Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Eating French

Two comments I hear all the time as I show tourists around France:
     - The roads are in such good condition! (especially from Michiganders)
     - Where are all the fat people?
And both are legitimate questions.
     For the roads, it’s my tax dollars - er, euros - at work. Even small county roads are impeccably paved... and repaved every several years.
     As to the fat people, well, that’s a question that has puzzled Americans for years. Books have even been written about it.
     There are several reasons to explain how a nation world-renowned for its cuisine - rife with cream and butter and crème fraîche - remains so svelte. And there are signs indicating that with the in-roads being made among the young by that Scottish restaurant, McDonald’s (or MacDoh, as it’s known in France), waistlines are expanding. Still the question remains: why are the French systematically thinner than my fellow Americans?
   Reason Number One: Smaller portions. How many times have I heard Americans initially complain that the food the waiter serves up on their plate is less than they expected... only to admit at the end of the multiple-course meal that they’re not hungry any more? Not only are American servings larger than they once were, but also plates in American restaurants are larger than they used to be, so it may be an optical illusion that makes us feel the portion is still the same as it’s always been. But on the news today, I learned that Americans are now eating 590 more calories a day than in 1977! Do the math.

      Reason Number Two: More exercise. French people burn more calories, whether it’s Parisians walking the streets of the capital or rural people biking to market and back. When I show people around and we indulge in all that excellent French cuisine, they always worry that they’re gaining weight. And I always tell them not to worry because we’re constantly on the move and they’re walking more than they do at home... which wouldn’t be hard in most cases. Of course they’re too polite to tell me they think I’m wrong. But once they get home and step on the scales, they’re surprised to find they indeed haven’t gained a pound.
     Reason Number Three: No snacking. The French do not eat between meals. There are no boxes of chocolate in their desk drawers, nor packets of cookies in their purses and attaché cases. The French have breakfast, and then maybe coffee at work (usually without sugar), but cups are notoriously small and potent in France, and maybe all that caffeine boosts their basal metabolism. Next comes lunch, which used to be the big meal of the day when people went home for a two-hour lunch break, but now they eat on the run, just like the rest of us in the rat race. Children are granted a quatre heures, an after-lunch snack. The traditional snack was French bread with a few squares of chocolate slipped inside - a sort of chocolate sandwich - but by the time my children arrived, that had become a piece of fruit, or a yoghurt, and maybe - maybe - one or two cookies. Dinner arrives typically at seven-thirty or eight, and it’s usually a light meal: soup or an omelette or a cheese platter and green salad, with fresh fruit or a milk-based product such as yoghurt or fromage frais at the end. (Cakes and pies and such are reserved for festivities, or for dinner out at a restaurant.)
     So you add all that up - or rather you do the subtraction - and you come out with a smaller waistline. Or at least not a bigger one.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Out and About: Events - La Fête du Cinéma

Montmartre's local moviehouse
Summer is a busy time in Paris. First there’s the Nuit de la Musique on June 21 - music all night - but I already covered that in a previous blog. On July 14 comes French Independence Day - or Bastille Day as Americans call it - complete with fireworks and dancing in the streets... again, all night. Paris Plage is a month-long event that turns the quais along the Seine into a sandy beach for city-bound Parisians pining for the Riviera, and it runs from July 21 to August 21. (There seems to be something about the number 21 that the French love.)
     And then there’s the Fête du Cinéma, which runs - nationwide - from June 25 to July 1 this year. An entire week of movies. This event has been going on now for 27 years! It started two years after the Nuit de la Musique, and was created by the same team led by Culture Minister Jack Lang.
     When it began in 1985, the Fête du Cinéma was only one day long. Movie theaters were stormed by so many people jostling in line that additional shows had to be added on at the end of the day, keeping theater doors open well past midnight in order to avoid a riot! No one ever expected it to be such a success.
     Until 1992 the Festival was held on a Thursday in late June, once school exams were over, because young people make up a large share of French movie-goers. About 1.8 million tickets were sold in that one day. Which made the organizers rethink the concept. One day was obviously too short - and especially too frantic! - so it became a three-day festival running Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Sales jumped to 2.8 million tickets. They knew they were on to something. The Culture Ministry was beaming and everyone in the movie industry was overjoyed.
     From 1993 to 2008, between 3 and 4 million tickets were sold each year. The event became so popular that blockbuster movies such as Matrix and Shrek 2 were scheduled to start during the Festival. Finally in 2009 the Fête du Cinéma was extended to one full week - Saturday through the following Friday - so that even more people could enjoy the benefits of cheap tickets. And as movies change on Wednesdays in France, that means you have double the movies to choose from. That decision added up to 4.6 million tickets sold and movies watched.
     Here’s how it works.
     You go to a movie theater and you buy a ticket, even a ticket with a reduction (student, senior, unemployed, etc, etc). With your ticket, you get a Film Festival Card. And that card will get you into any and all other movies for the entire week for only 3 € a show! Given that most first-run movies cost about 8-10 € and you can see several a day - from 10 am to past midnight - that’s a big savings!
     And with 79 movie houses in Paris alone - some with multiple screens - that’s also a whole lot of films to choose from!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Out and About: Exhibit - Santu Mofokeno, "Chasing Shadows"

