Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reverse Culture Shock in 5 Hours or Less...

I returned to America for the first time in a year.  The flight from Charles de Gaulle to JFK was a thrill ride.  Afraid to fall asleep because of the schizophrenic man next to me (a flight attendant asked me if I wanted to change seats, but I didn’t realize why until too late) I resigned myself to a marathon of movies including Bridesmaids, Two Days in Paris, and that one with Ryan Gosling and Julianne Moore that just wouldn’t end. 

Diner breakfast...essential...
Landing in New York late Sunday night, I was all a-giggle, clutching my passport proudly, ready to rush to the diner for breakfast and the bakeries for cupcakes, but the reverse culture shock hit quickly.  Within five hours, five things had already made me realize that I wasn’t the same little American that left this place over three years ago…

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Food truck trend hits Paris, and the results?

Not the permanent truck, FYI...

I remember walking out of my college dining hall in New York to the sight of a dessert truck, but after limitless ice cream and brownies, I couldn’t even tease the possibility.  It was 2008 and little did I know that I would be leaving New York just as the food truck craze would start sweeping the nation.  Oh well.

Hunkered down in a Parisian bistro or one of my favorite Asian restaurants, I wasn’t exactly nostalgic for food from a truck, especially not on typically chilly and drizzly Parisian nights.  I read about them, I saw that Food Network developed a TV show about them, but I had no connection to them.

Then the buzz started making its way around Paris that a food truck was in business, parking at different places around the city and serving up American style hamburgers.  With a French name like Le Camion Qui Fume, literally “The Truck that Smokes” – “The Smoking Truck?” – well I thought I’d see what the fuss was about.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Lowering Expectations at the Sorbonne...

“In America,” she said, “they think that English is the only language.”  I so visibly rolled my eyes in disgust that the professor looked at me, the only American in the class, and said, “But I’m not counting you.”

Thanks, but it was too late to matter.

It was another day at the Sorbonne Nouvelle.  We were discussing our research projects and the topic of language and translations came up, a favorite weekly topic.  Apparently everyone was immediately an expert in American culture and they started criticizing the way Americans watch only English films or else foreign films dubbed in English. 

That’s when professor, a fiery-eyed French woman in her 50s or 60s, dropped the stereotype bomb.  Not only was it misplaced in a class with quite a few foreign students but it was followed with the clear-as-mud reasoning that is emblematic of these kinds of situations.  “The numbers speak,” she said.  “Only 10% of Americans have passports.”  Suddenly not traveling translates to being ignorant of other languages.  Is there a hint of truth?  Maybe.  Is it fair reasoning in a masters-level program at the Sorbonne?  Probably not… 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ode to an Oven...

This is my ode...
When people look at you, my friend, they call you names.  “Toaster oven.” “E-Z Bake knock-off.”  It pains me.  I know what you really are.  Despite your diminutive appearance, you are, honestly, and truly, an oven.

You are the most valuable asset in my pint-sized kitchen, a true force to be reckoned with.  It is you who roasts my chicken and vegetables.  It is you who bakes dozens of cupcakes and cookies for hours on end without complaining or shorting the circuit.  It is you who cooks and heats an entire Thanksgiving feast for five without one cold bite of stuffing or raw Brussels sprout.

I know this, yet so rarely do I tell you how much I appreciate you.  Such treatment is unworthy of an appliance so great that I’d sooner call you an industrial marvel, a stroke of pure engineering genius.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Time Off at the Sorbonne...

Clearly occupied in class...
One month into my second year of the masters program at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and we’ve already had one week of vacation and two long holiday weekends.  Still, professors haven’t hesitated from taking much needed time away from the grueling pace of French education.  Can we chalk this up to a cultural difference?

Thursday my three classmates and I were sitting patiently in room 449 waiting for our linguistics professor who had already cancelled one class the week before in addition to failing to attend the second class – with no warning.  Class was to start at 3PM.  The four of us discussed our thesis projects and talked about our iPhones while fiddling with text messages and emails.

Ten minutes passed and the professor was still not there.

We continued waiting, while we talked about our various backgrounds.  One French girl moving to Turkey next year.  One Chinese girl who’s been around the world.  One half French half Italian student who dresses like every day is a Marc Jacobs show.

Twenty minutes passed.  No professor.

Monday, November 7, 2011

We May Be Rushing Things...Parsnips and Other Fun

There are certain things that make a man happy.  Beer.  Hunting.  Football.  Ladies that dance provocatively and make a kick-ass risotto.  Right?

This week, I discovered three more things that have made me giddy with glee.  Out of context, like, they are not funny.  Situated in front of an expat in Paris, they are things that exude excitement, moving a certain little American boy to near tears of joy.  Or maybe it’s just me…

Root veggies galore...
1. American Christmas radio: I know, “It’s too early.”  You can all say that.  You are all wrong.  When I discovered that my childhood radio station out of Philadelphia, B101.1, was already playing nonstop Christmas tunes and that I could listen to it online, I lost it.  The final straw was when the station played the Muppet’s rendition of the “12 Days of Christmas.” 

All of the excitement of a younger me waking up Christmas morning with my footie pajamas, racing to the tree to tear open presents as I shrieked with excitement – well, it was just good to feel 19 again.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Paris Pastry Goes Live!

After months of researching and updating and – oh boy – tasting the many chocolate, pastry, and ice cream shops in Paris, the iPhone application is finished.  David and Heather’s mastermind project, Paris Pastry, is now available on iTunes.

