Sunday, November 27, 2011

On the Road: The Lace Museum of Calais

This was written in July of 2009.
With two hours in Calais between dropping my tourists off at the Dover Ferryport and my train departure back to Paris, I decided to check out the spanking new lace museum, the Cité Internationale de la Dentelle, which moved from the building it shared with the Beaux-Arts Museum in mid-June.
     Industry in northern France has been hard hit by the rise of China and its cheaper-than-anyone goods, leaving many factories boarded up. One near City Hall and Rodin’s famous statue, The Bourgeois of Calais, has been revamped to house all the marvels of the world of lace. The permanent collection covers two entire floors and traces the history of lace-making from its beginnings in the 16th century up to the present.
     In addition to the ticket desk, the main floor houses the requisite gift shop, as well as a library where researchers or just the curious can consult a multitude of books on lace five days a week, plus two ateliers offering activities for children. And if you get hungry, there is a sunny restaurant where you can have a cup of something or even an entire meal, all at reasonable prices.

The remaining two floors cover the history of lace, which was a vital part of the economy of the city of Calais itself. There are dozens and dozens of lace objects of all sorts, starting in the 16th century and continuing to the present. And the space offered by this old factory means that visitors can see some of the old machines used to make the lace once it became a mechanized industry during the Industrial Revolution. Some of those machines are still running, and it’s fascinating to watch the punch-cards (like the ones organ-grinders have) as they unfold and pass in the "looms" to dictate the pattern... then try to imagine that noise multiplied by the hundreds of looms within a workshop.

If you’re in the seaport of Calais on your way to or from England and if you’re interested in fashion - or if you enjoy machines - walk the extra two blocks from the famous Rodin statue and take a look at this page out of France’s history.

Admission: 5 € . Combined with Beaux-Arts Museum: 10 € (valid one week)
Half-price for students, seniors & handicapped.

April 1- October 31: daily from 10 am to 6 pm
November 1 - March 31: daily 10 am to 5 pm
Closed every Tuesday
and on Jan. 1, May 1 and Dec. 25

Cité Internationale de la Dentelle
135 Quai du Commerce - 62100 Calais
Tel: 33 (0)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Le Jour de Merci Donnant

Turkeys are not indigenous to France.
     When I got ready to celebrate Thanksgiving in Paris for the first time, I discovered turkeys are hard to come by in November. There are turkeys, but they are programmed to fatten for Christmas. No sooner.
     That first Thanksgiving dinner was intimate. I hadn’t been in my new apartment very long and furniture was limited to a bed, an armchair, a folding chair, a side table and a few unmatched eating utensils. No fridge. And more to the point, no stove. But I bought a roasted chicken hot off the spit from the butcher down the street and heated up the string beans and the canned corn (very hard to find then) alternately on my single-burner butane gas "stove". Cranberries were unknown. We finished off with apple tarts from the baker’s.
     The three guests were classmates from my comparative literature course at the Sorbonne, where we all sat on infinitely hard wooden benches in the same corner of the huge amphithéâtre. Here, my guests and I sat cross-legged on the floor, our "table" a festive tablecloth spread out on the carpeting. There was Sylvie, who had to leave her husband and child behind in what was then Soviet-aligned Czechoslovakia in order to be allowed to leave the country to study at the Sorbonne (hostages to guarantee she would return from France). And there was smart, witty Andreas from Germany, who arrived with an armful of flowers and a bottle of good wine, which was a luxury for us broke students. And there was Christine, a staunch French Communist of Russian extraction from a blue-collar suburb, who at least liked this America but hated our presence in Vietnam. I tried valiantly to explain Thanksgiving to this disparate group - all about Pilgrims and "Indians" and how so many died over that first winter that it wasn’t hard to find something to be thankful for when the harvest came. Still being alive was enough.
                                                             * * * * * * * *

