"Elle a les jambes longues et fines." - She
has long, thin legs.
"Elle a les jambes epaisses." She has heavy legs.
This comes from an early lesson in "French
in Action," a free online program recommended by one of Matt's professors,
to help us beef up our language skills before coming over here. Filmed in
the 80s, the Yale series features "Mireille," a pretty blond
twenty-something with decidedly long, thin legs, who bounces around in a
strappy sundress (obviously braless), gets hit on by guys at cafe, and argues a
lot with her dysfunctional family.
This is a weird program, which apparently
gathered a cult following for attempting to inject both comedy and drama into
the tedious business of learning basic vocabulary and grammar.
"Tonton aime beaucoup les enfants!"
Mireille informs us, one eyebrow arched, that her "celibataire"
(or "bachelor") uncle really likes children, as he
demonstrates by hoisting her wriggling little sister onto his lap, leering at
the child in a decidedly Humbert Humbert-esque way.
One of the first phrases we learned from
"French in Action" was, "tu m'agaces!" Mireille says
this in exasperation to her sister, Marie Laure, whenever the child spills a
tray of cookies or hounds her to play yet another round of cards. You're
driving me nuts! This seemed like an odd expression to feature
so early on. Wouldn't "I need to buy one bus ticket please," or
"How much is a baguette?" be more essential to the newcomer to
France? But since moving with a six-year-old boy to this rainy city in the
dead of winter, we've gotten a lot of milage out of "tu m'agaces."
(The lesson in which students are asked to "pretend you're trying to
pick up a pretty woman at a park" has been less useful).
Matt and I were lazy French students, more often
mocking the "French in Action" videos than memorizing the lessons.
The only other thing I did to prepare for this move was to read Julia
Child’s My Life In France. She opens by describing her first
meal here, sole meuniere, reliving every detail of what was, for her, a
transformative experience. I love the obvious pleasure that she took in
wanting to recreate the magic of that meal for Americans who, at the time when
she was writing, were often limited to frozen fish sticks and jello
salad. (Not that Julia didn’t love her some molded foods).
Being in France has definitely given me carte
blanche to indulge my own obsession with food. Matt says that I have a
"foodographic" memory, because while others can remember what people
wore or said around them, I can remember everything that anyone ever ate in my
company. I’m pretty sure that my early exposure to French culture is at
least partly to blame, because that's when I remember first being fascinated by
the differences between what people ate. When I went to the homes of my
French classmates after school, their “gouter” was usually white toast, folded
around melting sticks of chocolate, and dipped into hot chocolate. I told
this to a French woman recently, who said that kids here take a baguette,
hollow it out, and cram a whole chocolate bar inside. I still can't get
over how much chocolate French kids consume on a daily basis. And since
Max is definitely keeping up, it might have a little something to do with his
I came to France for the first time in the summer that I was
five. My mom had been asked to be the godmother to a French child, so we
were there for the christening, and she had me keep a travel diary over the
course of the month we spent here together. Now either my writing skills
were limited or my character has been remarkably consistent, because it's
nothing more than a log of what I ate: most notably escargots (which I liked)
and a ton of ice cream. I can still remember being thrilled because the
“boules” or scoops came side by side rather than being precariously smashed one
on top of the other. What’s not to love about a culture that designs a
special cone just for the double scoop?
When I was sixteen, I spent a year in a host
family in a suburb of Paris. The father had run away from home at 14 and
worked as a “saucier,” a sauce maker, in some of the finest restaurants of
Paris. By the time I met him, he was a businessman and no longer a chef,
but he and his wife still lived to eat and drink. One of our first
activities, “en famille,” was to bottle 500 bottles of table wine, to be
consumed with meals over the course of that year. The eighty-year-old
“meme” or grandmother, was allotted ½ bottle per day—to enjoy solo, with her
lunch. Every Sunday, we'd all sit at the dinner table for a butt numbing
six hours, lingering over a meal that was always exactly the same: grated
carrots with lemon juice and olive oil, butter lettuce salad with a red wine
vinaigrette (my job), a dense and chewy levain bread for which my host father
would drive 2 hours because it was the only "correct" loaf in the
vicinity, and a roasted chicken that the meme had beheaded and plucked that
very morning, her rain boots still splattered with its blood.
