Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Saga of the Seagulls

After two different ferries from Weymouth to Saint Malo via the islands of Guernsey and Jersey, a trip requiring the greater part of daylight, I arrive back in France just in time to miss the last train out... to anywhere.  So I’m booked into the hotel right across from the station, poised for an early train in the morning to get back to Paris.
     Having had a dinner of fish ‘n’ chips with mushy peas on the last ferry, I’m ripe for a shower and then bed.  The hot water feels good but I can’t help but wonder what all the seagull noise is about.  I mean, we’re on the ocean, okay, I got that.  But this is industrial strength gull-ness.  They seem to be circling the hotel.
     I lie down in bed to watch something on TV when all of the sudden I see a shadow run past on the terrace just outside my open French door (pun not intended).  As I’m four flights up - and naked (remember the shower?) - that seems both incredible and unsettling.  So I slip into something comfortable and go look outside.
     Except for a gull perched on the roof one flight up, keeping an eye on me.  So I go back inside and lie back down on the bed.
     After about five minutes, I catch a glimpse of something scurrying by again on the terrace.  I rush over just in time to see a little ball of grey feathers scurry back past and disappear around the divider between my room and the room next door.
     In spite of the seagull, who has flown down from the roof and is now perched on the railing next door, I peek around the divider to discover... that the ball of feathers is a baby seagull.  The adult is obviously the mother or father, and is quite distraught that I’m anywhere near her/his fluffy progeny.
     Obviously, this baby has fallen out of a nest up on the roof.  Or failed to get any farther in its first flight than one story down.  And now has no way of getting back to the nest.
     A man in the building next door is also watching.  He can’t see the baby from where he is, but complains about all the noise.  He tells me it’s been going on for two days already.  I tell him about the baby gull, and he says “that would explain it”, then goes back to the World Cup on TV.

I decide that it’ll be hard to sleep with all this going on, and I’m severely in need of sleep.  Also that there’s no way the baby is going to learn to fly to safety before it starves to death.
     So I go downstairs to the front desk to report that there’s a baby seagull on the terrace and it needs to be rescued.
     The night clerk, who was so welcoming when I arrived, looks at me as if I’ve sprouted a second head.  He asks me if it’s a mouette or a goéland*.  Not knowing the difference (there really isn’t any), I tell him it’s too little to tell but that the parent bird has grey wings and a yellow beak, if that helps.
     After a moment’s hesitation, he asks me what he should do about it.  I give the standard answer, which any cat owner living near trees knows well: “You could call the firemen.”
     He does.  And they tell him they don’t do seagulls.  That he should call a veterinarian.  And they give him a number.
     The night clerk gets an answering machine that tells him to call the vétérinaire de garde, the vet who’s “it” during off-hours (and we’re Sunday night!).  When he gets the vétérinaire de garde, she tells him she doesn’t do seagulls and to call the police.  And promptly hangs up.
     Although neither of us believes that the police in a port city on a Sunday night - and during the World Cup to boot - will come to rescue a baby seagull, he calls nonetheless.  And I chicken out, slipping into the elevator as he explains about the rooftop nest and the baby and the... The elevator doors close and soon I’m back in my bed.
The hotel across from the train station

About a quarter of an hour later, someone knocks at my door.
     I throw my Comfortables back on and open the door, to find... a very large policeman.
     “Where’s the seagull?” he asks, curtly.
     I usher him to the terrace, where there is neither seagull on the railing nor grey ball of feathers in sight.
     “It runs back and forth between the terraces of the rooms,” I apologize.
     He turns without a word and leaves the room, joining his two burly colleagues left in the hall.  I guess seagulls are not usually part of his job profile.
     Minutes later I hear a lot of gull cries and raised voices. And see flashlight beams, given that the sun has set since all this started.  I peek around the divider to see police posted on the farthest terrace... and the ball of grey feathers headed my way, until it sees me.  I put the chair by the opening, to discourage it, and decide it’s best I just watch my program and leave the police to it.

After about 15 minutes, everything seems to settle down.  Being curious by nature, I head back down to the front desk.
     Only to learn that there was not one baby but two.  The police have “arrested” them.  And released them in the lot behind the restaurant.  Impossible to see them in the dark, so I commend the night clerk for finding a solution, say I hope he doesn’t hate me for all the disturbance and go back to bed.

The next morning, over breakfast, I watch the two babies drink from a puddle outside and scurry back and forth, this time on firm ground. The parents are still perched up on the heights, keeping a watchful eye.  Where they stay until I check out.
     That’s the end of my story.  So you’ll just have to write your own dénouement.  I know I have.

