Saturday, March 28, 2009

I'm someone's client.

I arrived at my apartment building this morning (returning from the boulangerie with a big bag of croissants) at the same time as my postal carrier. She's very friendly and I said hello and let her into the hallway, where there are mailboxes for the eight apartments in the building. "Actually, I think I have something for you," she said. For me? "Yes, this package. You're Madame Accidental Parisian, no?" Yes, I am. But how did she know that? She laughed. "Ah, but we have met before, Madame! I have an excellent memory for faces." Yes, I said, but didn't she deliver mail to hundreds of apartments? "Ahh, Madame," she smiled, "but my clients are my clients."

I was delighted: this is the first time that someone has actually recognised me as belonging in the place where I live. And it's no surprise that this came from my postal carrier: I learned many years ago that they know everything. Think about it: just from sorting your mail they probably know where you bank, where you shop and spend your money, approximately when your birthday is, what holidays you celebrate, and where your friends and family go on vacation. In my case, when I was home visiting my parents from college, I got chatting with their postal carrier and she asked me which daughter I was: the one who was going to college in the fall or the one who had been in Ireland?

In any case, MCM tells me that we were lucky to get the package at all, since there is a strike on in our regional postal sorting office. Mais oui, bien sur. There you have it, folks: the two faces of French public services.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Restaurant Review: Cafe Constant

MCM and I finally went out to celebrate the completion of Book 1, and we had an obscenely good meal at Cafe Constant, Rue St. Dominique (Ecole Militaire Metro).

Cafe Constant is one of a number of restaurants owned by chef Christian Constant in the very posh 7th arrondissement of Paris. We briefly considered Les Cocottes de Christian Constant on the same street, but opted for the more traditional Cafe. Our little nosy around revealed that Les Cocottes serves cocottes, of course - warming meals served in individual, mini Staub casserole dishes - but has a slick, modern interior, all chrome counters, angular bar stools and lime green trim. We wanted something a bit cozier.

Both restaurants do not take reservations, which is extremely rare for Paris. This is not a city where you just roll up someplace on a Saturday night and enquire about a table; if you come to Paris always, always book ahead, even if you phone up just a few hours beforehand. Heck, I've even phoned about half an hour beforehand and said, in most polite and apologetic tones, that I knew it was terribly late, but was there any chance that they had had a cancellation? And I got a table - the fact is, there probably had been a table free, but many Parisian restaurants are tiny and understaffed, and they appreciate much more knowing in advance. (The universal exception if a restaurant doesn't take reservations: if you are in a big group. I used to work at a restaurant that didn't take reservations, but we sure wanted to know if a group of 8 was going to show up in the middle of Saturday service, because that could throw everything off.)

This is the funny thing about Cafe Constant. Because it's small, serves fantastic food and doesn't take reservations, you must heed the advice of your guidebook (and it's in every guidebook, mine included) and show up early. In Paris, early means before 8pm. MCM and I arrived at 7pm - ravenous after a day of walking, shopping and talking - and it was half full: 2 tables of American families (couple plus 2 teenage kids each), 1 elderly French couple du quartier, 2 American women in their 30s. With the arrival of 6 more Americans (2 couples, 30ish; 2 well-heeled female study abroad students), the downstairs was full, and by 7.45 the small upstairs was, too. The elderly couple were replaced by two men, one of whom I am pretty sure is a French film actor.

Therein lies the problem. If you want to get a table, it means getting there early and being surrounded by American accents. There's nothing wrong with American accents (I usually have one myself!), but the American tourists are surely looking for a Parisian experience, and feel a bit foolish to be surrounded by their compatriots. It's obviously not a rare thing, because one of the waiters spoke near-fluent English and they had an English-language menu chalkboard. MCM and I spoke French the whole time, and I think our neighbours were none the wiser about my origins; in fact, I almost felt I was being observed as Exhibit A: French woman eating in cafe! Let's see how she does it!. The study abroad student next to me even politely asked about my dessert in French. I wanted to give her a medal.

