Tuesday, November 29, 2011

une demi

In another one of my "aha!" moments here, I recently made the highly important discovery that one can purchase half of a baguette at the local boulangerie!  This is incredibly serious business, as the French want (and now, of course so do I) their bread fresh, fresh, fresh.  And, being alone here, what I've been doing with the rest of entire baguettes uneaten the next day is a tragedy that shall not be revealed.  

But you can guess.  Either it's:
1.  Eating the whole thing and feeling horribly guilty.
2.  Throwing over half of it away and feeling horribly guilty.
3.  Well, there's really not a #3.

I now feel very cool (and thrifty) doing as the locals do...and it costs (drum roll, please) half the cost of the whole baguette.

Friday, November 25, 2011


On the everyday end of the food shopping scale in Paris, meaning the type of store carrying all the basic needs (kind of like a Target or Walmart, minus the scale of those stores), is Monoprix.  I know there are other options somewhat larger or smaller (such as Carrefour, 8 à Huit and the little Monops), but the Monoprix at Boulevard Saint Germain and Rue de Rennes is my neighborhood big supermarket, and a very nice one, notwithstanding the gripes I'd read or heard before I arrived.  
with Saint-Germain-des-Prés just across the street
I actually look forward to shopping here.  At first, it was just fun (and frustrating) figuring out what was what inside the products' packaging (mistakes were made - paper towel packaging is similar to toilet paper roll packaging).  It's easier now; for example, I know that I have to get fruit and veggies weighed and price-labeled BEFORE I get to the check-out counter!  But the contrasts are still numerous and there's always something new to find out, try or buy.
First off, where else in a grocery store can you buy so many types of wines, many priced under 5 euros?  (Oops, the photo is of "les whiskies" - oh well, you get the idea - full service wine and liquor.)
 And get to taste a sample of pastis while you shop?
As in all French supermarkets, there are a million yogurts, of course, taking up two dairy aisles, and then another dairy aisle for all the other dairy items (not including the non-refrigerated milk which hangs out by the water aisle).  And what a great idea that is -  I haven't had milk go bad at all here!  PS - "nonfat" is "écremé," and it not impossible to find in a grocery store; however, forget about it in a café.  There, you just get the "stupid American" look from the otherwise very nice bartender.

The fresh cheeses and patés, fresh fruits and vegetables are pretty impressive, too, with prices about as reasonable as you're going to find in that part of Paris.  And the guy behind the counter is a hoot (he offered to pose for my pictures, for a small fee).
But, really, what's with the Philadelphia Cream Cheese fetish?  We need to taste samples of it?  I don't think so.
All the world is there on a Friday after work hours, the checkout lines are long but move quickly, and the cashiers are the only ugly part of the experience (and, yes, I'm stereotyping here).  
You bag your own items, preferably in your own sacks, but the cashier will part with a plastic bag or two if you look pathetic, and then you get the "stupid American" look back.  And the worst is yet to come - if you don't bag your items quickly enough to get them off the counter, the cashier will just halt  the entire process and not commence checking out the customer behind you, and then you're getting the evil eye from the entire checkout line!  So, I've learned - start bagging immediately, even before you've paid.  Whew.

But if you have free time while you're waiting to check out, there's always the TV monitor hanging from the ceiling, offering specials, the weather and, most importantly, today's horoscope.
Practically speaking, for a visitor to Paris, definitely stopping at a Monoprix (or any grocery store) is a must-do.  First is the cultural experience (see above).  And second, you can pick up sandwiches, water, wine, fruit, croissants, chocolates, picnic supplies, etc. (whether the picnic is in your hotel room, a park or as you stroll), and save a lot of euros on the basics, which can then be spent on something else in Paris.  It won't be hard to figure out what to spend them on.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


So many options abound for a day out of the center of Paris that it's almost numbing to decide what to choose.  It just about paralyzed me, so much so that, other than my "randonnée" in a nearby pastoral suburb a while back, I just couldn't pry myself out of Paris for even a moment.  Of course, being tempted by all that Paris itself has to offer makes it just that much harder to leave.
However, finally prodded by friends to move out of my comfy surroundings, Vaux-le-Vicomte was the choice for a Saturday in the country.  Vaux-le-Vicomte is a chateau (one of many) that exists within a short train ride from Paris.  It was a perfect day trip on a perfect late-fall day. 
There is great history to this chateau (isn't there always?), and inside the chateau itself, they do a good job (kid-friendly, too, with some animated life-size figures in the decorated rooms) of presenting it.  In fact, the chateau and the gardens were designed by the architect and garden designer who later designed Versailles, and it is referred to as the "inspiration" for Versailles.  The good news is that it's not only much more manageable than Versailles to take in as a visitor, but the whole world isn't there with you on the day you're visiting!