The app is a handy little tool to find what are arguably (but really not arguably) the best pastry places in town among a modest list of 300 shops, with descriptions written by pastry chef and blogger David Lebovitz.  After visiting most of them, I must say the experience has made me more of a sweets aficionado than I ever thought I’d be.

During the photographing process, I joined David and Heather on a whirlwind tour of the city meeting all sorts of sweet-obsessed Parisians and sampling a trove of diabetes-inducing products.  I popped Lactaid pills like crazy as a gauntlet of gelato, cream-stuffed éclairs, and milky hot chocolate filled our days.  David had his camera, Heather had her notebook and the fast cash for emergency pastries.

And where did Bryan fit in?  Well if you’ve ever been to Ladurée, you know how hard it is take a photo of even the simplest macaron.  So my job was to charm the vendors and bakers into letting us take photos of their goods without always buying one – unless I was hungry, of course.  After a few jokes and explanations of what were doing, I usually gave David the green light to snap a few photos – if he hadn’t sneakily done so already as I distracted the vendors.  It was good teamwork.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pumpkin and Spice and Everything Nice...

The crisp fall air is settling over Paris as leaves flutter to the ground.  Brown leather boots are again fashionable as I have to decide excitedly between sweaters and scarves.  With so many familiar sensations, it’s the smells of autumn that I am most excited about this October.

At home in Pennsylvania, fall was a time for a lot of things.  Haunted hayrides and corn mazes were among them.  Crackling bonfires with apple cider and roasting marshmallows were the norm on Friday nights.  After pumpkin picking, we’d drive by lakes framed by trees in hues of reds, oranges, and yellows, arriving home to a house perfumed with some sort of autumn-inspired candle – usually a pumpkin one.  Mom loves candles.

In college, I hunted high and low for the perfect pumpkin-scented candle with just enough spice and warmth to remind me of the scenic October landscapes in Bucks County.  Sometimes I wonder how I kept my grades up having spent so much time running from store to store.

One day on my way back from my magazine internship, I found the candle, excitedly skipping down Park Ave. with an overpriced jar of nostalgic pumpkin-infused wax.  Happiness.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dog Days of Autumn: Puppy Fever...

While cat-sitting for a friend this week, I did a little soul-searching.  Do I really want a pet?  The question is a recurrent one, prompting discussions with friends including Youtube clips of adorable puppies and cats talking to each other.  It’s a sickness; one that I think I need to cure soon.

Maybe it's time for a real animal...
The dog-cat debate is a heated one.  I’ve considered other contenders – birds, gerbils, monkeys, panted-donkeys, and living teddy bears – but in the end I think the dog wins out.  I know I said I wanted a kitten, and my backtracking may seem a bit hypocritical, but I’ve been watching a lot of political debates lately so I don’t feel that guilty.

I was in Uniqlo the other day waiting in line to buy socks, something I like to do – already a good sign for a dog owner – and I saw the most adorable terrier pulling at his owner’s leash.  I was on the verge of walking up to the man and asking him what the dog’s breed was (Parson Russel, I already knew) before punching him in the face and running off with the dog, leaving the socks behind. 

If I’d sacrificed reasonably-priced socks for a puppy, then you know I’m being genuine.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The New Sorbonne: First Week of School

Busy at the Sorbonne...
Cram 20 French students in a tiny room with inadequate chairs, terrible acoustics, and a professor who can’t talk about Italian Renaissance art while sweating and competing with yapping students in the hallway and what do you get?  The Sorbonne.

Conditions seem ripe for another May ‘68 protest, but fortunately we’re all too focused on our iPhones during class to motivate ourselves. Vive multitasking.

It’s back-to-school time for my program, a communications masters at the University of Paris III, fondly known as Sorbonne Nouvelle, or New Sorbonne.  I guess in the 70s it did come off as new compared to the beautiful older part of the school on the other side of the Latin Quarter. 

Conditions are on par at best and professors are all too ready to cancel class.  I commiserated with a fellow American who happened to be in one of my classes, and our capitalistic upbringing set in: “At least it’s cheap.”  You really do get what you pay for.  We just kept smiling through the class, even though neither of us quite knew what the objectives were.  This was the Sorbonne, after all.  All we learned that class was that the professor apologized for sweating. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Tale of Two (Cupcake) Cities...

Some cupcakes for the Camp...
When I first went to New York for college orientation, there were the typical events: ice breakers, class scheduling, new friends, and of course the obligatory trip to Magnolia’s Bakery, a minor institution in the West Village at the time.  The pilgrimage down Bleecker Street was the first of many that I’d make for the beloved cupcake, a childhood treat that I was tasting in a whole new light.  Little did I know what I had gotten myself into.

Moving to Paris meant leaving behind New York, Magnolia’s, and the flood of other cupcake boutiques that had begun to open as the trend boomed.  But Paris was not without its share of butter, sugar, and vanilla.  Cupcakes weren’t exclusively a New York item, and in 2010, fancying myself a journalist, I began a quest to interview the cupcake bakers of the City of Light, an endeavor that brought me to the likes of Alisa Morov, Synie Georgulas, and Cat Beurnier.

