Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It works both ways

Ooh la la! After a long hiatus squeamish girl is back. Taking a honeymoon and starting a new job do create time constraints, but here goes:

The other day my husband called out to me from the bathroom, "Cherie d'amour, my skin is falling off"

I think he was calling me in to look, but understandably, I was sincerely apprehensive. "What on earth could he be talking about?", I asked myself.

"Comment?", What? I asked. He said come, come look, his skin was falling off.

I should have gone in to see him sooner. That would have cleared up the confusion. After being severly sunburnt due to 2 hours of snorkeling sans a good sun cream, he was peeling! PEELING!

Another one:

A bunch of French teenage boys hanging out together muttering a french so heavily peppered with slang that I barely understand. I turned to my husband to say how silly and incredibly informal they seemed, even with the elderly lady that stopped by to ask one of them a question. He replied, "Yes, but often it is really surprising because the same teenager can be so polite when they ask you for a fire"

This says two things about France:

1. Fire is, in my opinion, very inappropriately used to say "light" (very dramatic)
2. Smoking is so socially accepted in France that it is expected that teenagers know how to politely ask for a light from any stranger they may encounter

So you see, the language stuff, It works both ways......

Monday, March 13, 2006

Watch your mouth

Learning French, or any other language for that matter, is bound to be full of mishaps. Often the toughest step in learning a language is to start speaking it. Before learning French I never understood Europeans when they would explain to me that they spoke Dutch, English and French and understood Spanish and German. I would ask myself "But how can you understand if you can't speak?"

Now I know how context shapes our comprehension of a situation, allowing us to understand that the shop is closed or that the shoes don't come in other colors, without necessarily being able to respond.

Context has often worked to my advantage, or fortunately, in some cases to the advantage of my listener. For example when I say to my husband: Oh, I like your shrimp (crevette), he knows I am really saying that I like his tie (cravatte). Or the time after my trial updo with the haidresser before the wedding.

Not knowing how to find a hairdresser to come the house, I called my local salon. The gave me a number to call, another salon, which finally gave me Josy's number. Unbeknowst to me, Josy worked for a very chic and expensive salon on the rue du Louvre. When I went in for our "discussion" Josy, dressed in black from head to toe, explained to me that a wedding was not like any other day and I would need to be perfect for her to work with me! She proceeded to sign me up for a series of treatments to ensure that her blank canvas was of the best quality, facial, highlight touch-up. I refused her request for a haircut, politely informing her (I think) that I was confident that her talents could manage any of my other shortcomings.

Throughout this first visit, as well as the trial she continued to sputter off in a French that I think is exclusively used by hairdressers. A French that no matter how hard I try, it too hard too understand. I think it's the fact that they must sound so cool in French. Relaxed and all with the language. I, on the other hand, can barely understand English slang and was thrown for a loop when my sister explained that her goal by June was to have something called "sick build".

However, there was one phrase that I did manage to memorize in hopes to ask my to-be husband to translate. When I came home and my to-be husband asked me how thing went I said fine, but there was one thing Josy kept repeating that I couldn't understand, "Il faut que je soit nicable". He had a very hearty laughed and responded, "Yes, that's true, but that's not what she said." Confused, I replied, "But how do you know, how can you be so sure?"

He laughed again and said that she must have said "Il faut que tu soit nickel" (You need to be perfect), because he would have been shocked had she said, as I understood, You need to be fuck-able.

You see, it's all about context!

Obligatory accessories

Ok, so maybe I've been living underneath a rock, but before moving to Paris I have never even heard of Longchamp. And my first encounter with the brand was when the woman helping us organize our wedding list told me that a standard choice for the list was a set of Longchamp luggage. I knew just from the way the word rolled off her tongue that it was bound to be an expensive and exclusive French brand along the lines of Hermes, Louis Vuitton and Chanel. I hestitantly did add the luggage to the list and our friends did not hesitate to NOT offer us this present. Instead they opted for much more original ideas like classes at the "Ecole de Vin" and a personalized tour around Paris in a 2CV (one of first Citroen models!) and an olfactory course at L'Artisan Parfumeur.

