Friday, December 2, 2011

Slices of quince

One of the expressions I get great use out of in French is avoir un bon plan, which signifies having a good idea, project or scheme. There is also its opposite, avoir un mauvais plan, which in turn signifies having a loser idea, project or scheme. I have a lot of mauvais plans. Here is my latest:

Why hello, strange yellow fruit!

That, my friends, is a coing, or in English, a quince. I was indulging in my favorite pastime the other day—cruising the produce aisle to be specific—when as luck would have it, I noticed some exotic-looking (and therefore fun) fruit giving me the eye. Ignoring all past crash-and-burns in the exotic-looking fruit department (e.g. desiccated pomelos, bitter starfruit, buckshot-filled cactus pears, and hideously sweet cherimoya), I bought not one, but TWO of these things. I arrived home, artfully arranged them in my fruit bowl alongside more classic seasonal favorites, and left them to ripen. Four days later I figured they looked edible, so I took one and bit into it.

I’m lucky to have managed to disengage my teeth without leaving any of them implanted in the fruit’s ROCK HARD, bitter flesh. Whaaa??? OK, not ripe yet. I’ll give them another week, I figured. But a week later, no change. Bizarre. So I decided to leave them an even longer while longer.

Today it has officially been two months since I bought these fruit. Two months. And the damn things haven’t changed at all in appearance or texture. This is totally unnatural (two-month-old kiwis, for instance, would have long become pure liquefied nastiness). While I have been waiting on my quinces, whole families—nay, generations!—of tangerines, apples, grapes and bananas have come and gone from the fruit bowl, but does that incite my quinces to hurry the hell up and ripen already? Certainly not! Maybe they’ve been genetically modified. Or maybe some prankster threw a few wax models into the fruit bin.

Looks real to me.

Then again, maybe they are ripe. Maybe that’s just the nature of quinces. Maybe that’s why NO ONE EATS THEM. I mean really, who eats quince? Yeah, they make great jam; that is precisely why I bought them. Tasty jam = tasty fruit, n’est-ce pas? Plus—and this goes back to my wine marketing past—the quince is often cited in the tasting notes of several white wines that I seriously enjoy. You know, inspiring stuff like this: “clean and crisp, with soft, fruity aromas of white peach and quince.” Then again, no one knows better than I how made up imaginative tasting notes can be for having written legions of them myself. Sigh. I was hoping for so much more from the quince.

Why? Because I grew up with “The Owl and the Pussycat”:

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
     Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
 And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
     They danced by the light of the moon,
           The moon,
           The moon,
 They danced by the light of the moon.

Is it not perfectly scandalous that the real quince should not live up to the delectable image instilled in my subconscious by such beloved childhood readings? And I’d specifically gone out and purchased a runcible spoon and everything! This is some false advertising, that’s what. Who knows a good lawyer?

Never lost, never will.

In the meantime, I have a friend and colleague who swears that the quince is just scrumptious sliced up and sautéed with apples. That may be. But again, who (else) has ever heard of sautéed quince? Plus, let us not forget that my quinces are two months old! So do I have to go out and track down some gnarled old apples to accompany them? Because “ancient fruit sauté” sounds pretty off-putting. Maybe I could just distill it all into some sort of vile liqueur.

See? This is precisely what characterizes le mauvais plan. Can you not feel the loserness of its aura? From now on, my exotic fruit purchases shall be limited to pineapples. Maybe some coconut. And a few litchis. But that’s it. I’ll leave the quince to the owls and the pussycats. They obviously have some kind of weirdo fruit consumption insight that I lack.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Les Misérables

Last weekend, I skipped the country and discovered Luxembourg City: close enough to Paris for a weekend, yet far enough away to feel exotic. Most of my entourage raised an eyebrow when I announced my weekend plans, as apparently the going rap on Luxembourg is that it’s a) small b) boring and c) unsexy. Whatever. For those of you contemplating a visit to Luxembourg, it is none of those things. In addition to being gorgeous, G. and I found it to be plenty big (it’s the damn capital, people! 50 square kilometers—get with it!), plenty interesting, and ... well, it may not be sexy per se, but what do you want? It’s wedged between Germany, eastern France and Belgium; it can’t have everything. What it DOES have is money. Lots of money. And an entire army of invisible street sweepers who keep the place impeccably groomed. That, my friends, is one clean city. Even the fallen leaves look somehow artfully fallen. There is no “5-second rule” in Luxembourg; if you should let any food fall to the ground, you could probably pick it up whenever you felt like it and keep eating. No worries.

They also have really big cheese.

Oh sure, there is poverty in Luxembourg. We learned all about it at the city museum, currently featuring a temporary exhibit cleverly entitled “Poor Luxembourg.” Over the course of a really quite elaborate series of displays and installations, including full-scale models of a homeless camp and a “social” grocery store, we learned that “poverty” in the Grand Duchy is not so much a question of true financial insecurity, but rather of coping with limited access to social pleasures (fewer extracurricular activities for one’s children, for example). We also learned that the gross minimum wage is roughly €1,800 per month—by far the most generous of the EU. In other words, indigence is such an oddity in Luxembourg that it’s worthy of an entire museum exhibit.

France is not Luxembourg. France has plenty of poverty—as well as a fairly conspicuous homeless population. I would know; I was sat upon this week by one particularly conspicuous specimen. Sat. Upon. I was taking the métro home from work with a friend, when an extremely alcoolisé gentleman sporting rags and a half-consumed bottle of whiskey staggered onto our train, screaming what can only be translated as, “You bunch of #@*$!! I #$$& this &$*@ piece of #$$& world of @$#!! Go @#$% yourselves!” Everyone in the wagon stopped talking and stared at him, at which point the doors closed and the train took off. The sudden movement was obviously too much; in slow motion, he toppled backward ... right onto my friend and me, strategically seated as though we had intended to serve as a human safety net. It was nice.

