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.