Friday, November 30, 2007

Trip Preparation: Panic Mode Begins

“Oh my gosh, we need to find the freeway now! We are in a bad neighborhood!” I snapped to my friend who was with me in the car. We traveled to a large city in our state. I was there to get eye surgery the next day and she was with me since Hubby couldn’t get time off work. We decided to take in a movie the night before, but we couldn’t find parking in a safe area. There were sketchy people on the dark corners and no other cars around. I wanted to get out of there fast.

My friend, who I’ve been close to for years but never traveled with, was silent. Then she said, “Wow, I’m worried now. If you’re scared, it must be bad!” She explained to me that she assumed I wasn’t afraid of anything when traveling. Mouth hanging open in astonishment, I said, “What would make you think that?”

“Because you’ve been all over the U.S. and to Europe.“

I said, “And that means…that I’m not afraid of anything when I’m there?“

She said, “Right. You seem so confident.”

Sheesh, what picture was I painting of myself to my friends who got left behind in our little town while we went abroad?

Yeah, I may seem confident when I try to conjure up new destinations. I talk about it with my friends until they get sick of me. I push my husband relentlessly to dream about it too, and I try to make him realize why we’ll just die if we don’t go to such and such a place. And then, he‘ll finally agree and we’ll set some dates and buy some tickets, and that is when all the self-assurance ends. Because at that point, my mind switches into “what-if” mode and I begin to panic. All the things that could go wrong. All the reasons why we shouldn’t have chosen that place after all.

Maybe this is because the very first time I went to France, I had rose colored glasses on in my planning phase and they only came off the morning we left for the airport. My hubby wasn’t able to go with us to France, because he was working and schooling. My 2 year old and I were joining my grandma, who bought us the tickets and my mom and my 14 year old sister.
Hubby drove us to the airport and as reality set in that I was leaving the country for the first time (and with a toddler but without my husband), my guts started twisting. After several stops along the way, we finally made it to the airport. I began to snivel and hang on to my husbands neck in the lobby like I was in some sort of 1940's black and white film, where the couple are next to the train that's about to depart, clinging to the last few lingering seconds together. Then the sobbing ensued. This was so unlike me, displaying loud, uncontrolled emotional turbulence in front of a lot of strangers in a public place! Where was this bravado I thought I had, or had so successfully portrayed to my friend?

After boarding, we flew…and flew…and flew….and flew, and I realized just how far away “across the pond” really was. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, I became giddy (in a bad way) when I checked the time and saw we still had hours to go. My head was beginning to sound the knell of an impending migraine, as is usually the case when anything requiring mental clarity occurs.

I remember the moment we were finally approaching Amsterdam, and I couldn’t believe that I was actually seeing Europe with my very own small town eyes. A couple of European men behind me began to talk to each other in English. They’d both been in Seattle and they were comparing notes. One said, “Could you believe the way people drink coffee there?” The other said, “All I saw were paper cups in people’s hands! It was so weird!” I thought they were weird for thinking that was weird. It wasn’t until later I found out why.

When we got off the aircraft in Amsterdam, I realized that Europe smelled different. A mixture of cigarettes, body odor, pastries, coffee…it made me feel like I was watching a movie I’d seen before, but I was suddenly transported into. I was experiencing what I’d only observed and dreamed of before. I knew I was in Europe, finally.

I never what-if’ed most of the things that happened, though. We almost missed our connecting flight to Toulouse because my grandmother had a harmonica in her purse wrapped in about 29 rubber bands. The way it was laying against the other harmonica made it look like a gun in the X-ray machine. Skipping boring but scary-to-me details, we made it to the plane anyway. I remember it was a City Hopper and I laughed every time they said it because it sounded like “See-Tee Hope Err”.
By this time, my head was in full-on-migraine, I stunk of B.O. (I now realize that this always happens to me the second I enter Europe and could anyone please tell me why???), and I was 15 hours past a nap, and in ready-to-vomit-any-second mode. I couldn’t get my seatbelt fastened (paybacks for earlier sarcastic remarks) and the perfectly-perfect flight attendant, with a perfect smile, had to lean over me to fasten it. I knew I smelled not pretty, so I turned about 5 shades of red and held my breath.

As my head bobbed up, down and around during the flight (because I was finally falling asleep) my daughter got into her backpack of surprises and opened up the Hello Kitty baby nail polishes I brought. Smelling lacquer wafting through the air, it jolted me out of my fleeting slumber, only to return again for 2 more seconds of sleep until my throbbing head bobbed and weaved and then smashed into the seat in front of me. I think this routine lasted about 2 hours. Two hours that felt like 20.

We finally arrived in Toulouse and were greeted by my uncle. I desperately needed to use the restroom to change out of my dirty, toddler defiled shorts and into my extra pants. I went to the bathroom and noticed the stall doors were solid marble. I walked into one in the center of the row of 15 vacant ones and fumbled with the latch for way too long and decided since practically no one was even in the airport anyway, I’d just prop the door closed as I changed.