Enter at your own risk.

Like the subway of your average metropolis, the Paris métro has quite a population of “residents.” Some drink themselves into oblivion; some peddle illicit merchandise; still others beg. Of the beggars, I count three categories: the passive, the proactive and the performing. The passive find a spot somewhere in the labyrinth of tunnels and stations and just camp there, with or without a puppy/child by their side, silently admonishing you to spare a dime. There is one such woman who hangs out at the station Opéra, at the foot of the stairway leading to the line 3 platform, just glaring at each and every person who walks by, her eyes boring right into you as you attempt to breeze past nonchalantly. I once fearfully offered her a few lunch vouchers—the fabulous tickets restaurant—and she actually turned out to be way nicer than I had imagined. I almost wanted to give her some marketing advice about the whole catching more flies with honey than with vinegar thing, but thought better of it. If I were homeless, would I take advice off some random commuter? Probably not.

The proactive métro dwellers go ahead and climb aboard the trains themselves, passing from wagon to wagon, shouting over the din about who they are and why they need your contribution. Some are polite; others are frighteningly belligerent. Consider this: back at home, my parents are harassed day and night by phone calls from perfect strangers soliciting money, but here in Paris, you can get the same treatment face à face! Who says urban living is impersonal?

Finally, there are the performers. Some dance; some sing; some play musical instruments. Some are quite good; others are so ear-splittingly bad I would pay them to just STOP ALREADY. And while I’m at it, I would also happily, happily pay them to cease and desist massacring such cherished oldies as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Hotel California,” anything by the Beatles, and the perennial favorite, “El Cóndor Pasa” (yes, I realize the tune predates Paul Simon. That’s no excuse to screw it up). There are also plenty of métro gypsies, but they enter more into the “nasty pickpocket” category than the “unfortunate homeless” one.

For the record, I do not have a heart of stone (plus I’m a Democrat; I’m like obligated to at least feign sympathy). Although, with the price of Paris’s monthly métro pass likely to increase to a whopping €78 over the next year, there comes a point when those of us who do use the public transportation system for ... transportation ... are perfectly justified in demanding, I don’t know, the right to not be sat upon by drunken homeless guys for example. I’m just saying.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Boo (hoo)!

The time is once more upon us for Halloween in France, that pinnacle of the anticlimactic, sandwiched in between Saint Patrick’s Day and Groundhog’s Day on the roll call of holidays that no one gives a damn about. I mean sure, there are a few (Anglo or pseudo Anglo) bars in Paris that will be having Halloween parties tonight, and I have just read that costume sales are up, but between us, Halloween still has a long way to go before it officially catches on around here. Which is a shame, really, because how can you not love candy pumpkins? Seriously? 

Hurts (my teeth) so good!

A few years ago, sensing the onset of yet another bout of expatriate Halloween blues, I came up with a Parisian alternative: champagne, macarons and a bubble bath. But this year, no can do; my place has far too many people in it. So instead, last night we decided to go for a spin though Père Lachaise cemetery in eastern Paris. In preparation for All Saints’ Day, the 110-acre cemetery was bedecked with police officers and flowers—mainly chrysanthemums, which I now realize are official tomb flowers and thus explains why they’re so, um, inexpensive. During my less abundant years I was a big, big fan of chrysanthemums: for my apartment, for my friends, as hostess gifts, housewarming gifts, birthday gifts.... I’m beginning to understand some of the reactions I got. Huh.

So, Père Lachaise. It seemed appropriate to go, even more so at day’s end. Between the uneven (creepy) cobblestone paths, fluttering autumn leaves, cackling crows and crumbling tombstones, we got a nice dose of the hibbie jibbies. I mean sort of. I’m not sure that the Headless Horseman could exactly hang out in Père Lachaise; not with all those gendarmes everywhere. Not that I’m complaining.

Sorry, Sir. Do you have a permit for that head?

I must admit to busting a few Thriller moves at one point, hoping I wouldn’t be sentenced to eternal damnation for daring to make fun in a cemetery. But despite the decidedly macabre atmosphere, frankly, visiting Jim Morrison’s final resting place for the 5th time in my life wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as, say, munching on a couple of those miniature Butterfingers would have been. My kingdom for a Hershey bar! Maybe I’m becoming jaded.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A case of the Mondays

Today is once again that much-dreaded, much-detested first day of the week: Monday. In America, it’s technically the second day of the week, but here in France, Monday comes first and Sunday comes last. Why? Because it’s a country of heathens. I’m kidding (kind of). No—there is undoubtedly a long, fascinating explanation for why the US follows the Judeo-Christian tradition of beginning the week with Sunday whereas Europe does not, but that isn’t the point of this blog. I’ll look it up later and write about it if it’s interesting enough (it probably isn’t).

But let’s get back to Monday, which we can all agree is at least the first day of the work week on both sides of the Atlantic. Personally, I find that Monday has gotten a bad rap. Why, as I’ve grown older, I’ve found that Monday actually tends to go fairly well for me: I’m rested from the weekend, so when my alarm goes off at 6:40 am, it’s not nearly as painful as it is on Friday; work usually goes well, since the mistakes and irritations of the previous week have been forgotten, plus my colleagues are mentally absent and thus unable to effectively defend themselves from my usual barrage of witty insults; and before I know it the day is over and I’m on my way home.