In France, there is zero attempt to conceal the
origins of meat, and no part of the animal goes to waste. They take the
"head to tail" movement literally, and I appreciate the absence of
hypocrisy in theory, if not on my plate. Max and I have started to treat
the Muslim butcher shop on our block like a zoo/science classroom. For
some reason, the skinned rabbits and chickens are sold with their heads still
on, often with a few feathers still attached. I doubt anyone eats them,
but I might very well be wrong. As we walked by yesterday, one of the
friendly shopkeepers stopped Max, holding out a beef heart in one hand and a
lamb heart in the other, mooing and baaing to make sure he grasped the
difference. In front of the store, a big chafing dish holds nothing but
roasted sheep heads, blackened eyeballs still in place, grilled tongues lolling
between two rows of teeth. We were ogling a jar of brains the other day
when a woman approached the counter and asked whether she could get “a nice
horse’s shoulder." “Indeed you can!” the cashier declared
Just like language, our appetites are the
product of our culture. When Max was two, and didn't yet have
preconceived notions about what he would or would not eat, we took him for dim
sum with his new friend, Raven La, from his preschool. Following Raven's
example, he enjoyed a roasted chicken's foot. We have a great picture of
the two little boys, happily gnawing on those sinewy claws. It cracked me
up when, after describing this to the French woman who had come over for dinner
a couple of weeks ago, she wrinkled her nose and said that this was disgusting--barely
missing a beat before proceeding to tell us how much she enjoyed "le pied
du cochon." Similarly, I'm not sure why I could never bring myself
to eat the slimy Japanese "natto" or fermented soybeans, which to me
smell like rotten compost, and yet my mouth waters when I enter cheese stores
here, which are so pungent that the ammoniac smell wafts halfway down the
block, some of the rinds of the stinkiest cheeses gone completely orange as
they slump in puddles of their own ooze. Yum.
I have to stop myself from buying too much of
that gooey, stinky cheese. A license to indulge can be taken too far, and
I'm beginning to worry that six months is a dangerous amount of time to be in
Paris: short enough to feel like an extended vacation, but long enough that
one's legs could definitely get on the "epaisse," or heavy side.
Once again, it seems that the "French in Action" folks knew
what they were doing in their curriculum design, picking early vocabulary words
that really matter.
The other night, we made lentil soup with
basmati rice for dinner. And because we’re clearly not getting enough
dessert over here, I used the left-over rice to make a rice pudding, flavored
with cardamom and rose water. Because it turned out nicely, I thought I’d
share the recipe and indulge my inner Julia. Hey--when in France...
The Vie En Rose Pudding (named by Matt)
3 cups cooked basmati (or jasmine, or whatever)
rice (use up your leftovers)
2 cups milk—I used “demi-ecreme,” which I think
is 2 percent
1 cup sugar
2-3 tablespoons butter
2-3 tablespoons rose water
5 whole cardamom pods
1 teaspoon each grated cinnamon and/or nutmeg
Take cooked rice and crumble it into a sauce
pan. Add milk and bring to a low simmer. Add sugar and butter and
stir until melted.
Add rose water and cardamom pods. I
crushed them between my fingers before adding them to the pot. The whole
cardamom pods are very fragrant, but if you don’t want to have to pick them out
of the finished dessert, you could substitute a teaspoon of ground
cardamom. Add cinnamon and nutmeg, unless you want to highlight the rose.
In a cup, whisk the raw eggs. Add the
whisked eggs to the simmering pot, making sure never to let it reach a
boil. Continue mixing with a spatula or whisk for five minutes, or until
the rice pudding thickens to your desired consistency.