Friday, January 23, 2009

Messed Up

You told me, because they told you
You warned me, like they warned you.

You did your best, unlike the rest
You used your talent, to release your stress

You drew your freedom, you drew your soul
You drew your dreams, for all to hold...

Until you could take them back for good
You painted the world you knew you'd have

The one you left
The one you had.

You slowly made your tiny hole
Into a home, instead of hell.
You brought it to us with your eyes and hand

You drew the only things you could see,
which wasn't much, to eyes that are free.

And when they ripped you away from security,
They said there was reason, "you're soon to be free"

But instead of getting a reward
You were at the mercy of the new prison's "lord"
When he slammed his fist into your head,
you didn't know it was coming, you thought were dead

The blows kept coming from all around
The darkness and pain kept you down

When they were done, they told you to leave
Or they would finish you, and leave you to bleed

They took your brush, they took your pen,
they took your life, and hemmed you in.

And now all you want is to go home,
Where you belong, where you will be

Oil painting  by My Brother, 2008

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Coffee Talk...Revised

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 a metal can of...Yuban! But soon, we declared a ban on Yuban in our house, because we were finding ourselves in the midst of the Starbucks revolution and we adjusted accordingly. We thought that if we slurped down the burnt-tasting brew (and bonus points if we actually liked it), then we were true coffee connoisseurs. And certainly buying the beans and grinding them ourselves confirmed it! No more canned grounds for us, we said.

But then 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 (and really, who isn't nowadays?), I had to Google "coffeemakers" and read reviews on oodles of brands and models. As I pored over brewing devices, 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 intimidated. 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 two years. 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 dear friends, charred coffee water is not a sign of quality, nor does consuming it make one the ultimate coffee connoisseur.

I’ve also added a French Press (ok, I have three of them) to my coffeemaker collection. 

We serve up the best coffee in town, heck, in the state! and friends come from far and wide to enjoy a cuppa Chez Nous (at our house).

When my Best Expat Friend was packing to come visit from France, she called to tell me she received my shopping list, but said I forgot to include my normal order for the usual 10 bricks of 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 does.

Stay tuned, as I have some exciting things concerning coffee coming up!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Coffee, Please!

This is a rerun of an early Cassoulet Cafe post...enjoy!

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 Belle 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".

Saturday, January 3, 2009

My Fear Came True...

As you may remember, my brother was about to transfer to a lower level prison, which was supposed to be a good thing. Well, in the California Department of Corrections, it seems that the MO is Opposite Day...every day! Of course, we knew that, which is why we have been on pins and needles for the last few months, just waiting for word of the impending transfer. He had been assured by his counselor that he wouldn't get sent to a dorm-type situation. In Opposite Land, this means that is exactly where he got sent.

Have you seen those Lock Up shows on MSNBC or National Geographic, where they feature the dorms, ex-gyms used to house hundreds upon hundreds of inmates in triple and quadruple bunks, one foot apart from the next, with all races, gangs and affiliations under one roof, nowhere to hide, no walls, no dark catch my drift. An atom bomb ready to go off.

Yesterday we received a call from my brother. Thirty minutes after he arrived at the new prison, he was jumped and beaten very badly by a gang of his own race. They didn't like the prison he came from. That was all. He thought his back was broken. They told him to leave. LEAVE. WTH? Basically, they weren't allowing him to be there and if he didn't "leave" they would kill him.

In prison, snitching is something you don't even consider doing. Even if you're hurt. The only thing he could think of was to tell the guards he was going to hurt himself. They immediately took him to a "crisis bed", which was a tiny linoleum cell, stripped him naked, gave him a mattress and two sheets. And there he was, for 21 days, until yesterday morning. They sent him to a mental hospital (because of the suicide threat) and he was able to call us.

I talked to him for two hours! He's ok, he got xrays, and is being taken care of now. I told him he did the right thing! After not knowing all these months, no phone calls or anything, this was such a roller coaster of emotions, I almost vomited.

We can actually call the day room and get him on the phone! It has never been like this these past 4 years. We've never had a way to contact him except by mail.

We have 14 months to go. I hope and pray that he can just stay where he is. We don't know at this point. But for now, life is good for him. He feels like he's in paradise, he said. They are treating him with dignity and he actually has a room to himself.

He didn't deserve all of this. Like he said to me yesterday, "I deserved something for what I did (bar fight), but I didn't deserve this much."

And so, I pull my poem out again, and relive the feelings of seeing my baby brother in the fight for his life. I'm still so proud of him for making the life's changes he has in prison. He's a good person. I wish this was over now. And now, I get the privilege to call him as soon as I post this.

*This is not him, this was his celly, he painted (oils).