C’mon guys! Monday is just a question of attitude! Am I right? I said, am I right?

However, my favorite part of Monday is hands down cocktail hour: G. and I have begun a family tradition—now that we are an official (2-person) family—of leisurely sipping one cocktail each on the balcony on Monday nights, as a means to kick off the week and shake off any pesky negativity that may have followed us home from the office. I come from a long line of dynamite cocktail makers, a talent that I feel it my duty to share with my husband—which I do, every week. And every week we end up perfectly hammered because a) we’re both lightweights and b) we eat dinner at 9:30 pm like good Europeans, which means that those cocktails are the first thing to hit our stomachs since lunch. Effect guaranteed! As such, any attempts at constructive adult discussion are quickly abandoned in favor of pointing and laughing at passers by, insulting the sushi delivery guy who keeps double parking his scooter across the street, complaining about the insane noise of all those damn vehicles barreling by, and critiquing the interior design of the apartments en face. Sometimes we launch a few peanuts at unsuspecting tourists and the occasional old lady walking her dog. See? Mondays are fun!

So about those cocktails. A native southern Californian, I love margaritas. But ordering them in French bars has never felt right. One, the (small, sad) rendition I’m served often reminds me of postmodern art (i.e. it sucks); two, Mexico and France just don’t mesh well. As proof, consider the French “Mexican” restaurant. Oh, there are a few that get it done right, but they still come in a distant second to basically any hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint I’ve ever tried in SoCal. (Sorry for the taco snobbism; I’ve gotta call a spade a spade. French guacamole—fear it.) So imagine my surprise to find myself nose-to-nose with a tequila bottle calling my name from the shelves of our local grocery store a few days ago. “Hmmmm,” I responded, with typically razor-sharp acumen. In the end, I bought it, along with a bottle of Cointreau and a handful of limes because hell—I may be physically closer to Beijing than I am to Mexico City, but far be it from me to ignore a clear message from the liquor gods.

An hour later, G. and I had assumed the position and were ready to toast to international relations. I had to substitute jumbo wine glasses and fleur de sel for margarita glasses and rock salt, but who cares? Those puppies were muy bueno. And muy fuerte! Even if my Monday had been bad, that margarita would have erased any memory of it. Come to think of it, cocktail hour and its mind-altering effects may be precisely why I have the impression that Mondays are cool. I wonder if that could work for the rest of the week....

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Let them drink milk

This weekend, G. and I ventured out of Paris to a place I had been meaning to visit for ages—the Château de Rambouillet. For all those of you who haven’t been, go. Go NOW. It’s fabulous and relatively easy to get to, even without a car (no I still haven’t gotten my license). It’s even on the route to Chartres! Que demande le peuple ?

In a nutshell, Rambouillet began life in the 14th century as a fortified manor, but quickly became a favorite royal hang-out thanks to its well-stocked forests and, later, its convenient proximity to Versailles. Louis XVI finally purchased the place in 1783 and enjoyed its charms until that messy incident in 1789. Rambouillet was later inhabited by Napoleon, then a series of French presidents, and today is open to the public—but remains ready to roll out the red carpet (literally) should the Prime Minister ever decide to host a pajama party.

Now, I’ve noticed over the past few years that there seems to be a disturbing trend developing among many of the châteaux near Paris: they have begun to serve the double purpose of historical site and modern art gallery. So you’ll be at a given château, visiting let’s say a 17th century ballroom, admiring the architecture and breathing in the ambiance, when suddenly you realize that there’s a 40-foot-wide red plastic cog suspended from the ceiling by human hair. Some people find the clash of ancient and modern to be stimulating; I find it to be one big, unwelcome non sequitur—plus it totally messes up the meditative state I happily slip into when contemplating art history. Thus, the presence of an oversized, dismembered, clay aardvark smack dab in the middle of Rambouillet’s otherwise superb Renaissance salle des marbres did not score any points with yours truly. As God is my witness, I do not GET postmodern art. Never have, never will. Back in my days as an art history major (and proud of it!), I coined the now-celebrated adage, If it sucks, it’s postmodern—which is as true now as it was then.

Definitely meets the criterion.

Much like the nearby Château de Versailles, Rambouillet offers outlying buildings well worth the detour. Among them is La Laiterie de la Reine (the Queen’s Dairy), commissioned by Louis XVI in order to placate Marie Antoinette, who purportedly found Rambouillet to be sub-par (“a gothic pile of sh**” I believe were her exact words). So he offered her a stately, neoclassical marble temple of sorts in which to ... drink milk. It seems the aristocracy of the period found great delight in communal dairy consumption and even developed an entire ritual around it, in this case involving Sèvres porcelain tasting bowls, intricately-sculpted Carrera marble friezes and an indoor waterfall. Classy, but odd. Odder still, the English garden surrounding La Laiterie features the remains of a man-made grotto, whose former purpose was none other than to provide a peaceful, pastoral setting in which to ... drink (more) milk. I gather the anti-dairy movement didn’t have many followers at the time.

All of this begs one question: what was the deal with Marie Antoinette’s farm fantasies? What would Freud say? The Château de Versailles had its own pseudo HAMLET for crying out loud. Apparently, she would escape from the pressures of court life by dressing up as a milk maid and hanging out in the hamlet, milking a cow that her servants had specifically prepared beforehand. That’s pretty normal behavior from a monarch, no? I can just imagine Michelle Obama, clad in a little jean-and-gingham ensemble, gamboling about on a toy farm out on the South Lawn....

