Sunday, February 28, 2010

Raw Tuna, Raw Tunes

It took them long enough, but the French have finally caught on to sushi in a big way. Sushi places were few and far between the last time I was in Paris, but over the last few years sushi lunch bars and Japanese grills have popped up all over the place, and even our local Franprix supermarket now carries simple maki rolls alongside the more standard refrigerated French appetizers of shredded carrot or balsamic couscous salads. This fishy dish has also become one of France's most popular delivery foods. While an American family might get a pepperoni pizza, bread sticks and a 2-litre Coke brought to their door, Parisians can expect a scooter-driving delivery boy bearing a sashimi platter and a bottle of white wine. I've yet to sample this approach, but on Friday I joined a big group of friends at a place in Belleville called Sukiyaki that was definitely anything but ("yucky", that is). In spite of not having my two favorites, spicy tuna and eel (the Chesapeake Bay is actually a huge source of the world's eel supply, so it might just not be as readily available here) the restaurant served up a pretty heaping, delicious plate of fish to satisfy my sushi craving.

We followed up our dinner with some Amorino gelatto (!) and a jam session cocktail at the Duc des Lombards jazz club near Châtelet. I sipped what was definitely the best mojito I've had in France and enjoyed the music and chill atmosphere. The night's line-up began with a few middle-aged jam regulars, including a pianist, a bassist and a pretty rocking drummer who apparently runs the sessions, then rotated through various other performers and music students (trumpet, flute, sax...) every few songs or so.

I know that jazz bars exist in big American cities, and that jazz is still a major part of the culture in places like Chicago and New Orleans. By and large, however, jazz isn't at all appreciated in the States the way it is here--American jazz legends from the 20s are still featured prominently in French music stores, free jazz festivals crop up all over the place during the summer months, and the regular scheduled concerts at the club are a nightly occurrence, pricey and well-attended.

From our seats on the balcony we had a great view inside the workings grand piano, and I was mesmerized by the playful movement of the pianists' fingers across the keys and the corresponding shudders of the hammers against the strings. The improvisation and expression, which would vary from sultry to peppy to bluesy, made me nostalgic for the taste of jazz I had near the end of my piano-playing career. If I were a musician, I would definitely play jazz; not that there's anything wrong with the classics, but jazz is such a living, transient music in comparison--it's like the difference between studying Latin vs. studying Arabic. As I battled drunk youth for space on the night bus later on, I renewed my vows that as soon as I'm settled somewhere I'll invest in a nice keyboard and start playing around again--I think music is, like blogging, one of those forms of procrastination that I could feel good about doing. (And now, on to homework...)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It's good to be a foodie

France is turning me into a foodie.

Maybe it's just finally having enough money to eat more than Ramen. Or being forced by the lack of American ready-made mixes and sauces to learn how ingredients go together. Or the exposure to different cuisines that comes with life in a city. Or maybe (likely) it's Tom.

In any case, I'm eating better now than I ever have. To start with, I'm eating out more often and more diversely. In the last week or so I've been to a French jazz brunch, a Vietnamese restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, and of course, several bakeries/brasseries for pastries, sandwiches, demi-pints and even a late-night rum & ice cream sundae. Delicious. And fairly affordable, too, if you do things wisely.

Even better than eating out, however, is eating in. Using the kitchen here is a social experience, and even if you're just boiling some pasta for yourself you're bound to run into a friend. The fourth floor community averages about two impromptu shared meals a week, which are a lot of fun and extremely tasty. The blend of nationalities and life experience means that everyone brings their own set of expertise and flavors to the stove. Tom has made fish n' chips, shepherd's pie and a mean curry, Alicia does Indian dishes, Maria has made a few delectable Greek dishes, Silvan brings some German to the table, Delphine does French quiches and cakes and Lucy specializes in desserts and Southern cuisine. As for me, I'm still learning, but I did manage to whip up a pretty hearty chili meal last week, complete with black beans and cornbread I had brought back from Christmas break.