After the article didn’t get picked up by any papers – favoring instead a less comprehensive albeit adorable article, but I take no offense – Cat emailed to ask me what I thought about a new idea in Paris.  She wanted to take cupcakes and make them social, to build a community, and to raise money for charity.  Riding on the coattails of the successful San Francisco-based Cupcake Camp, a derivative of the Bar Camp model, she asked me to organize it with her.  The fateful February 25th email read: “Okay I may be going out on a limb here, especially since I know you are working on so many different things but I wonder if you wouldn't want to come on-board as an official co-organizer?”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Familiar Faces, Less Familiar Names

Paris is getting smaller.  It’s getting the point where I start running into familiar faces.  Everywhere.  The problem with familiar faces is that the names that go with those faces aren’t always as memorable.
Everyone should have to wear one...with or without correct spelling...
I’ve encountered several uncomfortable situations lately where I’ve run into someone and I couldn’t remember their name.  Clearly, however, the other person went in for the bise and I knew that we must be close.  That was Fiona’s fried, right?  Or was it the person at Erica’s party?  Or was that Melanie’s classmate?  In any case, I fake it, ask how they are doing, and make it away without anyone being any wiser to my ignorance. 

The problem, sadly, is when I’m not alone and I meet someone.  The other day, on the rue du roi de Sicile, with my friend Genevieve, I saw a guy at a café that I knew.  He stood up from his table and flagged me down.  An introduction was imminent.

“Hi, ca va?” he asked.

“Heeey, oui et toi?” I responded.  When I draw out my hello like that, it’s a surefire indication that, indeed, I have forgotten your name.  Then there was that pivotal moment.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bakery Bouncer: Just Another Tick on the CV...

Totally bouncer material...

My new friend Madeleine told me that I was a very impressive videur.  I detected no sarcasm as I crossed my arms and puffed up my chest.  I supposed that I could have passed for a threatening videur, or bouncer, like in a club.  Well, if the club was for 11 year old girls…

During the Journée de la Patrimoine this past Sunday, my local baker asked me to help out since, for the first time, Du Pain et des Idées was opening its doors during the celebration to hold talks about their famous ceiling, a sort of landmark that rarely gets any attention during the week when delicious pastries and bread line the counters.  But this Sunday, with no pastries in site, the focus was all on the ceiling with a member from the local historical society giving presentations.

Snore, I know.  Instead of attending the talk, I, along with local mother and deliciously-named Parisian, Madeleine, stood at the door taking tickets and making sure that too many people did not enter the extremely popular talks about the bakery.   Imagine it, little old me and an equally unintimidating Frenchwoman acting as bakery bouncers.  Sweet deal, right?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Putting Meat on Them Bones...

There's the beef...
There’s no secret to my new diet.  All it requires is a trip to my local butcher in Belleville.  My new diet includes meat.  And lots of it.

I’m trying to regain the weight that three years of biking, tour guiding, and hiking my groceries up five flights of stairs has stolen from me.  I can hear the, “Oh shut up” coming from women across the English-speaking community, but let me explain.  I have always shied away from costly animal protein, treating myself sparingly to chicken or beef from the grocery store and opting for beans and eggs instead.  A student budget has an effect on a person, from the holes in his shoes, the frequency of shaving, and the size of his waist.  But now, instead of buying a new belt, I’ve decided to invest in chicken breasts, fresh and cheap from cleaver wielders in Belleville.

I was always intimidated by the butcher.  Engaging in a French activity beyond “Hello, please, and thank you” has always been daunting for me, but with three years under my ever-loosening belt, my confidence is at a peak.  Be it the tax collectors, professors, or butchers in blood-soaked aprons, I’m prepared to confront them.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Cupcake Camp Paris 2011 is COMING

Our official poster...
I am proud to announce that we are hosting the second annual Cupcake Camp Paris on October 2nd, 2011 in the City of Light.  The event will take place at Le Comptoir Général in the 10th arrondissement, along the Canal St-Martin.

Now the question follows, what IS Cupcake Camp?  The childish little cakes have quickly become the new food trend over the past few years and Ariel Waldman decided to host an event a few years ago in California to celebrate the now-famous cupcake.  The event sparked Cupcake Camps around the world, from Bombay and London to New York and now Paris.  People get together to share recipes, hold contests, and enjoy the baking prowess of other cupcake fanatics. 

Along with Cat Beurnier, I helped launch Paris’s first Cupcake Camp July 4, 2010 and this year with Nicollete van der Doe we’re happy to bring the second edition to cupcake-hungry Parisians.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Embracing Student Life -- La Rentrée

Back to school shopping...
For many French students, the rentrée is upon us, the return from a month of sun-soaked beaches and exotic getaways.  Instead of suntan lotion and salt water, the nostalgia-inducing smell of freshly sharpened pencils and new erasers fills the air as school kids trade in their teenybopper magazines for textbooks and Victor Hugo.

Freakishly, my program at the Sorbonne doesn’t start until October, so I get another month of Tiger Beat, but I can still sense the back-to-school mayhem.  It’s a snap back into reality that, “Hey, Bryan, you’re a student, too.”  Gone is my summer of traipsing around Italy and picnicking in the Butte Chaumont.  Fortunately, the student life isn’t all bad in Paris.  I’ve realized that I’ve adopted a few habits that, at my age, can only be justified by having a student ID card.  Being a student can erase all sorts of sins – sins that I’m in no rush to have forgiven.