The visit ended with the Chaumière aux Coquillages, a beautiful little “shell cottage” intricately adorned with frescoes and row upon shimmering row of inlaid seashells. Also, it has ox femurs projecting from the walls. Rather macabre, but intriguing. What, pray tell, are they doing there? More postmodernism perhaps? No—they’re keeping the place dry of course! Apparently, bone does a fantastic job of combating humidity. EUREKA! So really, all G. and I need to do to fix our bathroom ceiling is track down a few unused ox femurs. It may shock our future guests to find massive lengths of animal bone jutting out out of the ceiling when they go to use the facilities, but then again, I could always soothe their anxiety by proclaiming the whole thing to be cutting-edge installation art.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The sky is falling

This morning while getting ready to leave, a chunk of our bathroom ceiling fell off, landed on my head and burst into a million little pieces of plaster, which I then had to sweep up with a whisk broom as fast as possible in order to avoid arriving hideously late to work. So now there’s a big hole in the ceiling, which kind of takes the polish off the classy Parisian apartment look we had going. Sadly, the bathroom head trauma failed to spark any visions of flux capacitor-like inventions; only a very clear vision of moving.

I have previously discussed the phenomenon of thin walls in Paris. As it turns out, Parisian apartments have another thing in common: humidity. But whereas thin walls are really no big deal—they’re kind of endearing, actually; an inoffensive little fault—humidity is not endearing at all. For whatever historical reason, a huge number of homes in Paris suffer from serious ventilation issues, especially in the room where bathing goes on. This latent dampness always, always draws mildew, mold and all kinds of other nasties that should by all rights figure as illegal and intolerable in every standard rental contract. My first place in Paris, located in a fairly low-rent district (hey, we all have to get our start somewhere), was a formidable introduction to the wide world of Parisian bathroom moisture. Try as I might, it was a losing battle, which reached its climax the day I found a mushroom—a MUSHROOM—poking out between two loose shower tiles.

And as this morning’s Chicken Little episode demonstrates, evil bathroom dew is not limited to shabby pads. Upon moving into our current apartment, G. and I were told by the rental agency representing our landlord that an anti-humidity fan would be installed in our bathroom window. Ha ha—a little realtor humor! Turns out the fan was rendered impossible by our “non-standard window size.” What does that even mean? It’s a rectangle, and a pretty standard-looking one at that. I ask you: what is it with Parisians and fans?! The ensuing surplus of humidity and its fungal consequences came as a surprise to no one, especially not to me, a Mold War veteran. Stated another way, it kind of looks like a biological experiment is taking place, right there, on our ceiling. Either that or a bizarre tribute to Jackson Pollock.

Frighteningly accurate.

The effect is quite surprising, especially since one doesn’t expect to see such a thing inside an apartment as otherwise sano as ours. If I may venture a metaphor, it’s kind of like what my brother calls the “butter face” syndrome, a curious term designating a woman with a body to die for ... but-her-face. Clever, I know. So basically, our home sweet home has been reduced to the architectural equivalent of a butter face. Well, I think it’s high time “she” had a bit of cosmetic surgery.

To be continued....

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Eye of the tiger

I have become a Parisian runner. As some of you may recall, sports aren’t really my thing—and by sports I mean competitive, sweaty, potentially violent activities; I’m not counting any namby-pamby New Age ones (those I obviously engage in, like any self-respecting Californian). The very word “sports” for me conjures up images of junior high gym class: donning a pair of ridiculous knee-length fleece shorts and being forced to engage in competitive group activities, demonstrating—regrettably—that the age-old stereotype of “girls suck at sports” is actually kind of true (I mean as it pertains to me, so save your righteous indignation). Messing up my painstakingly sculpted teenage hair by pulling that stupid gym shirt over it was enough alone to leave psychological scars, but repeatedly ending up last to be chosen for the softball team, dog-paddling my way through aquatic relay races and never managing to execute even one sorry chin-up ultimately created a profound distaste in me for “real” sports.

This is why I put off learning to run for years; I figured I’d be bad at it. I was tempted to seize the proverbial bull by his proverbial horns and release my inner Olympian when I began college—as a stress reducer if nothing else—except that at the time, I wanted something more original, more impressive (I was 18; give me a break). So I joined a Kung-Fu class in North Dallas, run by a guy who, fitfully enough, looked like a younger, greasier version of David Carradine. He made us call him “Master,” loved to spout random bits of wisdom from the Tao Te Ching and taught us animal-inspired stances so bizarre that if ever we had found ourselves actually needing to use any of them for self-defense, the attacker probably would have fallen over laughing—which would technically get the job done, so I’m not knocking it.

Don't make me use this.

In the grand tradition of B-grade martial arts movies, our “Master” firmly believed in the “no pain, no gain” approach to apprenticeship; he imposed bare knuckle push-ups on any misbehavers and took obvious pleasure in humiliating his advanced students by flat-out kicking their asses at the end of every class. I hung in there until the day he claimed to have cured his mother of cancer over the phone, at which point I realized with fortune cookie clarity that a mad teacher teaches only madness. And since I’ve never been lacking in that department, I decided to move on.

When I first arrived in France, I spent a lot of time in parks. I like parks; they’re green, peaceful, bucolic. They make for fantastic lunch spots if you can manage to snag one of the perpetually-occupied benches. While hanging out in such parks, I often noted a fair number of presumably French joggers. Nothing strange about that per se, except their clothing, which looked as though they’d initially come to the park just to relax, but were suddenly seized with an irrepressible urge to break into a jog: khaki shorts, polo shirts, canvas shoes.... Odd. Where, pray tell, was their sports gear? Now, G. has mentioned on multiple occasions that we Americans are totally hung up on sports equipment; even the average American housewife who wants to go out for a stroll around the neighborhood somehow feels she must put on a visor, headset, spandex shorts, sports bra and cross-trainers beforehand (with or without ski poles). OK, he has a point; it is a well-known fact that my fellow countrymen and I appreciate le stuff. But hey, at least we don’t go and try to exercise dressed like we just stepped out of a Lacoste casting call.