* Goéland is the French approximation for the Breton dialect’s “gwelan”, which means to cry (as in weeping).  The Bretons felt that seagulls were crying.  Mouette comes from the word “mawe”, plus the diminutive -ette, its origin being from Normandy, the province next to Brittany.  It again describes the mewing sound the gulls make.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Les voyages forment la jeunesse

The French have a saying:  Les voyages forment la jeunesse.  It means that traveling broadens the mind.  The saying limits it to youth.  But I wouldn’t be so categorical.
     During my last stay in France, I took several trips.  Several voyages.
TGV Paris-Rennes
     On the first one, I took a train from Paris to Saint Malo, to visit old friends.  As I never travel without something to read, I was fishing out my book-of-the-moment when the gentleman in the seat next to me spotted the title and said “Good choice”.
     As he hadn’t spoken to me before that, beyond a nod of the head upon sitting down, I was a bit surprised.  It turns out he was a professor and liked the author, Daniel Pennac.  “He’s quite poetic in a very modern way,” he critiqued.
     That led into a lively and fascinating conversation about literature, politics, economics, travel... which eventually disturbed the grumpy lady sitting in front of us who must have thought train cars should be like holy chapels:  silent as a tomb.  She rose up from her seat, turned toward us and commanded us in a chilled voice to stop bothering everyone, although she was the only one who seemed even to have noticed our conversation.  We looked at each other, amazed.  Then we both shrugged in unison and I plunged back into my book, he into his newspaper.
     We whispered softly on and off after that but it wasn’t the same.  When the train reached Rennes we both got off.  He knew I was going on to St. Malo and wished me a good crossing and a lovely week-end.  “I hope we meet again,” he said and walked off toward the exit as I crossed the platform to my other train.
     He was a lovely man and I should have gotten his address.

Sailing out of St. Malo
The next nice person I met worked on the ferry I took over to England. Well, on one of the ferries, the second one, from the island of Jersey to Weymouth via Guernsey.  My assigned seat was near his travel assistance post and I asked him a few questions.  After Guernsey things got quiet and his answers got longer until he was asking me questions.  He was very helpful and quite friendly and I learned a lot about ferry services.
Condor Ferries
     For instance, that the ferry used to go directly from Weymouth to St. Malo, but as the crew turns right around and heads back, that made for 18-hour days.  So now they just do part of the route and their days only total 10 hours.  Or that the ferry boats used to break down more often because they were always running and it wore out the engines.  Or that the hydrofoils were taken out of service because they were fast, yes, but they could only handle foot passengers and not cars.  Plus much, much more.
     When 48 hours later I boarded the return ferry, my assigned seat was again in the same general area:  near the restaurant and the information center.  And when the staff showed up, the head steward was that same jovial man.  So we had another fact-filled crossing to Jersey, which made the 3+ hour trip go much faster.
     He wished me well as I walked off toward the gangplank, then waved as I headed for Ferry 4 of the week-end.  He’d told me he liked his job.  And it showed.

Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle Airport
But trains and ferries are all relatively short ordeals compared to transatlantic flights.
     As I sat in the “holding area” for my flight back to the States, the quiet lady next to me asked me something and we started a conversation that lasted for the entire hour of the plane’s delay.  She was a schoolteacher from Tunisia and she was traveling to Texas to visit her daughter doing a PhD there.  She hadn’t seen her for two years and was looking forward to it.  Her flight to Paris had left at dawn so she’d been up since 4 am and still had a full day’s travel ahead of her.  She was worried our delay would cause her to miss her connection in Detroit, but when I looked at her reservation it wasn’t leaving until 8 pm local time.  I assured her that a three-hour layover in Detroit was more than enough time.
Terminal 2E
   She told me it was her birthday and I wished her many happy returns, adding that it was a strange way to spend a birthday.  We passed the time talking about our children and jobs, places we’d visited and others we’d like to see.
   A bit later she mentioned how the Tunisian revolution has changed her country.  And changed teaching.  When I asked her how, she said that, like most of the population, her high school students seemed to feel that their new-found democracy meant doing only what they wanted.  She lamented that it was difficult, if not impossible, to teach them and even harder to discipline them. Many students talked back and did their homework only if they wanted.  If they got bad grades, their parents appeared, demanding the grades be changed.  On the other hand, if she asked the parents to come in, most of the time they refused but complained to the principal about the inconvenience, whether they came or not.  “Parents come in two sorts,” she explained.  “Either they were important in the old regime and now are surly because they no longer have privileges.  Or they are now important and throw it in your face.”  And yet she seemed very calm about it all, though with a layer of sadness.  Her husband is also a professor and they’re both eagerly awaiting their retirement in a few years.  Too many years.  I told her American teachers sometimes had the exact same problems.
Paris from the sky:  (left to right) Tour Montparnasse,
Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower
     She was a pretty lady, with her black hair, sad eyes and warm smile.  But she suffered from Parkinson’s, albeit mild, and so she was traveling with assistance in the form of a wheelchair to the plane.  I asked if I might board with her to carry her purse and small bag so that she would have both hands free to negotiate the aisle to her seat.  As I walked further back to mine, I told a flight attendant that the lady in 18-J was having a birthday and she said she’d find something special for her.  Later on in the flight, I went forward to see how she was doing.  She told me how nice Air France was because somehow they’d noticed it was her birthday and had presented her with a trousse de toilette, one of those toiletries kits they give out in first class.  She was so pleased I didn’t have the heart to tell her I had tipped them off.
     When we arrived in Detroit, I waved good-bye to her as I passed and wished her well for the rest of her flight.  I’m sure her daughter was happy to see her when she finally arrived in Texas.

