Archive for November, 2009

The $150 Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving!

The girls, in Val's "pilgrim hats"

France or no France, my American friends and I couldn’t go without Thanksgiving this year, so we decided to do it up the best we could. Since Thursday wasn’t a holiday in France, and our husbands had class, we decided to push our celebration back to Saturday.

We invited 17 people over to my place – not just Americans, but also Canadians (same thing, eh?), Israelis and Russians. And the best part? We made everyone pick a traditional American Thanksgiving dish to make. For a few of the dishes, (like the green bean casserole) we handed out recipes and supplies (French’s Onion Rings) that we brought back from America. 

I think people were hesitant about making unfamiliar food, but everything turned out great. Our Russian friends brought the corn pudding, which actually tasted better than the usual stuff, and our Israeli friends made things like candied yams and green bean casserole, which tasted just like the ones my family makes.

The Thanksgiving spread

Getting the turkey was the tricky part. One of our fluent French-speaking American friends went to the weekly market in town and talked to the butcher. It turned out he would be able to get a turkey with some advance notice. The French eat turkey, but in slices – it’s not common to request an entire turkey. He said he had to tell the butcher exactly how he wanted it (no feet, no feathers, no head, gizzards taken out) and apparently the French people in back of him in line were laughing at how silly it would be to get a turkey with its head already chopped off… whatever. It still had a few feathers on it he had to pluck off Saturday morning, he said.

Anyhow, it turned out delicious. I don’t eat meat, but I did have a tiny little bite of the bird and it was cooked to perfection.

Good thing it tasted good, as it cost more than 100 euros! Can you believe it? As my friend said, that whole “supply and demand” thing is really a b****h.

For my part, I made my grandma’s recipes for pumpkin pie and chestnut stuffing (which, to everyone’s confusion, we didn’t actually stuff in the turkey). I also tried a new recipe for vegetarian mushroom gravy, which was good.

Overall, it was a huge success, I have to say. The dinner made sure we Americans didn’ t feel homesick , and our non-American friends said they were happy we shared this holiday with them – no one had celebrated a Thanksgiving before, even though everyone had heard about it in books and in movies. Even better, we got to prove to people that “traditional” American foods are every bit as tasty as those of other countries.

I think it’s a shame that Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday that gets “imported” to other countries much. I mean, it seems like everyone in the world celebrates Valentine’s Day, or Halloween, lately, but Thanksgiving is such a nice family holiday with yummy food and a good purpose — giving thanks for blessings — why can’t we promote that abroad, instead of Cupid and Jack-o-lanterns?


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GRE: J’ai fini!

I’m done! No more standardized test-taking for me, ever again!

I finally took the GRE this week in Paris. The only testing location in the city is located in a suburb on the absolute other side of the city from where I live. So, my test day went something like this:

6:10 a.m. Wake up

7:00 a.m. Leave

7:20  a.m. Arrive at train station

7:30-8:10 a.m. Ride train into Paris

8:10-8:20 a.m. Quickly locate espresso

8:20-9:10 a.m. Ride several other metro lines, to their ends

9:10-9:30 a.m Walk to the testing location

9:31 a.m. Wait. Hmm…wasn’t I supposed to be here 30 minutes early? Why is the office still closed? Oh, right, I’m in France. I forgot.

9:40 a.m. Sign some waiver that promises to give my firstborn child to Educational Testing Services if I ever tell anyone about any of the test questions. Or something like that. It sounded serious.

9:45 a.m. Stuff my possessions into a locker, say a quick prayer, and sit in front of a computer.

10 a.m  – 1 p.m. Test time

At the end of the test, you instantly receive your scores, since the verbal and quantitative parts are all computerized. I was really scared because, honestly, I felt like I was making educated guesses on all the math problems. And the verbal portions, which had seemed really easy to me during practice, were quite hard (the reading comprehension ones, anyway).  And, while I’m at it, why did I memorize 5,000 words in my GRE Prep book only to find ONE of them on the exam?

Anyhow, I ended up getting a 680 on quantitative and 690 on verbal, which made me happy. It’s above the average scores for all the programs I am applying to, so it’s good enough for me. It would have been nice to have beaten my husband’s GMAT scores, at least in the verbal area, but I was 10 points off. Darn!

I came home and immediately threw my notebooks — full of vocabulary and equations I never used — into the trash. It felt great. I’m done!!! I feel like this huge weight has been shoved off my shoulders. I can finally relax – a bit – and enjoy my last few weeks in France. I still have to finish my applications, of course, but that can be done in small spurts of work, as opposed to studying, which you feel like you could always do more, always work a bit longer, etc. There’s no end to it. Until now.