French jogger, ca. 1999.

In any case, it’s a moot point because over the past decade I have noticed a clear evolution in French sports apparel and now, when I go running (I’ll get to that in a minute), I see the same kind of Nike-clad, iPod-adorned, aspiring marathoners that I had expected to see all along.

So, after reading the hundredth women’s magazine article about how anybody can learn to run, I figured I’d Just Do It already. And in the end, it wasn’t so hard. Unsurprisingly, the first step was buying the appropriate gear, which actually played a major motivational role and clearly demonstrates the advantages of dressing like you mean it. I got through the requisite side stitches, the huffing and puffing, a brief episode of runner’s knee (also a question of proper outfitting), and today am a confirmed runner! My live-in “coach” and I run every week, come rain, snow or shine (mainly because he will not tolerate any whining what-so-ever).

Our territory of predilection is the Champs de Mars, a big green semi-park encircling the Eiffel Tower—I know, poor us. Running there is always an adventure, mainly because of the constantly changing obstacles. On any given day, we may have to outmaneuver masses of gaping tourists, unsupervised children, pétanque competitions, copulating dogs, marauding gypsy families, bridal photography sessions, homeless wanderers, rallying Copts, Segway enthusiasts, African immigrants hawking cheap Eiffel Tower replicas, and much, much more. Sometimes we’re treated to live music; other times we leave with free lettuce. Not wanting to trip over/crash into any of the afore-mentioned, we’ve learned to practice preternaturally aware running.

Today, thanks to my new-found recreation, I no longer fear sports. I’m not exactly what one could call a sports fan, mind you, but when I go in for my annual check-up and my doctor asks me whether or not I engage in any regular physical activity, I am proud to say that I can now reply with a triumphant “HELL YES!”

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Material girl

Summer in Paris is not only about the possibility of meteorological extremes and the certainty of pricey sorbet. Summer is also about unchained, triumphant materialism. Sales, in other words. Big sales. Sales on everything.

The warmer months hail the arrival of France’s annual soldes d’été, five weeks during which stores great and small slash their prices in order to make way for the arrival of the autumn/winter collections. As hideously depressing as it is to think at summer’s zenith, OMG-winter-will-be-back-before-we-know-it, the soldes also represent a glittering opportunity for consumers to gleefully and exuberantly indulge in the very same conspicuous consumption that is supposedly so disdained by the infamously discreet French. In other words, who’s depressed? Pas moi! For during the soldes, all bets are off; consumers from all walks of life, French and foreign alike, are openly encouraged to engage in a veritable orgy of frenzied hunting and gathering until their feet and wallets cry overdose and they collapse in a dizzy haze, feeling exhausted and vaguely guilty ... yet somehow strangely fulfilled. Or is that just me?

It never fails. Every year I tell myself, “Self, you have MORE than enough clothing. So no soldes for you! True spiritual fulfillment must be sought within, not without.” But then my Self comes up with something like, “That’s true; I DO have enough clothing ... for now. But not nearly enough shoes/jewelry/books/electronics/housewares/kitchen gear/potted plants...!” And, realizing the futility of attempting to counter such watertight logic, off I run to get my next material fix.

Now, such behavior could be considered as both totally selfish and fiscally irresponsible, except that I’m one step ahead of such petty accusations. As G. and I inhabit a typically space-challenged Parisian abode, without so much as a basement in which to store any excess, I can’t just go on acquiring without end. Therefore, I frequently donate my no-longer-desired clothing to such benevolent organizations as the Children of Madagascar, and thus clear the way for NEW clothing while at the same time placating my conscience. Why, thanks to me, Madagascar’s youth are sporting some sweet attire—even if some of my contributions may be less appreciated than others (that floor-length black wool coat I disposed of last month comes to mind).

G. surely senses that my addiction to zestfully accumulating what can only be referred to as “stuff”—which is to say miscellaneous material items that soothe, flatter and reassure—is as American as macaroni and cheese, and as such, looks upon it with bemusement. Indeed, rather than attempt to find an appropriate French translation for the word “stuff” (there isn’t one), G. has gone and adopted it just as it is, interjecting it into otherwise entirely French sentences and applying it to everything from the pile of magazines sitting on the coffee table to the forgotten sock by the front door. He has even developed a new grammatical form for it, wherein the partitive du becomes the singular indefinite “un.” Thus, “un stuff. (Ex: “Il y a un stuff coincé dans la cafétière !” – “There’s something stuck in the coffee machine!”)

Considering the success of this small-scale experiment, I think I have reason to hope that “le stuff” will eventually spread among the greater French population, and perhaps one day even join the ranks of such widely accepted, originally English words as “cool,” “fun,” “geek,” and my personal favorite, “funky.” It could happen! And if ever it does, I fully expect to be granted the honorary title of Stuff Ambassador to France.

Monday, June 27, 2011

In the summer when it sizzles

It’s HOT in Paris right now. Hot-hot-hottttttt. It’s so hot that my boss has asked everyone in the office to draw the window shades and turn off our desk lamps, thus betraying his insanity for he must suspect that our energy-saving Ikea light bulbs are partially to blame. Ever the rebel, I have not obeyed orders because first of all, no way do these silly lamps generate any heat worth mentioning and secondly, never underestimate the parakeet effect, i.e. darkness = zzzzzz. I personally have no desire to awaken hours from now, the right side of my face decorated with key-shaped indentations, only to spend the rest of the afternoon taking witty remarks from my colleagues like, “Hey, fall asleep on your keyboard again?”

