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.