Right at the moment that I was bent over, in a precarious position with one foot in the new jeans, the other foot on top of my shoe so I wouldn’t step onto the bathroom floor, a French lady came flying into the restroom and decided to shove open my door, even though there were multitudes of other stalls that were empty. She slammed the marble door into the top of my skull and when I yelped and fell backwards towards the toilet, she screamed at me, “Well why didn’t you lock it? It’s your fault, you should have locked the door!!!!” And then she said some other things I didn’t understand. Probably just as well.

So I said something I‘ve kicked myself for, for years now, “Oh je suis desolee, je suis desolee.”

So we left the airport and made the drive out into the country to my family’s house, I bathed in a tub with a shower head but no curtain, took some migraine medicine and fell fast asleep. About 4pm I awoke and decided I better call my hubby. My uncle set the call up and exited the room. When Hubby answered the phone I was bawling so hard that he couldn’t understand me. I *gulp* want *hiccup* *gulp* to *sniff* go home *snort* *sob*!”

He lovingly laughed and assured me I was ok and made me promise to make the best of it. I cried and tried to convince him to buy a ticket and come. He couldn’t. He didn’t even have his passport.
I turned to look at my surroundings and realized that the shutters were wide open. And everyone was sitting outside, just in front of them, having coffee. They all heard the Big Brave Traveler’s true colors.
I waited as long as I could to join them, quite mortified of my unsophisticated howling. As I went out and sat down, Uncle said, “Hey, why don’t you come with me to the cave in the village. We need to get some wine.”
That trip to the wine store, filling up our gas-can-like container with wine from a hose in the wall of the cafe, and the dinner al fresco in front of my relatives 18th century farmhouse was the recipe for my mental well-being. I was suddenly done being homesick. And I had 3 glorious weeks ahead of me.

And now, let the panicking begin, because I just wouldn’t be me if I didn’t do it this time.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How to Turn Lots of Dollars Into Very Few Euros

Peer out this window, please.
This is a view of the French countryside from 25,000 feet.

We were heading to Toulouse on an Airbus, how appropriate!

This was my view in 2005.

This again will be my view in a few months!

We are now proud owners of a series of numbers that will, when decoded at the airport, get us on an airplane bound for La Belle France! (E-tickets. I sure miss paper tickets, there's something about them that are more exciting, more official feeling.)

Anyhow, we are going to stay a whole month....

....but it won't be in Paris.

Is anyone interested in a Virtual Tag-Along to see what treasures and adventures can be found outside of Paris? The dollar is weak, so I won't be indulging in high-euro priced eats*. I will promise you lots of gorgeous photos or rustic places, beautiful buildings, scrumptious food and details, details details!!! I promise to bring you the true France. The France I told you about in the beginning. Frustrating, intoxicating, fabulous.

*But my friend in Paris is going to bring me a box of Laduree macarons! This is what she wrote to me last week:
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! they are the best « cookies » of the world !
The best ones are those you can find at “ladurée” in paris. When I visit you
in Toulouse I bring you a box with all kind of tastes yummy !

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Learn English with Baby Charlie

In looking for French lessons on YouTube for my kids, I decided to see what French people have in the way of English lessons on the Tube. I found this series of English lessons, presumably for adults. It's like a bad smell, so to speak. It's so horrible, but just to make sure it's that bad, you keep sniffing. You can't stop watching until you're through and then you want to see if Lesson 2 is just as hideous. So you go ahead and click it, and it's even worse. So you continue on with 3, then 4.....

I don't know if this is just a bad joke, or an actual English lesson. So, why don't you let your curiousity get the better of you and click PLAY. And then I won't be the only one who has to admit they watched this flick.

PS. Oh, for the full effect, you should understand French. If not, you can still get the idea that it's very, um, classy.

PPS. My kids love it! They keep saying, "Put Baby Charlie back on!!!! It's so funny!"

Monday, November 19, 2007

Job Descriptions

We live in a country where Customer Service exists and is pretty darn good. Customer Service does not exist in France. Well, not as we know it in the United States, anyway. This can really be infuriating if you need to get something accomplished or just accomplish getting through the day without getting ticked off. Take for example the French policy of returning items to the store for exchange or refund. Oh wait, it doesn’t exist. Each item we purchase, be it a washcloth or a small appliance, is carefully checked out and debated between us, because we know that in France, the customer was always wrong. Even if said appliance spontaneously combusts. This really puts the pressure on, because I hate retail commitment, especially in light of my bad luck; if there is a defective one of something , I’ll be the one to buy it. Even if I reach in the wayyyyyy back of the shelf and grab the untouched one, it’ll be sure to be the malfunctioning one. Even if I, against my better judgment, grab the first one, it’ll be the faulty one. And why can’t I bring it back if I have the receipt, mean French lady at the counter?

Maybe it’s not her job. Because we heard that a lot. My brother was living in Switzerland at the time we were in Toulouse and one day he hopped a train to surprise us. Settling in on the train, he fell asleep. While he was in a deep slumber, the train stopped somewhere along the way, split in two, and went their separate ways. One half going to Toulouse, the other half going to Spain. When the train-half that my brother was on stopped at the final destination, he woke up. But not in France. He was, you guessed it, on the wrong half.