In the years to follow, Thanksgiving was always at my apartment. And the size grew until it was normal to have 20 to 30 guests, which by then included my two children and their friends. It was a regular United Nations. There were, of course, my Americans friends, often with French spouses, and our collection of foreigners grew and mutated from year to year as they cycled in and out of France. There was a British couple who lived two flights down, so they were our token colonial exploiters. And another neighbor, a Lithuanian Jew who moved to France via Israel. Once there was a UNESCO diplomat from Mauritania who was never quite sure which dishes were American and which were French additions to the menu, but thought they were all a bit strange. Plus so many more I can’t remember all of them: Russian, Irish, Italian, Spanish, Algerian, Tunisian... So many countries!
     One year my daughter invited one of her best friends from school. Her mother dropped her off, and I tried to convince her to stay but all she would accept was a glass of egg nog, once I explained it was like Italian zabaglione. She sat and talked to us all for a while and then said her good-byes.
     "She was nice," said Crazy Harry, once she was gone. "Who was she?"
     There was a moment of silence from all 20 of us.
     "Harry," his French wife sighed. "That was Catherine Deneuve."
     "Oh. What does she do?"
     Harry wasn’t a big movie-goer.

When it was time to eat, we needed a bit of ingenuity and some strong arms. Although I had a killer view of the Sacré-Coeur, I had only one small round table, perfect for our family of three but lacking in scope for 20. So we took the living room door off the hinges, removed the doorknob, laid one end of the door on my desk (I had accumulated more furniture by then) and the other on the round table, then covered it all with several festive plastic tablecloths.
     While someone set the "table", Christian and I went down to the baker - who had become my friend over the years - and he took the turkey out of his huge oven, where it had taken only 2 hours to cook to a wonderful golden crispness that I’ve never been able to equal on a domestic stove. He always got the Pope’s Nose as his pay (and if you don’t know what part of the turkey that is, look it up). His wife got a slice of my pumpkin pie later in the day and their daughter a bowl of clam chowder (grandmother’s recipe). Clad in heavy-duty oven mitts, Christian carried The Bird the half-block home and four flights up.
     And then all Hell broke loose. Turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, candied yams, wild rice, corn, cornbread, pumpkin and sometimes mincemeat pies plus Brown Betties. Many of the habitual guests chose something from our traditional menu to bring, so that I didn’t have to cook so much; my stove now had four burners and an oven, but still... Melinda always made the cornbread. Christine or Malilee made the desserts that weren’t pumpkin pie, which was my job - along with the stuffing and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Other guests showered us with wine and champagne or flowers and chocolates. We spent hours at the "door-table", remaking the world. Many of those people are my friends to this day.
     Thanksgiving was always marked with a red circle on their respective calendars. Now that I live in America part of the year - and usually all of November - I get hate mail from them complaining that I’ve deserted them and don’t love them any more and that they’re now bereft and turkeyless in a foreign land.
     I miss them, too.

For a humorous explanation of Merci-donnant by columnist Art Buchwald - who worked for many years at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, go to:
A la Recherche du Temps Perdue

Sunday, November 20, 2011

You know you're in France if...

In a wordier version of Jeff Foxworthy’s "You know you’re in....", here’s how I know I’m in France.

I know I’m in France because the street smells of roasted chestnuts and chicken broiling on a spit.
  I know I’m in France because streetsweepers in green overalls and wielding a green broom are sweeping out the gutters and flushing them with water that children like to jump in. And they do it every day.
     I know I’m in France because when I get to the Métro, the line I need to take is perturbé because of a mouvement social. (In France, "social" doesn’t mean "social"; it means "labor".)
     I know I’m in France because there’s a tiny car, a SmartCar, parked perpendicular to all the parallel-parked cars.