So a new entry into my life was an awareness of French luxury brands. This, along with the superb French reputation for wines and cheeses, makes gift selection for stateside friends and relatives somewhat complicated. Do I want to luga bottle of champagne in my carry-on? Or having luggage reminiscent of the smell of a men's locker room and risk possible confiscation of the cheese by US customs? Or should I just go with the $300 Hermes scarf? You can see my dilemma, can't you?

So now I am caught in the position of deciding if I too should just give in and buy the Longchamp pilage sac just to prove my Parisian-ness? But it feels so very un-original. I mean, last night, on the way home I think about every third woman was carrying one version or another of the same exact bag! But I feel the pressure bearing down on me. I feel an itch to purchase coming on. If only they could make the bag in one of those funky Hermes patterns.....

Friday, March 10, 2006

Nothing beats a coke and pizza

I've come to realize that my life in Paris is quite 14th-centric. I live in the 14th arrondissement (district) famous for Le Dome restaurant, the Tour Montparnasse (Montparnasse tower) and the Catacombs. But I think that its good that I provide a bit of exposure to what I consider to be an undervalued district.

In the 14th there are magical streets to discover like square Montsouris or the Villas Adrienne. There's lots of shopping to do up and down avenue General Leclerc and in the outlet shops along rue d'Alesia as well as rue de Rennes and the Montparnasse and Gaite shopping complexes. And there are lovely places for take a languid stroll such as the Parc Montsouris, Cimitiere Montparnasse and rue Daguerre.

Rue Daguerre is one of those perfect Parisian streets that tourists' conjured up in their minds at the hint of the word "Paris". The first section of the street begins next to the Denfert-Rochereau metro station. This part of the street is a typically pedestrianized market street hosting several cheese shops, butchers, a bakery, a string of ethnic delicatessens (Greek, Italian, Moroccan, Chinese, French etc.) as well as wines shops and a book store or two.

The road continues up until ave de Maine. Famous in my mind for the Centre d'Acceuil des Etrangers (Foreigners' Welcome Center) where I have passed many, many hours in my quest for my residency card. But that is another story.

All along the street there are shops and building depicting the richness of this historic neighborhood. There a little boutiques filled with original designs in fashion, jewelry and home furnishings, as well as artists' studios, bookshops and a wealth of restaurants.

One of our favorites is Enzo. Run by Monsieur Enzo himself, the restaurant is open all throughout the week , but shut Saturday evenings and all day Sunday. (Tip: Frequently successful small family run restaurants are closed on Saturday evenings).

Step inside and you step into Enzo's world. He offers a selection of scrumptious pizzas, pastas and my husband's favorite, the foccacia, at very reasonable prices. I equate him to Seinfeld's soup Nazi, but for pizza. Actually I had initially entitled the post as such but realized that the term had a much much stronger effect here in France. Ok, so maybe the term is a bit hard, but I had been told prior to my first visit, that M. Enzo was "special", a polite French way of saying 'different' or 'weird' or 'having lots of idiosyncrasies'.

Last night, when he came over to ensure that we were pleased with the food (it's a rare occurence to have Parisian waitstaff ask this question anytime before clearing the plates) he informed us how he made the fresh pesto sauce. When I commented that it was good, he replied "Je sais" (I know). But even with his "special" ways the place has a certain charm about it. It's our local pizza place where the waitress knows to bring me the pepper mill without me even having to ask.

72 r Daguerre 75014

01 43 21 66 66

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Half-Day of Bliss

I was so happy to have the chance to make use of my birthday present yesterday. Understanding that the process of looking for work was taking its toll on me, my husband offered me a half-day of relaxation at the Hammam at the Mosquee de Paris (Paris Mosque).

