Monday, December 11, 2006

Bag Lady

It's seven thirty on Monday evening and the Métro is filled with good Parisians trudging home from work. People are well-dressed in dark winter jackets, scarves neatly tied around their necks. A few are carrying dark leather briefcases that fit perfectly across their laps. Women are bent over small notebooks puzzling out Sudoku squares, and a few folks are talking discreetly into their cell phones. It is the middle of Christmas shopping season, but no one has more than a couple of small, chic shopping bags that hint at tastefully extravagant gifts from Paris boutiques.

I stumble in the sliding door, pushing my way into the subway car and grasping for a pole. As neat and tasteful as these Parisians are, there are an awful lot of them tonight, and I'm not prepared to wait fifteen minutes for the next Métro.

At a less-than-imposing five foot two, I am not used to having people get out of my way when I try to enter or exit a subway car, but tonight I'm armed with grocery provisions and people stand back. I'm clearly dangerously determined to make it home.

I've become an expert at dragging stuff around Paris public transportation. My motto is, if it can be purchased at the Casino supermarket downstairs from my office, it can damn well be carried home. I rarely have much choice: the supermarket closest to home closes at 8 o'clock, and reliably getting home before then is not easy for me or my husband. It is much easier for me to drop by the store at lunch, and I can take advantage of a frequent too-hungry-to-be-productive half an hour before noon to plan dinner and put together a shopping list.

Sometimes I misestimate the burden I'm assuming, however. Today I headed to the train with three grocery sacks filled with a five-pound bag of potatoes, a two-pound bag of clementines, a bag of arugula, crème fraîche, hummus, a carton of cherry tomatoes, a leek, and a pre-potted amaryllis bulb. I tried to balance this all across my lap on the train and still leave enough room for someone to sit next to me and I succeeded well enough, but I made sure to get up and start gathering my things a good minute before we arrived at the station. Those seated near me watched carefully, perhaps in awe, perhaps just hoping not to get hit in the face with the end of the leek that was leaning precariously out of one sack.

When I finally push my way into the Métro, I'm certain I'm looking anything but graceful. People stare, either at me or at the leek, I'm not certain. I can't get a seat, so I give up trying to read and instead clutch my book to my chest. I watch the stations count down. As the recorded voice announces the stops one by one, I look around hopefully. At Saint Lazare, as many people get in as get out, but I figure the next four stops will empty things out. No luck, and my arms are starting to ache. What's wrong with everyone tonight? Must everyone take the line to the terminus? Can no one see I'm suffering?

I feel so inelegant, so un-Parisian, I'm not sure I even belong here. I wish I had a frame backpack and a pair of hiking boots, for I'd be more comfortable and no more ridiculous. At least I changed my mind at the store at the last second and didn't buy a roll of wrapping paper as well, though it would perhaps be useful as a walking stick.

One stop from the end of the line, I plop myself down on a seat and try to recompose myself. I still have everything, even the leek (clearly the single worst vegetable to carry in the Métro, I've decided). As I get up to exit, I realize two of the middle buttons on my winter coat are unbuttoned, allowing my scarf to billow out. La touche qui tue.

Does Elle magazine have hints for managing this better, and I haven't been paying attention? Or should I start factoring shipping dimensions into my meal planning? A suivre...

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Tous à table

Pheasant with grapes. Monkfish with sorrel. Blanquette de veau. Pork stew with mushrooms. Grilled prawns in whisky cream sauce. These are just some of the dishes that have been offered recently in my corporate lunch room, courtesy of our remarkable caterer. The desserts are similarly tempting: crèpes with vanilla cream and strawberries, chocolate pear tarts, and coffee éclairs.

Not everyone eats this well at work in Paris, and the fact that I count lunch as one of the highlights of my day is the result of a compromise and a happy accident. When my company moved out to the far suburbs, relocating in a mostly residential area, the employees bitterly complained of the lack of local restaurants. It was bad enough we all had longer commutes, but losing the cafeteria or any other civilized place to eat at noon was almost insulting.

I remember when my former company back in the US was confronted with the same problem. We had no cafeteria, and made do by calling out for sandwiches or Chinese food. Once the last person willing to phone in the order every day was laid off, we each fended for ourselves with a lot of fast food runs and trips to the local burger joint. There was a good sushi place nearby, where we ate at least once a week, but otherwise lunch was generally pathetic.