He had to buy another ticket from Port Bou, Spain, to Toulouse.

Being that he didn’t speak French and I did, I decided to stand up for my brother like any big sister should, and become his personal translator and get some compensation! I never would have thought of this on my own, but every person we reported the story to said, “That qualifies for a refund! You must explain the situation to SNCF and they will give you compensation. ”

After standing in line at the train station for almost an hour, we finally got up to the counter. There was another mean looking lady. I smiled and greeted her (with no reciprocation) and I told her at great length what happened and how traumatized my brother had been to have opened his eyes to see he was not in a familiar place…. The lady apathetically stared at us and after a long pause she said, “I’m sorry, but you are in the wrong line. You must go over there, because this is not my job to help you.”

She pointed us to a lady at a desk, so we walked over. We were told to sit down in the waiting area and…wait. We waited for almost 30 minutes while she sat at her desk typing. When we were finally called over, I again translated the story of what happened. She listened as if she was going to care. I included, “Since my brother was never informed when he bought the ticket that the train was going to be severed, and that he should sit on the France end of it, he is entitled to some sort of compensation. After all, can you imagine how traumatized to wake up and find you are in another country? “

She just looked at me and said, “We cannot compensate your brother for his mistake. And besides, this is not my job. You were supposed to be at that lady’s desk over there, she’s the one who deals with this kind of thing. This is not my job, Madame.” And she pointed to a desk about 20 feet away, where the young woman (girl) was just sitting and looking bored. My brother began to raise his voice and I stopped translating. Frustrated that I didn’t continue the translation, his voice got louder and louder. I calmed him down and said, “Let’s just go over to the girl at the other desk.”

So we did. We (again!) explained the unfortunate events of the previous day’s journey and it wasn’t falling on deaf ears, but sympathetic ears that resulted in a profuse apology. Finally, we thought, someone who will take pity on us and give us compensation (now in our minds it wasn’t compensation for the train splitting anymore, but compensation that we had to endure the French work ethic!) But then, she said something that should not have shocked me since it seemed to be the thought of the day. ”But I’m sorry, this isn’t my job. I cannot help you. You have to go through the door behind me into office number 100 and talk to someone in there.”

At that point in time, I informed my brother his translator had quit and he was on his own. Because the only thing I cared about then, was getting away from all French SNCF employees. And besides, translating is not my job!

It didn’t go well in room 100. And there was no compensation. But I, thankfully, was no longer involved.

But just when you think you have it all figured out, “they” change it again on you. A few weeks later, Hubby’s brother and another friend came to visit us. It was their first time in a foreign country and things had not started off smoothly. They decided to fly into CDG Paris and take a train to Toulouse. (And yes, they were warned about the tractor/TGV collision.) They were told by someone at the airport they could not buy train tickets at that train station; they would need to go to one in the center of Paris. So they bought tickets to that particular station, found the ticket counter and successfully purchased them.
And then the same man who sold the tickets to them said, “Oh, by the way, you aren’t leaving from this train station. You must go to Gare du Nord (which was across the city from where they were!) and your train is leaving in 20 minutes, so you won’t have time to make the train!”

They tried anyway and as they made it all the way across town and onto the platform they showed an SNCF employee their ticket and as she looked at it she said, “Oh, see that train that’s just pulling away? That is your train. You missed it.”

Feeling like jumping in front of a moving train, they purchased yet another set of tickets from this lady who informed them they “must buy First Class tickets, but you will be going standby. “ What that meant, they later found out, was they paid for First Class seats but ended up in the luggage portion between the train cars, taking turns sitting on a pull down seat the size of a small pizza box. Why they couldn’t have paid Second Class prices for the no-class “seat” is something we’ll never know. But I'm sure it wasn't her job anyway!

They finally made it to Toulouse, about six hours later than we estimated. We took them home, fed them and let them sleep. We hit it hard touring the next day. When they could take no more, we stopped at Place St. Georges, for refreshing drinks. Bro-in Law said with a heavy sigh, “All I want is a Pepsi with ice!” and Our Friend said, “And all I want is a water with lemon!” Hubby and I looked at each other and burst into fits of laughter . It was one of those moments of relief or a pressure release....having other Americans (and family at that) to share our bottled up, frustrating un-American experiences with. Trying to gain our composure we said, “Um, we’ve been here for three months now and we’ve yet to get a cube of ice in a drink, and forget about something as luxurious as a lemon to go with your water! It’ll never happen!”

We ordered our boissons and told tales of warm Cokes being the norm in France, and how lucky we were to have ice at the flat, and how the French guests we had over begged us not to put ice in their drinks. Clearly disappointed, our guests just moped and withered in the heat and 100 percent humidity.

And then the waiter brought our tray of drinks. There was a Pepsi for Bro-in-Law, garnished with… a lemon! And a bottle of water with an extra glass of ice to the brim for Our Friend. They looked at each other, traded luxuries and burst into laughter. Hubby and I sat in stunned silence and then we all laughed ourselves silly.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

American Stuff I Want When I'm in France

So because no place is perfect, I'm going to give you my "wish this country had this" list for when I'm in France. In other words, things I can't (but have to) live without when in France.