I was forewarned, as he was forewarned, to come early. The gentleman firmly insisted that my husband be clear on this point, "You don't want the whole gift to spoiled because it's too crowded".

I arrived just after 10am, when the Hammam opens. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are reserved for women, while Tuesdays and Sundays are exclusively for men. I called in advance to find out what I needed to bring. Just myself, although one can bring along a bathing suit and/or a towel, sarong. Although I have grown comfortable with my body's flaw, I certainly didn't to subject a crowd of unsuspecting women to them so I wore a one piece, which turned out to be a very conservative choice.

The woman at the main desk instructed me to the changing rooms and provided me with my tags (one for a 30 minute massage, the other for a gommage (body scrub)) and a package of "black soap". Even with her explanation, I didn't fully understand the "ritual" of the Hammam. It would have been a good idea to read up first. As it was I was afraid I was going to be arrested for watching the other women and what they were doing too intensely. The first few minutes were quite nerve-wracking indeed. But after a few minutes in the vapor filled tiled room, my worries slipped away.

As mentioned above, I also had a gommage and massage. Remember when your mom would ask you "Did you scrub behind your ears?" ? I liken the experience to using a table-sized pumice stone to cover one's entire body, several times. It wasn't really table-sized, but that's kind of the level of detail the lady goes into in scribbing away your dead skins cells. I had been forewarned that the woman might ask me if I washed myself at home. Apparently, with the pollution in Paris the dead skin can seem quite dirty. I felt proud that although I was missing about a kilo in dead skin (reason alone to go), the remnants were still quite close to the color of my skin.

Finally, the really fun part: the massage. I had heard stories about Turkish massages and had a fear of, I don't know, broken ribs, stiff muscles. But this massage was heaven. Covered from head to toe in soothing eucalyptus massage oil, I drifted off in my thoughts to the lull of the masseuses conversation in Arabic. I love all the "l" sounds they make, almost like a lullaby.

And all of this relaxation was topped off with a warm, sweet glass of mint tea, taken in the tea room. Luckily I was off to meet a friend for lunch. If not, I would have been quite tempted to relish in one of the wonderful desserts on offer. Next time I would bring along both a friend and a bikini bottom and maybe arrange to stay for a savory couscous.

Squeamish girl tip: Put your name on the massage list before your gommage. This will reduce the waiting time for the massage, especially when the Hammam is busy.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Week-end away from Paris (Normandie)

I fits right in that I've been feeling Parisian, as we just returned from the standard weekend away from Paris, Normandy. Amongst my husband's group of friends, various country weekends are organized throughout the year. These weekends range from a pig (or maybe two if we are really hungry) slaughter, and the corresponding butchery and porkery that follows (I know porkery doesn't work, but what's the English equivalent for charcuterie?) to a duck confit-ing session to this most recent culinary weekend in Normandy.

"What do we do in Normandy", I asked. "Eat, of course" was the reply. And eat we did. The weekend began with a very early morning trip to the Saturday market at Dieppe. We needed to ensure that we had the pick of the litter, you see. Unsatisfied with the fish selection, we made an emergency call back those who chose to sleep in at the house, to ask them to go to another market to check out the fish selection. (I had never known that there were fish emergencies!). We settled for some fresh merlin and sea scallops. Our chef in residence, Edouard was scanning his head of recipes to see what we would need to get next in the market.

After a few hours grazing the market we had all the necessary supplies for a series of five meals for the 11 adult guests. We arrived back at the house with 3 shopping trolleys full of goodies, not the least of which included hard cider and Normandy cream. Perhaps the easiest thing would be to include the menu of the three meals that we relished in during our brief stay:

  • Pan-fried Whiting served with a vegetable julienne of carrots, leeks and onions in a cider reduction
  • Fresh grilled sea scallops followed by Normandy potatoes (made with fresh, thick cream and ham)
  • Farm-raised roasted chicken accompanied with a salad garnished with a shallot-mustard vinaigrette

This is not to mention the limitless fresh bread, fresh cheeses (pont l'eveque, camembert, and neuchatel), cakes and fresh fruit.

