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Archive for May, 2009

The château at night

The château at night

 

Saturday night, D. and I got to do something we haven’t done in a while — get all dressed up and dance in a château that used to be the stomping grounds of people like Napoleon and Marie Antoinette.

Oh, wait, I’m being told now that we’ve actually never done that before.

It was INSEAD’s annual Summer Ball at the Château de Fontainebleau,the beautiful palace in the middle of town. The party got started at 10 p.m., and until about 4:30 a.m., all 1,600 ball-goers had as much champagne, cognac, wine, hors d’œuvres (by the way, no one calls them that here in France) and desserts as we could handle.

 

A group of friends et moi

A group of friends et moi

I’ve been a member of the committee organizing the ball for a few months, so I was privy to a few interesting facts about the party: For example? They had more than 1,100 bottles of champagne for us there, and more than 36,000 pieces of food.

The big tent

The big tent

The main part of the party was held in a giant tent in the middle of a courtyard facing a lake. Inside, there was a huge bar, the booths for the various DJs who entertained us throughout the night, as well as this guy who drummed and played the trumpet in accompaniment to the DJ’s songs – it was very cool.

The drummer - doesn't he look like D?

The drummer - doesn't he look like D?

 

There was also a room upstairs in  the chateau where the main student band played for about an hour. It was packed in there, as everyone wanted to see them, but it was fun.

 Perhaps the most amazing room, however, was the salon de la grande cheminée, which was set up as a lounge with plenty of seating, so we could rest in it. This room is decorated in full-on château design – it’s beautiful!

The two of us in the fancy salon

The two of us in the fancy salon

D. and I didn’t end up making it to the 5 a.m. “survivor’s photo shoot” outside the main steps, but that’s OK. We still had a good time! My feet were killing me at the end of the night, though – girls, if you think walking around a sidewalk with heels all night hurts, try it on cobblestones – it’s not easy!
Us with one of our "American" couple friends

Us with some of our "American" friends

The girls...

The girls...

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Just one of our many screen-less windows...

Just one of our many screen-less windows...

 

Il fait très chaud!

It’s very hot. That’s one of the first phrases I learned in French class. However, my classes began in January, and, at that time, plagued by snow and ice and temps dipping well below freezing, I couldn’t fathom actually ever using the phrase in France.

How times have changed.

Yesterday, it was Miserable. Actually, the thermostat only read 81 degrees (that’s Fahrenheit. Everyone who isn’t from the U.S.A. will just have to deal with it). That’s not really all that warm for someone who has lived in Phoenix, Arizona, for the past few years of her life. In fact, I think that’s what we call “Winter” in Arizona. But we don’t have this humidity thing, which makes all the difference in the world.

By 10 a.m. yesterday, I was sweating like crazy. I couldn’t even be bothered to dry and style my hair in the morning. By 3 p.m., I came out of the grocery store and thought I had stepped into some lower-level of hell. By 5 p.m. I had bought a fan. By 7 p.m. I had decided jeans are no longer a possibility and was wearing a skirt and flip-flops.

My  husband thinks I’m just whining, but seriously, this was terrible. If this is what France will be like for much of the summer (and my French sources tell me it is) I’m not in for a treat. Or, more likely, I’ll be heading back to the good ol’ US of A (i hate that phrase) for the end of July and August.

Not that it doesn’t get hot in Wisconsin, where my parents live, of course. But we have three things that seem to be unheard of in France.

1. Air-conditioning that actually manages to cool down a building.

2. Automobiles that somehow manage to go up an incline WHILE the air-conditioning is running.

3. Windows with these crazy metallic grates over them, which I will refer to as “screens,” so that we can let cool, night-time air in without having to worry about also letting in mosquitoes, bees, birds and the “gypsies” everyone keeps telling us have floated up the Seine and are now lurking on our streets waiting to steal all our things (yes, we have been warned about this by several people. I learned that the term “gypsy” wasn’t considered proper back in my Women’s Studies 103 class at UW-Madison, but they use it here).

Since my life is, at most, unpleasant without #2, and close to unbearable without the # 1 and #3, I’m not sure I’m going to last the summer.