In France, I suspect the same situation would lead to a general strike.

My current company happily fixed the situation by converting the mail room into a lunch room and inviting a caterer, found at the last minute by word-of-mouth, to bring preprepared lunch plates in every day. I was a bit skeptical at first, since everything would necessarily be reheated in the microwave upon delivery, but the compromise worked out perfectly. The food is, quite simply, inspired. I've heard that the caterer's staff make early morning trips to Rungis, Paris' wholesale food market, where they pick up whatever's in season and then improvise. They make everything themselves, from quenelles and ravioli to all manner of tarts and pastries. The owner is a patissier by training, and his talent shows. (My only regret is that I was apparently the one fan of his pistacchio macarons, which haven't made an appearance for some time. There were rum-soaked cherries hidden in the middle of that crème patissier filling... oh! What loss!)

So much text has been written about food in France that I'm honestly not sure what new perspective I can bring. However, it is so much a part of my life here, and I can no longer resist. My lunch story illustrates what I find most wonderful about food in France: mealtime is sacred. It's easy to fall into this French way of thinking, to start taking two hour lunch breaks and consider the dining room table the most important piece of furniture in the house.

I don't want to sound like a French food snob, and there are some aspects of the French cult of eating that drive me crazy.

First, I find French cuisine is often a lot less inventive than American cuisine. Most restaurants, or at least those in the price range accessible to mere mortals, build their menus around a core selection of classic recipes. Steak au poivre. Choucroute. Saumon with beurre blanc. I understand sticking with a winning team, but the average Parisian dinner menu puts me to sleep. I want something daring, something trendy, something unusual, and this remains something you have to seek out and be prepared to pay for. I estimate that 90% of Paris mid-range restaurants have 80% of their menus in common.

The last time I was in Seattle we ate at a wonderful restaurant where we had, if I remember properly, lime risotto topped with fried smelt. The only place in Europe where I've found such inventive dishes, though my travels are admittedly limited, was in Germany, where we once had asparagus with chive-infused whipped cream. I love reading menu descriptions I can't fathom until they show up in front of me, beautifully constructed.

(A restaurant in Paris that specializes in this sort of thing is Ze Kitchen Gallery, which we haven't yet tried, but intend to. It is quite pricey, however.)

The other thing that perplexes me in France is a curious French dependence on frozen food. Granted, the quality of frozen food in France is quite high, and you can easily find all kinds of frozen primary ingredients, such as unprepared fish, all varieties of vegetables, and even chopped herbs. Then there are the prepared dishes, from basic pizzas to foie gras and patisserie-worthy cakes. There are two major market chains devoted exclusively to selling all this. I was fascinated with it when I first arrived, and bought up an entire freezerful of the stuff.

Then we hardly touched any of it, and chucked it out after a year and a half.

I know people who live on frozen food, however, and many seem to have no scruples about serving entire surgelé meals to guests. Every year at the beginning of the holidays we get a flyer from Picard, the most well known frozen food chain, describing their Christmas and New Years' offers. Last year we dropped by on the 31st of December to buy some frozen raspberries for a coulis, and judging by the length of the checkout line, the marketing is working. I can't imagine any American I know cutting such corners at Thanksgiving.

So meals are not to be skipped or improvised, but a bit of cheating is perfectly acceptable.

What would Brillat-Savarin think?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

All Saints' Day

Le Toussaint, or All Saints' Day, doesn't even figure on most American calendars. I certainly knew little of the tradition before moving to France, where it is important enough to be both a national holiday and a week-long school vacation. It is the pivot point of autumn, when the last warm days of any lingering indian summer are finally given over to a cool, northern European winter gray. "Un temps de Toussaint," they say here: "All Saints' Day weather." This year was no exception, for although the weather was unseasonably warm up until the end of October, as night fell on Halloween I was glad I had finally taken out my winter coat.