For me, the real treat was the garden that seemed to go on and on, which in its time was so sophisticated in its design that the view changes throughout one's stroll through it, providing optical illusions and points of interest that are unseen until reaching various points along the way.

We brought sandwiches with us that we'd purchased at the train station, and so one goal was to locate just the right spot for our picnic.  That worked out well because, even though there was food for sale on premises, we didn't have to succumb to tourist site prices and quality.

Practical tip: the chateau runs a shuttle service to and from the train station closest to the chateau (Melun), but only in season.  My visit was OFF-season (check the website) and the shuttle was no longer running.  Getting to the chateau from the Melun train station after the 25-minute train ride from Gare de Lyon in Paris was no problem, but the return was an issue.  We waited almost an hour by the side of the road, along with others who'd called the same lone taxi service for the town, which appeared to have a total of two drivers and two taxis on staff.

That bit of inconvenience was quickly forgotten when we decided to check out the spectacular (and also historic) Le Train Bleu in the Gare de Lyon upon return and sit for a while in the cushy leather chairs of its "Big Ben Bar" contemplating our out-of-Paris day.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Paris. Night.

A beautiful combination.  (Unfortunately, no time to talk - that is, write, right now.  Test tomorrow.)  Also, I'm not even outside (good thing, because it's cold, for one of the first nights of the season).  Heat on, papers spread about, a good chance to remember how incredible it is, just practically outside my door.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

"La Source"

I was so overcome by my first ballet evening at the Opera Garnier that I jumped at the chance to buy a ticket to see another classical ballet performed there by the Paris Opera Ballet.  The ballet is La Source, and the ballet and its music were marvelous, but the memorable standout (for better or worse) were the incredible haut-couture costumes designed by Christian Lacroix.  
My curtain call photos don't do these costumes justice, but the New York Times also made note of Lacroix's recent efforts and much more detailed photos are here.

Of course, I cannot pass up another opportunity to display a few more photos of the iconic Paris Opera house.  No matter what is playing if/when a visit to Paris is on the calendar, this is a place not to miss for a theater lover (that is, a lover of the theater space itself).  Like many in Europe, the Opera is to theater what Notre Dame Cathedral is to places of worship.  

Well, that's my view anyway.  Here, decide for yourself.

Friday, November 11, 2011

La Grande Epicerie

Thanksgiving is almost here!  Well, not here, exactly, but west of here, in New York and the United States for sure.  However, it's sort of going to be here for me in Paris in the form of a dinner at the home of an expat and I've agreed to bring the cranberry sauce.  Those who know me will nod that this dish has just the right level of difficulty of preparation for me.  And so...

I was told La Grande Epicerie of Le Bon Marche department store, which just happens to be about a 5 minute walk from lucky me, carries fresh cranberries around the holidays, so I went to see for myself.