This sudden heat thing happens every year, always with the same effect: June gloom takes up most of the month, everyone bitches and moans about how wretched Paris weather is and how lucky those bastards in the south of France are and then, all of sudden, BONJOUR la canicule! Overnight the temperatures sky rocket and everyone seamlessly switches to bitching and moaning about how unbearably hot it is. It doesn’t last, generally speaking (the heat, not the bitching; this is France after all). A notable exception was of course the summer of 2003, which featured endless days of scorching heat, alternating with endless nights of scorching heat, and ended only after some 15,000 people had died of dehydration (a public health catastrophe that bizarrely no one seems to discuss anymore).

Never one to shun an occasion for harrowing adventure, my family made the trip over the big blue water to visit me in the middle of that very same 2003 heat wave. I remember us all sitting around my 5th floor apartment dinner table, eating only after 10:30 pm—when the heat had subsided just enough to allow us to conceive of consuming anything solid. We took cold showers at regular intervals, slept with spray bottles next to our beds and would awaken in the middle of the night, wander over to the open windows and stretch our sweating arms out into the stifling darkness, attempting in vain to catch even the slightest whisper of a breeze. Yeah, it sucked.

At the time, I had no fan (still don’t). This of course shocked my parents, even after my explanation that Paris seldom heats up enough to warrant a fan and that besides, where would I store such a thing during the 11.5 cooler months of the year? But faced with day after day of 100+ degree weather, even I was willing to hoist the proverbial white flag. We thus embarked on a wild goose chase through the city, visiting shop after shop after shop, only to be told that no fans were to be found—not there, not anywhere—and that furthermore, no new deliveries were expected anytime soon. This of course DOUBLY shocked my parents, who could not believe that a first world country could just run out of something as common as a stupid fan—and at the height of summer no less! France in their eyes was demoted right then and there to second world status (where it shall remain indefinitely). So we resorted to fanning ourselves with anything lying around my apartment: newspapers, museum brochures, table mats....

I have since discovered that the acme of H-O-T in Paris is in fact underground: aboard the RER, a mode of public transportation that is half métro, half suburban train. In the suburbs, the RER runs above ground, but when it passes through Paris, it actually descends below the métro—much closer to Hades in other words, which I suppose would account for the heat, as well as for the demon-like characters one may spot while on board. In addition to being damn hot, the RER is notoriously poorly-kept (that’s a euphemism for “ghetto on rails”). All of this leaves RER passengers with a serious dilemma during the hotter months: either a) dress conservatively and sweat away in silence (but avoid drawing any unwanted attention) or b) dress in skimpy summer attire and take their chances with the more dubious of their fellow passengers. Tricky. My tactic is to avoid the hot heinousness of the RER like the plague (incidentally, the RER and the plague have something in common: rats).

Between us, I am enjoying the heat this time around. It’s nice to eat outdoors, nice to wear sandals to work, nice to leave the jacket at home. And I’m sure that if, heaven forbid, the heat wave were to stay past its welcome, I could always just pop out and buy a fan (surely they are back in stock by now).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

An ode to acrylics

Ten days before my wedding, which is to say toward the end of April, I marched into an empty nail salon in Southern California and requested a full set of acrylic “French tip” nails. I’d been toying with the idea for months, as “What am I going to do about my NAILS?” is a question that every self-respecting bride-to-be asks herself at some point. I’d begun early: interrogating my loved ones, scouring the web, consulting my inner child.... Most opinions were negative, acrylic nails being notoriously rough on one’s natural nails (really? You mean cementing prosthetics to one’s hands and then covering them with three layers of foul-smelling resin is harmful?). But there is no such thing as natural beauty—at least not in the world of nail art—so I paid no heed to the naysayers. Besides, I wanted gorgeous hands for those wedding photos and no way was I going to settle for a basic manicure. I wanted to go whole hog. I wanted my Steel Magnolias moment.

Thus, on a sunny Wednesday, in I strolled into my chosen nail salon and within minutes was seated comfortably facing my nail technician, a portly Vietnamese lady wearing a gaping, washed-out tank top that left little to the imagination and kind of made me feel overdressed. One other client was there —a 40-something character named Linda, the kind of woman who just hangs out in nail salons: big hair, loud makeup, ocher skin and a smoker’s voice. She wasted no time in announcing that she had a blind date in an hour, and had come over to get ready. She also fully intended to choose an outfit while at the salon, and thus had brought along several possibilities to model for us. This initially struck me as surreal, but a few blinks of incomprehension and I was over it. Besides, the surreal seems to follow me wherever I go—so why not here? Otherwise, the salon was fairly classic: rows of reclining pedicure chairs, little tables adorned with manicure lamps, displays of brightly-colored nail polish and a big flat-screen TV. In this case, the channel was set on Disney. I figured there must be a small child hiding in the room somewhere—a daughter perhaps?—but no, my nail technician just had a thing for Hannah Montana. Who doesn’t?

That and gambling. As it turned out, acrylic nails are actually quite labor-intensive, which left us plenty of time for light-hearted banter. So as she proceeded to glue 8-inch-long appendages to my nail bed (step #1), I lent a polite ear to sordid tales of gambling away her livelihood at the big casino over on the nearby Indian reservation. Not that I had any choice in the matter—I couldn’t very well get up and walk out looking like Edward Scissorhands, plus I really needed her to do a good job. So I shut up and listened.