So.... to help digest all of this wonderful food we took afternoon strolls by the beach and visited a small seaside town called Eu-le-Treport.

I am really getting used to life as a Parisian.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Daily routines

Being that I have been traveling quite a bit over the past several years, I got out of the habit of routines. Of course I brush my teeth everyday, but I am talking about, maybe more, I don't know, rituals. Meaning that there is something meaningful or special behind the routine.

Today, after a week of gray Paris skies and wintery cold wind, I took advantage of the bright sunshine streaming through the bedroom window to partake in a cherished, but recently forgotten routine.

When I first moved in with my now husband, when we were still dating, we would take advantage of my flexible morning schedule to steal some extra time together. Even in the frigid December air, we would stroll to RER station, Cité Universitaire, a bit further away from our place so we could escape the morning rush of Paris. There, after a stroll down avenue Réné Coty, we arrived in the tranquility of Parc Montsouris. We would feel as though we had left the city completely, crossing the almost unpopulated park in the early morning hours. Every once in a while we would see a woman walking her caniche (poodle) or a troop of firemen preparing their bodies for the week ahead as they jogged the park's circuit. This was a time for us to reconnect and realize how lucky we were to have this precious time together.

Over the past few months, between jobs and job searches, inclement weather and restless nights, we had abandoned our ritual. I admit that it was mostly my fault, wanting to scamper back to the warm bed after a morning cup of tea.

Today we renewed our routine and I think that I enjoyed it even more than ever before. Correction: I enjoyed the return trip back home alone more than ever before. Today I felt like a Parisian making that walk back home. I passed by familiar streets that have become a part my memories of Paris, like the rue des Artistes, an elevated street that has been home to many artists' studios over the years. I enjoyed walking past the bakery where they recognize my face and the dog shop where I revel in the excitement of the day ahead along with the newly arrived puppies. Today Paris was my Paris despite all the difficult or bizarre encounters I have had over these past (almost) 2 years. I thought of all the lives that I could have had and I realized, more than ever, how lucky I am with the one I've got.

I only hope that this great lesson too becomes a part of the ritual.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Once upon a time,in a land far far away......

Ok- this is not going to be a fairytale story. It's just a bit how I feel being back home in the States on a small break. It's funny really, because at the same time, I've never been so far away and yet felt so connected to home. I can use pretty much any cell phone to contact mu husband, 3,00o miles away. And the phone line sounds no different than if I had called him from down the road.

However, things are different and most surprisingly it's not the size of things, it's the choice. I faced a dilemma in the supermarket when searching for tissues. Do I prefer Kleenex, Marcel, Puffs, Fluff out or the shop brand? Did I want a rectangular or square box? Did I want a floral design or did I prefer the night sky? Most tricky of all was the actual tissues: anti-viral, lotion, ultra-soft?

And this theme continues everywhere we go. In an average restaurant in an average town I have a choice of 8 chicken dishes, 8 burgers, 5 salads, or 6 fish dishes. In Paris, I am used to menus that offer one or two of each choice.

None of this is better or worse, just different and something that I somehow easily forgot.

Perhaps one of the more uncomfortable differences is the differing ideas of private matters. I opened a bank account here in the U.S.. I have gone through this procedure in both countries. However, I was surprised when the bank employee starting asking me rather personal questions during "small talk". Oh, so how long have you been living in France? DO you like it there? Is it different? Oh wow, five weeks vacation, but you have higher taxes right? So how does that work? Do you pay your taxes there or here?

I suppose even in writing this it doesn't sound so strange, I just remember feeling like I was in an interrogation room at the time.

But even with all the differences, there no place like home, whether it be NY or France.