  1. Mexican Food (and I'm not talkin' 'bout Old El Paso)
  2. Ingredients for Mexican Food; healthy looking cilantro ("coriander" in hypermarches are pretty wimpy looking), limes that don't cost a fortune, taco seasoning, good tortillas, and jalapenos.
  3. Coffee to go
  4. Pepperoni Pizza
  5. Ranch Dressing (sauce for crudites may look like Ranch, but I assure you it doesn't taste like it.)
  6. American milk
  7. American hot dogs (for hubby)
  8. Chocolate Chip Cookies, or Butter Flavor Crisco to make homemade ones.
  9. Donuts
  10. Apple Pie, the good ol' American stuff (though with the Crisco I could make my own)
  11. Adam's Peanut Butter
  12. American style cake
  13. Cheeseburger, and please don't say McDo, that's not a real American burger in the way I'm thinking :)
  14. Salad consisting of more than just lettuce and vinaigrette when I go to friend's home's for dinner.
  15. Pasta salad consisting of more than just pasta and mayonnaise.
  16. Please, no yogurt for dessert!!!! It just doesn't cut it when you want a big, dirty piece of chocolate! (As my Aussie friend says).
  17. A big American breakfast at least once. (Eggs, bacon, toast, hash browns).
  18. Micro-brew beer. (Deschutes, Widmer, Sierra Nevada, etc)
  19. Prawns that don't come with the legs and heads.
  20. American grocery carts (what is the deal with the French all wheel drive?)
  21. Customer Service

Feel free to comment and add to my list!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Shopping List for France

Let's go Virtual Shopping in France! Here are some grocery items I just gotta have when I go shopping there (faire des courses). In no particular order, here they are:

Bonne Maman Tartelettes

These cookies are so addicting, with a buttery crust and fruit filling. My favorites are framboise, fraise and citron. I seriously have eaten a whole box in one sitting.

Sel de Guérande

Or any flaky salt is a must in my cupboard.

Volvic Water

I love the lemon flavored water (no sugar or sweeteners added) and Peach and Strawberry are my other faves.

Pass the Old El Paso!

Ok, ok, I only bought this when we lived in France and we were dying, I repeat DYING to have some Mexican food.


from the olive stands inside the markets. They have olives in big tubs, each tub a different flavor. You taste them all, and then chose a couple of your favorites. They are so delicious and very important for your aperitif.

Ourson or many other kiddie treats.

France's selection of cookies is mind boggling. This is one treat my kids and I like, it's like a Twinkie with chocolate filling, but not near as sweet or artificial tasting, and way cuter!


Delicious dried sausage that is an essential with kids! Similar to hard salami. Can come in a strange variety of flavors.

Tuna-I really liked this brand, it was a solid white piece of fish, no mush.


Chocolatines (pain au chocolat) from a shop, not pre-packaged.

Banania or Poulain (hot chocolate for breakfast)

French chocolate bars Milka is one of my faves, though there are many others!

Pago Juice

This is the best juice I've ever had! Strawberry is my all-time favorite. It's like blended up berries in a glass. This is from Italy but served frequently in cafes in France.

Sirop ...for refreshing drinks (Sirop de fraise drink in a cafe is water and strawberry syrup. Other popular flavors are mint, peach and grenadine. You can also add these to beer to make a Monaco or Peach Beer.)

Jambon and jambon du pays

Ham. I don't know what the heck they do to their ham in France, but it is sooooo good! Jambon de pays is dried, similar to proscuitto.

Bonne Maman jam

Carte d'Or ice cream!!!

These peanut flavored puffs for aperitif

Jenlain beer, because most beer in France is crap. (What can I say? We live in micro-brew territory.)

Nutella, of course! And it really does taste better when you buy it in Europe!

Maille mustard-I prefer the grainy one, especially for vinaigrette.

Merguez sausages, they are so yummy and spicy, especially grilled!


Thursday, November 15, 2007

I'm Lovin' It!

"I did not come 6000 miles to eat at McDonald's!" I said in protest during my first visit to France, when someone suggested it would be the easiest thing to do after the long day of touring. It was also a longstanding joke with friends before I left that I would end up eating at Mickey D's while in the gastronomic capital of the world.

I finally acquiesced during the 3rd and final week of our vacation. My consolation prize? I was able to substitute the Coke in my Value Meal for a BEER! At that moment, I decided McDo (as the French affectionately call it, pronounced mack-doe) needed to be given a second look.

I don't care who you are or how much you detest Big Macs, everyone is interested in the foreign Golden Arches (ok, ok, everyone I know.) McDonald's is such an American icon, it's funny to see how it translates in other lands. Even Hawaii and Georgia (USA) have local specialties on the menu; Portuguese sausage for Hawaii and grits for Georgia.

But McDo in France has the ultimate hopped up beverage! Even if you don't like your food, you can drown your disappointment in Kronenberg while the kiddos are munching an "Appy Meal" (French people don't pronounce the "h").