All Saints' is one of several Catholic holidays which still figure prominently on the French calendar. The Feast of the Assumption and Ascension Day are both paid holidays, and Pentecost Monday was only recently dropped as a result of social reforms. These holidays have largely lost their meaning to most, and I suspect the average Frenchman couldn't tell you whether Ascension comes in May or August. All Saints' is different, because even if its strictly religious meaning has been somewhat blurred (and combined with All Souls' Day which falls the day after), it is still an important part of French tradition. It is still, quite simply, the day when families gather together to remember the dead.

It is fitting, and doubtlessly not by accident, that this occasion falls just beyond the official end of summer. The season is by nature about renouncement and endings. Most French remember being led to the cemetery as a child, often through the rain; they remember solemn adults telling stories about people whose names were to them only letters carved in stone. These aren't happy memories, but they aren't unhappy, either, just part of the normal rhythm of the year. One never makes the mistake of bringing chrysanthemums as a gift, however. The flower is too closely associated with gravesites decorated for Toussaint.

Although All Saints' fell on a Wednesday this year, we decided to make the trip out to Troyes for Tuesday night and the following day to keep the tradition with my husbands' aunt. The rest of the family was out of town, taking advantage of a last week of vacation before the holidays. The day was sunny and crisp, "un temps de Toussaint" but just barely, not yet cold enough for frost.

I usually find French cemeteries uncommonly depressing. There isn't any grass, as there is in American cemeteries, just gravel walkways behind high stone walls. Massive stone tombs are much more common than headstones, and most are covered with sad collections of plaques and porcelain flowers. The oldest graves have rusting and deteriorating ironwork which give a rather uncertain notion of eternity. Worse, the city hall often posts small signs in front of plots considered abandoned, waiting for relatives to come forward before the gravesite is reallotted.

Troyes' cemetery is no different, objectively, but I only see it at Toussaint, when it is covered in fresh flowers and looks almost cheerful. Chrysanthemums are the only flowers, and they paint the typical gray in a patchwork of orange, yellow, red and violet. It feels as if for one day the living have remembered to come and scatter a bit of their life upon the forgotten.

My husband's aunt comes faithfully to the cemetery all year to water the flowers she plants on her parents' and grandparents' graves. She does not enjoy coming, but is moved by a sense of duty to memory that is noble, old-fashioned, and recently uncommon. I come only once a year, but to come that often feels important to me. We stand together in front of the graves and she tells me of people I never knew, but to whom I am linked, and to whom I am grateful.

Like many Americans, my family memories are scattered across continents. In three generations we moved from Michigan and Indiana to Seattle and Paris. There is no place I can return to to remember where I came from, so I carry it with me. I feel as though that makes memory that much harder.

I'm reminded, however, how much it is worth.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Home bis

Photos from our walk at Lake Amance, near Troyes.


This fall, for the first time, I've caught myself thinking of France as home.

This may be hard to explain, because France has been home in a certain way from the moment we unpacked our first moving boxes in the living room. I've moved a fair amount in my life, and I've found that the moment the nest is rebuilt and I'm once again surrounded by all my things, I've been successfully transplanted. Afterward, there are ups and downs, of course; there's a period when everything is new and perfect, a period a little later when everything is tedious and disconnected, and then finally the peaks even out.

A friend of mine who was born abroad but has lived in the US for the last three decades told me, and wisely, that this process would take three years.

The first year is elation. The second is comparison with everything you knew before. The third is integration and synthesis, as you finally reconcile the old with the new.

All this happened for me much as she described. Moving was my idea as much as my husband's, and at the beginning of 2003, I couldn't leave quickly enough. We both had jobs with companies with no future (mine duly went under three months after we left), and though we had a number of good friends in Boston, we had no family ties in the US closer than a five-hour flight west. When my husband finally got the job offer he had been hoping for that would take us to Paris, I remember the months sped by as we nervously but excitedly planned the move.

I came up with a new version of Azavour, "Il me semble que la misère serait moins penible à Paris." Misery will be less painful in Paris! I hummed it to myself at my desk at work.

By the summer of 2004 the elation was gone. I wasn't sure I wanted to move back to the US, so it wasn't homesickness in the traditional sense. Instead, I wanted to find some idea of home in Paris that I had imagined but never found. I began to convince myself that if I lived in some kind of Parisian fairy-tale apartment, with tall Haussmanian glass-paned doors and a view of the Eiffel Tower, I'd somehow feel better. I moped, I whined, and I dragged my husband around Paris neighborhoods on the weekends, ruining otherwise nice walks by pointing out apartment buildings and saying, "If only we lived there!"

