Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Un Café, S'il Vous Plaît!

Let's have a little coffee talk. So I'll wait right here while you go pour yourself a cup. If you're not into coffee, any other hot beverage of your choice will suffice. But as for me, I'll be drinking un cafe'.
When we think of coffee, we tend to think of it as the Starter Fluid of the day; a warm companion that we can snuggle up to in the mornings before we face our day. We even go to great lengths to get a paper cup of it later on, maybe placing a group order for a colleague to pick up on her way back from lunch. Each cup check marked in code only a barista (or experienced coffee go-fer) could decipher.

However, in France, things are different. Coffee isn't just the drink, it's the activity. It's the act of sitting down to relax and watch the world go by. Ordering a coffee in a cafe translates into renting your own little piece of La France for as long as you wish to be there. What a bargain! Chairs are strategically placed facing the same direction, lookin' at you kid! If you ever got a complex while touring in France thinking people were staring at you, you were right! they are! But it's not considered ill-mannered. C'est normale, as the French say. It's what you do. People watch.
So in order to rent yourself a slice of France, you just need to know how to order a coffee the way you like it.
My husband was shocked the first time he got a coffee in Paris. He successfully utilized his French lessons to order his favorite hot beverage. But to his dismay the waiter set before him a saucer holding the smallest tea-party sized cup he ever saw, containing a shot of black tar, garnished with a paper-wrapped sugar cube and baby spoon to stir it with. So, as if it was a shot of tequila, he tipped his head back and took one small gulp and voila! It vanished!

Then, he asked me, "Honey, how do I say "refill" in French?"

Now, at this point, anyone who is familiar with France is probably laughing right now. Everyone else, listen up! Refills do not exist in France. Unless you just want to order a whole new coffee and call it a refill to make yourself feel better. But it'll set ya back another 2 bucks or so.

So on his next "refill" he decided to use the sugar cube. It was so cute, wrapped up in decorative paper as if it were the smallest present in the world. He unwrapped it, then carefully lowered it into the precious few ounces of black goo and stirred it with the tiny spoon. However, the amount of sugar was disproportionate to the amount of hot liquid (Cubes big, Coffee Small). So he was in a quandary. Does he order more coffee to dilute the sugar? Or suck down the sickening sweet concoction and say goodbye to coffee in France forever?

Later, after learning there were indeed other ways to order coffee , he quickly honed his skills of ordering it with supplemental ingredients (milk or cream) to increase the volume, therefore extending his sipping pleasure. Café creme, cafe au lait, s'il vous plait.

Something you never see in France is coffee to go. Oh sure, you'll see American tourists in Paris lining up at that certain international chain to get their fix, but the French will be the ones using the tables and drinking from ceramic. Yes, the word "emporter" does mean "to take out", but just because it exists and is even advertised doesn't mean it's the right thing to do when it comes to coffee. I should know. I tried it, twice.

On a road trip from Paris to Brittany, we stopped at a little roadside cafe to counteract the drowsiness. When we walked in, we saw the sign "Café à emporter" behind the bar. I jabbed my husband and said, "Hey! Finally, a place that caters to American coffee drinkers!" So, in my best French I asked for 3 cups of coffee to emporter. The lady looked at me flatly and then said, "Je comprends pas, Madame." I pointed to the sign to explain, and she said, "Yes I understood, but why would you want it to go? Are you sure?"

Then, a few days later on our way back to Paris one morning very early, we stopped at truck stop (no, i didn't know they existed in France either). It looked exactly like a 50's diner you'd encounter on road trip in the States. A long bar with bar stools loaded with big burly truck drivers. Surely, they would do coffee to-go for me here. As I confidently sauntered up to the bar, asked for "Trois cafes à emporter" (3 coffees to go) I heard all 10 truckers whip their heads in my direction and dead silence filled the place. The waitress stared at me. The truckers stared at me, holding their itty-bitty cups of coffee between their fat sausage-like fingers. At that moment, I realized that even big burly truck drivers prefer to drink their coffee sur place and out of a real cup.