Buddhist retreat near Ixopo
The Jeu de Paume museum is a small but majestic building, as befits a king. It was built as a tennis court at the far end of the Louvre palace complex. Back then tennis was played with the palm of the hand, the paume. (I doubt very much if the French Open would be as interesting if that were still the case.) This building was used by the Nazis during World War II to "store, sort and ship to Germany artwork stolen from collectors, art dealers, artists and ordinary people of the Jewish faith." What the Nazis didn’t know was that the Director of National Museums had secretly assigned a certain conservator, Rose Valland, to note daily what they were doing. That made it possible after the war to recover more than 45,000 works of art. I’d hate to think what would have happened to Rose, had she been found out.

Exhibits change regularly and usually are contemporary in nature. Often there are several small exhibits at a time. A few years ago I saw a collection of photographs about the life of Georges Simenon, who wrote all the Maigret murder mysteries.

Right now there’s a show of photography by Santu Mofokeno called Chasing Shadows. Born in 1956 in a segregated Johannesburg, Mofokeno started off in the laboratory of a newspaper. But he soon turned toward photography as a form of social research, which is evident in his photographs. He says he tries to capture the collective conscience, but that’s like chasing shadows. Thus the title of the show.
     Mofokeno’s works are mostly in black-and-white and many are social commentary on the townships. The technique he learned in the newspaper’s photo lab is impeccable, but I had trouble connecting with the content somehow, although several shots are powerful and two distinctive ones are truly beautiful. It’s also a bit grim to see so few people at an exhibit - a bit barren - but maybe more people come in the afternoon.
     The theme of the first room is social commentary on apartheid. "Riding Staff" shows people hanging off of moving trains. "Police with Sjamboks, Plein Street" (1986) leaves you cringing at what you know came next. "Jahman Carwash" (2004) depicts a broken down bike advertising "repairs". All three of these put together give an idea of how life was bare-bones in the townships.
     The second room’s theme is Radiant Landscapes and reflects the ecological rape of South Africa by mining. Room 3 isn’t any more gay, with stark landscapes of other African countries and photos of the German concentration camps. But there are other photos - ones about religious rituals and where they take place - that are a bit different and try to capture those shadows he talks about.

When asked why he shoots almost entirely in black and white, Mofokeno explained, "A color photo immediately gives more information. It’s easy to read, to look at, and also easy to forget. I like a photograph to make you think." And that’s what you come away with: something to ponder on.

Until Sept. 25.