I was depressed, and I wasn't sure why, and I was rapidly making anyone willing to listen to me miserable as well. It was that summer that we went back to the US and I caught up with my friend who explained her three-year theory. I remember the evening clearly: were were at a Thai restaurant in suburban San Francisco, and I pushed coconut rice around my plate while trying to explain, delicately since my husband was with us, just how unhappy I was. I confided that I had started thinking of moving back, not immediately but eventually, and the idea of a life in France was seeming less and less sustainable. I didn't even know what had happened.

Her remark made me consider for the first time that my unhappiness was temporary: it wasn't about France, or who I was, but rather where I was in a process. So by la rentrée 2004, as schoolchildren across France were headed back to class, I resolved to keep at my homework, doing what I needed to finally fit in. I signed up for gym and art classes. I started preparing for some road races. As providence would have it, I made friends with a colleague and running buddy, who ended up keeping me company for hours as we trained together for the Paris Marathon. Her good humor and warm conversation pulled me out of my rut as much as anything else.

Two years of routine followed that difficult summer, without turmoil, but with such constant activity that I hadn't time to worry so much about my emotional state. I ran a marathon. We bought an apartment. My company changed offices. My life settled into simple day-to-day questions, and I largely stopped la prise de tête.

Three months ago I celebrated my third anniversary in France. I was no longer unhappy to be here, although I wasn't exactly ecstatic, either. I was simply happy, content, at peace. At home.

Now, this fall, I've started thinking of France as home in an entirely different way than I had ever expected. I simply and suddenly, for just a few seconds, forget that France was anything other than home. It sounds strange, but it has happened to me several times recently: I'll be looking at something or thinking about something entirely unrelated, and the idea of France as where I live and have always lived will settle into my brain, and I'll accept it. Then I stop: wait a second, that's not right...

It happened to me this weekend as my husband and I were taking a walk at lake near Troyes, home of his father's family. It was dusk, we were headed back to the car, and the landscape was covered with a fine mist that was just dense enough for us to try and blink it away as if we were waking from sleep. The sky was otherwise clear, and even before sunset everything had seemed just touched with gold: not the brilliant oranges and reds that I remember from New England, but a subtle yellow caught amongst the leaves, or a line of afternoon sunlight on the outline of a bare branch. We we walked along, the gravel road crunching under our feet, and I remember looking down at the ground and feeling a kind of familiarity that I thought only came when you returned to a place you knew as a child. "I am from here," I thought, "How nice it is to be back." Then I stopped myself and remembered it wasn't strictly true.

It felt as familiar to me as any landscape I'd ever known.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Gros mots

Most people know how to curse their computers, but I am part of that elite group of computer professionals who have turned it into an art form. I'm a software developer, and from the moment I started learning to program I started perfecting a certain colorful form of self expression. I used to frighten my roommate back in college, who probably expected me to throw myself on the floor in hysterics so violent were my fits of frustration.

It wasn't so much the vocabulary, which varied from rude to just silly, but the intensity and volume of my outbursts. I would scream and sob and sometimes came close to throwing a keyboard across the room. Luckily, I've become a better programmer since I was in school, and I'm better able to calm myself and reason problems out rationally, but this doesn't prevent me from expressing myself loudly and sometimes colorfully at work.

I think that, in moderation at least, this is a good thing. It helps me manage stress, avoid high blood pressure later in life, and generally be in a more pleasant mood when I come home at night. Since I moved abroad, however, it presents some new problems.

This is because swearing in a foreign language is a delicate matter. To me, most non-native speakers who swear in English end up sounding both crass and silly at the same time. There's nothing worse than "mo-zehr fawk-ehr" with a bad French accent, and when "peas of sheet" is exclaimed, no matter how forcefully, how can anyone take it seriously? I've reproached my husband time and again for his bad habits in English, to which he replies he learned it all "on the streets of Storrs" while a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. (For the record, I think Storrs, Connecticut only has two streets, although one of them does have a bar.)