I got what I ordered, even if was handed to me in a thin plastic Dixie cup which burned all ten of my fingers.

So the moral of this coffee-flavored story is, when in France, drink coffee as the French. Relax, sit down, take in the sights and sounds around you. This is why you came to France. But under no circumstances, even if it is advertised, order "Un café à emporter".

Monday, October 29, 2007

Part Two: The Train Incident

This is Part Two, as well as the finale to my story of our first days in France. I know it's long, but it's the foundation to my new blog. Tomorrow we'll discuss something simple...coffee. :)

After touring Paris for two days, we were ready to get to our final destination and our new life. Mode of transport: train. TGV train! TGV is the acronym for train à grande vitesse (high speed train), which is precisely why I wanted to be on this train. The eight hour journey would be reduced to only five. We would race by castles and vineyards, make minimal stops and arrive with enough hours left in the day to spend them sitting in a café relishing the fact that we now officially lived in the country. The other train, the low-priced one that stopped with frequency and arrived hours later, was not for us I decided. We wanted to become French as soon as possible and the TGV was our ticket.

We got up early, allowing extra time to navigate the cobblestones, and headed to the metro stop. It was a daunting expedition of dodging poodle poop, waiting for the delayed metro and climbing lots of stairs. We lost so much time waiting for the metro that we literally had to run for the last thirty minutes of our trek, luggage (and daughter) flying in the wind. We knew the speedy trains left on the dot and we were not going to miss that train for anything, after all, we paid extra for these seats!

We found our train at the platform with just seconds to spare. We hurled our luggage onto the steps, jumped aboard and just then the train moved. WHAT A LUCKY BREAK! We appreciated how close we'd come to missing it and ending up on the second-rate train.
As the train moved on, we could relax knowing we'd soon be in the familiar care of my relatives who would be meeting us at the train station. Well, I was the one who could relax. Hubby was in front of me suddenly feeling queasy. He couldn't talk, he started stripping off his extra clothing. Of course, still wanting perfection in these first few days, I insisted he wasn't really going to vomit. After all, he’s never been a puker. He was just tired. And the stench in our section of the train was probably adding to his nausea. What was that smell anyway? He jumped up and bolted for the WC.

After that and a couple hours of sleep, he awoke feeling much better, and said it wasn't the stench that made him puke, but it was all the layers of clothing he'd worn during the marathon we ran that morning.
We chitchatted about our new life in the Old World and things rolled along slickly. I looked at the time and noticed we only had about an hour's journey left. I figured it was way past time for my daughter to use the toilet. We got up and entered the cramped water closet, strewn with used toilet paper and missed shots. Beurk. (French for "yuck!) I imagined a prison cell might not be much different. Claustrophobia set in. I urged Little Girl to hurry up, and as she did, there was an interruption in the smooth-as-glass train ride. Lurching, squealing, screeching, and sudden halting. As I fell onto my daughter, I suddenly reached for the door, scared of being trapped like rats, and pulled it open with all my might, slamming it into my daughter's forehead.

Little Girl was crying and saying, "Why did you do that?! You hurt me! And everyone saw my butt!"

I grabbed her, ran to our seats and yelled, "What happened?" Hubby said it seemed we hit something. But no one, no one in our train car made any inquiries or even acted like anything was out of the ordinary. They all kept reading their books, talking on their mobile phones, or sleeping. I inquired to a woman behind me and she said, "I think we've just stopped." Yes, I know.
The engine seemed to be off. Then after about 10 minutes, finally it started up! Relief! We'd be leaving soon. We weren't, after all, at a train stop. We were on the tracks in the middle of the countryside. In the middle of nowhere.
Then, the train shut off. Then it started up again. Then it shut off just as quickly. This pattern continued for the next two hours with no one ever questioning what was going on. As it approached the lunch hour, as if on command, mobile phones were being extracted out of purses and pockets. Calls were made. Eavesdropping to get a clue if there was an explanation that only the French people knew about, I heard only things like, "It looks like I won't be there for lunch....The train is stopped....No, I don't know what is going on....Yes, it's strange but I'll call you when we get there."