Jeu de Paume
1 place de la Concorde; Paris 8è

Métro Concorde
Noon to 7 during the week, week-ends 10-7. Tuesday open late until 9 pm. Closed Mondays. Entrance fee: €5.50-8.50

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Out and About: Events - La Fête de la Musique

In 1982, the French Minister of Culture - Jack Lang - launched something called the Fête de la Musique. It means "Festival of Music" but it’s also a play on words, being pronounced the same way as "faîtes de la musique", which is to say "make music". (Lang loves this kind of intellectual humor.)
     A good friend and political ally of then-President François Mitterrand, Lang obtained for his Culture Ministry double the previous year’s budget, which meant there was funding for this sort of folksy thing. Granted, the Festival doesn’t cost the government much because it’s open to any and all amateur musicians and all concerts are free, whether outdoors or in regular indoor venues. Which means it’s priced right for the Common Man, another battle horse of Lang’s and a major concern of Socialist governments in general.
     All kinds of music will be heard:  classical, jazz, rock, hip-hop, Celtic music, Corsican chants... and of course the proverbial accordion tunes.
     This festival is held on June 21st. And the information put out by the ministry specifies "... you are free to play music in Paris from 6 pm to 12.30 am, provided that you keep to a noise level which is bearable for the neighborhood. You simply need to make a declaration at Police headquarters, by email or by post." What could be easier?

Among places around the globe that will hand over the streets to musicians are New York City and Chicago, Vancouver, London, Lisbon, Brussels, Berlin, Rome, Lausanne, Athens... even tiny Luxembourg. Developing countries have signed on over the years: Rio (a natural, with its samba self), Senegal, Morocco, Lebanon, Madagascar, China and La Paz, for instance. Oman was supposed to have a music festival too, but who knows what will happen now that the Arab Spring has sprung. And then there are places like Medellin (Colombia), where they may be dancing in the streets but I’m not sure I’d venture out in the wee small hours of the morning.

In Paris, all the main squares will be rocking, complete with sound systems and lighting provided by City Hall and the Culture Ministry, hand in hand. Bastille, République and Nation will all be venues, even though they are usually known more as the triumvirate for labor marches and demonstrations. Parks and gardens - Tuileries, Luxembourg, Buttes-Chaumont - will stay open after their usual closing time, which is nightfall. The student-heavy Latin Quarter will be unstoppable, as will the Marais - now the Gay Pride district. The banks of the Seine and the canals will be swimming in music. Café terraces will be serving music as a side for their usual menu. Even the fire stations get in on the action, firemen evidently being a musical lot.

And then of course there’s Montmartre, where I live. Which reminds me of a story that happened two Fêtes de Musique’s ago.

Carol and Leslie came to Paris to visit and tour a bit. My apartment is small and they elected to stay at a hotel, so I booked them into the hotel on the tree-studded square just around the corner. All went well on the first few nights. Then the amplifiers appeared.
     The ladies inquired at the desk and were briefed on the Fête de la Musique by a concierge who assured them that it all stopped at midnight. Over dinner I told them to go get their pyjamas and toothbrush and I’d make up the guestroom and the sofa-bed. They assured me that they could handle it. And off they toddled to bed.
     Fifteen minutes later, they were back with their overnight kit. When they’d reached the hotel, reggae music was playing and they thought that would be nice to fall asleep to. Then those musicians packed up, which they thought was the end of the Festival. Until techno music started to blare, volume set on "Stun". A call down to the night desk brought them confirmation that the day guy had been overly optimistic and that music was scheduled to continue until 2 am, at the very least. So back they trudged, beds were made up and we all laughed about it - sort of - oh, say, a year later, when their hearing came back.
As it happens, this year June 21st will be my first night back in the United States. Ironic. (I promise I didn’t plan that.) Although my Paris courtyard remains quiet, I would still be hearing echoes of tunes from that square around the corner. I guess I’ll just have to put on a CD or two, or go find live music somewhere.

Photos thanks to my good friend Leslie Blum, who is the Leslie of the story

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Out and About: Exhibit - Paris au temps des Impressionistes

Paris' City Hall has been experimenting with art exhibits, and the one currently there - through July 30 - is called "Paris in the Age of the Impressionists". 