For example, only as a student can I justify drinking wine out of mugs and water out of old juice bottles.  Normal adults, at my age, with their jobs and incomes usually invest in wine glasses and water goblets.  I have some wine glasses, with the Ikea price stickers still attached.  I’m in no rush to use (read: break) them.  And water glasses in Paris are always so tiny, so I opt for the liter glass bottle that once contained orange juice.  Not only is it good for the environment to reuse it, but it’s keeping my kidney’s working fulltime.  Don’t get lazy on me, guys.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Peppermills: Not All They're Cracked Up to Be

Mortar, meet pestle...
I don’t own a peppermill.  I mean, I did, but then I broke it when I dropped it not once, but twice in my tiny kitchen.  It was a gift from my brother – one of the only thoughtful ones he has produced – from Williams-Sonoma, a clear, glass mill that cracked some wonderful black pepper into every sauce, soup, and pasta that I cooked.  We were pretty good friends.

Once I dropped it, breaking it beyond repair, I was lost.  Shattered bits of glass mixed with half cracked peppercorns and I knew that life would never be the same.  How would I ever crack fresh pepper again?  I tried buying pre-ground stuff.  No good.  I priced out peppermills at the store.  They were way out of my student budget.

I looked around my kitchen, carefully eyeing my options.  There it was: my mortar and pestle.  I took the peppercorns and started to smash, grind, and pummel them into a fine powder fit to coat any chicken breast steak.  Instead of a few quick turns of the peppermill, I now spent around ten minutes working my upper body ragged to obliterate the tiny black grains that shoot all over, falling into every crevice in my kitchen.  It felt wrong, but it felt good.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Vacation Post-Partum...

I'm trying...
After a week in Italy, traipsing along the Amalfi Coast, eating pizza in Naples, and tanning in Capri, who can blame a guy for lacking the motivation to return to the real world?  So far, after one full day of being home, this is as far as I got on my "To Do List" and I'm not ashamed.  I probably need some motivation, but it will come once everyone starts returning from les vacances and Paris is alive again.

There are plenty of things to anticipate.  The fall will arrive in a month or so.  My favorite bakery will open back up and I can indulge in the best escargot pistache in town.  School will start up again before we know it. 

But something tells me that it will be hard to forget the plunging seaside cliffs and umbrella-covered beaches of Italy, the never-ending gelato, and the seaside Camparis that filled a week of wonderment.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Summer Fling All'italiano

Cheating with Italy?  Could be a clue...
It’s August and, as part of Parisian protocol, I’m supposed to leave the city.  At the end of every summer, the Parisians flock elsewhere – the Atlantic coast, the Riviera, Italy, Tunisia, New York, wherever they can to get away from the City of Light that slowly but surely is dimmed by an influx of European and North American tourists doing the reverse trajectory.  I resisted baselessly, asserting to stay in the city that I loved during a month when my favorite bakery is closed, when most of my friends are gone, and when the heat – usually – turns my apartment into a sleepless sweaty box that smells primarily of onions and fabric softener.

True love knows no bounds.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Adorable Animals - Taking the Big Step?

Cat-sitting success, Lindsey's baby Cali...
I had that dream again.  I wasn’t falling.  I wasn’t dying.  I wasn’t at my high school reunion dressed awkwardly in a tux drinking Champagne (that was Tuesday).  No, it was that dream where I became a father.  My child?  A young red tabby cat.

It’s an all-too-recurrent dream of mine.  I want a cat.  Well, actually, I think I want a dog, but I can’t leave a dog along for a day without paying the price.  I always grew up with dogs, rabbits, turtles, sea monkeys, birds, fish.  We had animals everywhere in the house, and even outside.  One summer we decided to set my brother digging in the backyard resulting in an aquatic garden, an ornamental pond full of tadpoles and koi.  The large golden fish were beautiful, and apparently very tasty to the endangered blue heron that they attracted to our backyard…

Though as long as I can remember, while the puppies ran around the house chewing shoes and the parakeets squalked in their cages, I had a stuffed reddish-orange cat that at one point lost an eye.  No one in the family wanted a kitten.  Cats are off-standish, unaffectionate, unfriendly.  Who needs that when you have a gushing, slobbering dog on the couch just yearning to be pet?  So I kept my plush cycloptic cat hidden safely in my room, never manifesting any real desire for a kitten.  While raised a dog person, I think I may be a closeted cat person.  Sorry, Mom.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Paris Fail: Someone Left the Bread Out in the Rain

It had just finished raining in the Luxembourg Gardens and the sun started to peak through the clouds when I came across this loaf of bread perched all alone on a park bench.  Someone left the bread out in the rain.  The saddest part was not that the bread would eventually get soggy and go to waste.  I could deal with that.  Instead, it just looked lonely.  

Who would leave a loaf of French bread all alone in a park during a rainstorm?  A sub-par eclair or a stale croissant I could deal with, but bread?  What would Donna Summer think?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Artisanal is the New Pink...

Thanks, Georges...from Le Bonbon au Palais candy store...
I laughed when I read on an application for the Sorbonne that a letter of motivation had to be “manuscrite,” or written out by hand.  In an age where virtually every aspect of our lives passes through a computer keyboard, I had to hand-write a letter in ink on a blank sheet of white paper.  No lines allowed.  How backwards, I thought.  I’d rather just type it.

I ended up not doing the application.  Lacking interest in the program, or simply playing the lazy card, I did not want to write the letter and waste hours recopying and applying white-out.  Some people say this method is used to gauge your character based on your handwriting.  Others say it’s to test your dedication.  I think it’s just to get a laugh out of the 19 year old girls who still dot their eyes with hearts.  It’s cute, but at the Sorbonne?