Why isn't anyone investigating why we're sitting on the tracks in the middle of France? Why is everyone so calm? C'est normale?

My husband now informs me he saw a village sign at the last train stop a couple kilometers back before we were immobilized. The sign said AGEN. Ok, I have a tourist's guide to France, I'll look up Agen. Very nice, it's the prune capitol of France. I should mention that I hate prunes. It seems ironic that everything had come to an abrupt stop in the prune capitol of the world.

Finally, after two and a half hours of discussing possible scenarios (always coming to the conclusion that the train hit something), a passenger (not an SNCF employee) came into our car and babbled something in French. I did not catch it because I was not warned he was coming to make an announcement, so I didn't have my French Ears on. (He was also the same passenger who ran through our train car moments after the halt and yelled “Accident! Accident!“ to which not a single person even looked up to acknowledge his presence.) But this time they listened and without hesitation, everyone quietly got up, grabbed their suitcases and started disembarking without asking any questions or making any protests.

I was paralyzed with fear. Was there a bomb? Were we hijacked? What did he say? When my husband looked at me for the translation I snapped, "I don't know! Oh my gosh, what is going on?"
As the flood of unruffled Frenchies were flowing past our seats, I heard the most exquisite sound I'd heard in days. A smiling 20-ish girl said in American English, "Hey Guys! Did you understand what's going on? He said the train wrecked and we're supposed to get off now because they are sending buses to bring us to the train station." With an enormous sigh of relief I could only say, "Thank God you're American!!!"

We gathered our things, no small feat, and followed everyone else. Hubby walked to the front of the train to see if anything was on the tracks. What he saw would explain the sounds of twisted metal and the grinding wheels hours before. It wouldn't, however, explain why they ever even tried to start the train back up. It would have gone nowhere.

There was a gaping hole in the nose of the TGV. Armed with the video camera, my husband recorded it for posterity. Video proof that would end up being essential for future story-telling purposes. Especially since this event never even made it into the news. I think there was a cover-up.
We followed the masses through a field, through some bushes, and ended up next to a road. We waited for something to happen. No one talked. No one fussed. A college girl entertained our Little One by pointing out a verre de terre (earthworm). After about 30 minutes, two buses could be seen off in the distance. Finally, we would be saved and taken to my worried uncle who surely had no news of our whereabouts.

As the buses rolled to a stop, these Frenchies who were so calm and quiet in the midst of tragedy the last few hours suddenly did a 180. They became loud and aggressive when it was time to queue. Their me-first attitude caused them to literally shove us out of the way, take cuts in line, throw their bags into the basin of the bus, then leap inside to stake their claim. The first bus filled up in a flash. As Hubby was loading the last of our suitcases into the belly of the second bus, the driver announced that bus was full! We scrambled to retrieve our property, just in time as the flap came slamming down by the driver, sans compassion.

The group of French college girls who had befriended our four year old noticed our misfortune and pulled their own bags off the bus and said in broken English, "We will wait here with you for another bus." I was stunned. After being shoved by all sorts of people (older women included) this group of six young women left their sure spots to stay with us and take us under their wings. At that moment, my attitude changed. We could make it to our final destination without cursing all of France for the way we'd been treated by The Rude Ones.

When the next bus came, we got on with little drama. There were plenty of seats for the remaining castaways. But, even tragedies in France don't prevent les francais from lunching. There were individual lunch platters served. We got two of them, for the three of us. The lady next to my husband scowled at him and, being the kind person he is, he offered his to her. She snatched it as if he'd stolen it from her in the first place. No merci, monsieur from her.