(Come on, France, even developing nations have managed to get #3,  the screen-thing on the windows, accomplished, and some even have managed to complete a lot of # 1, too, so why can’t you?)

Fortunately for us, a huge storm hit last night and cooled everything off. The weather is now gloomy and cool which I’m sure will irk a bunch of people, but I love it.

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On Thursday, a French friend invited me and another girl over for lunch. It was a national holiday in France, so she had the day off and decided to help us with our French — especially because my friend has her final exams at the Sorbonne coming up.

We spoke French for two hours, which, in and of itself was quite an accomplishment, I think.

But I learned two things that will stick with me for a while:

First, after our friend served us fish soup, she asked if we wanted “baguettes.” We both said “Non, Merci,” — My friend was probably thinking, just like I was, that baguette would be an odd accompaniment to Thai soup.

She returned with some chopsticks. Baguettes. That’s right. That’s what they’re called in French.

Then I remembered reading a fairy tale in French and seeing that they called magic wands “Baguettes,” also. We came to realize it just means something like “stick,” or at least refers more to the shape than the object itself. Interesting. From now on, I’m calling chopsticks “baguettes.” Not that I’ll have much chance to talk about them, since I have somewhat of a chopstick handicap (I used to veto any Asian restaurants on first or second dates, when I was single, because I dreaded the “Oh, you can’t use chopsticks! Here, let me show you!” conversation that inevitably popped up after 5 minutes).

Later we were talking about hairstyles for the INSEAD summer ball and were discussing which chignon we wanted. I figured the style known as a “French twist,” likely had a different name here. I was right – they call it a “chignon banane.” Yes, that’s a banana updo.

Awesome.

From now on, that is what I’m calling them. French Twists? You are dead to me. From now on, you are “Bananes.”

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Tintin

D. in front of the Tintin book display

D. in front of the Tintin book display

My husband is enchanted with a comic book character from his youth: Tintin.

I’d never heard of this guy before, but apparently it’s an old-school comic strip, started in 1929 and written in French. However, the books were translated into many different languages and spread all over the world. The stories centered on Tintin, a young Belgian journalist .The author of these comics was Belgian artist Hergé, so it’s a big deal in Brussels. You can take a “Tintin Walking Tour,” and there is even a comic strip museum with an exhibit dedicated to him.

According to Wikipedia (the most reliable source on the planet) 

“The success of the series saw the serialised strips collected into a series of albums (24 in all), spun into a successful magazine and adapted for film and theatre. The series is one of the most popular European comics of the 20th century, with translations published in over 50 languages and more than 200 million copies of the books sold to date.”

The books were written a long time ago, and a few appear to be a  bit un-P.C. (for example, “Tintin in the Congo,” and “Tintin in America, which has a cover showing him tied to a  pole and threatened by a Native American wielding a hatchet…)

But, to be fair, the author also won the “International Campaign for Tibet’s Light of Truth Award,”  by the Dalai Lama for his portrayal of Tibet in “Tintin in Tibet,” so that’s cool.

When in Brussels this weekend, we visited the Tintin store. They had comic books in tons of languages — but, unfortunately, not in Hindi. Oh well. We purchased one book and a few postcards that we will frame when we return to the States.

Tintin books

Tintin books

Apparently, in the 1950’s, these comics were translated into American English and introduced to Americans, but they didn’t become a hit – only six of the books were published. Some people blame the fact that the books were edited to remove content considered “inappropriate” for children, including drunkeness and the “free mixing of races,” which the publishers thought Americans wouldn’t appreciate.

Hmm…

It’s funny, I’ve never heard of this cartoon and yet D. has such warm memories of it – I guess sort of in the way that I feel about the Smurfs (created by another Belgian, by the way) or Pound Puppies or Nancy Drew.

Anyhow, we got yelled at for taking photos in the Tintin store (seriously???) so I wouldn’t suggest trying it. But, fortunately, we also got a few nice photos.

In the meantime, if you are interested in Tintin and India, I’d suggest reading this article  from the BBC about how the books and DVDs have been translated into Hindi in order to capture the market in India.

