Monday, November 28, 2005

Forget the turkey – check out this cheese plate!

Let's agree that the point of Thanksgiving is to assemble a array of the best foodstuffs the local terroir can produce, thereby inducing your guests to over-consume to a point slightly beyond discomfort but stopping just short of actual pain. For most of us, the most keenly experienced moment of gratitude during the thanksgiving celebration is the heartfelt thanks you give at the end of the evening for having had the courage to pass up thirds on pumpkin pie.

Here in Paris, the French turkey actually looks recognizably like a bird, unlike its American counterpart - which looks like a the feathered equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his most excessive body-building days. Ounce for ounce, however, the single most tempting foodstuff for a Thanksgiving feast in Paris is the cheese.

Over 3 days of over-indulgence, we sent away 32 guests with light hearts and heavy guts, thanks to a cheese plate featuring all the major food groups: goat, cow and sheep cheese. All the cheese were bought at our local cheese monger in the rue de l’annonciation, who only sells cheeses produced by small artisan farmers (fermier) from un-pasteurized milk (au lait cru).

The royal line-up included four cheese that by and large can only be consumed within French borders:
• Mont d’Or – the original, “don’t wait too long to eat it or it will just melt into a puddle and slide away.” Compared to Mont D’Or, brie is a diet cheese.
• Beaufort – a hard cow cheese with a fragrant rind that makes you swear you’d just stepped into an alpine barn to milk the cows. Just like Gruyere only much, much better.
• Valencay – a beautiful pyramid of goat cheese that when perfectly ripe (bien fait) has a firm interior and molten exterior – kind of like a molten chocolate cake only the soft part is on the outside and it’s a cheese – got the picture?
• Roquefort – the version produced on artesianal farms with un-pasteurized milk just simply can’t be compared to the dry crumbly stuff you get clumped onto your pear and endive salad back in San Francisco.

As to decorations, one of the great luxuries of having 99.9% of your earthly possessions located some 5580 miles (8981 km) away, is that come Thanksgiving time, you don’t have to do a wild last minute search to locate Grandma Thorson’s gravy boat or Aunt Pearl’s serving spoon. All you have to do is trot down to the local party store and load up on festive (but not particularly Thanksgiving-themed) table ornaments.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Beaujolais Nouveau - the real menace to tourists in Paris

With all the fuss and hubbub around the Paris riots, a much more immediate and important danger to Paris tourists emerged just last week: the Beaujolais Nouveau! The Beaujolais Nouveau festivities arouond France are delightful – kind of like St. Patrick’s Day in the US, but with that special intensity that the French reserve for all things wine.

Be forewarned, however, that the wine itself is anything but delightful. Beaujolais Nouveau is a kind of a Frankenstein wine created by performing unnatural acts with grape juice. Specifically, carbon dioxide is pumped into the fermentation tanks (a process called carbonic maceration) – this accelerates the wine’s aging process and also produces famously punishing hangovers.

The resulting beverage has a lurid purple color not found elsewhere in nature, an acrid odor and a taste that is somewhere between cherry koolaid and vinegar.

Right now, the Paris riots are invisible, but the Beaujolais Nouveau menace is everywhere. Every bar is plastered with marketing propaganda meant to make Beaujolais Nouveau look like a drinkable, even enjoyable beverage, and every bartender appears to be working on retainer to move the stuff as quickly as possible.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Paradise for pools – hell for swimmers

With over 30 public pools, Parisappears at first glance to be a swimmer’s mecca. In order to use the pools, however, you must overcome some typically Parisian challenges.

The first challenge is that the public pools are rarely open to the public. For example, during the week, the pool nearest me is closed Monday and open only two hours a day Tuesday through Friday (from 7-8am and from 12-1pm).

This brings us to the second challenge, figuring out which pool is open when you want to swim. Each pool has completely different but equally arbitrary hours, and there is a city-wide conspiracy to provide this information strictly on a need-to-know basis.

If you show up at a pool - and it happens to be open - you can get the hours for that pool only. You can also get a beautiful brochure listing everything you would want to know about all the other pools in Paris, except of course their hours of operation.

In some deeply Parisian fashion, it is enough simply to have built these magnificent pools and sprinkled them all over the city. Staffing them and making them available to the public doesn’t seem to have figured into the grand scheme of things.

After several frustrating excursions to lovely but not-open-to-the-public pools, I spent an entire morning decoding various brochures and sleuthing over the web for the paris swimming pool schedule. Through the research, I finally found My Perfect Pool: large (50m), within walking distance, and open from 12-7 each day.

The high point of this week was finally swimming at My Perfect Pool. For me, this was a moment of exultation. After months of feeling like a bemused outsider, I had finally mastered the complexities of Parisian pools. With this under my belt, I felt that confident that soon all the mysteries of Paris would yield to me.

On my way out of the pool I happened to glance at the bulletin board. There, a small, hand-written message indicated that My Perfect Pool is closing at the beginning of December for 18 months of repairs.


Sunday, November 13, 2005

Dead white french women - a visit to Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise

Last week we spent a day in Paris visiting the tombs of famous women at the Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise. The best part of the visit was simply wandering along curving, tree-lined paths surrounded by scads of small, moss-covered mausoleums, looking like the world’s poshest collection of run-down outhouses.