Apparently, she had begun hitting the game tables ages ago, not long after arriving in the US as a Vietnamese refugee(?!).

“I used to play all the time. Sometimes I lose. Sometimes I lose a lot. My husband, he no like it when I lose. You know, hundreds I lose, sometimes thousands (laughs). He get real angry when I do that.”

“You don’t say,” I answered.

“It used to be real bad but now is better. Now I play, but not all the time. Sometimes I win. But also I lose (laughs).”

“Interesting,” I said.

“Do these pants make me look fat?” interrupted Linda.

Three and a half hours later, I felt as though a certain level of intimacy had been established between us. Upon leaving, I almost wanted to give her a hug and encourage her to stay away from the casino. But instead I gave her a nice tip, hoping it wouldn’t end up where I was imagining it would.

And in the end, I didn’t regret my choice. My nails were impeccable for the wedding and remained so for the honeymoon. In fact, I grew so fond of them that I had them “refilled” upon my return to Paris, which was almost as amusing as the initial operation. Nail salons here tend to double as erotic message parlors, which kind of makes sense. I mean, men have to do something while the ladies have their nails done—thumbing through magazines is just so prosaic. Incidentally, women can also get massages at these fine establishments, but the cost for men is always significantly higher. Now why would THAT be...?

But dubious salons aside, I’m still loving the fake nails. Why? Because they’re flawless! I mean sure, they do make a hell of a lot of noise when I type, but otherwise it’s pure pleasure wearing them. They’re unbreakable, unsplittable, unsulliable; I haven’t so much as caused one tiny run in my stockings since I had the nails put on and that alone is well worth the cost. Plus they’re still relatively rare in France, which is a nice boost for my ego.

The ONE downside is that they’re ... um ... flammable. I found that out the hard way while lighting a candle the other evening. Suddenly it was my thumbnail that was twinkling away and not the wick. “What’s that smell?” G. asked. “Nothing!” I said, trying to hide my singed nail. Oh, it was fine. I filed it down a bit and it was good as new. Mostly.

So in conclusion, I give two singed thumbs up to acrylic nails. Sure they’re somewhat dangerous. But in the end ... aren’t we all (philosophical pause)?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Back to business

I’m back!

After quite an absence from spouting witticisms into the void, I have at last returned to my trusty AZERTY keyboard and am ready to pick up where I left off. I seem to recall a rant involving a giant bottle of olive oil. Geez, it has been a long time.

To sum up, I have just gotten married. In the US. Hence the long silence (I took a month of vacation ... kindly paid for by French employment law!). And while preparations for this Grand Event have kept me both highly occupied and highly on-edge for the greater part of the past 12 months, in the end it was a resounding success. In fact, it was such a success that I almost want to change career paths (again) and go into wedding planning. Yes it was totally stressful, but also quite a lot of fun. We did everything ourselves, meaning personal creativity + local suppliers + many pairs of helpful hands to bring it all together. And it really was the sweetest, most magical day I could ever have imagined.

And then suddenly it was over and we were heading to the Bahamas on our honeymoon. That’s how it generally works, no? For months and months you pour your whole heart into planning to marry, then all of a sudden the wedding comes and goes and before you have any time to process the whole thing you’re in another time zone. In the space of a few hours we passed from 4,000 feet in the mountains of San Diego to a sprawling white beach beneath nodding coconut palms in the middle of the Caribbean, feeling almost obligated to forget everything and RELAX! NOW! Which we did—in spectacular fashion—so I’m not complaining! I just find it psychologically bizarre that weddings work this way.

And now, a few weeks later, we are officially over our jet lag and more or less back to living our “normal” Parisian lives. I must say that so far I’m finding married life to be quite similar to fiancéed life, although something definitely does feel different. It’s a bit as though we’ve been initiated into a secret society, like we have a special wink-wink complicity that wasn’t there before. In the métro I find myself discreetly eyeing the left hands of my fellow passengers—and generally discovering precious few signs of membership in this particular secret society. Does no one get married around here anymore? (Answer: no.) So while I may no longer be “The Bride,” and thus no longer the center of attention (alas!), at least I AM part of this cool—and increasingly exclusive—married people’s club.

But that aside, G. and I are actually having a rather rough time of this post-wedding period. I especially am having a rough time of it. Which isn’t so surprising, really. I mean, for a full year this wedding constituted a real Project toward which I could direct nearly all my creative energy; an event brimming with symbolism and emotion, set in my hometown and uniting my loved ones from North America with my loved ones from Europe, my family with G.’s family, in the definitive fusion of the American me and the French-ish me.... In its wake, how could everyday life not seem somewhat pale? On the upside, I have total faith that these post-nuptial blues (that’s their official name—look it up) will disappear with time, much in the manner of the “day after Christmas” blues. But in all honesty, I hadn’t planned on how hard the adjustment would be; that’s the one thing I neglected to include in all those wedding lists, charts and spreadsheets.

And just to add insult to injury, since the Big Day has passed, the myriad wedding-related on-line newsletters to which I subscribed over the past year have spontaneously transformed themselves into newly-wed newsletters. So now when I sign in to my email account, I find it inundated with home decoration ideas, helpful hints on enjoying married life, and of course, everything related to maternity. While I find this unsolicited advice both invasive and anxiety-inducing (OMG am I supposed to have a POST-wedding to-do list? Quick! Where's my organizer?!?), I can’t help but wonder what would happen if I didn’t unsubscribe myself immediately. Would “my” newsletters just keep automatically evolving throughout my whole life? Would I receive pregnancy newsletters, then parenting newsletters, middle age newsletters, retirement newsletters...? “Personality quiz: what kind of mid-life crisis are you?” “Tips on planning the ultimate retirement party!” “Why drafting a will has never been easier!” The worst part is, this stuff probably really exists—or will someday. I think I’ll unsubscribe after all.

