and poor Mazarine can never find a parking space to return a bike in her neighbourhood. The Velib are for adults only, and they don't have child seats. On the whole, Velib has been a huge success and is now being extended to the close Paris suburbs, "la petite couronne" (the little crown around Paris). A Velib station is being installed about a 10 minute walk from my house and there will be one about a 2 minute walk by the end of July. Hooray!

On the other hand, Paris has aggressive drivers and an incomplete cycle network. France has a rather confusing "priorite a droite" rule, meaning that drivers entering from the right have the priority, unless otherwise indicated. This is true even when you are on a main road - the side street on the right has the priority. This is also true in rotaries (roundabouts): people entering the rotary have priority - that means you may have to stop in the middle of the rotary to let people in.

Anyway, I've really wanted to cycle in Paris but have been anxious. MCM is fearless and has been cycling to work for the past few months, so we decided to go out last weekend: I would follow him and he would show me the best routes. We went to the Louvre, which took about an hour each way; approximately 1/3 of our trip was on designated cycle paths, 1/3 on very busy roads and 1/3 on quiet side streets.

How was it? Challenging but great. The cycle paths are wonderful: it is absolute bliss to be pedaling along the banks of the Seine on a spring day. It was also pretty amazing to think, Wow. I am riding my bicycle up the Champs Elysees and around the Arc de Triomphe. We parked in the Tuileries gardens and went for a coffee and browse around the Louvre (we're members so it's a free visit), and it was just a wonderful afternoon out.

I did have one little problem, which is that my basket dislodged itself from the back of my bike as I was headed downhill on the cobblestoned Boulevard Haussman. Not fun. Fortunately, no one was behind me and I was able to retrieve my lock and handbag and pull over. I spotted a dumpster on the side walk, pulled up to it and fished out some broken venetian blinds. Using the Swiss Army knife on my keychain (Christmas present from my Aunt Maria and Uncle Mark circa 2001 - probably the most useful Christmas gift ever!), I cut free a length of string from the blinds and McGuyvered my bike basket back on. Spanish tourists looked on in amazement - who knew Parisiennes were so resourceful, so ghetto?

AP's Tips for Cycling in Paris:

1. If you have not cycled since you were a kid, or you have never cycled in traffic before, the Concorde is not the place to start. Stick to cycle paths or practice in one of the big parks first (like Bois de Boulogne or Bois de Vincennes). Ditto if you are not in good shape - you need to be to accelerate when a traffic light turns green. Cycling is fun, but cycling in traffic is serious business.

2. Stay right but don't ride too close to parked cars (a driver or passenger might open the door without looking and hit you). Watch for cars entering from the right.

3. Be cautious but confident. If you are too hesitant you'll actually confuse drivers. Use hand signals to turn and make them obvious. In traffic, I found that the drivers were actually pretty respectful, or trying to be: a lot of them were doing the "hover and swerve", where they tail you very slowly, waiting for the left-hand lane to become free so that they can pass you quite wide. That's not necessary and it's annoying to have a car following that close behind you, but their intentions are good.

4. Safety: I looked like a moron with my helmet and fluorescent vest, but they're important for riding in traffic. The vest cost me a few euro and it makes me much more visible. It folds up tiny and goes in my purse when I am done. If you're visiting Paris and plan to cycle, bring your helmet from home.

5. You're not allowed to cycle on sidewalks. However, some Paris sidewalks are extremely wide - like Avenue de la Grande Armee, or most of the sidewalks in Neuilly-sur-Seine. If there are very few pedestrians and you cycle slowly, you might be okay. But be respectful and don't whizz past the Neuilly grannies out for their Sunday afternoon stroll.

6. Stay single-file on the cycle paths and stay on the right-hand side. Don't ride 3 or 4 abreast and block all the other cyclists. Yeah, I know it's your vacation and you want to all be together, but be respectful.