What a shopping experience!  If you've every been to Harrod's Food Halls in London, you won't be quite as impressed; it's neither as large nor full of food stations at which to perch yourself to dine on site.  However, it's very much worth a stop for a number of reasons.
There are cuisines of many countries, of course being heavily focused on those of France, such as your chocolates, your cheeses, your yogurts, your anything-dairy-and-full-fatted-things-in-pots, and of course, your baked goods.  (Note: it's great for finding gifts to bring home all in one place!  Classy, many price ranges, and there are many pretty packages, easy to pack, sturdy and likely to pass US Customs.)
Like I said, the Epicerie has a separate aisle for each of many countries, such as Tex-Mex.  Wait - what?  It's not enough of a head-scratcher to first spot "Tex-Mex" as a country, but then to see it on the same aisle as Spain and Germany makes me wonder if the UN could use some help from the folks at the Epicerie, or vice versa.  I mean, as a Texan, of course, I do understand that Texas is viewed by many as separate country, or perhaps even a separate planet, but I digress...
My every-time-I-go-to-the-Epicerie aisle -
I prefer to pick up baked goodies from the little shops I pass during the course of a day, probably because for me it's such an impulse purchase, and so by the time I see this one, I usually walk right by (probably for the best, given the size of my wallet, tummy and kitchen).
And then, of course, Zabars has better smoked salmon (I don't actually know this for a fact, since I've not yet purchased any from the Epicerie, but I MUST assume it if I am to retain my New York Upper West Side residency).  The big difference here appears to be the use of tiny pre-made pancakes with the smoked salmon.  Where are the bagels?
Nope, not by the Philadelphia Cream Cheese! 
And yet, I never really did find the "American" aisle, wondering what the heck would be there (and knowing, of course, that even the other aisles had American products that I immediately recognized by their iconic logos, such as the Philly cream cheese above, Newman's Own products, and this display below).
Although that display did make me laugh, my immediate reactions came fast and numerous - "Are you kidding?  This is the best we Americans can import to France - Oreos, Jones soda and American marshmallows in a bag, when France has unbelievable pastries and cakes, Badoit and hand-made marshmallows sold in patisseries?"  Quickly followed by - "As an American, these aren't even the things I want to make me feel at home.  Where's the Skippy?  The Quaker Oat Squares?  The Mallomars?"  Oh well, maybe if I squish the Oreo with the Marshmallow...

Back to the point of my journey to the Epicerie, ah, yes, here are the cranberries!
6.95 euros a bag!  (that's about $9.47 today)  OK, so the easy lesson learned - when in France, buy French.  But a little nostalgia far from home is a very sweet thing, and worth every centime,  every now and then.  

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Paris Cop-Out

No time for much of a thoughtful post (too busy conjugating and trying to agree verbs with subjects, objects and keep myself from throwing things across the room in frustration), so I'm just going to post some really pretty pictures.  I'll do a better job next time, maybe.
Well, after looking at all those nice things, I don't mind having to go back to conjugating verbs after all. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Vous or Tu?

In one more of what will probably become an unplanned series of posts, we find ourselves face to face yet again with another cultural distinction between France and the US that is expressed through language.  

The "tu versus vous" nuance has become very interesting to me, because I realize it slows me down when speaking to someone until it's become clear which is going to be used.  For those who don't speak French, what this is is a way to formalize how one refers to the other person in a conversation.  The use of "vous" is formal (as well as always being the plural form of "you" - for you Texans, it's the "y'all").  The use of "tu" is informal.  So when to use which?  It's so important a distinction, in fact, that once a change from "vous" to "tu" is made, there's no going back.  It means the two people have crossed a barrier of some sort, into the world of an informal relationship, and a more intimate one.  

Well, we Americans want to be informal with everyone.  We have had presidents who want to offer up neck massages in public to German prime ministers, in fact.  That's just who we are.  So, this is really hard to understand.  And without knowing just what word to use in order to not seem too forward or insulting, it's often been shutting me down until I understand how the other person is going to use it.  I'm sure that's not how the French do it, and so I asked.

I was told it's a matter of showing respect.  OK, so a student says "vous" to a teacher, always.  The teacher may or may not do likewise with the student (depends on the age of the student, perhaps - young children get "tu" while adult students get "vous" - I have no idea what happens with high school age students).  In business, you "vous" your way up the ranks, while maybe the higher-ups say "tu" in response?  Again, I have no idea.  And as for first introductions, always a "vous."  And with large age differences, always "vous" when speaking to the older person.  

Perhaps not so hard to grasp, but it doesn't really make sense to me.  For example, at dinner with a family of two generations, in which I know the member of the younger generation very well but have only met the parents (who are my age) a couple of times, the young person always uses "vous" with me, when I'd prefer to be informal with her and would also prefer that she be informal with me (but she won't).  And the parents - well, I'm not sure when the "switch" is to properly occur.  It's exhausting!  

I included the newspaper article above because it shows just how symbolic this distinction is, not simply verbally, but in the entire meaning of how close two people are.  This article appeared right after François Hollande won the Socialist Party primary here recently.  It indicates, in the blown up language in the second photo, that the two rivals (he and France's President Sarkozy) are close in real life, that they are so intimate, in fact, that they use the "tu" form of "you" to addresss each other.  It basically translates to "They "tu" each other in real life."  There are even verbs for this - "tutoyer" and "vouvoyer." 

French, gotta love it!