The secret to the success of the cemetery - as with many notable French accomplishments - was Napoleon. He was determined that Paris should get a “modern” graveyard, and to make sure that people would be dying to get in*, he imported a number of France’s most famous dead people into the cemetery. PT Barnum had nothing on Napoleon!

Led by Paris tour guide extraordinaire, Kelly Spearman (ksartantiques @, we visited the resting spots of famous French women. While many of the dead white guys in the cemetery were either good mass murders (e.g., grand marechal xyz) or bad singers (e.g., Jim Morrison), the woman were a uniformly fascinating crew.

The high points of the tour were learning about the wild and wonderful life of Colette, and the love story of Heloise & Abilard. Colette single-handedly jump-started the Parisian hair salon by becoming the first woman in Paris to bob her hair. She also wrote the Claudine series of easy-to-read french books, making her my new favorite author.

Heloise & Abelard have a cosy little mini-gothic mausoleum in a secluded area of the cemetery. Theirs is a love story from the middle ages that makes Romeo and Juliet look like lightweights, go here for a great description of the love affair of Heloise & Abilard.

For more photos of the cemetary, see Paris one photo a day. For a virtual tour, there is a mostly useless but very diverting interactive website plotting all the famous graves at Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise.

Tags: Paris travel

* sorry

Thursday, November 10, 2005

When French words go bad

Due to the Paris riots shenanigans ringing Paris with a halo of burned out cars, the government recently announced a curfew. Now “curfew” is one of those outcast words in English that really makes no sense on its own and has no interesting resonances – you don’t see it often in poems for example.

However, in French, the expression is “couvre feu,” which translates literally as “cover fire.” Back in the bad old days (i.e., long before Molotov cocktails had been invented) you covered the fire so the bad guys couldn’t see you at night, and of course once you did this it was hard to do crossword puzzles or watch TV so you pretty much had to stay put.

It is relatively easy to see how “couvre feu” got mangled into curfew over a few beers in one of those seedy seaside towns around Dover, and we have been stuck with curfew every since.


Monday, November 07, 2005

Paris riots - burnin’ down the house

Two weeks ago, we spent the day in St Denis - the suburb at the center of the current Paris riots. The buildings are a bit run down but the neighborhood is bustling - we toured the church of St Denis (see here), then had a wonderful lunch couscous with spicy Merguez sausage.

After lunch we strolled through the crowded market streets of St Denis, which featured street vendors roasting corn over charcoal stoves and shops selling honey-covered pastries surrounded by swarms of people and (no kidding) bees. During the day, it felt like walking through the mission district of San Francisco - exotic, a bit dirty but safe.

At night, however, things are different.

My first week in Paris, a friend pulled me aside and said “the night in Paris belongs to the Arab youth.” He had been beaten up twice in the last several years by Arab street thugs who he felt were less interested in his money than in brute intimidation.

Like so many things in this wonderfully dysfunctional country, the angry Arab youth is something that everyone knows but nobody talks about. The back story is that there was a large migration of “temporary” workers from Africa in the 50s to provide cheap labor to help France’s postwar expansion. Only they never did make that return trip and now their unemployed grandchildren are raising hell with Zippo lighters all over France.

The newspapers here, while giving the story lots of ink, are at the same time somewhat blasé about these pesky street urchins, who seem to have nothing better to do while waiting for their unemployment checks than torch 1,300+ cars and a few score buses.

Le Figaro assures its readers that all of these delinquents are well-known to the police, as though the police are just about to but haven’t quite gotten around to rounding them up yet. I think the reality is deeper and darker – the zeitgeist seems to be calling marginalized young Arabs around the world to self-destructive acts whose primary purpose is to display how angry they are with the world they find themselves in.

As a signal flare of rage, these kids are torching their parents cars, and the buses they burn eliminate the only way for many people in their neighborhoods to get to work. Like the volcanic eruptions that issue every ten years or so from the slums of Philadelphia or LA or New Orleans and shake the American self-identity, France is experiencing the rage of the underclass. covers the status of the Paris riots here, and the blog, and fistful of euros discusses the political roots here.

Go here for an extraordinary multi-media presentation of the paris riots. Here is a look at the rumor mills.


Sunday, November 06, 2005

Milk Run At the Musee D’Orsay

In an age where new museums seem to be trying too hard to make a statement about art (and end up making more of a statement about what it would look like if Christo decided to chrome plate a junkyard), the Musee D’Orsay sets the standard for inspiring architecture that equals the paintings it houses.

For all of its strengths, the museum does have one famous flaw. Similar to your local supermarket or department store, they put the good stuff that everybody really wants at the back of the joint so you have to traipse through the entire place just to get your quart of milk or fix of Monet as the case may be.

So the trick is to do just what you do when you go to the grocery for milk - pay no attention to all the odds and ends vying for your attention and beeline for the escalators at the back (in true department store fashion, the elevators are for handicapped only).

Once you reach the top of the 5th escalator, you are in impressionist heaven, with room after room of famous greats, mixed in with painters just as great but not so famous, like Redon, most of whose spiritually intense were displayed in darkened rooms that preserve their colors but also give them an additional allure.

Tags: Paris travel


Thursday, November 03, 2005

First immersion-free day

Our first 8 weeks in Paris were consumed by school, both for our boys and for ourselves. Today was our first day of freedom from our French language immersion program and we celebrated with a walk down the Seine to the Musee d’Orsay. This is the view of the Pont Alexandre along our walk.