     I know because I go to see my old G.P. (general practitioner, or "primary care" doctor in NewSpeak) to get a prescription refilled and he hands me... a bottle of wine. Hands it over like a medical sample. To be fair about the whole thing, it’s wine bottled by his son as part of his apprenticeship as a vintner. Last time I asked, the son was studying anthropology in college, like many intent young Frenchmen oblivious of what use such studies would be in earning a living. But unlike them, he realized he enjoyed old bones and artifacts less than a good glass of wine and switched centers of interest. The wine turns out to be good - light and crystalline - and the cork is real and all of one piece, a rarity nowadays and a mark of seriousness in the wine world. I don’t know what his vin blanc will do for my medical condition, but my taste buds enjoy it. (Also to be fair, the good doctor renewed my prescription.)
     I know I’m in France because I stop by my pharmacist to get the prescription filled and she spends almost 15 minutes filling out papers to get the pills reimbursed by my health care provider, smilingly bending the government rules by making out a sheet for each month... ten in a row... when only one month is allowed at a time. I mean, it’s not an opiate or a barbiturate or any habit-forming medication, but rules are rules. Except in France, where rules are made to be gotten around. There’s even a name for it: the Système D. D for débrouille, which we will call "detour", just to retain the D.
     I know I’m in France because I drop by the same lingerie shop where I always buy my "things" and the owner won’t sell me a bra. I want to buy one, but she won’t sell any to me. They’re all the wrong color for my complexion, she says. Or they make me bulge in the wrong places. In other countries you’d hear, "Perfect! It’s you!" just to make the sale, even if it made you look like a sausage tied up in string. Here you hear, "Ah, non, not for you." Where else would your credit card be politely but firmly refused in the name of bedroom aesthetics?
     And where else would you drop by the old wine shop to say hello and end up toasting the owner’s newborn grandson with champagne in the kitchen behind the salesroom and discussing current events, the pros and cons of the war in Afghanistan? What salesroom would even have a kitchen?

To an American, France will feel familiar, true.
And yet different.
Vive la différence!

Friday, November 11, 2011

The War to End All Wars

Commemoration ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe
I’m too young to remember World War II.  So I’m obviously even more too-young to remember World War I. But if you’ve ever lived a while in France, you know that it’s still alive in many memories passed down from deceased grandfathers.
     Some years ago there was talk of eliminating November 11th - the day the Great War ended - as a French holiday. That raised such a tumult that the holiday was re-instated.
     As today is November 11st - and a special one at that, being 11/11/11 - I thought it would be only proper to... well, to commemorate a bit. So here are a few personal Grande Guerre memories.

It’s often said that France and America have a love-hate relationship. One reason for that animosity is that the United States waited so long to enter both World Wars... and only did so in the Great War when the Germans sank the Lusitania, recasting those hard-working Teutonic Protestants into cold-blooded murdering Krauts. Before then, the war didn’t "concern" Americans. What is now called our "national interests" don’t seem to have been an issue in those isolationist times. Meanwhile, from 1914 to 1917, the carnage was being played out on French soil, and at a very heavy price (see figures below). Every single village, town and city in France has a monument aux morts, a monument to the Fallen dating from the Great War, and it’s heart-breaking to see the same family name carved over and over again. An entire generation of young men was pretty much wiped out, to say nothing of the devastation to the French countryside, as the front line moved back and forth only a few yards during four long years. Forests were decimated, houses were razed by bombing, fields were annihilated.  If the civilian population wasn’t killed by bullets or bombs, they starved to death. Children never grew into normal-sized adults because they had so little to eat during those formative years... and also afterwards, until the fields could be cleared and replanted and coaxed to grow again.
American Embassy in Paris
     Most of France north of Paris was occupied during World War I. Which is why there are many monuments scattered across the countryside. My first months in Paris, I hung out at the American Embassy a lot, hoping to find some help in employment - in vain. What I did find were about two dozen Marines who guarded it, and they had barracks where they held a dance party every Friday night. It cost to get in, unless you were a girl. As my very first apartment was only a few blocks away, I went almost every Friday at first. The music blared - Aretha Franklin mainly - and some of the guys became friends (although I’ve lost track of all of them since). They were a rowdy lot but they adopted me like a little sister, being American and knowing how to dance pretty well.
     One of them, who was a Philippine immigrant and whose name was Mel, was interested in history. He and another Marine decided to visit the World War II battlegrounds, and they asked if I wanted to come along - probably to ask for directions if they got lost because they didn’t speak French. Being Marines, they wanted to see the Memorial overlooking Belleau Wood - the deadliest day in Marine history - and the U.S. cemetery in Chateau-Thierry, where graves marked only by a white cross rippled out in waves. Their number seemed overwhelming (until I saw the American Cemetery above Normandy’s D-Day beaches).
     It was a strange road trip, a mix of fun and melancholy far from home on doubly foreign terrain. And my first taste of what war must be like. I can’t imagine how it felt to these two Marines, fresh from the front lines in Viet Nam.