     Between 1850 and 1914, Paris was transformed into a modern capital.  It was an era of massive projects:  the excavation of the Métropolitain subway system, the building of Garnier's Opera House, the creation of public parks, the birth of guinguettes like the one Renoir painted... So many changes.
     Security is tight to get in and it’s only when I’m setting my purse on the x-ray belt that I remember my Laguiole pocket knife that I always keep when I'm on tour in France, for picnic purposes. Either the security guy doesn’t see it or doesn’t recognize it for what it is... or doesn’t care.  But be forewarned.
     The exhibit starts with maps and photos of the urban renewal projects carried out by Baron Haussmann to erase the Middle Ages from Paris, open it up for new monuments like the Opera House and provide easy access to the many railroad stations newly dotted across Paris. There are also drawings and photos of some of the large theaters built as of 1850.
     Then the artwork starts, and it is impressive. The paintings are on loan from the Musée d’Orsay because it’s been undergoing major renovation and some areas are closed. Most of the works I’ve never seen before; Orsay doesn’t have room enough to show them all and they lie hidden away, dormant, in its basement storage. Others are old friends that have been lording it over the top floor of Orsay since it opened.  But once again, the one I like the most - La Pierreuse, a sketch of a demi-mondaine - isn’t among the postcards offered for purchase.
     This is an impressive show.  The word is out, which means there will probably be a line of people waiting to get in, so arm yourself with either patience, a good book or joyous company.

Hôtel de Ville, 5 rue de Lobau in the 4è arrondissement.  Métro:  Hôtel de Ville
Daily from 10 am to 7 pm.  And it's FREE!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Recipe of the month: Gratin de fraises

Who doesn't like strawberries?
Is it the color? Is it the sweetness?
Who cares?! Strawberry season is upon us, and I - for one - will gladly indulge in strawberries, especially when they’re ripe off the bush... or whatever you call what strawberries grow on. (Clue: it’s not a vine.)
France is particularly good at strawberries, with one variety that is too tasty for words: the gariguette. It may not look like much because it’s not round and plump. Instead, it’s kind of lanky, the Abe Lincoln of strawberries I guess you could say. And pointed, like the head of Mork from the Planet Ork. And yet it’s got more flavor that two of those Santa strawberries put together.
But whatever your favorite, choose them as ripe as you can get, even if you have to go pick-‘em-yourself. And once you’ve picked them, from the field, the store shelf or the strawberry pot on the back porch, here’s a pretty quick, easy and delicious suggestion of what to do with them.

  • 1 pound (400 g) strawberries
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ c (100 g) powdered sugar
  • 3½ oz (100 g) créme fraiche, which is 1/3 c
  • 1 t natural vanilla extract
  • 3 or 4 mint leaves

- Wash the strawberries and remove the stems. (Don’t ever remove the stems first or water gets inside and waters down the taste.) Cut the largest ones in two, or even three. Distribute them into 4 ovenproof ramekins.
- Whisk the eggs and sugar together until they turn pale yellow. Then stir in the cr me fraîche and vanilla and mix well. Wash the mint leaves and pat them dry, then slice them into fine strips and stir them in.
- Pour the mixture over the strawberries and put the ramekins into a preheated 350°F (180°C) oven for 15 minutes.
- Serve hot.

Serves 4

Preparation time: 10 min
Cooking time: 15 min

You could use sour cream for the cr me fraîche if you absolutely have to, but as its name indicates it will give a more sour taste than with cr me fraîche.
Save any strawberries that are left over after filling the ramekins for something else that’s delicious.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lavender and Brassens