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Where the heck am I?

The toilet at a champagne-tasting place

With apologies to all those who don’t expect to look at a toilet first thing in the morning – this is what greeted me last week, as I walked away from a French champagne-tasting bar and into the bathroom.

I couldn’t believe it. “How much champagne did I drink?” I thought to myself. “I’m not in India. I must be hallucinating.”

Because, honestly, the only time I’ve ever seen these toilets has been in India. I know they’re common in Asia and parts of the Middle-East as well. I try to avoid them, but sometimes, it’s impossible (like at museums). Most of my husband’s relatives have Western-style toilets, and those that don’t have always been kind enough to arrange things with their neighbors so that I can use their bathrooms, if I need to. Because I think using a toilet like this takes a lot of skill, and some practice, and I’m usually only visiting for a few days.

So, this was really the last thing I expected to see in France, of all places. But my friends told me that these toilets are really quite common down in the South of France, and they’re all over Italy. Interesting…

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Fog over the Village

Blogger’s note: I wrote this post a few days ago, and the air has cleared since then. However, as I still find the topic interesting, I’m going to post it anyway.

The half of the village I live in is nestled in between two small hills.

And while this allows you to descend into lovely fall foliage as you drive to our house, it also means that, for all purposes, we are nestled in a valley. Which isn’t a big deal. Except…

People in France love their chimneys. They’re so popular here that bags of firewood are not only custom-ordered, but also sold in large bags in supermarkets and gas stations.

People here also burn leaves. I’m not sure why. My village is about a 3-minute walk from a huge national forest. They could easily leave a pile of leaves there to decompose, if, for some reason, they felt they couldn’t just let the leaves stay in their yards. But no, they insist on burning them.

This, combined with the nightly fireplace-burning, means that, starting in the early morning hours, my house is stuck in a thick blanket of smog. Chimney smog. Just call me Pipp. Or Oliver. Or some other Dickens character.

It’s not too bad, generally, unless the wind isn’t blowing. Then, I start to have an asthma attack upon waking up. And when I leave my street in the early morning hours, I can barely see through the thick smog. It’s sort of like being in Delhi, except that I don’t get the good food to go along with it .

And, of course, except that the air clears mid-morning.

It’s odd, though. I’ve had this conversation with some other foreigners here in France, and we’re all surprised at the copious amount of fireplace- burning that goes on. From what some French people have told me, they look at it like they are saving on gas or electricity for heating, hence, saving the Earth. I can see this point, to a certain extent, and I applaud them caring about the atmosphere. But,  isn’t polluting with fireplace smoke just as bad? Or am I missing something here? And that’s not meant as a rhetorical question, I’m actually curious what other people think about this. Let me know.

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Finally, after several weeks of finding no empty seats for the GRE testing until January, I was able to nab a seat for a testing day on Nov. 24.

As many of you know, I’ve been studying for this beast (granted, on-again, off-again) for months and months. But, now it’s finally time to take it. My sample verbal ability scores have been really good, but I’m still trying to memorize the long list of words in my GRE Study book.

As I came to the list of “e” words (I started at the end of the alphabet. Don’t ask why) I realized just how much my study of French has helped me.

For example:

*entree: entrance, a way in. (French: enter)

*epaulet: ornament worn on the shoulder (of a uniform, etc). (French: epaule, shoulder. Could figure this one out)

*essay: to make an attempt at, test. (French: Essayer, to try)

*facile: easily accomplished (French: Easy)

*febrile: feverish (French: Fébrile: Feverish)

And this was only on one page! At least I feel like my months spent in failure, trying to learn French, maybe weren’t so useless after all…

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Connect 4 - in French

As D. and I mentally prepare to leave France in just a few weeks, I’m keeping my eyes open for cool gifts to bring back home for the holidays.

Naturally, I think mostly of food gifts — honey from our village, vinaigrettes, flavored mustards, glazed chestnuts, spice for “spiced bread,” poppy syrup, etc.

But today I opened up a store advertisement someone had placed in our mailbox, and I noticed it was the Christmas gift edition. And, guess what? The French have the same children’s games we have in America — only in French!

Shocking, I know.