Three decades later my interpreting career took me back to the battlefields of the Great War, but this time farther north, to the Chemin des Dames near Laon. Dan Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer had an assignment to write about the stand-off in the trenches of World War I. It must have been for the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. We drove up and spent the day with a team of démineurs, the men who are still removing land mines and munitions unearthed in the French countryside. First they took us through one of the caves in the chalky bluffs that the Germans used during their three-year occupation. There were still a few metal bed frames from 1914 in the long galleries, wiring still hanging for the overhead lights, and some faded pin-ups painted on the walls. These caves had acted as barracks for both sides in the fight, depending on who held the terrain at that particular moment. We were told to be sure to step exactly where the démineurs stepped and not to slip because there were still munitions lying around - teenagers had found some and so a new sweep had to be made of the cave. They found enough to take outside and blow up, with us visiteurs américains taken off a safe distance to watch.
     Then we had to swing by in the van to pick up a huge shell found by a farmer plowing his field. He had simply hauled it to the side of the road, stood it up on its end, wrapped some red plastic tape around it to mark it and called the squad to come pick it up. Highly dangerous, but these farmers grew up finding such "treasures" again and again. When we talked to the farmer’s father, he said he was just a boy during la Grande Guerre but he remembered always being hungry.
     From there the démineurs took us back to the 17th century fort where they stock all the munitions they find. Some are partially corroded and they don’t know whether there’s dreaded mustard gas inside or just explosives, so special facilities were being built to dispose of these bombs. In the meantime, they just pile them up by category and hope for the best. The munitions from World War II were more clearly marked, much less old, and therefore less dangerous. Our guide even showed me one massive black cannonball left behind by Napoleon’s army in the early 1800s!
     And then we went to lunch, where these men all agreed that they wouldn’t want their sons or daughters to follow in their footsteps. It’s too dangerous a job, cleaning up after old wars.

But my first - and only - direct link with la Grande Guerre was Mademoiselle Morelle. This wisp of a women stood about 4'10" and I don’t know how the wind didn’t blow her away. Her blue eyes still sparkled, as did her mind, her hair was always neat and her clothes always fashionable..
     I met her at the neighborhood bookshop just down the street from my apartment in Montmartre. And even though she was in her eighties, she still did her own shopping, but had trouble carrying her groceries back up the hill. So she’d drop by and leave half her bananas and half her pack of yogurts in the bookseller’s fridge - half of everything, really - then pick them up the next day. She always had a kind word to say, and a little song to sing to my then-young children.
     One day I carried her things back up the hill to her apartment, which was like a time capsule. Because Mademoiselle Morelle was a fiancée de la Grande Guerre. That means she was engaged to someone who marched off to war and never came back. It was the fate of well over a million Frenchmen, and many fiancées made a vow never to marry... and never did. She must have been a real beauty in her day and, as I said, she had sparkly eyes, so I find it hard to believe no man ever asked her to marry him. But love was more unrequited then, and there were many, many of these women, these fiancées de la guerre.
     Mademoiselle Morelle was very proud of the Mademoiselle part. Once the bookshop was sold, I ran into her less. The last time I saw her, she was walking ever so slowly, on the arm of one of the aides that the city hall of Paris provides for the elderly. And she was still a Mademoiselle.
     By now she must have passed on, and I like to think she’s been reunited with her dashing young French soldier.