7. Don't talk on your phone or listen to music while cycling in traffic. I saw a woman swerving down Boulevard St Germain on a Velib while talking on her iPhone and I thought, Darwin, is this evolution?

8. Don't drink and ride!

And for pedestrians...

1. Stay off the cycle paths! They are usually built next to sidewalks. The sidewalk is for pedestrians and the cycle path is for bicycle. Got it? Granted, there are a few confusing spots - on Boulevard de Rochechouart, the hedges and park benches can make it difficult to see that you are crossing a cycle path.

2. That means keeping your children, tricycles and dogs off the path, too. Above all, do not let little Fido or Fifi wander across the path on a taut leash, unless you want someone to cycle into the leash and somersault through the air, taking man's best friend with them.

Happy cycling, everyone!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

French Wedding Primer

As spring turns to summer and the setting sun casts a rosy glow over Paris, our American heroine munches contentedly on the rest of the carrot cake she made for her French in-laws (7 of them!), and naturally her thoughts turn to weddings.

Not just any weddings, mind you. French weddings.

I've had requests for information about what to wear, say and do at a French wedding and decided to compile a little dossier as the big season begins.

Let me begin by saying two things.

1). I love weddings. I'm a bit biased, because my wedding was probably the happiest day ever in the history of the world. Trust me, I'm a historian.

2). A French wedding is not a sprint, but a marathon. You'll want to spend a good bit of time preparing. The day will be extremely long and tiring, your feet will be killing you at the end and your dodgy knee might act up. You will alternately bond with the strangers around you and/or kick them. At the very end, you may find yourself being sick or limping around wearing a silver cape that someone threw on you. Most importantly, you will finish dazzled and thrilled, and will delight in sharing photos and tales with friends for years to come.

Very generally speaking, the French wedding industry is not as developed or vast as the American or British one. French brides I've spoken to are at once in awe and shocked at the amount of detail and money that goes into an average American affair. A larger percentage of the budget will be allocated towards food and drink, with much less emphasis on things like limos, bridesmaid dresses, favours and formal invitations. Surprisingly, you might find that the French wedding you attend is less formal that one in the US, even if the venue is extremely grand. The French weddings I've been to, while lovely and highly enjoyable, suprised me by the lack of interest in these details - some of it refreshing, some of it disappointing ("You splurged on a huge poofy dress but didn't get your roots done?").

Invitations typically arrive 2-3 months before a wedding and wedding websites are becoming more common. Some French couples have a formal engagement ceremony called a fiancailles. The couple might exchange rings - this is why you occasionally see French men wearing two wedding bands. This is often just for immediate family, but you might be invited to one.

A typical wedding-day timeline:

- Many French weddings begin midday and finish in the early hours of the next morning. Your invitation may specify that you are only invited to certain parts.

- In France, only the town/city hall (mairie) can perform legal marriages - unlike in the UK, Ireland or the US, where members of the clergy legalize marriages by signing a license. Everyone who gets married in France does so at the mairie, and has, if they wish, a religious ceremony after. The mariage civil oftens takes place in the morning of the wedding, but could take place a few weeks or days before the "real" wedding. Don't be offended if you aren't invited to the mariage civil: some mairies are quite small... and some are quite ugly, too. You're not missing much.

- Religious ceremonies: most people who profess a religion in France are Roman Catholics and most churches are centuries old, so you're in for a treat. Even if it's warm outside, you should probably bring a shawl or jacket for this part, because 12th century stone churches stay quite cool inside. A Roman Catholic wedding typically lasts an hour and features readings, music, an exchange of vows and a homily from the priest. (Tacky alert: there may be a collection so have some change or a 5 euro note handy. The guests pay for the church).

