Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Trial by fire: the baccalauréat

Outside the test center
“Passe ton bac d’abord.”
     That’s what all French children hear.  “Get your diploma first.”
     The baccalauréat is the diploma at the end of high school.  It’s the same exam with the same questions for every student in a given subject throughout the country, as well as in the outlying islands and nations that are part of France:  Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guyana, St. Barthélémy (aka St. Barts) and half the island of St. Martin in the Caribbean; farther north St. Pierre & Miquelon off the coast of Canada; La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean; New Caledonia, Tahiti and Wallis & Futuna in Oceania.

Juniors in high school take only one bac exam, and that’s in French (grammar and literature).  You could view it, I guess, as a kind of practice exam, like the PSAT that college-bound American students take in their junior year.  Except that it isn’t practice.  It counts.  It counts a lot.  All four hours of it.  Yes, you heard me right.  Four hours!  All essays.  Which is why American college tests, with their multiple-guess and true-or-false questions, came as such a shock to my daughter when she started college in the States.
     The first part of this exam is a commentary of a text - last year a text by Stendhal, Flaubert or Zola - and it counts for one-fifth of the final exam grade.  A “commentary” is a highly stylized approach to a text, and you better have the formula down pat.
     The other part of the exam is a dissertation, which has its own methodology and counts for the other four-fifths of your grade... so it’s really make-it-or-break-it.  The topic of the dissertation last year was “Do you expect a novel to transport you into the mind of a character?  Base your answer on the texts and works you have read and studied.”  Another year it was “Where does the emotion one feels when reading a poem spring from?”
     All very philosophical when you’re only 16 or 17.

All subjects besides French are tested in the senior year, which the French call “terminal”.  And I’m sure when you’re studying for it, you feel like it may prove terminal.  As I said, it’s a huge affair for a student, one that puts your mettle to the test.  Not to mention deciding which university will deign to enroll you, and thereby determining - for all intents and purposes - your entire future.  Nerves of steel come in handy here, but what teenager has those?
     The first senior-year test is always philosophy, and that’s scheduled for today, Wednesday.  Students have the choice of three questions, it being a free country.  Here are a few examples from the past:
     - Is moral action possible without an interest in politics?
     - Is work compatible with self-awareness?
     - Do works of art educate our perceptions?
     - Can one be indifferent to truth?
     - Is having a choice enough to make you free?
You have four hours.  Use them wisely.  Few students take less than the full four hours.  And God help you if “pencils down” is said before you’ve finished and tied it all together nicely.

Last minute looking over notes
Depending on what kind of college studies they’re planning, seniors will be in one filière, one educational lane, or another.  For the moment, those lanes are Literature, Economics, Science, Arts or Technology, although they’ve evolved over the years.  The 0-20 grade you get on the philosophy exam will be multiplied by a “coefficient” that varies depending on which lane you’re in:  multiplied x7 if you’re in Literature, x4 for economics, x3 for science and art.  (Don’t know what it is for technology.)  So if you get a 10 on the exam and you’re studying in the Literature lane, you chalk up only 70 points toward the total that will say “Open Sesame” to the School of Your Choice.  If you get a 15, you’re up by 35 points to 105 and things are looking rosey.
     Are you still with me?
     Other subjects also have coefficients - mostly 2, 3 or 4.  But philosophy is The King of All Subjects.
     There are options you can take to buff up your final bac score.  This is where knowing yet another language not on your curriculum can come in handy, including sign language and “regional languages” such as Basque, Corsican or Breton.  Also playing an instrument or a sport with proficiency can rack up a few extra points.  But you can add on only two such “extras”, so the emphasis is still squarely on the traditional curriculum:  math, science, history/geography...

Exams are both written and oral.  And scored 0 to 20.  If your written score is high enough, you get to go on to the frontal attack of the oral exam, which is another tense moment in and of itself, but most people are happy to have reached that stage
     And grading is tough in France.  When I arrived at the Sorbonne, with an A- average from University of Michigan, I was shocked at the relative mediocrity of my grades:  10 or 12, which in America would be viewed as average at best.  The professor explained that 20 was for God and 19 for the teacher; the most I could ever hope for was 18.  All you need to pass the written part of the bac is 10 out of 20.  If you get 8, you’re offered a second chance, with different questions of course.  As of 12, you get honors.  14 gets you High Honors and 16 will get you whatever comes after High Honors in France.
     Passing both written and oral parts is necessary to win the prize.  The baccalauréat.

Thank God, it's over! 
The age of students taking the bac varies, but 17 or 18 is the norm.  The questions are the same for all, regardless of age.  This year the youngest candidate will be 13.  The oldest?  91, a senior citizen who will be sitting down to the exam at the same time as his teen-age grandchild.
     Which personally I think merits some kind of celebration, especially if they both pass!