The idea of doing things in an artisanal fashion, keeping to tradition, doing things by hand, is a hallmark of French culture.  That’s why you can sit at the dinner table and discuss food for hours with the French because it’s all wrapped up in tradition – it’s not just about the taste and presentation, but where it comes from and how it is made.  It can be a fantastic obsession, resulting in the best, homemade, handcrafted anything.

But sometimes tradition gets in the way.  

Friday, July 8, 2011

This Nostalgia Tastes Likes Cardboard...

Just a box...

There’s a certain giddy feeling that we all get when we see emails from loved ones, friends, or family.  Especially living abroad, where email has replaced the written letter, it’s nice to know people are thinking of you.

But the emails can get a little sad.  You can’t touch them. You can’t hear them.  They are easily deleted and forgotten.  There is another form of communication, however, that evokes much more true emotion than my Gmail account.  Cardboard.  It’s nostalgic.  It’s unequivocally full of love like an email can never be.  You don’t think so?

Whenever my mother sends me a package, it’s always in a cardboard box. Be it cooking supplies, Halloween candy, or the most recent carton full of Tasty Kake pastries, the cardboard is an immediate signal that, “Hey, someone’s thinking of you!”  Envelopes sometimes have this effect, but it’s hard to get nostalgic about a letter when the phone bill comes in similar packaging.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Paris Fail: I Got 99 Problems...and the "B" is One...

Props to fellow tour guide Tyler for chuckling at this screen while in the metro last night.  The RER B, the regional railway that runs out to the Charles de Gaulle airport, was having some problems according to this message.  The rough translation?

"As a repercussion of various incidents, traffic is flowing very slowly on the entire train line."

Various incidents, ya don't say?  Normally the RATP, Paris' public transportation service, is a little bit more forthcoming with their announcements.  Usually they tell you if there is an electrical problem, if a passenger got sick, if there is a suspicious package, or if there is a mix-up with the train signals.

Not today.  Today it was hot, it was raining, it was a Tuesday -- there too many issues to even mention on the screen, so just trust them, as a result of "various incidents," your train will be delayed.  

Thanks for understanding.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Paris Win: The Grass is Always Greener

Get the shears at BHV...
I’m always a little confused when I hear a lawnmower outside my apartment.  There is hardly any grass to be seen, but apparently there are just enough patches of green between me and the Canal that someone invested in a mower.  Unlike hammers and band saws, the lawnmowers never irritate me.  Instead they churn up that childhood nostalgia.

Like most suburban boys, at least I think like most, I was charged with certain yard work.  My brother and I would have our go at the front and back lawns every weekend or so during the summer, riding the mowers carelessly over desiccated dog droppings and clothespins, trimming the yard to near-perfection.  Well, perfection was always subjective, as far as my grandfather was concerned.  A stickler for all things grass, he was rarely satisfied with our work on the lawn, finding fault in our technique and the eventual results.  But we were free labor, so who can really complain?

Like crickets in the evening and the rustling of the trees before a storm, the mechanical chugging of the lawnmower was part of the suburban symphony.  It’s a sound that I miss as much as the scents of the freshly cut grass that accompanied it.  Walking around the Hotel de Ville this weekend, I was surprised to find a patch of green that looked like it could use a quick manicure, and I could smell the grass baking in the heat of the summer sun.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

It's Not Every Day a Yak is Born in Paris...

Gettin' clean...
It’s not a metaphor.  Literally, a yak was born.  I arrived just as the mother, umbilical cord still dangling, was cleaning her newborn yak, just minutes after its birth.  Disgusting?  Yes.  Magical?  Eh, kind of.

It was just another day strolling through the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes, the second oldest zoo in the world and the home to all of the animals from Versailles after the Revolution.  It also housed Christmas dinner for the Parisians during the Prussian Siege of 1871, since many of the animals were slaughtered and cooked.  It’s nothing like the zoos in Philadelphia or San Diego, but it serves as a tiny “natural” oasis in the middle of an otherwise bustling urban jungle.  It’s a children’s playground of kangaroos, monkeys, and of course the beloved yaks. 

Passersby didn’t really pay too much attention to the newly birthed baby, but I gawked alongside zookeepers, video cameras in hand as the mother cleaned off her newborn and then slowly nudged the infant towards its first step.  It was a true family moment, even though the father yak was too busy eating to help clean off the baby.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Guillotine was Designed for Shaving...

Heads, hair -- guillotine, razor...
I’ve hit an impasse.  I’m not entirely ashamed, either.  It’s one of those French impasses that I didn’t plan on or calculate, but one that has left me feeling more like a Parisian than I ever thought.  It’s also left me a bit itchy.  These days, I have put down the razor and all but refuse to shave.

Parisian men have basically two styles: clean shaven or artfully scruffy.  The social lines seem blurred.  Students in my class will either never sport facial hair or sport it religiously.  Bankers can be smooth-faced or have a tended 5 o’clock shadow hovering across their cheeks.  From the most unkempt-looking hipster to the most well-to-do bourgeois, shaving is a statement.

Apparently I have made mine.  Much like vacuuming the floor and cooking, shaving has become a ritual that I no longer respect.  It happens once in a blue moon.  Maybe twice a month?  In between shaves, I take the electric shaver and do a quick run through to keep things in order. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Paris Fail: Oversight...