And do not let any French person tell you that they resent McDo being in France. Because, um, have you ever happen to see one at lunchtime in France? It's like a grand opening at Krispy Creme, or the incessant line at an In -N-Out Burger. I've never seen so many people crammed into every square inch of a fast food joint, day after day after day! The McDrive is packed with cars, the lobby is filled with hungry Frenchies and the cashiers even hop over the counter and start taking orders down the line with a notepad!

Now for the fun part; ordering. One would think that since most of the food items are spelled exactly the same way as here in the US, that native English speakers would have the home court advantage in this place. So, I ordered a Cheeseburger Happy Meal and a Big Mac Value Meal. And the girl at the register said, "J'ai pas compris." I tried again. "Madame, j'ai pas compris!"

Ahem...clearing throat, getting out my phlegmy French "R", I decided to say, "Un Beeg Mak et un Appy Meel". And voila! I was understood, rung up and handed the correct items. I felt like a real idiot, speaking my own language with a faux French accent. But that's how ya gotta do it! Mac Floohree, Shezz-boorg-air, Om-bourg-air, get the idea.

Now the really interesting part of the whole experience, as if that wasn't, is watching how the French eat their McDo. Since most French like to eat a complete meal with side dishes, it was not uncommon to see one person eating a burger, fries, yogurt parfait, salad and a drink. IN ONE SITTING. I became obsessed with watching people's trays and how much one little thin Frenchie girl could put down the hatch at this chain they insist is ruining their country and gastronomy laws.

But this concept of eating all available side dishes was not lost on me. Though I tolerated our trips to McDo during lunch (and to tell you the truth, the food is way better at French Mickey D's), I was delighted to go their for breakfast when we could. Because unlike here, where you get the breakfast sandwich, hash browns and choice of coffee or juice, in France you get the whole sha-bang! In their own French words, translated by moi, "Because breakfast is a time of 100 percent pleasure, at McDonald's you have a choice!"

You can customize your breakfast by choosing the main dish, the hot beverage, the cold beverage, and the yogurt.
If you want to have a virtual McDo breakfast and see the items I'm about to describe, click here.

Now then, let's examine Breakfast Meal #2, or otherwise known as Brunch 2: You get a Bacon Egg McMuffin, and pancakes with Nutella, and a Fruit and Yogurt Parfait, and an orange juice and a coffee! Plus, they always give you a cute little chocolate bar with your coffee.

Brunch 3 gets even more ridiculous, with a pancake packed with ham and cheese and three pastries (along with all drinks and yogurt.) Do you see why I'm totally in love with P'tit Dej' a la McDo? C'est tout que j'aime!

And saving the best for last....les desserts! The last time I was there and ordered an apple pie, it was deep fried, just like the old days here! But I don't see it on the menu now. I do see, however, a seasonal menu item that looks mighty good. Pomme Façon Tatin Sundae, which looks an awful lot like an apple crisp sundae to me. McMiam!*

Three-story McDonald's in Toulouse, France at Capitole (the main square in the city).

*miam means "yum" in French.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Coffee Talk

I’ve already discussed cassoulet, for the “cassoulet” component of Cassoulet Café. But we really haven’t discussed the café part of it, have we? Be it the drink or the place. I mean, I’ve touched upon it, put in plugs for French and Italian coffee brands, talked about going to cafes, but I think I’ve really hidden how much coffee rules my life. Oh, it started out innocent enough. Trying to drink coffee at home, as an adolescent trying to feel like an adult, ending up with a disproportionate amount of creamer to coffee, to disguise the coffee-ness so it would be acceptable to a youth’s palate. Then ditching it for a Dr. Pepper.

Then Coffee-Mate came out with Hazelnut creamer. That is when my true coffee addiction began. It camouflaged the Folgers oh-so-well!

Then, as I started getting weary of all that non-dairy sweetness, we started to drink it black and a bit stronger. We moved on up to Yuban. But soon, we declared a ban on Yuban in our house. (Do you ban Yuban?) ;)

We were now in the midst of the Starbucks revolution and we adjusted accordingly. We thought that if we slurped down the burned tasting brew and liked it, we were true coffee connoisseurs. And certainly buying the beans and grinding them ourselves confirmed it! No more canned grounds for us, we said.

When we moved to France we suddenly felt like Coffee Pre-Schoolers . The coffee there was so strong that it shocked our palates and guts the first few mornings and we soon realized we only needed one cup to get going, as opposed to our normal three. After moving back to the States, we continued to make strong "puts-hair-on-your-chest" java, much to the dismay of our occasional guests. And when friends or family came to visit from France, we’d make requests for loads of Lavazza and Carte Noire to be brought to us.

Then my coffee maker sizzled out. Being the Google Queen that I am, I had to Google coffeemakers and read reviews on oodles of models. I came across a site about home roasting coffee beans. Roasting my own coffee? Why would I want to complicate my life more than it already is by adding another step to my coffee drinking regimen?