We finally got to our train station, hours after the economical, non-TGV train had dropped off it's load and left. We were exhausted and homesick. How would we ever get word to my uncle?
We were just stepping into the crowded station when I reached for my camera case (which also contained my eye glasses.) It was not there. In our confusion, we had left it on the crippled train. As I was telling a person at the counter, we looked out into the sea of worried people coming to pick up their loved ones that had been trapped on our train. I saw him. Out of the hundreds of faces, I spotted My Uncle. We screamed his name and he came. He had been so worried about us and he seemed to be just as relieved to see us and we were to see him.

As we rode in his car to his 17th century farmhouse out in the rolling hills of tournesols, we'd never felt so happy to be anywhere. As we pulled up the driveway, we saw the rest of the family out front waiting to bathe us in bisous and nurse our emotional wounds and culture shock.

So it started off rocky. But as I type this, I have a slight smile across my face that only comes with a fond memory. I love telling this story. I'm glad that we saw the rudeness contrasted with the acts kindness. It didn't end there. That evening, SNCF called to let us know they had found my camera case and were holding it until we could come retrieve it.

Oh, and after a few phone calls my uncle found out it was a tractor that the train hit. No worries, the man who misjudged the speed of this train jumped off in time. And then called the farmer he borrowed it from to bear the bad news.

Every word of this is true.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Our First Days as Expats

I have so many things to write about, analyze and discuss when it comes to France but I feel that I can't begin unless I get a relate our first days in France as expats.

I still can't believe I had convinced my husband to move to France, without him ever having been there even for a visit. Dreaming of something is one thing, but when it actually comes to fruition, worry plagues the fairytale in your mind and then gets replaced by nightmare scenarios. Mine was that Hubby would hate France and then hate me. So naturally, I wanted everything to be parfait when we arrived.

We decided to fly into Paris and then take a train a couple days later to our new home. We had two nights booked on Rue Cler in the 7ième arrondissement. For those not familiar with it because they haven't seen the PBS program that has made it famous, it is the stereotypical image we Americans have of Paris. A cobblestone street near the Eiffel Tower, lined with cafés, crêpe stands, flower and cheese shops, boulangerie, ....you get the idea. Top it off with a violinist on the corner playing classic French-film scores just for you, it all seems to be saying, "You're dreams have come true! You've made it to paradise!" It would seem.....

...Until we actually got to Rue Cler, by way of Métro, pulling our 3 spring loaded suitcases containing all our possessions in the world (well, on this continent), two gigantic backpacks, and a small child. Lugging and tugging, over the cobblestones. After having pulled all of that up and down several flights of steps and platforms the previous hour. Using public transport is cheaper than a taxi ride from Charles De Gaulle airport, but leaning on the side of "nightmare scenarios".

When we entered our hotel lobby, just a few long, bumpy blocks from the beginning of Rue Cler, we were exhausted, moody and stinky. Suddenly, I realized just what I had brewed up and convinced my poor little family to do! I started to cry uncontrollably. What if this didn't work out? We were stuck anyway! It was a burden I didn't want anymore.

At that moment, an American family came into the lobby, exuberant from their morning of touring, and tried to befriend us. They told Hubby how wonderful Paris was and they were sad to be leaving the next day. I hated them. They got to leave! I was here stuck for the next who-knows-how-long not knowing how we would survive this situation. And this was only Hour One!

After I scared them off with my sobbing, my husband consoled me and said it would all be great, he loved it so far. Ok, tears dried up, our room was now ready, time to shower, sleep and get emotionally stable again.

But when I got into the tiny room, went to use the tiny bathroom and then saw the flushing mechanism on the foreign-looking toilet (for those who don't know, the flushers in France are usually buttons or pulling devices on the lid of the tank), I started to get hysterical again thinking about having to flush like this for the next year. Ok, if you don't get the picture by now, I was completely irrational from sleep-deprivation, not making any sense, because back in The States I had raved to everyone about how cool French toilets were, because of their flushers!