No one would ever accuse the French of bending over backwards for handicapped visitors.  It’s not a handicap-friendly place, yet.  Paris is an old city, and who can imagine adding elevators and ramps in every little medieval building?  I understand the frustration on both sides.  Reconstructing the city to make it accessible to everyone is costly and difficult, but why shouldn’t a wheelchair rider be able to access the metro?

There is some progress.  For example, hotels are now required to have a wheelchair-accessible room on the ground floor – a huge improvement and a step in the right direction.

The visually impaired is another group that has difficulty navigating Paris.  Fortunately the city isn’t impossible for the blind and it’s not rare to observe people managing with a cane or being helped across the street by a kindly Parisian.

Braille, however, seems to be a language that the French themselves really don’t understand.  It’s curious since Louis Braille was, after all, French.  He's even buried in the Pantheon.  Take a look at this diorama at a local chateau that caters to French speakers and, almost, to braille readers as well.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Never Striking the Same Place Twice: A Retrospective

My room with a view...
When the gods begin to grumble and Mother Nature’s long awaited tears of joy finally started to descend upon the city this weekend, Parisians breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Weeks of no rain have left the flowers, trees, and cakey sidewalk dog poo thirsty for a good soaking, and this weekend the thunderstorms did not disappoint.

Thunder roared and lightning stitched across the sky like brilliant blue ribbons.  The rain fell in sheets soaking those of us who poorly timed their return home and ran from the metro, seeking five minutes of reprieve at Pink Flamingo pizzeria before making the final dash home through the refreshing but drenching storm. 

As I, like the rest of Paris, turned off the music and TV and watched nature’s latest episode in awe, I was hit with pangs of nostalgia yet again.  Thunderstorms are a common feature of the Philadelphia lifestyle, but in Paris I have forgotten, until now, why I love a good old fashioned storm so much.

So much about a thunderstorm is universal – the elements, the dangers, etc.  My perceptions and reactions, however, have changed, and I notice that a storm isn’t just a storm.  Let’s take a look at the five essential differences between thunderstorms on the East Coast, per my childhood, and thunderstorm in Paris.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Chantilly Wars

A new war is raging in France these days.  For once, it has nothing to do with the Germans, the English, the Huns, or the Vikings.  No, instead, the opponent is one of the most prevalent figures to be found in France.  And the battlefield?  My stomach.

It is not rare for those who grow (slightly) older to develop intolerance to lactose.  Really, it’s not that I have become intolerant.  Lactose has just become more aggressive, I believe. All of the sudden, the dairy aisle has a way of making my stomach turn.  In a country who boasts a cheese for nearly every day of the year, the odds are stacked against me.  It’s not my fault.  I didn’t start this war.
The chateau at Chantilly...

Now it’s not all bad.  Certain cheeses and yogurts are not off limits, but my beloved ice cream and crème fraiche have turned into demons that can quickly turn the tastiest of meals into the most painful of regrets.  I have only two defenses in this matter.  First, I can give up on dairy altogether and be done with it.

Yeah, right.

Or, two, I can rely on my new best friend, the Lactaid pill.  It seems that no trip to, well, anywhere is complete with my wallet, my keys, and one or two individually wrapped tablets that my mother sent me a few weeks ago.  Most recently, no where has Lactaid been as indispensible as it was during a trip to Chantilly – home to the famous whipped cream.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Forget Coffee...the New Caffeine Rush

Dear rue Grange aux Belles, look out...
The irony wasn't lost on me as I ran across this scenario in my neighborhood.  The driver of a Red Bull promotional car taking a coffee break at a Parisian café.  Caffeine much?

I don't know if the irony lies in the fact that a Parisian café is the watering hole for caffeine-addicts or if no café waiter ever seems remotely energized, at least not enough to get your bill to you in under fifteen minutes.

Regardless, giving away Red Bull all day in Paris must be exhausting and, of course, requires a coffee break to refresh.  If you had to choose between Parisian coffee and Red Bull, which would you choose? 

Red Bull isn't new to France, but I hadn't seen these cars around town.  But I got to thinking, why would any Parisian need a Red Bull?  What benefits are in it for a Frenchman?  A quick look at the "numerous scientific studies" on the drink shows that the product does have an effect on the body, but the company's website fails to mention any negative cardiovascular effects that may exist.  How do the "positive" effects, however, apply to Parisians?  More importantly, is the marketing campaign working?  Well let's take a look...

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Doorbell French"

My ultra-secure door and keychain
As a child in the suburbs, one of life’s greatest joys was the doorbell.  Each time someone came to the door, the dog would be the first to know, barking frantically at the stranger outside.  My mother would shove the dog in the kitchen before peaking through the curtains of the door window I imagined to make sure it wasn’t a polite burglar, or worse, her mother-in-law. Then my siblings and I would run out of our respective rooms and wait at the top of the stairs peering down to see who was there. 

Usually it was the delivery man dropping off the latest QVC purchase – my mother is a fan.  Sometimes it’d be friends of the family dropping off gifts or returning borrowed kitchen utensils.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses made their rounds as did the traveling knife salesman.  It was always a surprise but one that reminded us that we were not alone on our little street.                                                                          
This excitement has faded over the years as I moved to Paris in an apartment building – and not just because I don’t have a dog.  The doorbell elicits a new Pavlovian reaction for me these days.  Instead of running to see who it is, I hit the mute button on iTunes and freeze as still as possible, much like my mother would have done if her mother-in-law were at the door.