When FedEx came the next week to deliver my new coffee roaster, I was ecstatic but scared. Could someone like little ol’ me really take these green beans resembling lentils and actually come out with a product even close to Starbucks or Tully’s? I wasn’t so sure.

Fast-forward one year. We are officially coffee snobs. After taking that first sip of home roasted brew, Hubby and I looked at each other and could only say “WOW.” No after taste, no burnt flavor, and do we detect…chocolate notes? As home roasters often do, we now refer to that chain as Charbucks. Because, my friends, charred coffee water is not a sign of quality nor does consuming it make one the ultimate coffee connoisseur.

I’ve also switched from a drip maker to a French Press. (Do people in France really use these?! I don't know, but I think it ties in well with my's French and it's coffee.)
We serve up the best coffee in town and friends come from far and wide to enjoy a cup Chez Nous (at our house).

When Best Expat Friend was packing to come visit from France, she called to tell me she received my shopping list via email, but said I forgot to include my normal order for Carte Noire coffee. “Oh no,” I told her. “We don’t drink that stuff anymore. From now on, you’ll be taking my coffee back to France!”

And she did.

Reason #351 why I need to buy a ticket to France: she’s out of coffee.
ALERT! I was tagged by LaBeletteRouge and MyInnerFrenchGirl. So quickly, here are 10 Random Things About Moi:
  1. I could not stand the smell, taste or sight of coffee during pregnancy.
  2. I like Hawaii more than I like France. I wish I could live in Hawaii. :)
  3. I've held a real Acadamy Awards Oscar in my very own hands.
  4. McDonald's was my first real job in High School and it taught me to have a great work ethic that I appreciated ever since.
  5. I get migraines.
  6. My first concert was INXS, the Suicide Blonde Tour! :)
  7. I hate flying.
  8. I am pretty sure I came up with "$40 a Day" way before Rachael Ray did.
  9. The last concert I went to was Prince (Musicology)
  10. I had 20/600 vision before I had LASIK surgery

Monday, November 12, 2007

How to Stretch Your Dollar-Forty-Seven ($1.47) For Lunch

Part Two:

Going out to eat in France is just plain expensive. But didn't I say early on in this blog that if you had the desire to travel, you could find a way? But of course you can!

And take heart! The French, generally speaking, eat most of their meals at home. In fact, one of the most irritating things I encountered was the unwillingness of our Frenchie travel-mates to go through the McDrive on a long, grueling road trip. (I'm flashing back to a 100 degree day on the way to Paris in a Peugot, sans AC, eating Frenchie friends' pasta and mayonnaise salad---ew!--on the side of the road somewhere in the middle of the countryside which happen to have a stray picnic table for just this sort of situation.)

So, if you want to be French on your trip and save a buck-forty-seven when you can, all without losing the romance of being in France....pack a picnic!

"But I'm staying in the city!", you say. Bof! I say! The French are the most picnicking people I've seen, EVER. You can pack a little lunch find a bench in a park, or whatever your picture-perfect setting would be, and have le dejeuner.

My favorite sandwich to order in France is a jambon beurre, or ham and butter on a baguette. Sound disgusting? Yep, I thought so too the first time I accidentally ordered it. But it is delish! I promise! And so easy to make on the fly. And much cheaper to make yourself than ordering in a brasserie.

So to make one pique-nique style, go into a boucherie (butcher shop) and get a few slices of jambon (ham). I'm not a pork person, per se, but ham in France is something I eat constantly when I'm there, it is so darn good and addicting! Next head to a fromagerie (cheese shop) and peruse the hundreds of cheeses they have.

Cheese glorious cheese! (Just thinking about the cheese in France is making me want to quit writing this post and get back on Expedia to keep pricing tickets!) So you don't know what to order for cheese? Ask to gouter (taste) something and they will gladly accomodate. Or just be brave and order a couple different wedges and make sure you take note of the name of cheese for future reference. Get some butter if you wish for the beurre part of your jambon beurre.

You now need to get to the bakery and grab du pain (some bread).

And, of course, you'll need drinks, so why not grab a bottle of wine at the cave (wine store) if you drink it, or some flavored water (my favorite is Volvic Citron or Peche).
If you see an olive stand, sample some and then buy a little container. Add a bar of chocolate for dessert, or a pastry you've spotted in a window of a shop you've passed and couldn't pass up.

Find your "table" (picnic bench in a park is what I'm picturing). Rip open your bread, spread your butter, insert ham, et voila! A sandwich that cost me about $10 on the Champs-Elysees just cost you about $5 for two people, and it's probably fresher.

(Below: My $10 jambon beurre and I, somewhere on the Champs-Elysees)

(View from my jambon beurre, looking toward Arc de Triomphe.)

Of course, you can insert foodstuffs of your choice to make up your own designer picnic lunch, but this is an example of the basic things I like in my picnic basket. More importantly, you have saved a lot of Euros so that you can go to a nice restaurant for dinner that night, or lunch the next day or whatever you wish. That's the great's all about being creative and saving where you can.

So there you are. You have a romantic, dollar-friendly-meal that was fun to shop for and assemble, tastes great and has the perfect backdrop....France!