Before I get to the point (the food! the food!), there were a few things that Cafe Constant could improve on. Like the atmosphere, which does the hardworking staff and great food a disservice. The interior was traditional of cheap cafes - red banquettes, bare plastic tables, simple chairs. For a place that serves such beautiful food, a simple white paper tablecloth would be classier. Decor includes the Constant empire's cookbooks propped behind the banquettes and a few naif paintings of Provence; they could - they should - try a bit harder. The lighting is harsh and too bright, too; changing the bulbs would change the entire atmosphere.

The waitstaff were friendly and knowledgeable but run off their feet. That's true in most Parisian restaurants, but this was extreme: a bartender and three waiters for approximately 55 covers. No manager, expediter or busser. There seemed to be a big problem getting food out of the kitchen, and too often the bartender had to hop out from behind the zinc bar and fetch food or clear a plate. This place would be dramatically improved with an expediter, someone stationed at the kitchen and responsible for getting all the food out. It was a bit embarrassing when we got our food long before the American family next to us, even though they ordered first.

Okay, are you ready? Cafe Constant has 6-7 choices for each course. Fish and seafood choices were plentiful; I don't recall a vegetarian option. Entrees (starters/appetisers) were 11 euro; plats (main courses) were 15 euro, and desserts were 7 euro. There is no obligation to have 3 courses, but the servings are sized so that you can comfortably eat 3, so you might leave a bit hungry if you don't. Most places in Paris that serve creative, solid food in a casual atmosphere require that you order 3 courses and charge 31-34 euro, so this is in line. There were lots of wines available by the glass, which I like, as MCM and I are increasingly interested in pairing wines well and it's often hard to find a bottle to match ("A light red again, cheri?"). They also offer house wines by the pitcher or glass, which is a great value option. Some restaurants with comparable food prices only have wine by the bottle, usually in the 25+ euro range.

I started with foie gras with toast and a little salad; solid and good quality, although I would have really liked a little tangy jam or compote on the side. MCM had an amazing dish: three oysters (raw) topped with a salmon tartare - raw salmon diced with, I'm guessing, shallot and lemon. It was incredible: so fresh and zingy, a true appetiser in the sense that it whet the appetite and woke up the taste buds. We each had a glass of Quincy, a light, fruity sauvignon blanc-based wine from the Loire. It was a bit too citrusy for my starter but still enjoyable.

Then the mains. Oh wow. We couldn't decide between the lamb and the bar (sea bass) so we ordered one of each. We asked the bartender for wine recommendations and he assumed, unusually, that I was having the meat. "Do you like Bordeaux?" Yes, I said. He suggested a Montagne St Emilion, a deep, velvety, complex red wine. MCM was offered a very pleasant, golden Sancerre, which picked up the sweetness in the sea bass, which was served with truffle oil and a sweet potato puree. The sea bass was lovely - light, refined, complex but not overpowering. A bit small, but a fish option usually is.

But the lamb! Wow. I have no idea what they did to it; it was slices of a thick cut, served just pink as requested, with white beans and a thyme sauce. It was fantastic. It was earthy and rich, yet delicate; perfect for the season, when the sun has come out and we are dreaming of spring but there is still a chill in the air.
I wanted to lick my plate.

Dessert was fine - correct, as the French would say. I had profiteroles, two huge pastry puffs filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with an indecent amount of chocolate sauce, which the waiter poured for me from a little pitcher. MCM had the comparatively dainty chocolate quenelles, little mousse spoonfuls in a sauce.

As MCM noted as we left, walking back to the metro past Les Cocottes (now heaving with people), a place that is so popular with tourists could slack off on the food, but they didn't. All in all, a fantastic celebration meal. It was cheaper than we had expected - in part, I realised after we had left, because they had forgotten to add on two glasses of wine. See what I mean about needing more staff? I don't feel too bad, because we'll be back.

Cafe Constant
Food: Delicious.
Atmosphere/decor: Disappointing.
Service: A+ for effort, B- for execution.
Value for money: Very good, given the quality of the food. Extra credit for the affordable wine options. Count on 30-40 euro per person.
What to wear: casual or smart casual. MCM and I both wore "dressy" jeans.
Good for: small groups of friends, people who love food, people who want updated takes on French classics.
Not good for: vegetarians, little kids, people with enormous appetites or people who have trouble squeezing into banquettes.
Handicapped access: Toilets are up a narrow flight of stairs.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Radio Free Paris

As a postscript to my Christmas music story, here's a good one. I often listen to the news on the radio while I'm in the kitchen. Today, France Inter, the public news station, is playing music instead of broadcasting news because of the strike. I'm not disappointed because it's playing a mix of great stuff: English-language music, French traditional chanson, and salsa. Why are they playing this stuff? Who knows. Wait. Or do I?