I'm also learning secondhand how to manage French cooking, or cooking in France, at least. Many of the ingredients I rely on in the States are either expensive and difficult to find or completely nonexistent in Paris (examples: peanut butter, corn meal, black beans, anything spicy, baking powder, chocolate chips, brown sugar, canned broth, Bisquick, cake/sauce mixes, etc.). Instead, I'm discovering how to use foods like butter, tomato purée, cream, butter, lardons (cured bacon strips best translated as "lardlings") aubergine, butter, endives, fresh basil and herbs, and a range of cheeses. Oh, and lest I forget: butter. I've also been trying out a new sport of haphazard baking. Since I don't have measuring cups or correct ingredients, each time I bake I just approximate components and amounts until the batter tastes good and looks to be about the right consistency. So far I've made a batch of cake-like chocolate chip cookies and a banana bread which both turned out amazing well, considering.

Anyway, life is good, and tastes even better. If anyone has simple recipes to share I would love to have them. I might need to break down and actually buy some cooking utensils, though. Oh, and some new pants.

Ripples of the macabre

After my suicide and the Seine post, a friend of mine brought this to my attention. It's a series of still photographs of the Thames river, taken by American Roni Horn and currently on display in one of my favorite art museums, London's Tate Modern:

Her comments:

'I thought I would shoot the Seine or the Garonne, but these rivers don’t have the same energy. I don’t know how many people kill themselves in the Seine but it just didn’t look like a convincing suicide route to me. The Thames has the interesting fact attached to it that it is the urban river with the highest appeal to foreign suiciders. So you get people coming in from Paris to kill themselves in the Thames. So it has an incredible draw and one of the points about shooting the Thames was the fact that it’s darkness was quite real—it wasn’t just a visual darkness, it was a psychological darkness. Water is something one’s attracted to largely for the light aspect of it.'

Apparently I'm not the only one to find the topic eerily poetic.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

(This is not a cry for help)

I learned today of a fascinating (at least to my morbid tastes) Parisian phenomenon that existed up until the early 1800s called the "filets de Saint-Cloud", a set of nets on the downstream end of the Seine used to recover the cadavers of suicide victims. Apparently jumping into the Seine was the #1 way to off one's self back then--between the lack of swimming skills and the high walls that made it difficult to climb back out, it was more or less surefire.

The reason I found out about this is that the Balzac book we read for yesterday, "La Peau de Chagrin," begins with its protagonist contemplating suicide-by-drowning. This got me thinking about how trends in suicide can reflect on a society. In the book, the protagonist's suicidal tendencies are indicative of both Parisian geography/culture and the bleak 19th century "mal du siècle" ennui. The same could be said of a lot of other literary suicides I've read through so far this year--sacrificial lovers' suicides at the tip of an épée in the medieval ages, which attest to a different perspective of honor, chivalry and passion; Madame Bovary's graphic death by pharmacist's arsenic, which could be seen as the product of strict 19th century marriages and oppressive gender roles and social codes and indicative of a new interest in/fear of science and medicine.

Yes! I thought to myself. Here's a gem to store away in that little jar labeled "potential thesis topics" in the corner of my brain. Unfortunately, a quick Google search proved that I'm far from the first person to have had this stroke of genius. *siiigh* However, my brief researching also turned up a few interesting statistics about French suicide--the non-literary kind, that is--that shed a little light on changes in French culture and differences between France and the U.S. and really got me thinking. It seems that as Seine suicides (more than 300 between 1795 and 1800!) became less frequent due to better swimming abilities and the improved precautionary measures of throwable emergency life rings, ladders, and regular police patrol of the water, Parisian suicides matched trends in Parisian life, switching to jumping from increasingly high buildings or under metro cars.

France's most (in?)famous tall building, the Eiffel tower, has had more than 350 successful jumpers since its construction in 1889, with the annual rate down to about 4 or so in recent years due to new precautionary measures. (Most Parisians still remember a high-profile incident last year, in which tourist plunged to her death on the glass ceiling of the same Eiffel Tower restaurant where I spent Thanksgiving...eesh). The most recent statistic I could find for the Parisian metro was from 2006, and it puts annual metro suicides at either 70 or 150, depending on who you ask, with definite spikes after holidays and vacations. (In comparison, the D.C. Metro got flak from the media for having a record-high 9 suicides last year. Granted that's comparing D.C.'s 5 lines and 2 million riders to Paris' 19 lines and 3 million, but still.) In fact, Parisian suicides outnumber Washingtonian suicides in general. The rate of suicides in Paris is 23 per 100,000 residents, higher than the national rate of 17, but MUCH higher than Washington D.C.'s 6 per 100,000 and the U.S. national rate of 11. (The method is also different; while firearms don't even figure in the statistics here, they are overwhelmingly the most-employed method in the U.S., which only proves that we REALLY need to get our gun regulations under control.)

