Sunday, September 11, 2011

An American (fumbling her way around) in Paris

I arrived in Paris early in the moring on August 30th and was immediately thrown into a new world. French signs, the echoes of a new language surrounding me. I found my way through customs and immigration and baggage claim, and then headed off to find my rental car. After wandering around lost, looking for the desk, I finally found my way, where thankfully, the agent spoke English (and quite beautifully). I don't know if they were just having a slow morning or she was being exceptionally kind, but when I arrived at my car (expecting the tiny hatchback automatic I had reserved), I found a decked out, completely loaded Renault sedan. I pushed the buttons on the fob, loaded my luggage inside, then curiously looked at the black "credit-card" the agent had presented to me as my key. The steering column had no key hole. There was a 'start' button on the dash, but it didn't work. For 5 minutes I sat in the car, staring at a dash of buttons and knobs and trying to figure out how the hell to start my vehicle, stubbornly refusing to be the idiot American that had to ask how to start the car. Finally, after several moments of searching, I found a small, unmarked slot that my "key" fit into, down below the radio controls. I slid it in, pushed the "start" button...and was relieved beyond measure to hear the engine turn over. I figured out how to turn off the parking brake (a button on the center console) and began the arduous task of exiting the parking garage.

If you've never driven in France, here are some tips. First of all, every car in France is TINY by American standards--so the roads and parking spots are sized accordingly. There were places in the parking garage where the lane, which was bordered by concrete walls on each side, was only 2-3 inches wider than my vehicle, no exaggeration. To say I was driving slowly would be an understatement.

Once I got out onto the road, things weren't much better. I had wisely reviewed French traffic signs before I left, so I wasn't completely lost, but WOW. French drivers are crazy. They rarely use signals, cut around you within inches, and drive like bats out of hell. Motorcycles zoom around you, weaving between you and the surrounding cars, so close that if I were to put my arm out the wndow, I would certainly knock the rider off his bike. The other drivers, especially trucks, will run your ass over if you drive the speed limit. Here I am, driving in Paris off of hand-written instructions to a cell-phone store to buy a SIM card for my phone (so Brad and I can call each other without paying a small fortune), unable to read most of the signs, and am surrounded by insane drivers. After circling the place four times (I kid you not), I finally end up at the French version of a shopping mall, which looks nothing like a shopping mall--it looks like an industrial complex (which is why I drove past it twice--it didn't look a thing like what I expected). I get inside--and the mall isn't open yet, it is only 8 AM. So, I find a McDonalds, the only thing open in the mall at that hour--and order a cafe' au lait and a freshly baked chocolate croissant. Funny, I don't recall THAT being on the menu in the US. It wasn't the best pain au chocolat I had during my trip, but it was much better than many of the American versions I'd had over the years!

Finally I made it to the cell phone store, struggled through my transaction with a young man who spoke excellent English (but who kept saying how bad it was--I reassured him otherwise), and then headed back to my car to make the trek out to Vitry-le-Francois, the small village we were staying in.

My brief time in Paris had lulled me into thinking that I would get by just fine without knowing French--then I arrived in rural France and realized just how wrong I was. Here in Vitry, I've met 3 people who speak English. Three. Everyone else speaks French only and expects you to do the same. My idealistic bubble was burst when I arrived at my hotel. Madame owner spoke about 10 words of English. We muddled our way through the check-in, where I got my very old-fashioned key attached to a 10 pound paper-weight, and trekked upstairs to my room.

The room was very simple and small, but clean and with a modern bathroom. The hotel is not air conditioned, so I was greeted by the sight of a small balcony, the shutters and doors thrown open, the sounds of the street below filtering in. The weather was lovely--about 70 degrees--so I was content to enjoy the breeze and the sounds of daily life below. I unpacked a few things, then showered and settled in for a nap to stave off the jet lag.

After a couple of hours of rest, I dressed and headed out for dinner. I arrived at one restaurant, threw out the couple of phrases of French I knew, requesting a table, and had the owner begin barking at me in French. I asked if he spoke English, to which he just laughed. He pointed to the menu and basically told me that they were only serving sandwiches at that time, and stalked off. An old, toothless man, who reeked of whisky and stale cigarettes then saunters/wobbles his way over to me, and proceeds to laugh. in. my. face. Not an amused chuckle, but an all out, wheezy laugh. In my face. I tossed the menu on the counter, turned and stalked out the door.