So to boil it all down, the wedding of the century (mine, obviously) is over and I’ve come to a big “NOW WHAT?” moment. I feel a bit as though I’m still sitting inside the movie theater after the credits have rolled. My colleagues like to joke that from here on out it’s giving foot massages, ironing shirts and whipping up complicated gourmet dinners that will be keeping me busy. But no, seriously—what is one supposed to do post-marriage and pre-pitter-patter-of-little-Franco-American-feet? I think I need a hobby. Or a dog. Or at least a new purse. Sigh.


Monday, February 28, 2011

Who's George Banks?

Contrary to popular belief, I have not fallen off the face of the earth or gone into hiding for tax purposes. I’m actually just extremely occupied with organizing the wedding of the 21st century, which will take place in about two months. The future King of England’s wedding is to be a mere opening act for my own. Yes, G. and I are going to tie the proverbial Franco-American knot, and while we have been engaged since last June, I have not written about it thus far because this blog is dedicated to humor and an engagement is not supposed to be funny. It’s serious, life path stuff. But now, two months out from the wedding, I realize that balancing guests, bridesmaids, groomsmen, flowers, decorations, music, gifts, entertainment, assorted Pantone napkins, customized M&M’s and the pros and cons of acrylic nails is actually quite funny. What’s even funnier is that some people do this for a living.

Part of the hilarity of this whole affair stems from the fact that the wedding will be in California while my intended and I continue to live in France, meaning that everything must be done long-distance. In fact, it’s so funny that I’ve come down with a sinus headache that seems to show no signs of letting up. I imagine it will magically disappear on its own the day after I’m wed, when I no longer need to think straight. Ha ha. See? Funny. 

In their infinite wisdom, my parents got married at a Self Realization Fellowship temple surrounded by their immediate family and something like two of their closest friends. We, on the other hand, are going whole hog. One hundred guests, a good quarter of whom are from “out of town” (meaning transatlantic), the little church PACKED, the reception hall decorated just so, my brother as MC, a feast of French-inspired delicacies cooked up by our own Chef Charles, music, speeches, cases and cases of Californian wine, contributions of time and energy from local merchants and my parents’ friends.... This is going to be anything but minimalist—it is literally going to take a village. I’m just hoping I can keep it together, live up to the A-MA-ZING dress that will be wearing me, and avoid tripping, fainting, crying uncontrollably, getting hit with a freak attack of the whooping cough or blanking out on my future husband’s name when asked to pledge him my everlasting love in front of all these people. 

In any case, this is why I haven’t been blogging of late. I’m a tad stressed. I shall try to make up for it once I have gained the peace of mind that comes with being happily married, honeymooned and unpacked, and before moving on to the next chapter of official adulthood (a wedding means that we are definitely no longer just playing house)!

Monday, January 10, 2011

The eyes have it

It is 2011 and therefore time to once more resolve to become a better version of myself: kinder, gentler, more spiritual and less materialistic, more punctual and better-rested. I want to take up jewelry-making and give up meat and dairy products. I also fully intend to cease all procrastination with respect to seeing the doctor. For example, I’m waaaaay overdue on multiple vaccination boosters, meaning if, God forbid, my ankle were actually to be bitten by one of Paris’ myriad ankle biters, I’d probably be foaming at the mouth in no time at all.

But I’ll take care of the shots, um, later. Today, I’m going to begin by paying a visit to the ophthalmologist, so that she can tell me just how blind I’ve become from the insane amount of time I’ve spent staring at computer screens since my last visit five years ago. The reading glasses I currently wear know their days are numbered (which would account for their constant trembling), and will undoubtedly have been replaced by bifocals by this time tomorrow. 

Actually, I’m kind of excited. New glasses will give me a new style, which somehow seems appropriate to accompany the new, on-time, anti-meat industry, enlightened yoga master I shall soon become. That me should ALSO have better-looking reading glasses. 

I’ve often complained about the difficulty one faces in Paris when trying to purchase perfectly practical, everyday items; stuff like weather stripping, flower vases and miniature table top tennis kits can be maddeningly difficult to come by. On the other hand, anyone looking for perfectly impractical, postmodern, designer decorative objects priced at 700% of their value is ALL SET.

Yes, but does it come in blue?
Luckily for me, one notable exception to this rule is eyewear, a practical item that the French see no reason to render difficult to find (ease of purchase is another matter, as they all seem to employ a specific, “you must be joking” price structure). For if there is one commerce more omnipresent on Paris streets than pharmacies, it’s glasses shops. One has but to look for the flashing pair of red spectacles, as opposed to the flashing green cross:

Psychedelic green neon = free drugs.
Psychedelic red neon = pricey shades.

There seems to be one glasses boutique every other block in Paris, all of them strangely empty (or not so strangely; that’s a lot of eyewear for a population that doesn’t seem to actually wear all that much of it). Maybe their relative emptiness is a cost issue: the last pair of eyeglasses I purchased from just such a boutique set me back €300, and that was five years ago!

Or, maybe the French have simply begun doing as my dad does: order generic reading glasses by the dozen from Costco. Except they don’t have Costco here; Costco is far too practical (see my above point). Moreover, something tells me the esthetically sensitive nature of the French would find such things as 10-pound bags of frozen chicken breasts or 5-gallon bottles of olive oil somehow vulgar. Part of me agrees with them ... but another part of me says, “Cool! Five gallons of olive oil!”

You can take the girl out of America....