After passing out and sleeping the rest of the afternoon, I awoke to Hubby saying he was going to go across the street to get some juice and snacks. He was eager to use his French independently. I was amazed but terrified he'd come back ticked off because someone was rude to him. I watched from the window above as he crossed the street and made a successful friendly purchase! He came back jazzed and ready to explore.

Late that night after soaking up the dazzling lights of le Tour Eiffel, we chose a brasserie near our hotel to eat le diner and suck down some vin français. Things were looking up. Of course wine will do that to you.

And then, the people at the table next to us seemed to be staring at us and with judgemental looks. I've been know to be paranoid about this, but I swear they were making a scene. It was a middle-age group of French men who were staring at us like we had just destroyed their evening. (Line from Shrek coming to mind: "It's rude enough being alive when no one wants you...") Anyhow, I was really uncomfortable and infuriated at the same time that they were gawking at us like we were barbarians. My anxiety peaked when I thought I heard the word "américains" in their conversation. Ok, now I had the proof! Turning to listen closer, I heard (in French), "Oh, look at me, I am American, I need my ketchup!" one said, and they all laughed hysterically in response. WHAT?! I didn't order ketchup. I hate ketchup. I kept listening, hearing stereotypical-American one-liners. It went on for several minutes. When they saw my expression, they laughed even harder. I wanted to leave, to check out of our hotel and hop the next flight back home. I HATE FRANCE, I screamed inside, French people are so rude!

Just then, I got my revenge. The waiter came over to me to take our order and I proceeded to speak my best French ever (thanks to the carafe of wine which gave me confidence to act French!) and placed our order. The waiter, astonished that he was receiving the order in his tongue, smiled very lovingly as if to say "You showed them!" I'll never forget the shocked, open-mouth expressions of the men at the table next to us when they heard their language roll off my tongue, understanding now they I had heard it all. Sweet victory!

It taught me a lesson as well. Don't be an Ugly American, even if someone is being an Ugly Frenchman.

Tomorrow I go on to Part Deux: The TGV Tragedy! Vomiting, tractors, accidents and more Frenchiness. Sure to appeal to all sorts.

PS. All photos on this post have been taken personally by moi, except the Rue Cler photo, because I did not have time to find mine today :)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cassoulet Today

I figured one of my early postings should actually be about cassoulet, being that this blog references it, it'd be nice if people knew what it was and how to pronounce it.

Just say: kass-oo-lay. There! You've mastered it!

Now, take a look at the poster below which will give you an idea of what cassoulet looks like....

Were you imagining something small, dainty and chic? Non, dainty it is not! Baked and served in an earthenware dish are white haricot beans, sausage, duck or goose confit, slow baked to result in a rustic, stick-to-your-ribs meal that is so addicting, you'll never forget it...(unless you had the misfortune of ordering it in Paris). Add a glass of red wine (Cabardès and St.Emilion are my faves and so reasonably priced) and a loaf of crusty bread and you have the real deal. What real French people eat in South West France. Don't forget the cheese course, of course! (Couldn't resist!)

The beauty of France is that each region has its own specialties that cannot be replicated as well elsewhere, at least goes my experience with cassoulet consumption. It is apparently a heated controversy whether cassoulet comes from the village Castelnaudary or the city of Toulouse, and if that ever gets decided then it will be argued as to which one is best. I'll take 'em both, merci!

The very first time I went to France to visit my relatives, my husband couldn't go. Their "Welcome to France" meal was cassoulet. I had never heard of it before, but I was suddenly obsessed. So when I got back all my husband heard about was cassoulet. Ok, and a few million other things. But I had to convince him there was at least one dish he'd like in France. (He is not a quiche-kinda-guy, as he puts it.)

So when I finally got him to move to France four years later, the first thing he ordered in a bistro was cassoulet. But, it was a really hot day. I tried to tell him that this was really a meal best consumed during winter, or even spring or fall, but not in a hot-stuffy resto with no air circulation in the middle of summer. And not outside of my aunt's kitchen! No matter, he'd been hearing about this cassoulet far too long to ignore that is was on the menu. But after that first bite, he was hooked! Thankfully this little bistro served a good cassoulet. Many places do not as I found out later, hence busting the myth that all French food is perfect all the time.