Operation, in France

But I keep thinking about how cool it would have been, when I was a little girl, to have received a board game I knew how to play – but in French.  For example? “Docteur Maboul,” which we, in the US, know as “Operation.”  You just know that if you had owned the French version of this game when you were in elementary school, you would have been the most popular playdate friend around.


Guess Who?

I’ve also seen Connect 4 under the name “Puissance 4,” and, my personal favorite, “Que est-ce?” — or Guess who? You remember — the one where you play the part of a Maricopa County detective, using racial-profiling to nab suspects?   “Does he have dark skin? “Does his look Hispanic?” “Does he have a funny-sounding name?” “Is he driving a minivan?” (Just kidding, “Guess Who” fans. I know, I know, it’s an innocent game ).

 I think it would be really fun to play “Guess Who?” in French.  Especially because, from what I can tell, they’ve “Frenched” the game up a bit, changing the characters names to things like “Sophie” and “Phillipe” and “Bernard.” Unless these were the original English names, too, I’m not sure.  On a positive note, at least  the woman who wears a beret in her photo doesn’t look as ridiculous when you play the game in France.

The advertisement also shows the game Pictionary: Un mot en un coup de crayon. I think I’d really like to buy this game, then suggest playing Pictionary with my US friends. Without telling them, I’ll just bust the French version out and watch their confusion grow as they pick cards and realize they can’t read them. Same thing with the game “Taboo.”

Anyhow, I doubt I will actually end up buying any of these games. They’re too bulky and heavy to bring back on an airplane and, plus, I don’t really know any 8-year-olds who would enjoy them. Which is a shame. Because I would really love to be the “cool” aunt or cousin who brings back foreign board games. Oh well. Maybe someday.

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Ravintola Juuri

I’ll admit it — it surprised me.

I didn’t expect the Finns to be so trendy when it came to food. If you had asked me, last month, what “Finnish food,” was, I would have been hard-pressed to come up with even one particular dish.

But the Finns are understated. Like a cashmere sweater set, or solitaire diamond. Yes, that’s you, Finland.

It turns out that, not only does Finland have some really creative, fun restaurants, it also promotes a lot of local, sustainable foods.

Here’s the thing: It’s easy to be Loco McLocalvore when you live somewhere like Texas or San Diego. Just about everything grows year-round. You want a challenge? Try eating “locally” somewhere like Green Bay, Wisc., when you must wait long stretches, from October to April, let’s say, without finding any vegetable recognizable to anyone other than your grandpa and grandma (“Turnips? I’ll give ya turnips! When I was your age, we not only ate the things, we made shoes outta their skins! And we stuck our hands in hot potatas keep ’em warm!”)

Yet this is where the Finns shine.

Cabbage. Crawfish. Parsnips. Cauliflower. Reindeer.  They figure out how to use it all, and make it taste — and look — mighty good in the process.

We ate our favorite dinner at Ravintola Juuri (I can’t figure out what “Juuri” means in Finnish. The dictionary I looked at said it can mean either “root” or “right now” or “freshly” — all of which would make sense) in Helsinki. We found it from an old New York Times article, so I was a bit worried. Usually, I find their suggestions pretentious, and unimpressive. Maybe I’m not hip enough.

Crispy cabbage roll with crawfish, dill and cheese

Anyhow, Juuri serves “Sapas,” which are like little Finnish tapas. Instead of ordering a big meal, D. and I just ordered about every sapa on the menu. It’s hard to figure out what are favorites were — turnip bread with parsnip butter, ligonberry-marinated salmon on maltbread, crayfish -and -cheese filled cabbage leaves with melted dill butter, whitefish pastry with shredded white radish salad, and smoked reindeer heart, however, made it to the top of our lists.

I want to write to Bon Appetit and ask them to find  the recipe for that turnip bread. So, it didn’t really remind me of a “bread,” more like a thick custard or something. Whatever it was, it was buttery and earthy and delicious. I need to have it again!

I also ordered “Beetroot and nut stew and small mushrooms,” which, I admit, didn’t sound that appealing to me. I mean, I love beets as much as the next girl, but I didn’t expect much. What arrived on my plate, however, was a little cake of shredded beet and walnut (I think) that was so amazingly tasty I couldn’t believe I was eating a beet. I have to figure out how to make this.

Juuri gave me some great ideas for experimenting with veggies that are underused, and underappreciated, in the U.S. – parsnips, turnips, cabbage, beets, etc.

The restaurant also had a nice wine list, and some really creative cocktails, like one with “seabuckthorn berries” and brandy.

I think we have a lot to learn from the Finns.

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