I've realized lately that I must sound just as ridiculous in French. I've noticed my boss tends to chuckle when I say merde. "Say sheet," he tells me, "It's more discreet." When I yell out, "Merde, ça me fait chier, cette piece of crap!" passionately mixing three synonyms for excrement in two languages, my colleagues smirk and people in the hallway stop to stare. So I try to limit myself to English. The fact that I'm a woman makes it all the more unbecoming, so I do my best to avoid the worst words, or gros mots, in all situations, even at home.

Alas, despite my best efforts, I started too late and merde is firmly entrenched in my vocabulary. I mutter it when I can't find my keys, or when I miss the métro by a few seconds, and of course, I still say it to my computer. More and more often, however, I just throw up my hands and gesticulate, and groan something completely unintelligible in either English or French. Loudly.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Subway-Work-Sleep. Métro-Boulot-Dodo. This is my life at the moment, although the dodo is suffering to the benefit of my blog.

Voilà the Parisian lament. I often get "you lazy European" comments from friends and family back home, who justly covet my six weeks of vacation. I think they imagine that here in France we spend three weeks on the beach, two weeks skiing, a week with family at Christmas, and the rest of the year getting the odd hour or two of work done between long breaks at sidewalk cafés. While it's true that the weeks of vacation are sacred (as anyone who's looked for an open restaurant in Paris in the month of August can attest), I maintain that French workers are just as productive as Americans, perhaps more so.

Of course, I have nothing to back this theory up except my own experience working for exactly one technology company over two and a half years. Not much of a scientific sampling, I'll admit. I've simply noticed that people in Paris tend to stay later and spend their time at their desk more productively than a lot of my colleagues back in the US. Web browsing is infrequent, instant messaging is unheard of, even if we take coffee breaks seriously, we get a lot done. Of course, it may just be because our project is dangerously behind schedule.

Like most aspects of my life, I'm tempted to take my individual experience and extrapolate it to all things French or American. Since I'm often the only American in a group of interested and relatively uninformed French, or vice versa, people often take the ridiculous generalizations I make seriously. Not too much of a worry, really: if they listen to me long enough, I'm bound to contradict myself. And there's always something true enough hidden in my observations, I suppose.

The Métro part of my day is about two and a half hours, less if I snag a ride with a kind colleague who lives in my neighborhood. Boulot is averaging nine hours at the moment, not including a nice lunch break when I often escape for a noontime run. Given the level of stress, the slipping deadlines, and the proximity of the big boss' office to my own, I feel this is rather reasonable.

I'm still exhausted. Dodo for me.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Not a real parisienne

Parisians, like most inhabitants of large cities, are geographical snobs.

It helps that the city is neatly divided up into 20 arrondissements, or independently-administered neighborhoods, each with its own distinct character and boundaries. It also helps that the Seine cuts the whole city neatly in two, giving each bank and its two islands very different personalities. The 7th and 8th arrondissements are both chic and expensive, but drop me blindfolded into one and I won't mistake it for the other, even if I'm not within sight of the Hôtel des Invalides or rue du Faubourg St. Honoré.

Parisians tend to sort themselves out into neighborhoods that match their aspirations and points of view. Bourgeois group together in the 8th and 16th, old money in the 7th, leftist intellectuals and bobos in the 11th and 12th. These are the stereotypes, of course; they are often less true in reality, which is ever-changing anyway.

Means are important in all this sorting out. Certain neighborhoods are poor, particularly those in the northeast of the city. Other neighborhoods are so expensive as so be pratically inaccessible to "real" Parisians. Often apartments with sky-high prices are snapped up by foreigners who find French real estate relatively cheap. I've been told that Ile Saint Louis is overrun with Americans. Oh, how I wish I could be one of them!

All that is Paris proper, Paris intra muros, or everyone who has 75 as the first two digits of their zip code. This snobbism is played out on a larger scale in the whole of greater Paris, the region Ile de France. Unlike in the US, where living in the suburbs is often considered more prestigious or at least safer and more comfortable than living downtown, in Europe downtown is chic and the suburbs are either frightening or boring. Many are those Parisians who'd never consider moving outside the former city walls.