So why are so many more frogs croaking ? Theories out there include a lower rate of religious fervor (which would account for less of a spiritual support network as well as less moral interdiction), racial/economic tensions in the urban suburbs of Paris, and, most recently, an increasingly oppressive workplace environment. What I didn't discuss in my previous post on the workplace in France is that finding a job in France is much more difficult than it is in the US. The economic crisis has pushed America's unemployment rate to where France's has been for a while--around 10%, and unlike America, France isn't expecting it to go back down. With many service positions filled as careers, part time/temporary jobs are much harder to find here, and with an education system that pushes you to make a vocational choice early in life and a regimented system of competencies/requirements that makes it difficult to switch careers, it's easier to feel "trapped" in a job you don't like (which you then don't want to surrender to unemployment).

Or maybe it's something different entirely. To come full circle with this post, modern French literature is marked by a series of rather depressing philosophical/literary movements that reveal a bleak worldview. Is the outlook of this literature descriptive? Or just intellectual? Making ties between real life and fuzzy fictional universes always gets tricky. In any case, this research was enough to sober me and turn me away from such a depressing thesis topic. I'll stick to women's rights and courtly love from now on.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dragons and Valentines

This year's Saint-Valentin weekend was as much a celebration of my love for Paris as of my relationship with Tom. Although we did nothing particularly spectacular, we spent a long, leisurely weekend together, taking advantage of all the city has to offer. On Friday we met up at the legendary "L'As du Falafel" (recommended by Lenny Kravitz, apparently) for lunch before spending an afternoon amongst the orthodox Jews and drag queens of the Marais, visiting a museum, stopping for hot chocolate, and generally enjoying the unseasonably sunny day. Dinner was a French-inspired collective effort with Lucy, an artist-in-residence whose cooking skills rival Tom's: basque prawns and rice, a Roquefort/walnut salad, and an apple tart and custard for dessert.

Saturday: stroll around the Alesia area and a visit to a vibrant weekend flea market to pick up extra plates and cutlery. Dance at the Canadian House, which was small but delightfully goofy and Valentine's themed (because who doesn't associate tea-light candles, lasers and shitty American pop music with February 14th?). Sunday: Chinese lunch in the "ethnic" Belleville quarter, in a packed restaurant with a street-side window to afford a view of the the slightly lame Chinese New Year parade. Happy year of the Tiger!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Working out the world of work

Relative to the U.S., French business hours and practices are extremely inconvenient and, from an American perspective, downright rude. To start off it can often be difficult to even make it to a business while they're open. France works a 35-hour week. Shops and services open late, then close again shortly thereafter for a two hour lunch break. (Fortunately, some of them stay open later than they would in the U.S.--for example, the Cité Universitaire Post Office is open from 2pm-8pm, which makes a lot of sense when you realize that the French start their days later and don't usually eat dinner until 9pm or so). By law, most of France shuts down on a Sunday, and many stores opt to take a Monday or Tuesday off as well.

There is also little to no concept of "customer service". As I discovered through my Hertz battles a few weeks ago, the customer is NOT always right in France, nor even valued. Part of this is due to the fact that many of the retail and food service jobs that are snubbed as low-class and low-paying in the US are salaried careers in France (with the notable exceptions of the "Arabe" 7-11esque stores, kebab vendors, Asian traiteurs--basically anything minority-run), meaning that hostesses and waiters don't feel compelled to debase themselves for tips, and to the contrary are often very proactive in maintaining a mutual power/respect balance. The benefit is that people take a lot of pride in their work, are good at what they do and are generally recognized as such. The bad news is, well, let's take the example of my friend Barclay. When we went out to get a post-class pint, we opted to sit at one of the outdoor, street-side tables underneath a heater. As the waiter was placing our pints on the table he got bumped from behind by a pedestrian, spilling most of Barclay's beer onto her lap. Although he apologized and immediately ran in to grab a towel, he left most of the clean-up to us and didn't offer anything in the way of compensation (a pint on the house, or a discount, for example). This would have been totally unacceptable in the US, but in France no one near us even batted an eye.