P.S.  Given what’s at stake, you can well imagine that knowing what questions are going to be asked would afford you an enormous advantage.  And there has been skullduggery in the past. Which explains why the test folders are kept in a safe inside a safe inside a safe, all 60 million copies of them.  It also explains why any misprints are not just thrown away but shredded.  No dumpster-diving possible.  If you understand French, take a look at this video from TF1:

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood

How you pick up your take-out in my neighborhood

After a major visit to the oral surgeon yesterday, it seems wise to eat Soft Stuff.  Which makes me immediately think of nouilles Pnomh Penh, a noodle dish (with little bits of Cut-Up Stuff) from the tiny Cambodian restaurant downhill.
     So off I go.

In spite of the warm sun, I'm glad I have a sweater because in my street there’s often a lot of wind.  And today is one of those days.  Japanese girls at the corner are buttoning up and looking somewhat like Marcel Marceau’s Bip walking into the wind.  There is a reason why the windmills were up here, near the top of the hill.  Walking on, it’s still blustery on the square, where my mild-mannered friend the accordionist is playing very Parisian melodies, as he always does around noon.  And true to form, once across the square and down those ten steps, the wind becomes... non-existent.  Talk about a mini-climate.
     First stop:  the little shop that sells newspapers, magazines, books and office supplies.  It’s Wednesday, the day that Pariscope comes out, a little magazine that contains everything going on in Paris all week:  plays, movies, concerts, lectures...
     As I’m coming out, I see a little boy - couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 - free-wheeling down the middle of the cobblestone street on one of those pedal-less plastic pre-tricycles only about a foot off the ground.  A man I’m presuming is his father runs behind him, trying to catch up, because... at the bottom of that street, only a few yards down, it feeds into the much busier rue des Abbesses shopping street.  To be fair, the kid ultimately has it under control and turns right, toward the curb of the sidewalk.  But as a mother, the whole thing doesn’t seem like a very well-thought idea to me, although it probably is building self-assurance in the kid... if he ever makes it to adulthood.
     Across the street is a florist who was trying to buy me a climbing hydrangea for my mini-garden.  Without much luck, so I tell him to put it off until my next stop.  It would only die for lack of daily care after my departure, even though two of my neighbors water the garden for me.  New plants need constant attention at first, until they settle in.  As we talk, the ginger cat from the corner grocery ambles up to nibble at one of the feathery-leafed plants, all the better to "cleanse" himself when he gets back home.  (Cat owners will understand.)  Everyone just calls him minou, French for “kitty”, but he doesn’t answer to that when I try... or to le chat or even Hey Cat!  Too busy eating the young florist’s plant, which doesn’t seem to bother either of them very much.
   Further down the rue des Abbesses, I stop in to say hello to my friend Manu, the Cave des Abbesses wine purveyor (See Sandy’s France, Feb. 23, 2013).  There’s a whole line of young people, some with babies strapped on in the hippy fashion, waiting to get in.  Then I remember that an American ex-pat has created a weekly event in the backroom bar, something an old friend of mine created out of a storeroom some... oh... 25 years ago. There’s barely time for the two-cheeked kiss before Manu has to put in an appearance, so I head on down the road, noodle-bound.

As I said, Le Cambodge is a tiny place.  Seating for 24 inside, around the display counter.  And when the sun is out three two-chair tables outside the front door, now that the sidewalk has been widened.  The owner greets me, in English, which he is determinedly trying to learn.  When his vocabulary runs out, we switch back into French, until the paying and good-bye part, which he’s got down pat in English.  He hands me a gift as I leave, a little container of sesame seed candies.  It’s the gesture that touches me.
     He and I have known each other since he opened this restaurant.  His hair is much greyer now. One day, when there was no one else around - and he was probably sad and maybe lonely for some reason - he told me about walking out of Cambodia all the way to Thailand.  His country was under Lon Nol’s murderous government then, and he had been separated from his family.  He was 7 and totally alone in a camp.  One day he just started walking.  Someone had pointed in a direction and told him Thailand was that way.  “Didn’t anyone stop you?” I asked him, amazed.  “I was just a little boy.  No one even saw me.”  As my architect friend would have said, “He didn't appear on their horizon.”  Distant uncles in France recovered him from the refugee camp in Thailand and brought him to France, where he ultimately opened this little place in my neighborhood, and I became a regular.  He has seen my children grow up, and I his.  That was 30-some years ago.
     I decide to take a longer way home, one with a gentler slope.  The ascension of Montmartre by the East Face.  And that takes me past the couscous restaurant.  Again I stop in.  I’ve known this place for at least as many years as the Cambodian one, back when the father owned it.  When he passed away, his son inherited it.  A totally different personality.  Far more effusive than the reserved but warm father with the gentle smile.  “It’s been a long time,” he chides me.  And it’s true that I haven’t been here yet this stay in Paris.  Maybe when my American friends arrive Friday.  His wife has been very ill with ovarian cancer and had to undergo surgery and then chemo.  She’s not here yet today for the lunch service, but she’s back at work after many, many months in bed.  With three boys, one still in middle school, and a restaurant to run, she would be sorely missed.  And her radiant smile would be missed by us all.