PS. I always have to have coffee after a meal. So after our picnic, we usually walk a bit to digest, and then we go to a brasserie or bistro or cafe to have our coffee. So, we have our cake and eat it too!

Friday, November 9, 2007

My Grandparents Started It....

I know I promised another $1.47 post today, but something has come to my attention.

After reading and commenting on a post on another blog, I suddenly remembered the very thing that commenced my obsession with France.

It wasn’t my uncle who moved there when I was four. It wasn’t his bride, my new tati (French aunt) either. It wasn’t the marionette clown they brought me when they came to visit . It wasn’t when my grandparents bought tickets to France to see their expat son’s new life.

It was something that happened when they came back. It involved toilet paper. The year was 1978. I was 5. We went to pick Grandma and Grandpa up at the airport. I remember Grandma pulling out all the francs and centimes she’d brought back to give to her grandkids as souvenirs. I remember her teaching me words like grandmere, grandpere, bonjour, comment allez vous. It was all so exciting. So exotic. So chic!

And then, she pulled from her purse some precisely folded, intense-pink....toilet paper. She showed it to me as if it were a precious work of art. I felt it. It was coarse, scratchy. But the color, it was so pretty! She said, “This is what toilet paper in France is like!”

I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt that by touching it, it connected me to a fairytale place a gazillion miles away that I already loved. It was a place I knew I could never go to, and that made it so much more alluring.

When I had friends over, I would pull the pink paper out and say, “See how beautiful French toilet paper is! See how rough it feels?”

I began to ask my grandparents how to say things in French. To me, they were the most worldly wise people around. They knew EVERYTHING about France. Grandma would tell me how to say thank you…mare-see-bow-koo. How are you? Koh-mow-tallee-voo. Goodbye…oh-ree-vwore. And so on.

Grandma related stories of the French children who were seen and never heard unless spoken to. They were respectful, perfect and never bratty like all the loud, obnoxious American kids. French kids must be so much more sophisticated than moi, I reasoned. It's because they are French.

After my aunt and uncle started having kids, we would get photos sent to us of the cute little baby milestones. But me, I would look at the things behind the baby. I’d look for clues of French life on the dinner table in the background. Everything looked so different and exotic.
More trips to France by my grandparents made me more fixated on France, if not depressed that I couldn’t attain my dream.

And then, I was of the age and grade to start French class. Unlike my peers, who had no French connection, I hung on every word the teacher taught us. I pored over the French textbook at home and went chapters ahead of the class. I mimicked my aunt’s pronunciation so that I could sound as authentic as possible. I didn’t want to sound like my classmates. “Bawn-joor Mon-sewer. Com-enT-Tallee-vooz.“ So, I mastered the phlegm-y French “R“, to the chagrin of my peers who just thought I was showing off. Je ne “care” pas! I would say in Franglais…to myself!

And then, things started to unravel. My grandparents wanted to speak French with me now. As if a light was turned on, I suddenly recoiled when I heard them speak. My perfect, sophisticated (if only in French things) grandparents were…..horrible at French! Quel horreur! J’en peux plus to hear them say another word in in this beautiful tongue that they slaughtered the second they opened leurs bouches.

For years, as my grandmother would order our whole family to ‘par-lay on fron-say ah tob-luh’ (speak French at the table), and she would say things repeatedly to my non-bi-lingual parents and siblings like, “Passay-doo-berrrrr”. I said “Passay-doo-berrrrrrrrrrrrr, seel-tah-play!” (Pass the butter, I said pass the butter please!)

The day before my grandfather died, in his pain and suffering, he stopped speaking. No one could get him to utter a word. The next day, I tried again to get a response by talking about his grand kids, his tall tales I knew by heart, but no response. Just a blank stare, like death was approaching. And then, against my personal vow made when French classes began, I spoke French to him. He squeezed my hand, turned and looked at me with a sudden spark in his eyes. He spoke. In French. I asked him questions, he answered. In French. I asked him more questions. He answered. In French. I told him how much I loved him, how he was my hero even if he never knew it before. In French. He told me he loved me. In French. I said good-bye to him. In French. Never before did his French sound so perfect to my ears. He never spoke again. He was gone later that day.

Six years later, my aging grandmere wanted to go see her son and grandsons. She hadn’t been to France without Grandpa. She bought me a ticket. She started my fascination with France….and brought it around full circle for me and made my dream come true.

At that is how it all began.....and it hasn‘t ended yet.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

How to Stretch Your Dollar-Forty-Seven ($1.47) Part One

So, has anyone been following the Dollar-Euro Saga lately? Thanks to Windows Vista eye candy (aka: Gadgets), I have a constant reminder of the conversion rate in the upper right hand corner of my screen; bad news pour moi each time I flip the lid open on my notebook. As of this very second, it costs exactly $1.467 to buy a Euro. OUCH. In my mind, it would be more amusing to flush actual dollars down my own toilet than to go to the bank to lose it all on paper.