And yet, most of the people I interact with on a daily basis are, if not more polite, at least a lot more competent and knowledgeable than their American equivalents. After an episode of intestinal angst this past weekend I found myself visiting a string of pharmacies. Never did I wait longer than three minutes in line, and I was extremely appreciative of the medical expertise expected of pharmacists here, who are able to evaluate symptoms and distribute mild prescription drugs without the hassle of doctor involvement (or inflated US prices). I also love bakery or open air market staff, who exude quality, from their food, to their promptness, to the care they put into the wrapping of their products. Apparently I'm not the only one--here's a BBC piece about Parisians that seems to agree (and reads like what my blog aspires to be).

I've been spending a lot of time lately considering this system, browsing job listings and trying to imagine myself as an employed woman in Paris next year. As an employee, the late starts, long lunches, frequent vacations and short work weeks would seem luxurious rather than irritating. Until my own country sorts things out, the health care would be lovely. And another year here, this time as a "real" adult with an apartment in a cosmopolitan city wouldn't be too shabby. First task: tackle the French formatted CV, which is surprisingly're expected to list hobbies and "competencies" and to attach a photograph, which surely invites racism/other appearance-based prejudice, but hey, it's France. If customer service is in its infancy here, the idea of political correctness has yet to be born.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Song of sixpence surprise

My Mondays are hell this semester. One class in the morning, then a brief break to haul my butt across the city and grab lunch before a grammar tutorial and a literature tutorial. I then have half an hour to incorporate edits from the earlier grammar tutorial into the mini-paper for my last course before reading it out loud in front of the class, to be picked apart by the prof. It's an incredibly stressful day, but in a way it's nice to have some of my schedule concentrated; it makes the rest of the week a little easier. Additionally, that last class of the day with the out-loud reading is definitely going to be my most challenging this term, and it's actually really ideal timing. At the end of a long day of French immersion, my speaking abilities are at their peak, and seeing as how I'm naturally at my sharpest, intellectually, in the evenings, it should all turn out alright (with a little help from espresso, of course).

The problem is that this 8am-8pm Monday means I have to reform my procrastinating ways and be disciplined about getting a lot of work done in advance. I also have to make sure I get enough sleep Sunday night to function, which can be difficult to do after adjusting to a late night/late morning weekend sleep schedule. I failed at the latter goal this week, which meant that I worked about three times as long as I had slept and was super strung out when I finally got home.

Luckily, there's Tom. In one of our many Oxford conversations I mentioned to Tom that I really miss my favorite pub dinner: steak and ale pie. When I got home he had pie surprises (surPIESes?) waiting for me--complete with pastry monograms and minty "mushy peas"! (Feel free to go "awwwww"). I couldn't resist a few photos before digging in.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Amsterdam it all, part II

The remaining part of our journey was, thank God, fairly uneventful. The leisurely drive through snow-blanketed countryside was much more pleasant in the daylight (not to mention with a functional car). We stopped at a few rest-stops for munchies, read passages out-loud from one of our class novels, laughed at a dutch techno cover of "Sweet Caroline" on the radio and got helpful directions drawn on the inside cover of one of my books next to where I had scribbled Hertz numbers and addresses in the dark the night before. We rolled up to Amsterdam, appropriately, at about 4:20, parked outside the city and snagged a tram ride in. We had finally made it.

The evening in Amsterdam was magical. After stowing our stuff at the hostel we headed out to a coffeeshop to unwind from our harrowing journey. By the time we emerged to find dinner it was snowing again--fat fluffy flakes that were enough to limit the pedestrian traffic but not so much as to be overwhelming. We watched the snow through the window at a cute little Italian place, where our waiter spoke like Mario and gave us complimentary coffee after our personal pizzas. We then went on a walk through downtown Amsterdam through snow that had, by this point, changed to Dippin' Dots-sized spheres that you could catch in cupped hands or open mouths. Once we started to get cold we settled into a reggae-themed café for an hour or so before grabbing a chocolate/strawberry waffle dessert and heading back to the hostel. Back at the hostel we hung out on the balcony of our room with a pair of Portuguese girls for as long as we could stand the cold, listening to Manu Chau, Edith Piaf and Radiohead.