I guess I’ll never be French. Not really.
     Not because I don’t speak the language like a native. I have no accent, and sometimes people are caught out criticizing the U.S. within earshot of me, if not directly to my face. I can tell jokes in French, even dirty ones, if need be, and I know the off-color drinking songs... learned them the first year I was here, at a certain fondue restaurant in Montmartre that still exists, but in a much tamer version now. I even dream in French part of the time.
     Not because I don’t know the country’s geography. It’s fairly hard to stump me because I’ve had so many friends from so many different corners of France and have traveled the country so extensively. Plus I love poring over maps.
     Not because I don’t understand how things work here. I’ve had to navigate the education system in order to get my two college degrees from the Université de Paris... even taught there for a year. I’ve had to navigate the immigration system to get my carte de séjour, the French equivalent of America’s "green card"... which unfortunately has to be renewed - first every year, then every five years, now only every ten years. I’ve had to navigate the employment system, first to win the right to work here without a carte de travail - a work permit - and then to enroll in the retirement, healthcare and family aid agencies... all compulsory. So I’m very familiar - even overly so - with Gallic red tape. I can even handle the French tax system, with its income tax and its professional tax and its VAT.
     I’ve been the Vice-President of the PTA at my children’s bilingual school. And for the French girl who stayed with me for a year, I’ve been a Parent Representative at the negotiations that go on three times a year for every student in public high schools, to determine whether they pass or fail, and for disciplinary matters.
     I learned the cuts of meat in French before I knew them in English, because French butchers don’t cut up four-legged critters the same way American butchers do. (There’s no T-bone steak here, for example... or at least there wasn’t until recently.)
     I even know how to read Old and Middle French, thanks to Professor Mermier at the University of Michigan, may he rest in peace. And that’s more than most Frenchmen can say.
     But I won’t ever become really French because:
a)  I can’t stand the smell of lavender - never could - and
b)  I don’t like Georges Brassens songs, which seems to be a prerequisite.
(I also don’t smoke. Or drink coffee, but those aren’t really deal-breakers. And I don’t own a beret, but I could buy one.)
     And yet regardless of all the above, lavender and Brassens are a must.
     So I guess I’ll have to be content with just being An American in Paris.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A fromage a day keeps the doctor away

My local cheese shop
 Faced with yet another instance of French voters complaining and demonstrating, President Charles de Gaulle once threw his arms up in the air and exclaimed "Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays o il existe plus de 300 variétés de fromage!" How can you be expected to govern a country that has over 300 sorts of cheese! I’m sure it must have bewildered the General, who was used to ordering about his troops yet couldn’t get similar discipline from his constituents.
     But the quote also makes a point of how many different types of cheese the French do indeed have. Each region has its own palette of cheeses, raw milk or cooked, pressed or soft-ripened... from cows, sheep or goats. Maybe now that there are bison, they even have a buffalo cheese, but I haven’t heard of it.

Stinky cheeses
      When my daughter was very little, she divided them up into two categories: Red Cheese and Stinky Cheese. Red cheese was any kind of pressed cheese and she based that criterion on the Dutch cheese she loved so much: Edam, one of the few foreign cheeses that has found favor with the French. It comes with a coating of red wax. Thus "Red Cheese". It has a rather mild taste, so Swiss, Comté and other such mild cheeses fell under that category. They were Red Cheeses. All the rest were Stinky Cheeses: camembert, brie, maroilles, pont- l’évèque... The list is long. And she loved them. It’s in the genes, if you’re French.

Cheese has long been revered in France. For the poor, it was often the only protein they could afford... or better yet, make themselves. But Respect for the Cheese isn’t just a rural or a blue-collar thing. It’s a feeling shared by all castes of French society. After all, no less than Brillat-Savarin - chef to royalty and generally recognized expert of gastronomy - wrote: "Un repas sans fromage est une belle qui il manque un il." A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman who’s missing an eye.
     Cheese appears in many common French expressions heard every day, such as "en faire tout un fromage" - "making a cheese about it" - which means giving something far more importance that it’s worth, making a mountain out of a molehill.
     There’s also a less frequently used expression to denote the moment near the end of dinner when conversation becomes lighter, more sparkly. That’s the moment "entre la poire et le fromage" - between the pear and the cheese. This expression dates back to the Middle Ages, when spicy meals (spices added to cover the taste of over-ripe meat) would end in a piece of fresh fruit and a cheese. Nowadays the order would be inverted, with the cheese coming after the main course - sometimes accompanied by a simple green salad - and before the dessert, whether fresh fruit or something more elaborate. (N.B. In homes, dessert usually is fruit or something yoghurt-y. Cakes and pies, mousse au chocolate and île flottante are kept for festive occasions... or the restaurant.)
     But there must be cheese. Red or Stinky. Otherwise, it’s not a meal.
     Not really.