You can be sure that very few places make their own cassoulet because it is such a long process. You can spend literally two days preparing it from scratch, or just go to the supermarché and buy it in cans. There are good ones and bad ones, we were told. We bought the first can we saw at the neighborhood EcoMarché during our first grocery-buying-trip-as-real-French-residents. I had been so excited to get it home and into the little earthenware single-serving bowls I found in the flat, get them into the oven and then in our bellies. But when I opened the can, it was like looking into a large can of beenie-weenies. Beurk! Ok, thought I, maybe this is what it looks like before it thickens in the oven. Surely there isn't bad tasting cassoulet here in the south of France! It is Cassoulet Country! After an hour in our tiny toaster-ish oven, it never did thicken. I realized I chose a bad one.

After many home-heated cassoulets my favorite brands, so far, are Spanghero and La Belle Chaurienne. I buy the Cassoulet de Canard (duck) and then an extra can of the confit de canard (duck confit) to add to it for extra duck-y goodness. Call me a quack, but it's how I was taught and no fighting over duck legs now. I bake it for awhile and then break the forming crust on top with a big spoon. It continues to bake and reform crust, which I break over and over with much patience knowing my efforts will all pay off.

And so that brings me to the name of the blog. Cassoulet Café. It makes sense to me. It is something I love, from a region I love, even if I would never order it in a café. I don't know, it just sounds cool. Even when it's hot...

Speaking of hot, did I ever tell ya that time that we got refused entry on a boat restaurant renowned for it's cassoulet, because we were *gasp* wearing shorts?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bienvenue to Cassoulet Café

Hello there! Or should I say, Bonjour! Thank you for coming! If you love France or even despise it, or are just somewhere in between, grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and I promise you this is going to be a fun, entertaining blog about the real life in France. I won't talk incessantly about just one or two French things, but I will talk incessantly :)

I can say "been there, done that" because we lived the American dream of moving to France....and then back!

I was bitten by the French-Bug when I was little because a close family member moved there. Then I became obsessed when I started learning French in school. I went psychotic for France after I grew up and finally was able to go visit. I fell in love with it, came home and convinced my husband that we needed to move there...and we did.

I love to tell stories of our life there and the hilarious (and maddening) times we had. Reading blogs on American expats in France has really made me feel that I wasn't crazy after all.

So often people say to me, "I would love to go to France, but that'll never happen!" and I say to them, "But if you want it bad enough, you can make it happen! I'll help!" I love budget travel and I hate it when people get the wrong view of France because it's been built up by others as a pretentious place only for those with money.
Or the view that Paris is France. As much as I appreciate Paris for what it is, it is not my favorite place in France. OH THE HORROR! Did I really say that?! Mais oui...Some would have you believe that if you don't love Paris and its 5 euro coffees then something is wrong with you. I hate the view wealthy (or budget-travel challenged) American tourists give of Paris: brand name haute couture boutiques and even brand name foods that would blow any normal middle-class budget in just one morning. (And no, real French people do not spend 12-20 euros on le petit déjeuner).
Or how about this one: "The French are rude! They hate Americans!" Maybe some do, but not most. I've encountered both and I've broken language barriers that explained a lot. I'll tell you all about it if you stick with me.
For one to experience the real France, they have to get the Parisian (or parisienne) stereotype out of the mind and hop a TGV train to anywhere else. I am here to tell you the way it really is. After all, I have a wonderful love/hate relationship with this country. I know how real French people live because I've lived there, I visit, and I have close family and friends who live there. This blog will be a hodgepodge of funny anecdotes, stories of culture clashes, beautiful photos, food discussions and travel advice.

I don't pretend to know everything about this wonderfully irritating country and its culture, but I do know France isn't perfect....and yet it is.