The new day dawned sunny and clear, making for some perfect strolling along curved streets and picturesque canals. Amsterdam as a city is pretty charming. The high rate of biking, walking and tram-ing makes for very little car traffic, and I found the Dutch to be very friendly people. Listening to Dutch was like looking at one of those Magic Eye posters that were big in the 90s--if I let my hearing slide out of focus, it almost began to make sense, but as soon as I'd get excited and really start to listen the illusion of comprehension would suddenly vanish. It definitely seemed closer to English than German, though, and I get the feeling that if I spent any significant amount of time in the Netherlands (and if I had the need, which isn't likely considering the high level of spoken English there) I could pick up a workable amount of the language without too much trouble.

We arrived home late Sunday night without any further car mishaps, leaving me drained for a full slate of classes the next day but otherwise satisfied. Considering everything that went wrong, the trip could have been a disaster, but over a pint the next night we all agreed that it had actually been pretty amazing. Despite the obstacles, everyone in the group retained a pretty laid-back, take-things-as-they-come perspective, an the end, the journey itself and the people made up for the fact that we didn't quite have the time for the Van Gogh museum or the Anne Frank house.

That's ok. After all, there's always the tulip festival in April/May. Although next time I may take the train...

A day at the Abbaye

I used my Friday off to bum along on a trustfundergrad day-trip to the Abbaye de Royaumont, which is about an hour northwest of Paris. The abbaye itself was nothing spectacular, especially compared to those I saw in England (which were better-maintained, steeped in history and exuded that contemplative and timeless "sacred" feeling...this one was pretty uninspiring in comparison). The unseasonably warm and sunny weather made it a pleasant afternoon to spend in the country nonetheless. My group got stuck with a terribly dull tour guide, but I was able to amuse myself by imagining that every time she said "abbé" (abbot) she was actually saying "abeille" (bee), and I was soon chuckling at the thought of bumble bees buzzing through the halls of high, vaulted ceilings.

The sub-par abbey and tour were of little consequence, however, as the main reason I (and everyone else) came on this particular trip was for the lunch. After being lead into a truly Harry Potter-esque, elegant, naturally-lit room with we were treated to a gourmet meal that spanned three hours, four courses and about a bottle of wine per person. First course: tapenade on toast, chive and garlic cheese wrapped in roasted eggplant. Second course: pork in a dark sauce, potatoes. Third course: cheese and salad. Desert: coffee, vanilla bean ice cream dusted with pistachios and a vanilla custard with a dark chocolate and caramel crunch base. A very elegant, very French afternoon, and a great opportunity to relax and chat with a few of the grad students I don't see on a regular basis.

The undergrads made me feel old--and proud. On top of abusing the privilege of free wine refills with lunch a group of freshman had smuggled seven or so extra bottles aboard the bus and, in spite of having two of them confiscated by an irritated administrato, they still managed to get wildly day drunk. The result was an ill-planned, wet escapade across the canal followed by a rather harsh bus ride back. The kid who had been their ringleader managed to vomit all over the front of himself before ruining his camera bag catching the rest. Afraid of punishment, he tried to keep his suffering on the DL in the back of the bus, but all he really ended up accomplishing was that he inflicted the nauseating smell on his hoard of unhappy, drunken comrades. When the bus finally pulled up to Trocadero they stumbled green-faced and humiliated back onto the streets of Paris. If I hadn't also been somewhat subject to the smell in the front of the bus it would have been a pretty comical sight. My first instinct was to be irritated at the kid, but I ended up just feeling bad for him. I suppose everyone has to test their limits during Freshman year, but at least for most of us it doesn't involve being subjected, puke-covered, to public chastising from your teachers, followed by a metro-ride home at rushhour surrounded by sneering commuters and an eventual confrontation by a home-stay family. Poor guy. I gave him a stick of gum, a pack of Kleenex and a bottle of water and wished him well before I went on my way.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Amsterdam it all, part one

In my past travels I have always been the designated planner; it has always fallen on me to book the train and the hostel, research the sights and round up the participants. This is due, in part, to the fact that I'm good at handling such details and motivated to put in the work to ensure a good trip. My friends are happy to let me handle things. It's also due to the rather embarrassing fact that I'm slightly obsessive and would likely be unwilling to surrender control and allow them to handle things even if they wanted do. When a few grads here approached me and pitched a last-minute weekend road trip to Amsterdam, with rental car and hostel already taken care of, I was wary but, after brief reflection, willing.