Monument aux Morts
France accounted for 25% of all military deaths among the Entente powers; America only 2%. Most civilian deaths were due to "war-related famine". France totaled 1,697,800 deaths out of an army of 8,410,000 soldiers. That means 4.29% of its population of 39 million. Add on another 4,266,000 severely wounded military and you get a better idea of the devastation. (Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)
     Compare that to American losses as quoted by the U.S. Department of Defense: 116,516 (including 53,402 battle deaths and 63,114 non-combat deaths, mostly from the Spanish flu.) The Coast Guard lost an additional 192 dead.. Estimated American civilian losses include 128 killed on the RMS Lusitania, as well as 629 Merchant Marine personnel killed on merchant ships.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Cock-a-doodle-Dos and Don’ts

In France, whose national symbol is a proud rooster, there’s a right and a wrong way to do everything.
     A good French upbringing teaches all little French children that they are superior to the rest of humanity because they alone know How to Behave. It is the cultural equivalent of the Great Wall of China; it is meant to keep out the barbaric hordes.
     It determines that epic moment when you can move from shaking hands with someone to actually kissing them on both cheeks. It dictates when to address someone as "vous" and when it is permissible to switch to "tu" (the equivalent of "you" vs. "thee"). Madame Emilie Poste would have loved it.
     This etiquette (which, as you can see by its spelling, is a word of French origin) holds especially true at the dinner table.
     For instance, you never cut your lettuce. You fold it. That’s why French salads always come with whole leaves of lettuce, much to the chagrin of tourists who set about with knife and fork, cutting away, thus irretrievably labeling themselves as (shudder) Foreigners.
     Now it takes a certain amount of coordination to learn how to fold lettuce. I mean, you can’t use your fingers and then just pop it into your mouth. (Nor would you want to, with that drippy vinegar and oil dressing). The trick is to hold one end of the leaf down with your fork in your left hand and fold the other end over with your knife in your right hand. Then as you hold the slippery leaf in place with the knife, you spear the now-halved lettuce again with the fork, leaving enough room to fold the free end over again with the knife. You do this east to west and north to south until you’ve created a nice mouth-sized origami of lettuce, which you pray won’t flip open as you lift it from the plate to your mouth. The rule of thumb is, the crisper (and thus more resilient) the salad, the bigger your dry cleaning bill. My advice to beginners is: Avoid curly endive at all cost.
     The leading mealtime faux-pas is The Hand in the Lap. Before being unleashed on Society, we were all taught by our mothers that you’re supposed to eat with your left hand nestled politely in your lap. Not doing anything. Just nestling. In France, such manners will raise eyebrows and perhaps a sharp and amazed intake of breath. Both hands should remain visible at all times, wrists resting vertical on the edge of the table whenever eating utensils are not in use. No forearm. And definitely no elbows, but that’s the same in America. (I remember being told, "If you’re fit and if you’re stable; Keep your elbows off the table.") I don’t know where this hard and fast Hands-above-board Rule comes from. Perhaps the French, a people known for being amorous, wonder whether you’re holding hands with your table neighbor. Passing love notes. Or worse.
     But there is an Up side to eating à la française. Good news, American Eaters: you don’t have to switch your fork back and forth eternally between hands when cutting and eating. The left hand holds the fork throughout the entire meal, leaving the right hand free to wield the knife. Perhaps this is a throw-back to more dangerous times, such as the French Revolution, when there wasn’t enough bread to go around, or enough money to buy it, or both, and it was wise to remain armed and ready to defend your crusts at all times. After all, when informed that the French had taken to the streets because they didn’t have bread to eat, didn’t Marie-Antoinette comment "Let them eat cake", thereby demonstrating how far removed she was from the reality of her time? (She ultimately became ever more removed when her head was distanced from her shoulders by the guillotine for making just such statements. But that’s another story.)
     So now off to the dinner table with you and practice your lettuce folding. Next week we’ll move on to peeling oranges with knife and fork.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Recipe of the Month: Poulet Sauté Chasseur