Here are the songs in English, to which I have been singing along, loudly. Could they actually have been chosen in reference to the strike? I wonder.

Elvis, Suspicious Minds (We're caught in a trap / I can't walk out / Because I love you too much baby / Why can't you see / What you're doing to me / When you don't believe a word I say? / We can't go on together / With suspicious minds / And we can't build our dreams / On suspicious minds).

Obviously, this describes the tortured relationship between Sarkozy and the strikers. Obviously. And the fact that France can't get out of this vicious cycle without a major effort to combat individualism and rebuild social capital. Well duh!

Next: a jazz version, artist unknown, of U2's Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad (Walked together down a dead end street / We were mixing the bitter with the sweet / Don't try to figure out what we might of had / ... / Under pressure, but not bent out of shape / Surrounded, we always found an escape / ... / Guess I've been greedy, all of my life / Greedy with my children, my lovers, my wife / ... /I'm not complaining, baby I'm glad / You call it a compromise, well what's that / Two shots of happy, one shot of sad).

I think the swipe at Sarkozy's personal life is a bit of a low blow, but there you have it. Still, a fairly accurate description of how Sarko is quite fed up with the unions and but certainly knew that things would come to this.

Followed by: Elvis Costello, Everyday I write the book (Chapter One / We didn't really get along / Chapter Two / I think I fell in love with you / You said you'd stand by me / In the middle of Chapter Three / But you were up to your old tricks / In Chapters Four, Five and Six / And I'm giving you / A longing look / Everyday, everyday, everyday / Everyday I write the book / ... / All your compliments/ And your cutting remarks / Are captured here / In my quotation marks).

This one is particularly interesting for including a journalistic point of view. Mmm hmm. Indeed, could the French have revolted without the fourth estate?

More searing political analysis coming soon. Keep reading, comrades.

I love Paris in the springtime.

Today was an absolutely delightful day. Yesterday, I had unruly, hyperactive students (adults!) who drove me to despair and I actually cried on the busride home; I was determined that today would be a better day. Today was a strike day in France. Yes, again. I lucked out, though: the metro was running normally, perhaps even smoother than normally because so many people stayed home.

Here's what made it great:
1). I gave a one-on-one English class to my favourite student this morning. I have such a crush on this woman. She's incredibly sophisticated and elegant, has lots of opinions and interests (a big plus when it's a conversation-based class), and was born with the French scarf-tying gene. How do they do it? If I wore scarves the way this woman does, I would look like a Girl Scout leader, or a clown, or maybe this chick.

2. After class I headed downtown and met Mazarine at a cafe. I was really early so I got off at the Concorde metro stop and had a leisurely stroll through the Tuileries gardens, along the Seine, and across to the Invalides. Paris is gorgeous in the spring, and today was perfect: about 60 degrees, feeling much warmer in the bright sun, and full of tourists. Tourists? But don't we despise tourists? Absolutely not. It lifted my spirits to observe these happy visitors wandering around, snapping photos, taking in the beauty of the city, and obviously enjoying themselves. In contrast, the Parisians looked relatively dour and grim, skittling along the sidewalks in their black wool coats. I was stopped by two American tourists, a couple in their early 60s, who wanted to know what the Invalides were. Is that where Napoleon is? They were from Nebraska and on their first trip to Paris, and they were so obviously delighted. It was a real joy to speak to them.

Mazarine and I went to a cafe near Invalides and ordered two glasses of Brouilly - yes, at 3.30pm. That made it taste even better. I was introduced to Brouilly by my friend Dr Mmm when she was visiting Paris last August. Dr Mmm is very, very good at Paris. She knows where to go, how to dress, what to do, what to order, and when things will be open. She has a sixth sense for Parisians and how they will behave. She also really likes Brouilly and I think she's spot on: it's a red wine that is both light and full-bodied at the same time. It's a Beaujolais wine made mostly from Gamay grapes; the taste is fruity, the colour is cranberry and slightly transparent. It is drunk young and often slightly chilled. It's not expensive and people who claim to "only drink white wine" would probably like it. It's not a wine to drink with a hearty winter meal, but it is a fantastic wine to drink on a sunny spring day, sitting outside in a cafe in the 7th arrondissement in Paris.