Things went wrong from the get-go. A graduate lunch at NYU lasted longer than we expected, and problems on the RER-B line meant that it took us several trains longer than usual to get out to the airport and the rental car place (Murphey's law of the metro, as witnessed with several exams last semester: if you ever actually *need* to get somewhere on time, the metro *will* be broken). Once we finally got the car and got on the road it was around 5pm. We made it through a little bit of commuter traffic around Paris and up through Northern France, and had just passed the Belgian border when...BAM. Our rear passenger-side tire blew out.

At first it seemed as if things would be okay. Lindsey's boyfriend Pat knew how to change a tire, so he got to work with the jack and the lug nuts and had that sucker ready to pop off in no time. Unfortunately, it wouldn't. We tracked down the owner's manual for help--a picture in the manual showed using a bar to lever the tire off. Although our tire didn't match the one in the image, we found a place to lodge the bar and lever. Much to our dismay the bar gave out before the tire. It began to snow. I made the first call to roadside assistance, giving our license number, rental agreement and cell phone to the Belgian branch of Hertz's insurance call-line. After waiting an hour we called again, only to find out that Hertz had no record of our original call. We were on the phone with them a third time when the repair man finally pulled up behind us, almost a full three hours after we had pulled over.

After using a sledgehammer to knock off the obstinate tire the man fixed the "doughnut" temporary tire in place and left us in the snowy dark to figure things out, telling us to go no faster than 80km and no further than 30 km/h. We pulled into a reststop 5km up the road, where I began the first in a series of frustrating phone calls with Hertz. No, there was no way to repair the tire until the following afternoon. No, there was no way to get a replacement car without returning to Paris. No, there was no way to get a refund on a car once a contract had been started. No, they couldn't tell me what to do about being far from our destination and already-paid hotel; I needed to talk to customer service. No, the customer service office would not reopen until Monday. No, we can't guarantee you'll be reimbursed for a hotel unless you're in France and the car is out of service. "We're 5 km over the border. We can come back to France. We *want* to come back to France; we're in the Femish part of Belgium and don't speak Dutch. What's your definition of 'out of service'? Where exactly do you expect us to get with a doughnut tire in a snowstorm?"

In the end we returned to Lille (a city in Nothern France) where my angry insistence scored us three free hotel rooms (one for Phinn, who was ill, one "couple" room for Lindsey and Pat, and a double twin room for James and I) and a pretty deluxe complimentary breakfast. We rolled in a little after midnight, trekked through deserted (but fairly picturesque) streets to the only diner-esque restaurant still open, and feasted on eggs and beer as we made fun of the hickish regional French accent. Under heavy pressure, Hertz had promised to call me at 8am the next morning to work things out with the car. I gave them a half hour to redeem themselves, then called at 8:30. "I'm sorry, but we don't have a record of your car even existing in our database. Are you sure you have the license plate number right?" I'm sure. I have it memorized by now. If you don't have it, does that mean I can keep the car? "Oh. One moment please. *pause* Yes, I found your file. You can go to the central train station to pick up a replacement car."

Half way to the train station Hertz called back. "Hi, we're calling back from last night to tell you that you can pick up a replacement car at the airport. Get there before noon. No, what you were told is wrong, there are no available vehicles of that size (apparently a five-person car is huge by European standards) at that location." Cue exit by a rather under-the-weather Phinn, who finally said "j'en ai marre!" (I've had enough of this crap!) and caught a TGV back to Paris. At the airport: "I told them that a car wouldn't be ready until after 5! Oh, and you owe us money for the tire; you were at fault." Cue me gearing up to really bust some balls. "Oh, you're right, you did buy insurance. Oh, we do have a car. Here are the keys. Have a nice trip."

This sign pretty much summed up the way we felt about Lille when we finally left, down one person, about half a day and several hours of sleep, and got back on the autoroute towards the Netherlands.

(stay tuned for part two....)