Versailles, from the plane
The last person who made my travels pleasant was my seatmate on that flight.  The next best thing to having an empty seat next to you on a transatlantic flight is having a pleasant person inflicted upon you. My seatmate was a very tall but trim Dutchman who proved to have just the right blend of chattiness and privacy.  What’s more, he got up from his aisle seat often enough so I didn’t have to climb over him.
     He was an engineer on cruise liners and met his American girlfriend on one of those ships.  Now she’d packed it in, but he hadn’t.  He was coming over to meet her family and as they were going through Ann Arbor, her alma mater, he offered me a ride home.  After a day touring the campus, they were going up to Traverse City, where her family lived.  I suggested she take him to Sleeping Bear Dunes.  “She has it all mapped out,” he said, not without a bit of fatigue to add to the trepidation of meeting her family.
     What time we didn’t spend watching movies, we spent discussing different parts of the world.  I told him about holding the steamship France up for 20 minutes off the Statue of Liberty.  He told me about some of his cruises - the fjords, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean.  The conversation flowed easily and I hope he has now been vetted and accepted by The Family.  I’d be curious to know where the two of them end up.

All of those trips were made far more bearable by the company I unexpectedly kept.  So you see, les voyages forment la jeunesse, even when you’re no longer young in years but only in mentality. France, Tunisia, Holland... we’re all just people looking to get from Point A to Point B as pleasantly and painlessly as possible.

N.B.  All the photos are mine, even the aerial ones.  So if you see a nut with a window seat and a camera, say hello.  That will be me.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Moules Marinières

Summer’s over and September is here, the first of the months with an “r” ... Yes, that’s for oysters, but it holds true for any shellfish.  Eating oysters only in months with an “r” in them is an idea left over from the days of poor refrigeration, when you could take your life in your hands by eating something capable of spoiling so drastically in such a short time when temperatures soar.  Muscles are great on a hot summer day at the beach, but mussels... not so much.
     (I'm told it's also a question of the months without an "r" being the months when oysters and other shellfish procreate... such as their procreation is.)
     Mention moules and people tend to think Belgium.  But mussels are actually a favorite dish all along the French coast and even far inland, where the Léon de Bruxelles franchise offers Parisian diners a wonderful alternative to other fast food joints.  AND the mussels even come with fries!
     There are many moules recipes.  The Belgians cook theirs with onion, white wine and celery.  For moules à la crème, add rich thick crème fraîche to the broth, or even curry!  One recipe I discovered years ago in a little guinguette on the Seine River downstream from Paris was moules catalanes, from the Barcelona coast, and it called for a lot of finely chopped garlic, a dash of tabasco and a bit of tomato paste in addition to the white wine.  But moules marinières is what you find the most often in France.  And it’s dead easy.
     Mussels seem to be sold by the pound in America.  Count about 1 to 1½ pound per person, which isn’t too much if you consider that the shell is the heaviest part of the mussel.  On the coast you may find them sold by the quart; one quart usually weighs 1 1/4 pound.
     You don’t need to add salt to this recipe because mussels are salt-water shellfish and they come by their salt naturally.
     When the moules are served, pick a small mussel shell to use as pinchers to eat the rest.  You won’t burn your fingers in the hot broth and everyone will think you’re a real pro.

  • 6 pounds of mussels
  • ½ c minced shallot
  • 2 c dry white wine
  • 6 large sprigs of parsley
  • 3 T butter
  • freshly ground pepper
  • minced parsley to decorate

First and foremost, if you find any shells that are open, prick the mussel inside with a sharp knife.  If the mussel is still alive, the shell will close; if it doesn’t move, it’s dead and you need to throw it out.  Seriously.
     Most mussels now come cleaned, but if not, simply scrub them with a vegetable or nail brush to remove any dirt.  If there are any barnacles on the shell just scrape them off with a knife, along with any seaweed “beard”.  Usually just rinsing the mussels well in cold water and rubbing them against each other is enough to clean them.  You may get a tiny bit of sand at the bottom of the broth once the mussels are cooked, but you can strain that off.  Some American cookbooks tell you to soak the mussels so they open and lose their sand, but then you lose that saltwater taste.  They won’t lose that much sand anyway, and any sand that is left you can strain off from the broth once they’re cooked.

- Mince the shallots.
- Put the cleaned mussels in a large pot with the white wine to create some steam.
- Add the shallots and the sprigs of parsley.
- Cover tightly and cook over high heat for about 5 minutes, shaking frequently without opening the pot so that all the mussels steam open.
- Put the cooked mussels in a large serving bowl, strain the broth, stir in the butter, and pour it over the mussels.
- Sprinkle with some chopped parsley and freshly ground pepper.
- Serve with French fries on the side - or some other type of potatoes.  Provide a large side bowl for the empty shells and a soup spoon for the delicious broth.  And some good hot French bread for dunking.

Serves 6.

Goes perfectly with a dry Grave or a Muscadet, but my personal favorite is a Pouilly-Fumé.  All whites, of course.