Mazarine insisted, for practice, on speaking French, and we discussed our futures. Both of us are in rather strange professional situations, unable to do exactly what we want, and simultaneously questionning exactly what it is we want anyway. I don't know if my career path is any clearer, but we had a great time and I realised that my French has gotten much better since I arrived here 7 months ago. About bloody time, too!

3. MCM called me to say that he had a wonderful day, too, and was approached about whether he would like a very, very cool job, should it become available in a few months. Walking home from the metro, I was in a great mood: I had a great day and I knew that MCM would be home for dinner - he's had a lot of evening work events recently. I decided to buy a little dessert, une millefeuille, along with my pave, a dense square loaf of white sourdough bread. Then I stopped in the florist - Special 7 Tulips for 1.90 Euro! The florist laughed as I daintily walked off with one arm full of bread and a little paper-wrapped cake, the other holding a small bouquet of purple tulips. I must have looked like an overgrown flower girl. Actually, since I was wearing my French-blue wool coat and black flats, I probably looked exactly like this famous Parisian.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How to Hammam

Frantic work on Book 2 has kept me from blogging - and oh, how I have pined for my blog! Thanks to you faithful readers for checking in anyway. I'd like to send a special shout out to my public in India, Barbados, Poland and California. (Really!)

So, here's the story I've been itching to tell you: Mazarine and I recently celebrated the birth of Book 1 by cashing in a gift certificate I received for Christmas and visiting a hammam. A hammam is a North African-style sauna were French women (with apparent regularity) go to relax and unwind. And deslough. And pay to be naked and pummeled. Woo hoo!

The hammam I chose was in a gritty area of Paris, near the Gare du Nord (big train station). I've heard this neighbourhood referred to as "exciting," "popular", "up-and-coming," "the best place for African food in France," and "the former heroine capital of Western Europe, maybe after Dublin." Well, Dublin has cleaned up much better. I'm not a snob and I used to live in a neighbourhood that was purported to be "managed" by an international terrorist organisation, but this was yucky. Mazarine and I tried not to look too conspicuous as two petite American women walking around with Paris map books and a yoga mat. Oy.

Anyway, so we found the spa, the women-only "Les Bains d'Orient" (Edward Said turned in his grave as I typed that). We found the personnel, as MCM would say, "unpretentious." We confirmed our booking: two for hammam, with savon noir, a gommage, and a 10-minute massage, followed by relaxation with tea and a pastry.

If, like me, you're North American and uptight, I know what you're thinking: do you wear a bathing suit? Since the reception area pretty much opened up onto the hammam space, Mazarine and I, girl detectives that we are, quickly deduced that most people were walking around in just bathing suit bottoms or paper thongs (eww - presumably supplied by the management). We thought we would only draw more attention to ourselves in full coverage, and so opted to go the bikini bottom route. (By the way, I just wanted to point out that we are both gorgeous. I mean really, truly stunning. Got it? And at this point, I've seen it all.)

After flouncing around in our oversized bathrobes for a while, we figured out that we had to start with a shower, then go to the hammam low-heat steam room, hang out for a while and then move to the hotter room. Two observations: one, some people make yucky squelching sounds while getting comfortable on wet tiles; two, this is not really about luxury - for some people this is routine, like getting a haircut or going to the dentist.

After you've been in the sauna for a while you're supposed to rub your little dixie cup of savon noir all over you. Savon noir is a thick, date-coloured paste. I don't know what it does but supposedly it's, like, totally amazing for your skin. After sudsing up we left the sauna, had a quick shower, and submitted ourselves to the gommage, which I would translate as scrubbing. Mazarine and I each were instructed to lie face-down on a freshly-disinfected table and a staff member, using a rough oven-mitt type torture device, began to scrub. And scrub. Mazarine and I couldn't stop laughing: partly ticklish, partly to see the look on each other's faces. I was convinced this woman was drawing blood. When she had me turn over and saw the expression on my face, she started laughing. "C'est la premiere fois, madame?" Yes, yes, first time, hardy har har. Scrubscrubscrubscrubscrub.