In Paris, I hate answering the door.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Last Day in Paris...

Don't want to forget...

So according to some people, tomorrow the world is going to end.  I’m skeptical, but I don’t trust my own Biblical math as much as I trust others’.  We’ll see who got it right – that crotchety 89 year-old cult leader in Colorado or the defunct Mayan civilization who predicted the world will end in 2012. 

In any case, this premonition has made me think of what I would do if the world really were to end tomorrow.  So many people write touching articles about what they miss when they leave Paris, but in homage to the seven signs of the apocalypse, here’s my list of the seven things I’d do if this were my – and everyone’s – last day in Paris.

1.  I’d consume all of my American reserves.  I’m not sure if other expats are this way, but I squirrel away whatever I can to make those cookies that mom sent for Christmas or those Reese’s holiday candies last as long as possible.  That means eating a Cadbury egg in August, and I’m not ashamed.  But if the world were to end, I’d eat them all in one go and use all of my American deodorant so at least I smell fresh for doomsday.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

March of the...Potheads?


I thought it was a little early for gay pride.  While revising a paper along the sun soaked canal this weekend, I was interrupted by a parade of youth marching in the middle of the adjacent street.  Waving rainbow flags and banners, I half expected to see sequin-wearing drag queens behind them.  I was disappointed to find out that they were instead pushing for the decriminalization of marijuana.

After a few years in New York, living in college dorms no less, I have had my fair share dealing with marijuana (dealing WITH it, not actually dealing).  As a resident assistant, I have fond memories of roaming the halls when I was “on duty,” knocking on doors where pot smoke was all but billowing out from under the door.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Just a kid at the Sorbonne...My Food's Better than Your Food (?)

So this week in English class, the presentations rolled on as usual, discussing Rocky for what it was worth.  The group failed to discuss the importance of Philadelphia in the movie, though every time I tell someone I’m from Philly their only reaction is, “Rocky?”  Alas.

Before class, however, I was the subject of several classmates’ attention on the age-old topic of cultural differences.  Is it difficult living here?  Do you miss home?  The bise is confusing – the double, sometimes trip kiss on the cheek.  Even the French aren’t always sure what side to start on or how many to give.

And then of course they attacked it – the food.  Those who had been to the US recall gaining weight like crazy, those who hadn’t heard that everything is wrapped in cellophane.  I assured them it’s not as bad as it sounds, but when the subject of cheese came up, I lost the battle.  I assured them that food was not the only reason I wanted to live in France, but they weren’t listening.  After almost three years in Paris, I’m used to this sort of lecture. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Paris Win: May Day in France

To have a reason to buy flowers is almost a ridiculous concept.  Who needs a reason to bring something beautiful and cheerful into the world?  Not me.  Not you.  No one.  But sometimes it’s nice to have a little push.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy smells sprigs of Lily ...
Even the President stops to smell the...lilies.

May 1st is May Day, a sort of Labor Day in France (on Sunday?) and while many stores and museums are closed, the flower sellers are out and about.  Organizations like the Red Cross are selling their lilies of they valley on the street, a tradition that dates back to the French royal court in the 16th century.

The lily of the valley is steeped in tradition, and apparently the flower was first grown from the tears of Eve when she was banished from the Garden of Eden.  Other legends say that the flowers grew from the tears of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross.

Both stories are depressing and should be forgotten.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Paris Win: Le Country Line Dancing

They were havin' fun, no doubt about it.
Fantastic shirt.
As if watching dubbed versions of "Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman" and searching in vain for green tea lattes at Starbucks aren't stark enough reminders of the odd parts of American culture that succeed and fail to become part of France, there's this.  Country line dancing in front of the mayor's office at the Hotel de Ville.  

Apparently the Francophone Federation of Country and Line Dance decided to celebrate themselves last Sunday and the results were nothing short of nostalgic for a young expat.  

At first it seemed ridiculous, but then I realized, why not do this in one of the most public spots in Paris?  It would be ridiculous to keep some of those outfits locked up in the closet.  

The dancers were true to their craft, smiling and cheering with each kick and dosey doe.  Throw in some cotton candy, funnel cake, and a few farm animals and nostalgia for the hometown county fairs would have churned within me.  Fortunately, within a five minute walk, I was back to Paris, fashionistas in the Marais, and medieval architecture discoveries that abated the nostalgia.  But for a brief moment, I could see the fireworks and hear the downbeat of the Star Spangled Banner...or at least some Taylor Swift...

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dusty City: Musings of Times Past

Old. City. Period.
My grandmother laughed on the phone yesterday when I said that I was getting old.  I told her my back hurt and, unsurprisingly, she retorted with her list of maladies that put me in my place.  After a brief comparison of the medications that we were both taking – she is sending me Lactaid, more on that later – I realized that, especially in Paris, I don’t know how anyone could feel old.  My grandmom would feel like a kid here.  This city is like a centenarian that keeps kicking through the millennia, and she lets you know it.

Just take a walk around certain parts of the city.  The Saint Germain church was begun in the sixth century.  I can’t even imagine life during centuries that start having single digits.  The sheer age and duration of the architecture around here can make anyone feel achy in the knees.  No glass pyramid or fancy new opera house can ever replace the well-worn and fractured hip that this city still bounces on.