- After the final ceremony, be it civil or religious, there is always a vin d'honneur: a cocktail reception where champagne is served. The vin d'honneur is open to anyone who has attended the ceremony - in theory, that could mean locals in the village or work colleagues who aren't invited to the dinner. It can be held in a space next to the mairie or church, or it can be at the chateau where the reception is being held. (Note that chateau means castle, but don't be overwhelmed: it is also used to mean "place where reception is being held." It may be more like a nice 19th century home or manor house).

The vin d'honneur may last 2-3 hours, so pace yourself (remember: champagne = bubbles = alcohol moving quickly to your head!) and make sure to nibble. Right now verrines are all the rage in France: appetisers served in tiny glasses. If anyone can figure out how to maneouvre salmon tartare out of a plastic shot glass with a 2-inch plastic fork while holding a coupe de champagne, please enlighten me.

- Le diner: usually a sit-down affair, occasionally a buffet. Again, pacing is important. I went to a wedding where the mass was at 2pm, the vin d'honneur began at 4pm, we were seated for dinner at 8pm and we finished eating a little after midnight. The pros: the food is probably going to be great, with 5 or 6 courses and wines to match each one. The cons: even if you're sitting with people you know and like, 4 hours is a bit tough-going. Which is why there are....

- Les jeux! To faire une petite pause between courses, sometimes games are organised. These could be musical chairs, hide-and-seek, duck-duck-goose... very, very funny, until someone gets hurt...!

- Le disco! This may begin at midnight or later; there may or may not be a first dance from the couple. French people are, in my experience, not good dancers, but after 9 hours, 6 courses and a few bottles of wine, I'm no Ginger Rodgers, either. This is also the moment where that high-cultured French facade crumbles and they reveal that they, too, like insipid pop music. Party on.

- Stop the music! It's time for la piece montee: the wedding cake, really a pastry and not a cake. This is a tower of chou pastry puffs filled with cream, held together with caramel and installed on a nougatine base. Absolutely delicious. A conic shape is traditional, but I've also seen more "creative" bakers do windmills, lighthouses, and... uh, what is that?

- Will it ever end? Who knows. I'm not aware of a cue for when to leave a wedding. Back in the day, the bride and groom left first; now it seems they are usually the last to leave. You can leave when the meal is completely finished, which may be well after midnight. Just make sure to say goodbye to the couple and their parents before you go.

- Note the possible absence of the following: the speeches, the first dances, the receiving line, the Achy-Breaky-Heart.

What about gifts?

Wedding registries are becoming more popular in France. The Galeries Lafayette department store chain is probably the leading one, and you can buy from their website (which, until very recently, had hilariously bad photos of the gifts, maybe from when they sent an intern around the store to take photos on his phone?).

Cash is also acceptable, or a check sent in the post. If you are (rightly) nervous about leaving an envelope of cash on a gift table, give it to one of the parents.

And finally... What to wear?

Whatever you want. That's what French people seem to do.

Okay, snark over. Study your invitation: are you attending the wedding of a couple named Segolene de France de Paris and Stanislaus Sarkozy-Bettencourt-Royal, held at Notre Dame with a reception at Le Crillon? Then beg, borrow or steal a metallic pastel Prada dress with matching jacket and hat (over 40s) or Chloe dress (under 40s).

Otherwise, don't panic. I am convinced that France is moving towards a single transferable dress code. The French don't go out in pajamas, old sweats and flip flops, but nor do they really dress up. It's the tyranny of smart casual. People wear the same clothes to work, to dinner, to the market and to the boulangerie in the morning. At one summer wedding I attended a lot of the women were wearing linen shift dresses with flat sandals - nice but not dressy. Dresses and pantsuits are fine; jeans are not, and anything you could wear to the prom would be OTT. It is perfectly acceptable to wear black - in fact, all of the French women who came to my wedding wore black, except for my mother-in-law, who wore white.

Exception to the smart casual rule: one of my informants tells me that hats are having a big moment, so if you go weak for a brim this could be your big chance to bust out.