Thankfully, I know that we can eat reasonable in France, and eat well! No, that does not mean that I'll be buying designer pastries tout les jours, or sitting in a salon du thé to eat le petit déjeuner every morning. We will have to be French if we want to go. When in, know the rest.

I love cafes (did I even have to mention that?), but a budget doesn't allow for eating breakfast in one everyday. For breakfast most days, I bought our chocolatines (pain au choc) or brioche from our neighborhood boulanagerie/patisserie and ate them at home, along with jus d'orange, Lavazza or Carte Noire coffee (purchased at the supermarket) and of course, yaourt. Our all time favorite yogurt seemed to be Les Petits Musclees. Made for kids, enjoyed by adults! But there are about a gazillion kinds of yogurts in the average market in France and I want to try them all!

But back to the point I'm trying to make. Since you can't go all the way to France and then not even go to a cafe, you can still have breakfast in one without breaking the bank. If you really want to be cheap, walk up to the bar and take in your coffee standing up, it'll be less expensive than sitting down. Personally, I don't like to do that because I prefer to pay more and sit comfortably, but it's what the locals often do. You are also allowed to bring in your previously purchased croissant. Many times, before I learned it was acceptable to bring in food, I ordered a croissant at the cafe, and they ran next door to the boulangerie to purchase it, and then served it to me for double the price.

I have gotten exceptional pastries at places with no brand name. Gorgeous, addicting and they cost a fraction of the pretentious ones, who insist that they are the only mouth-worthy (read: tourist trap) delectables.

I prefer the everyday bakeries and shops that les francais frequent. I like to stand in line with the 87-year old woman who has been a loyal customer of her neighborhood bakery for most her adult life. And I like rubbing shoulders with the other customers who live in the voisinage, some who make no qualms about sending a flute or pain de campagne back over the counter if it isn't perfect.

I like to have the shop owner recognize me after a few visits and help me with my pronunciation of their viennoiseries. (I once asked for an oki-tann (Occitaine)bread and the lady corrected me (oxi-tann) and each time I came in, she lovingly gave me a lesson in the pronunciation of her wares.) I like to fit in with the locals, not stand out. If you're into that kind of thing. It's a rich experience that cannot be planned ahead of time in one's travel itinerary saved in your computer documents.
Of course, I would like to visit the six-dollar-cup-of-hot-chocolate salons and buy five-dollar-per-bite-pastries in famous foodie-tourist places. But if it means that I have to wait years to return to La Belle France (when I have saved the giant stack of puny dollars or wait to see if it gains strength), then it's just not worth it to me.

Tomorrow: How to have a perfect, dollar friendly lunch in France (and not lose any of the romance!)

Meanwhile, visit a virtual bakery and learn how to identify and pronounce breads in French!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Depleted Delights--Memoirs of a Full Pantry

So I took inventory of my French pantry today. That is, the scanty items I have left on the ever-depleting-shelf of "Ingredients from France". Whenever my relatives or my best friend (a new expat in France) comes Stateside, they ask me for a grocery list. Of course, I joyfully provide one. First, je fais des courses on Auchan's website and make a virtual run up and down the aisles, making a list of items that could potentially make me the next Food Network Star! (If I was more experienced in the actual gourmet-cooking-thing.) Side note: I don't like Auchan at all in real life, but their website is great fun to peruse!

The first thing that is always on my list, and thankfully there is still a bit on my counter, is sel (salt).

I discovered the delectable, flaky Sel de Guérande when we lived there. What I have left is a small mound of grey gros sel, course salt, which is great, but I prefer the flaky stuff, which is even better!

I keep a ramekin of this next to my stove so it's easily accessible during cooking. This is all I have left :( But isn't it beautiful?

Next, I have a little jar of something I like to call....jam. Well, I'm using just like jam.

Bonne Maman (my favorite brand for jam), Poires aux Eclats de Cacao or Pears with Cocoa Nibs.

It's very good, sort of like a Poire Belle-Hélène for your toast. Does anyone know what else to do with this? I just adore the white jar!

Speaking of "what to do with", I have a tiny jar of lavender jelly I got while in Rocamadour. It was suggested that I add it to some chantilly (whipped cream), but other than that, I don't know what else to do with it.

I also have half a bottle of Maille Balsamic Vinegar (sort of hiding out in the above photo) but no Maille Moutarde à l'Ancienne to make vinaigrette.

Only one vial left in the saffron booty...

....loads of vanilla sugar (miam!) (That is French for YUM!)....

....some Poulain Grand Arome (not 1848--but it's still better than Quick!)....

and some creamed chestnuts that have been collecting dust on the shelf! (Don't ask me why I bought a product I didn't know how to eat.)

My kids' Mikado are gone, so are the Kinder Suprises as well as my gauffres with powdered sugar (I can pack down a package of those in one sitting) as well as other unattainable items I crave on a daily!

With such slim pickin's, it's looking like we need to book a trip to France! I also need to do some "research" for the blog! We need some new photos, some more cassoulet to gouter and report on, new cheeses to consume and vin rouge to gulp, ahem, I mean sip.

I'm off to check rates....stay tuned!