There are others who like the suburbs just fine, who enjoy having a real house or a larger apartment, and don't understand why people would want to live stacked atop one another just to be in the center of things.

I was ready to be Parisian snob. I dreamt of a Haussmanian apartment on some busy avenue, a view over zinc rooftops, and my very own Métro station. I didn't much care which arrondissement I ended up in, but I thought living as a banlieusard, a common suburb-dweller, was singularly pathetic.

I was pretty obnoxious about it, and my husband had to put up with my whining for months. The truth was that Paris real estate is expensive, and we couldn't afford as nice an apartment as we wanted in a neighborhood we liked without me abandoning this ridiculous pretention. We currently live just outside Paris, in a very pleasant suburb along the Seine. I even have my own Métro station.

Thus the title of my blog, a play on words: Pa(s)risienne Mais Presque. Not a real Parisian, but almost.

Of course, it also applies to me as a foreigner. I love France, my country of adoption, but even if I live here the rest of my life I'll never be quite really and truly French. Just almost. Close enough for me.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Prise de tête

Prise de tête literally means "taking one's head," in the same way one could take a city or a castle. That's the accurate-yet-colorful translation: in everyday English, it means something like boring, frustrating, a waste of time or a pain. And as one would expect of such a useful, all-purpose term, it has got to be one of the most common phrases in modern French.


"Je voulais aller au cinema, mais c'etait trop prise de tête." I wanted to go to the movies, but it was too much of a pain.

"Qu'est-ce qu'il me prend la tête celui la." What a bore he is, he's wasting my time.

Particularly applicable in many common office situations.

One prime example of "prise de tête" is the French Office Greeting Protocol. It is very important to properly say hello to everyone upon your arrival in the morning. A simple "hello everybody" from across the room or a nod and smile while crossing in the hallway simply won't do. You must go around from desk to desk, shake everyone's hand and say hello to them directly and personally.

You must know in advance if the person in question gets a "bonjour" or the more familiar "ça va." This is a question of hierarchy and familiarity; I can "ça va" my boss, but not his boss, and my office is particularly laid back. You must also be prepared to say hello to the person with their first name, as in "Bonjour, Philippe," but only if they do so first, and only if you're sure you've gotten the name right.
Half of the project managers in my office are named Philippe, so it's a safe fallback name when in doubt.

I tend to freeze and splutter something incomprehensible when someone addresses me out of the blue. I'll suddenly lose their first name, even though I've worked with them daily for over two years. Or I'll get so tripped up on the "bonjour or ça va" question that the name will come out after a long enough pause to make my colleague wonder if I'm suffering from early memory loss.

It is also critical to remember if you've already seen the person, because a second "bonjour" in the same day simply won't do. The person will invariably pause and ask in an either confused or hostile fashion, "Haven't we seen each other already?" They are either annoyed that you didn't remember greeting them, or worried that they themselves don't remember.

So much for the "hey, how's it going," we mumble to each other every time we cross paths at the copy machine back in the US.

All this protocol isn't something that probably matters much, but it's yet another example of an everyday script in my life here that I'm always feeling I get just a little bit wrong. On the other hand, I felt that way often enough even in the US, and I'm relieved to at last have the perfect excuse.

Don't mind me, I'm not from around here.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Fluctuat nec mergitur

The motto of the city of Paris is a, to me, nearly unpronouncable Latin phrase that means something like "it is buffeted by the waves without being submerged." That is my literal, half-past-midnight translation from the French I found on the French wikipedia site. I prefer the way my husband translates it, "Et portant, elle flotte." And despite it all, she floats.

Paris is a city, and thus a feminine entity in French. I think that's why I prefer this last translation, which keeps the feminine pronoun, since I often feel I could adopt the motto as my own. Wikipedia also informs me that this motto comes from the Scilicet, the ship represented on the city's seal and symbol of a merchant's guild in the middle ages. The ship is almost unrecognizable as such on the city's modern logo, but it nevertheless has at least a half dozen centuries of history.

As of August 24th, 2006 I have three years of history as a resident of Paris. I don't even live in the city itself so I'm somewhat of a faux parisian, but more on that later. It's been almost eight years since I first visited here, in late 1998. Perhaps I've not much to tell yet.

Et portant, elle flotte. Not a bad place to start.