Also, it looks like there is a Tintin movie in the works, so keep your eyes open.

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A weekend in Brussels

D. and I spent a weekend in Brussels. It’s less than a 4-hour drive away — and it’s a pretty drive, at that — so it was a good place to go for a night.

First let me say that driving to Brussels felt like driving through northern Wisconsin. Seriously. It’s no wonder people from this general area settled to the upper Midwest of the USA.

Looks like Door Country, right?

Looks like Door Country, right?

Divided Highway -- looks just like driving from Madison to Minneapolis!

Divided Highway -- looks just like driving from Madison to Minneapolis!

Secondly, let me say that Brussels is so pretty! The architecture is amazing, and I’m not just talking about the center of town, which you’ve probably seen in plenty of postcards and photos and looks like this:
The two of us in the Grand Plaza

The two of us in the Grand Plaza

I’m also just talking about the architecture in the areas where regular people actually live. The buildings are sort of like fancy rowhouses made of brick, mostly. They remind me very much of what you see in nice neighborhoods in Chicago. In fact, the whole city reminded me of Chicago – beautiful architecture, lots of financial buildings, international influences, etc. We both decided it would be a great place to live.
Bad camera phone photo from the car - but nice buildings, right?

Bad camera phone photo from the car - but nice buildings, right?

Anyhow, we arrived on a Saturday around noon and walked to the city center. We found a beautiful plaza, a lovely cathedral, and tons of tourists. In fact, that’s my gripe about Brussels: it’s SO touristy. I mean, you get the feeling the entire middle of the city exists for the sole purpose of entertaining tourists. But, whatever.
We made our way to the chocolate museum, which was cool – we learned how chocolate is extracted and made from a real chocolatier. Most surprising was a chart we found on the wall that stated that, in 2005:  Americans ate 5.6 kilograms of chocolate, per person. Compare that to the Swiss, who ate nearly 12 kilos of chocolate, and the Germans and Belgians who ate 11 kilos each!
Wow.
Delirium Bar

Delirium Bar

We went to a few beer places, but were disappointed by the selection — nearly nothing on tap and most of the beers that were on tap were things you can get anywhere  in the world — Stella, Heineken, etc.Finally, we found a place called Delirium Cafe. You would think you were in Milwaukee here, for sure. This place had 2000+ beers listed in its menu. It was very chill and the clients seemed to be a nice mixture of tourists and locals — even though it’s located right in the tourist district.I had a bottle of Belgian Myrtle-flavored beer (it’s sort of like huckleberry) and it was great! D. tried a few beers himself. I got to thinking how it was cool that in Brussels, a really casual place like this can thrive. I haven’t found ANYWHERE in Paris that is so casual, bordering on “dive bar.” I don’t think they exist! If they do, please tell me. I’d like to go. I could finally feel OK walking in someplace while NOT wearing 4-inch heeled boots and a scarf. That would be great.We had mussels for dinner and crashed early.

The next day, we wandered into town again and almost went into the Brewery museum, but decided it looked like kind of a rip-off. So we decided to walk back to the neighborhood near our hotel (it was on a street with all sorts of E.U. buildings, but just a few blocks from an immigrant neighborhood full of little groceries and restaurants) and check out a place called Restaurant Ahura, which we had seen the previous night. It caught our eyes because we couldn’t figure out what it was — it served hummus and kebabs but had Russian nesting dolls in the window and also served Borscht… Huh????

Kebab plate - D's eaten most of the meat, though

Kebab plate - D's eaten most of the meat, though

We walked in and were the only people there… but the place was nicely decorated and had lively Middle-Eastern music playing. The menu stated that it served food that was: Russian, Greek, Kurdish, Iranian, Armenian… and something else. Wow. Ok.