Today as we walked through the Tuileries gardens, a tourist asked me why the city used dust in its gardens.  Observant.  I never really noticed that each time I left the garden I’d stomp my feet so that clouds of dirt would puff out like Pigpen from the Peanuts.  It’s almost symbolic, a sort of reminder that you can’t experience 2260 or so years of a city’s life without getting a little dusty.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Paris Fail: Facilitating Bad Grades...

Now I'm pretty sure I am getting this one wrong, but at first glance, it does say what we all think it says. Hit the books then hit the dance floor, right? Taking it at face value, I dare to call this a "win" except that my homework is piled up next to me and, well, I feel that the sentiment runs contrary to education. 

I can just imagine that around 8PM the books close, the disco ball drops, and that sexy librarian becomes, well, a sexy librarian dancing on her desk.  I think students would have a lot more incentive to get to study if there was a little Lady Gaga thumping and a smoke machine in the stacks.  Just sayin'...

Market Day Musings: It Never Gets Old

Typical market day
No matter what time of the year, though especially as it warms up, the markets are one of my favorite parts of Paris.  Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, there was a healthy mix of agriculture in my diet.  The family would go pumpkin picking in October.  We’d get Jersey corn from roadside stands after visiting family across the state border.  We often grew our own tomatoes and strawberries in the backyard, which worked until the rabbits found out.  I even went to a summer agricultural science program at Penn State – talk about an experience. 

Anyway, while the majority of our food came from the local supermarket, we weren’t confined to it.

When I moved to New York as a student, I thought it was pizza for the rest of my life.  Instead, I have fond memories of walking through Union Square’s farmers’ market on the weekends.  The fresh produce astonished me, and the prices were far from ridiculous.  I learned very quickly – even though I was, fortunately, eating in a dining hall – that vegetables and fruits were not always sold in plastic wrap at the grocery store, even in the big city.  There was another way.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Paris Win: Motown Philly, Back Again

A trip to my local Monoprix supermarket this morning unveiled what, to many, can be considered nothing short of a miracle.  If you're from Philly, you'll sympathize, especially if you were a fan of the old Nabisco-turned-Kraft factory off Route 1...I can still smell the cookies..

No one's feeling the cucumber or garlic ones...YET
Anyway, here in Paris, rumors have circulated that Philadelphia cream cheese has been making its way onto grocery store shelves, but my normal food spots that I like to visit didn't have it, aside from the overly-expensive Grande Epicerie that had imported the cream cheese or any of the "American" grocery stores that charge a first-born child.

Today, while I was looking disparagingly at some St-Moret cheese that I would have to use for a cheesecake, my eyes were attracted by an all-too-familiar logo.  There it was, among all of the other cheeses, my beloved Philadelphia.  In three varieties, no less.  It's here -- the rumor's are confirmed.  And as if the finding of such a wonder weren't miracle enough, the Philadelphia brand was actually cheaper then the St-Moret brand.  

If Paula Deen doesn't convince you, I think the Aussies will charm you with their marketing campaign.  You just gotta love it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Just a kid at the Sorbonne...English Class Part 6: Americanization

Not your familiar McDonald's...
English class seems to be winding down a bit early in the game, with attendance dropping sharply.  Students are stressed with papers to write and internships to complete.  This has not, however, halted some fantastic presentations over the past two weeks.  My education on American culture continues as ever it could…

Perhaps the most striking lesson of the week came from a project on the film The Social Network about Facebook and its illustrious founder.  I watched this film, half drugged, on a flight back from Philadelphia this Christmas season.  I liked it.  I found it insightful if not scathing.  I really liked the presentation by my fellow French students, who revealed two major points on American culture that I never really reflected upon.

First, I got schooled on socialization in American schools.  It is, apparently, a universally accepted position that nerds cannot talk to girls.  I guess nerdy girls are condemned to a life of silence, in that case.  But the ultimate social lesson was that “getting punched is typically American.”  Spot on.  I opted for contacts exactly for that reason.

Secondly, the students theorized about Facebook and its effects on the world.  One student said that we have to think about the “Americanization of culture” and no longer the “spread of American culture.”  I thought about it, and he had a good point going for him, here.  I thought about the fact that nearly everyone in the class had a Facebook account and how they don’t really think of it as “American.”  It’s in French, they communicate with their French friends, the applications are in French, etc.  What about it would scream “American” to them?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Paris Win: I can has cheezburger?

If you like potato chips, young kitten, then yes, you can has cheezburger.  Lays in France has unveiled a wonderful new addition to the line-up of snacks that already includes the "Roasted Chicken with Thyme," the "Bolognaise," and "Mustard and Pickles" flavored potato chips.  A staple for the picnic season, at least for me, Lays potato chips never cease to amaze me with their adaptations to local cultures -- Serrano ham-flavored chips in Spain, anybody?  

Now, France, one of the gastronomic capitals of the world, has embraced the newest addition to the Lays family, the "Cheeseburger" potato chip.  Don't ask me how, but it tastes like a McDonald's cheeseburger with the pickles, ketchup, and poor-quality beef all fried into one perfect crisp.  What's the special ingredient anyway?  Check the label, the third ingredient on the bag and you'll discover that it is indeed "cheeseburger flavoring."  How's that for a secret?  No, I jest, they do detail the spices and herbs that go into it, culminating in this bag full of savory and crunchy perfection.  

I'm so happy that my local Franprix grocery store finally carries these delights.  Picnic season just got a lot more interesting.