November. The first of the end-of-year festivities - Hallowe’en - is just over. Thanksgiving is right around the corner with Christmas not far behind. And both of these usually involve house guests and the cooking of large quantities of food. So a "one-pot-fits-all" recipe is a good thing, especially if it’s hearty enough to cut through the first chills of on-coming winter. (Sorry, Trick-or-Treaters; I don’t have recipes involving left-over candy.)
     If you’re of Italian heritage, you may know this dish as chicken cacciatore, with the familiar tomatoes and mushrooms. Once it crosses the border, it becomes poulet sauté chasseur. The Italians tend to use basil and oregano to flavor their version, while the French lean toward tarragon, but aside from that the ingredients will look familiar.
     And now I’m afraid I have to say something mean: American chicken is tasteless. Even the "Amish" chicken, although to a lesser extent. You might as well be eating paper, especially where white meat is concerned! It’s no wonder children love chicken; it doesn’t taste like anything. (And then, of course, they put ketchup all over it, but that’s another discussion altogether.)
     I remember - with a lump in my throat and juices flowing at the mere thought of it - a chicken I bought in southern France. It was in Menton, to be exact, and I was sailing with some friends along the entire coast, from Spain to Italy. We had reached the Franco-Italian border and it was late morning on a Saturday. I know that because it was market day. And a market in southern France is a beautiful and aromatic thing. My job on-board was to check the boat in with the capitainerie - the harbor master - and then do the shopping. The harbor master gave me directions to the market, but I could just as easily have followed my nose... and the smells of roasting chicken, steaming paella and bins of spices. I bought a raw chicken, plucked but with the head on - as they always are in France. It was a poulet de Sospel, a town between Menton and the Mercantour National Forest. Its flesh was a lovely saffron yellow, the likes of which I have never seen before or since. And it was délicieux!

     So find yourself a chicken you can be happy with and invite some friends over. Or just have a sit-down meal with the family. It’s almost winter, and this is definitely comfort food, French style.

  • 1 frying chicken (2½-3 lbs), cut in pieces
  • 3/4 lb ripe tomatoes (about 1 c of pulp)
  • 2 T fresh tarragon leaves, minced
  • 3/4 lb fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 2 T butter
  • 2 T shallots, minced
  • 2 T flour or 1 T of cornstarch
  • 1 c dry white wine
  • ½ c chicken stock
  • salt & freshly ground pepper

- If you have fresh tomatoes just brimming with flavor, scald them in boiling water for 2 minutes and rinse in cold water until you can handle them. Then peel and seed them, and cut them into coarse pieces. If you use canned tomatoes, drain off the juice and cut the tomatoes into large pieces. (You can use the juice to flavor soups or in cooking rice.)
- Salt and pepper the chicken pieces. Then sauté them in the oil and butter in a heavy Dutch oven until they’re browned on both sides. Remove to a dish and cover them.
- Put the mushrooms in the same Dutch oven and cook them for 3 minutes. Add in the shallots, cover and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon from time to time. Add the flour or cornstarch and stir well for a minute. Add the wine and stock, plus the tomatoes and tarragon (except for a sprinkling to decorate with at the end). Taste and adjust for salt and pepper.
- Lay the chicken on top of the sauce and bring it back to a boil. Cover and let simmer on low heat for 20-25 minutes, checking that the sauce isn’t drying out. If needed, add a bit of water, wine or stock.
- Remove the chicken to a serving platter and, if necessary, reduce the sauce over high heat, stirring constantly. Pour the sauce over the chicken and sprinkle with the rest of the minced tarragon.

Serves 6
Accompany with steamed potatoes, rice or pasta
Pair with a dry white wine, maybe the same one you used in the chicken.