As I arrive back at the Café at the Foot of the Ten Steps, two different Oriental women are taking photos.  I ask the bemused waiter as I pass how many photos that makes.  He tells me he’s lost count.
     And as I cross the square, now devoid of accordion music, I encounter my neighbors off to lunch somewhere, husband, wife and golden retriever.  We shake hands and wish each other“Bon appétit!”
     Montmartre is a village.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Recipe of the Month: Lotte à l'armoricaine

It’s a well-known fact that the French will leave the heads on anything. Chickens and their dangling heads hanging on hooks in the meat market, alongside little bunny rabbits with all their fur (and heads). Fish with their heads at the fishmonger’s, or right there on your plate in restaurants.  Sometimes you even see a whole calf’s head at the butcher’s. They’d be capable of putting an entire cow on display if they had the room, but mercifully they don’t.
     Monkfish is the only thing they never leave the head on.
     And there’s a reason for that.
     Have you ever seen a monkfish head?  Well, I hadn’t either, so I looked it up.  It’s positively prehistoric!  (Caution: If you’re pregnant or accompânied by a small child do not look up the photo.  You might have a miscarriage.  Or be woken up for weeks with the child having nightmares.  You have been warned.)
     In spite of its hideous head, or maybe because the Good Lord felt so sorry he’d made them so ugly, the body of the monkfish is delicious.  As dense as many meats and very flavorful.  Kind of like a fish steak, and not very fish-y tasting, so if you don’t like fish in general, keep an open mind here; you might surprise yourself.
     Monkfish is called lotte in French, and I’ve eaten a lotta lotte since I moved here.  At first it seemed to be always written on the menu as lotte à l’armoricaine.  Ar-mor being the Celtic name for the coastal area of Brittany, that sounded logical.  Coast.  Fishing.  Monkfish.  But then I started seeing it as lotte à l’américaine.  By then I’d learned French food snobs felt that anything américaine usually involved ketchup.  As there are indeed tomatoes in the recipe, it was logical, I guess.  And maybe some French food snobs weren’t as intelligent as they thought they were and had no idea what armoricaine actually meant, so they thought it was a mistake for American.
     Now I love America, but I’d prefer to think of this dish as Breton because that’s probably where I ate it for the first time... or maybe it was only in the Paris neighborhood around the Gare de Montparnasse, where all the Bretons arrive by train from Quimper, Brest, St. Malo or other Celtic ports.
     So lotte à l’armoricaine it is, and shall remain.  (Especially as the recipes I found for both seem extremely similar, if not identical.)  Here’s the recipe.

Preparation time:  20 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Serves 4

2 lbs (1 kg) of monkfish, cleaned by your fishmonger and cut into large pieces
1 medium can of peeled tomatoes
1 T tomato paste
4 shallots
1 clove garlic
12 small pearl onions
1 c (20 cl) dry white wine
1/4 c (5 cl) cognac
1½ T (20 g) butter
2 T of peanut oil
a “dosette” of saffron (those little plastic containers)
a bouquet garni (thyme, parsley, bay leaf)
1/3 c (70 g) of lobster bisque
a pinch of Cayenne pepper or a dash of tabasco
1 t salt, pepper to taste
1 full T of crème fraîche

- Peel and dice the shallots.  Peel and press the garlic clove.  Peel the pearl onions.  Open the can of tomatoes and cut them up.  Dilute the tomato paste in the white wine.
- In a cast iron pot, heat the butter and oil and cook the monkfish over medium-high heat until it starts to turn golden.  Add the cognac and light it (flamber).  When the flames have gone out, remove the fish to a serving plate.  Turn down the heat, put the shallots and all the other ingredients - except the crème fraîche -  into the pot, salt and pepper to taste and let simmer for 20 minutes, uncovered.
- Place the monkfish into the sauce, add the saffron, cover and let simmer for 20 minutes. If the sauce is too liquid, add a little bit of cornstarch or arrowroot to thicken.
- Remove from the heat and at the last minute, blend in the crème fraîche.

Accompany with rice or steamed/baked potatoes.
Serve with a dry white wine, if possible the same as used in the recipe