Last thoughts: think about how you are getting home and plan ahead for a taxi or designated driver. I ended up walking home from a wedding once at 4am, not having considered how that cute little village wouldn't have cute little taxis just idling outside the reception.

Have a great time, and come back and tell me all about it!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Being beautiful, in France

I'm quite used to getting unsolicited advice from French people about how I should look and dress; it's what makes the holidays so much fun! But in the past two days I've had two rather bizarre incidents that I thought I'd relate to my dear readers.

Yesterday morning I left my house for work and my sixth sense for public transportation kicked in. I think my bus is at the bus stop, I thought. I bet if I run, I can make it. (The bus stop is at the end of the street and around the corner, so by the time I can see it, it's too late). So I started to run up the street, quite fast, in my dress, trenchcoat and ballet flats, carrying a big bag of students files. You know, as you do. Totally normal. Not worth noting. Well, maybe for an American.

Have you ever seen a French woman run? I have. Once, in Parc Monceau. She was wearing a turtleneck and cargo pants. It was about 70 degrees fahrenheit. This whole "exercise" thing hasn't really caught on with French women, and as they say on that website with the silly cat pictures, teh kitteh is doin it rong! lol lol lol

My sixth sense is finely honed, for in fact the bus had been at the bus stop and was now stopped at the red light. The driver opened the door when he saw me booking it up the street. I hopped on and said, in French, "thank you!" The driver smiled broadly. "No, thank you!" he replied. Eh? "I just love that. I love to see a woman who runs!"

I laughed. What else can you do? I think I made his day. Power to the Yank who isn't afraid to leg it.

Today I got up the nerve to go to the hairdresser - my third time in France. The first time was great, because the hairdresser was a monoglot Portuguese speaker and I was spared small talk. The second time was not great. Today I tried a new salon in my town. This hairdresser, like the other two, was competent but a bit rough. I got thwacked with the brush a few times. She chastised me for me dry hair (a result, I'm pretty sure, of Paris's very hard water), recommended un soin (a deep-conditioner - and a racket), and trimmed my shoulder-length hair in record time. I was satisfied.

But I was also tired and having a "bad French day," struggling with both speaking and listening comprehension. So when she told me to sit back down , I didn't really know what was going on. She and the nice man who took my coat started asking me what I was wearing for makeup. Eyeshadow? Pah. Can't see it. Too pale! Concealer? Gasp! Not enough, apparently! And didn't I mind the redness in my cheeks? They could fix that for me, they cooed. Don't worry. C'est offert, madame. (It's free). Nice man produced a bunch of cotton balls and started rubbing my face. What the hell?

(Do I look like I want advice? Is this a French woman thing, or is it my bad luck? I went into a shop to buy sunscreen recently and the shop assistant looked at me, started nodding vigorously, and said, "Don't worry, madame, I understand your problem. Freckles. We have a product for you. We can fix that." Whah?)

So, without really agreeing to it, I got a free relooking from the nice man. It took longer than the haircut. Hairdresser and one of her turbanned clients peeked in from smoking behind the shop to offer encouragement. Mais regarde! Baaah t'es belle maitenant! Oh mais c'est tres bien!

Am I belle? Well, I think I resemble this famous and celebrated French person! I've resisted the urge to scrub it all off - I want to see what MCM thinks when he gets home. It's at least good for a laugh.

PS. Happy birthday, Mum!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Je suis tres scones

Here's an unexpected way to impress the French: make them British or American sweets.

Le crumble, les scones, le cheesecake, les cookies, les muffins and les brownies are all the rage in France. (To sound French you have to pronounce the words with a lilting stress on the last syllable). I learned this a few years ago when my mother-in-law asked me for a baked cheesecake recipe; my mother, herself diplomee in French patisserie from Cordon Bleu, passed on my grandmother's recipe but puzzled at why a French person would want to make an American dessert. Weren't the French self-proclaimed (and maybe even self-important?) masters of desserts, the finest desserts in the world?