We got free sesame bread, olives and cheese that the waiter told us was made in-house. Yum. Salty Mediterranean cheese!  In fact, even though I had to converse in French, the owner was very friendly and told us he was from Armenia. He brought us out more free cheese because we told him we loved it.
D. got lamb kebabs and I had a vegetarian-version of a Kurdish dish called “tawa,” which ended up being a veggie stew with cheese on top, cooked in the oven. It was great! Everything was quite fresh.
We started to leave, but the owner made sure we had some dessert to go (since we told him we were headed back to Paris) — two types of baklava and something else, all on the house! This guy was awesome. All this food came to 35 euros. Amazing. I love this place. If you are ever in Brussels, check it out, it’s quite an experience.
And, now, we’re back in France. D. has a long week ahead of him, so I’m glad we got to get away, even for just two days.
My "tawa" - sorry for the blurs, it's a camera phone!

My "tawa" - sorry for the blurs, it's a camera phone!

The home-made salty cheese

The home-made salty cheese

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Pistachio cake, champagne cake and hazelnut wafer cake

Pistachio cake, champagne cake and hazelnut wafer cake

We’ve all heard of Haute couture – but what about Haute Pâtisserie?

Yes, that’s right, Virginia, it really does exist.

There’s a shop here in Fontainebleau called Frédéric Cassel. It sells very fancy chocolates, cakes and other pastries. Not only are the desserts beautiful, but they taste delightful, too. The cakes are pricey — some cost about 30 euros. However, the personal-sized mini-cakes aren’t bad bargains, at about 2.50 to 3 euros each. Most of them are the same flavors as the large cakes, so you can sample the flavors, without having to dole out a lot of euros — or pack on the pounds.

Champagne cake, mango cake, chocolate-hazelnut cake

Champagne cake, mango cake, chocolate-hazelnut cake

I tried to find out more about Frédéric Cassel to see if it was a chain or just a local store. It’s the latter, although it appears that there might be one branch in Tokyo. I also learned that the owner is the president of  “une  association professionnelle internationale qui réunit les plus grands noms de la pâtisserie. Quinze nationalités la composent, 85 pâtissiers la représentent à travers le monde, tous unis autour de la même volonté : promouvoir la Haute Pâtisserie.”

That’s right. The grand names in pastry-making join this group to promote the art of “High Pâtisserie.”

Awesome.

If you are ever in town, check this place out. Of course, there are plenty more lovely pastry places as well. For example, for Valentine’s Day this year, Deven picked up these for me: one was mango flavored, the other had a creme brulee flavor and the third was a pistachio macaron. Pretty, right?

Birthday treats from another Fontainebleau shop

Birthday treats from another Fontainebleau shop

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The box

The box

I know I tend to complain about the myriad consumer goods and food products that aren’t available in France.  Today, instead, I’m writing about a few of my favorite French cheap thrills — the food related ones, anyway.

Of course I love the cheese, the bakery, etc. But those are obvious. Here, however, are a few things that you wouldn’t ever think of – from my friendly neighborhood mega-market.

One of my favorite frozen discoveries is the Carrefour store brand “Parmentier de légumes du soleil,” a paper tray of a meal which consists of diced veggies like zucchini, tomato and eggplant all mixed together in a garlicky tomato cream sauce and topped with mashed potatoes. Awesome comfort food, right?

There’s no easily-readable nutritional information on this product’s box and, frankly, I don’t want to know.

Moving on… there’s no shortage of potato chips here in France. I love many of the flavors – for example, Frito-Lay makes mustard-flavored potato chips. They are AMAZING. And Pringles has a low-fat version of a Mediterranean chip made with avocado oil and feta cheese.

Perhaps my favorite chip, though, is the ubiquitous shrimp-chip. Now, Asian food is hardly all the rage here in France

Carrefour brand shrimp chips

Carrefour brand shrimp chips

and it can be difficult to find a lot of the ingredients. But a few things — notably, fish sauce, and these chips — are available everywhere. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that has something to do with the French having colonized Vietnam. Whatever the reason, however, I’m glad they sell these things in the grocery stores. I’ve never seen shrimp chips for sale in the US, I’ve just seen them at takeout joints.  To make things even better, when I checked the ingredients in these chips, they have actual shrimp, not some creepy “shrimp-flavor” or something.

That’s all for now, but I’ll keep you posted as I continue to discover France’s Wonderful Processed Foods.

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