At this point, I didn't think I would want to go back. But low and behold, after a shower and a massage with rose-scented oil, I was feeling pretty fabulous and my skin was lovely and soft. Mazarine and I retired to the salle de detente, where we were served mint tea and baklava.

If you're making a trip to Paris and you're looking for a luxurious relaxation experience, I wouldn't recommend this place. It's more populaire than pampering - it's a place for ordinary people where no one stands on occasion or makes a fuss about you. The staff teased us, mopped the floor around us, and forgot our pastries until I reminded them. But if you are looking for a relatively affordable, slightly silly experience, it's fun to check out. Our full-monty experience would normally cost 60 euro per person; on a budget, you could pay 15 euro for hammam entry, buy a little pot of savon noir, and bring your own scrubby mitt to gommer yourself or a friend. Mazarine and I ended up spending over three hours there without realising it.

Oh, one last thing: if you're going out afterwards, ask them not to massage your scalp, because otherwise you will end up with very, very greasy hair.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

You'd better watch out...

Just a quick note to report that my favourite radio in Paris, TSF Jazz, was playing a jazz version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town today (while I was making dinner, in fact).

I don't know what to think of this. As some of you may know, I take Christmas music very seriously and adhere to strict rules regarding its use and consumption: it must begin after Thanksgiving dinner, be played exclusively over the next six weeks, and stop when the tree is being taken down on or on the Epiphany, whichever is later. Santa Claus, being broadcast on national radio, during Lent, is an abomination.

I can reach three reasonable conclusions about this:
1. The radio station staff are uninformed about the rules regarding Christmas music.
2. The radio station staff do not realise that it is a song about Christmas.
3. The song is a kind of code message, signalling some kind of invasion/underground political event/alien attack.

We now return to our previously scheduled broadcast of Little Peter Cottontail.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

March on, march on...

I can't believe that it's already March. Today I had a good, full day, and it made me realise how I don't want to leave Paris, as I've only just started to find my way around. By find my way around, I really mean that I am just starting to know Paris the way I know London, where I have a mental map of the metro system, a sixth sense for where and when things are happening, and an instant list of places where I know I can get a good coffee/haircut/clean bathroom facility/winter coat.

Today one of my classes was cancelled and I am proud to say that I actually used my free afternoon on fun and useful work. I taught for four hours, then ate my baguette sandwich in a park near work, then hopped on the metro and tunneled over to the Pont Marie stop. I got out, donned beret and gloves, wished I had brought my sunglasses for the cold winter sun. I crossed the stone bridge over the Seine onto the Ile St Louis, passing creperies, antiques shops, and art galleries, and walked through the 5th arrondissement to a small library I frequent for research. There I spent a few hours quietly reading and researching for Book 2. I took a long way back to the metro, opting to go straight to my metro line rather than change lines, walking through the Jardins du Luxembourg and the laocooning cobbled streets of St Germain.

Small epiphanies: I like Paris more when I am getting writing and research done. And when I am walking a lot - I love to walk. And when it's sunny. Shocker!


Here's a little observation that I thought I'd share. Walking home from the metro, on the way to the boulangerie to buy my evening baguette, I passed by one of the many small shops that caters to the region's large North African population. This particular shop combined a halal butcher, a selection of fresh produce and a range of dried goods. This caught my eye near the front door: a display of pre-packaged microwave meals with the descriptions on the yellow cardboard package written in both French and Arabic. That's not strange, except that the meals were hachis parmentier: a French dish kind of like a shepherd's pie, with leftover meat shredded and topped with mashed potato.* So observe the process: France colonises North Africa. France leaves North Africa. North Africans move to France, open shops where they import and sell North African food. Said shop sells traditional French dish, (presumably) produced in North Africa and sent to France to be consumed by North African French. Hmm.

* Parmentier was a French napoleonic general and the term "parmentier" refers to a dish topped with potato and baked. For the record, when I leave this earth and head to the great big Paris in the sky, I could think of no greater honour than to have a potato dish named after me. My real name, of course: Parisian potatoes is not quite distinctive enough.