Next came requests from recipes for le crumble. I told my MIL that I didn't really use a recipe: if I had apples or pears on hand and wanted to make a quick dessert, I would chop and toss them with sugar and cinnamon and bake with a Streusel-esque flour-butter-sugar-oatmeal topping. I also tried to explain that I was more partial to the New England cobbler than the English crumble, but I think the distinction was lost in my (clumsy) translation. Anyway, I can't figure out why the French love our Anglophone treats. They still think that British food is horrendous but have always held British teatime sweets in high esteem. I tried to explain to my students that London actually has fantastic food now, especially with the rise of gastropubs, but they fell over themselves laughing because they thought gastro was short for "gastro-intestinal", not "gastronomic."

I realised that this could be my secret weapon. To me, French culture, especially culinary culture, seems dominated by notions of what is correct: this is the word used to describe things done well, appropriately, correctly. When you are dealing with well-known, well-loved classic dishes that have been made in the same way for centuries, you know if they are correct or not correct. I used to panic about what to say and do when I visited France with MCM before we lived here. He would reassure me and tell me to just be myself and I would respond that he knew very well that France didn't work that way. It didn't matter that I was an educated, well-travelled and cultured person: I would only be judged by the standards of France and, in general, I felt that I was not correcte and meeting with disapproval. It didn't matter that I had a PhD, because I didn't have a Bac! (French national exam that confers high school diploma - a post in its own right). If I rested my bread on my plate instead of on the table, I had poor manners. As I live here longer and my French is better and more confident, I am coming to terms with this. It's a personal challenge: perhaps because I attended a Catholic primary school and study nineteenth-century culture, I love rules and order and I don't like to unwittingly break social codes. (Although I just split an infinitive - I am a rebel deep inside!). But I also recognise that, like in any other culture, French cultural confidence can veer towards chauvinism and I shouldn't to take it too seriously or feel self-conscious.

So, I decided that instead of attempting to make French desserts for French people or trying to conform to codes where I risked not being judged correcte, I would be exotic. I would bring brownies to social functions, make a crumble for dessert for the in-laws, or send blueberry muffins with MCM when he went to visit his parents. The reactions have been very positive. Ahh! J'adore ces petits muffins! It works for me on several levels - I love these desserts and they are easy to make, too.

This reached comic heights when MCM and I were invited to a brunch at one of his colleague's home. Brunch itself is, of course, a North American import - and very trendy with the French. In my experience it is more breakfast than lunch in France: pastries, fruit, sliced ham and cheese, juice, coffee. No bloody maries, either; I got looks of horror and fascination when I suggested that alcohol was served at an American brunch. I recently saw a cookbook on sale at my local Monoprix supermarket for le slunch, a horrific term that has apparently been invented by an enterprising French foodwriter to combine supper and lunch. It's almost as bad as le fooding, a trendy French word that supposedly combines food and feeling. Gag. I need another post how the French are plundering and abusing my beautiful native language. (In fairness, we've done the same to theirs...)

Anyway, I made a bold move and brought homemade orange-cranberry scones to the brunch. I adapted them from this Martha Stewart recipe, adding the grated zest of an orange and substituting whole milk for half-and-half. The French girls gobbled them up! There were squeals of excitement and one of them pronounced confidently, "Oh, tu sais, moi, j'adore les scones. Moi je suis tres scones." I've since told this story to my students and they think it is hilarious. "Je suis tres scones" translates, very approximately into American teen-speak, as "Omigawd, scones are just like, soooo me. I am so into scones."

I actually felt a bit embarrassed that everyone was eating my scones and not the other treats the hostess had purchased (yes, purchased). One guest, an Italian woman, actually announced that she would take the 2 leftover scones home with her. I think there were 2 left because no one wanted to take the last one and risk getting scratched. Meow!

So, if you're invited to a French person's house, stand tall, be proud, bring Toll House cookies and don't rest your bread on the edge of your plate.