I then made my way next door, hesistatingly asking for a table, terrified of a repeat performance and wondering if the "rude, arrogant French" stereotype was true. I was prepared to hate France, frustrated already by my day and wondering how I was going to get through ten days of this. But the woman who greeted me was very friendly, and when she realized I wasn't conversant in French, she kindly tolerated my butchered French and answered me in English, even helping me pronounce a few words. I had a lovely meal: a vinaigrette-dressed salad of the most amazingly beautiful lettuce (French chefs baby their greens and treat them gently--they arrive as beautiful as when they were picked. American chefs cut them with knives and abuse them, soaking them in water, so we get twisted, bland, wilting stuff), topped with a hearty slice of toasted bread, topped with melted cheese, the French version of bacon (pork belly, just cut and treated a bit different than what we are used to), slices of juicy, ripe tomato, and a soft-cooked egg. It was absolutely heavenly. The velvety egg yolk combining with the tart vinaigrette; the savory, fatty bacon; the crunchy texture of the toasted bread; the saltiness of the cheese; the brightness of the tomato--it was wonderful. Afterwards, I enjoyed a heavenly bowl of melt-in-your-mouth cream-puffs filled with ice cream and topped with dark chocolate sauce, and the ubiquitous cup of espresso. I left full, happy, and completely in love with French cuisine.

It was an opinion that did not change over the course of my trip. The food here is, without a doubt, amazing. Other than one bad experence, in which we landed in a tourist trap on a Sunday evening, when all the decent places were closed, we had exceptional meals. The food we ate was not overly complicated, as Frech cuisine seems to get a bad rap for--we ate simple, regional fare, well-prepared, in which the ingredients were of exceptional quality.

We had a few interesting moments along the way, though. Despite the fact that my French vocabulary and ability to converse was increasing exponentially each day, I ordered what I thought was veal, tete au veau at one restaurant. The waiter pointed to his cheek, saying "tete?" and questioning my choice. Thinking he was referring to the cheek of veal, of which I was more than willing to try, I said "Oui" and confirmed my order. My meal came out in a ceramic crock, and inside where chunks of meat and vegetables, surrounded by large chucks of a fatty substance. Blech. The meat and vegetables tasted wonderful, so I ate those and picked around the big fatty pieces, thinking that perhaps they were included to flavor the rest of the dish. I finished my meal, content, and went on my way.

The next night, as I was leafing through my guide book in preparation for the following day, I found a passage particularly funny--it recommended that diners try many things, when it came to French cuisine, but that they "might want to skip the tete au veau (calf's head) and save that for the truly adventurous." Ugh--I'd eaten calf's head! I was grossed out for about a millisecond, and then realized that it didn't matter--the meat I'd eaten had tasted pretty good--and chalked it up to one of those moments I would always laugh over.

Brad had his own "calf's head" moment when he inadvertently ordered a pig's foot a few nights later. It was rolled in breadcrumbs and crunchy and actually tasted pretty good, but not the most filling dish, since there is little edible meat in a pig's foot (mostly fat and gristle). But it was funny, laughing at his look of surprise when the pork he'd ordered showed up, hoof and all.

As I'm sure you've surmised from reading this, the French eat just about every part of the animal. Andouillette, a local delicacy, is tripe sausage. If you can get over the smell, you might like it, but it really stinks. We knew what it was when we ordered it, but willing to give it a shot after seeing it on menus everywhere, we were turned off by the smell and texture. Calf's head, pig's feet, lots of liver--the French don't believe in wasting any part of the animal. And honestly, most of it is pretty good when covered in sauce and cooked with herbs and all.

The French also eat a lot of eggs. On salads, sandwiches, pizza. Whereas we eat a lot of eggs for breakfast, they consume eggs later in the day--the breakfasts here are often baguette with jam, fruit, and yogurt. I never realized how wonderful an egg can be on salad or baked into a pizza, but now that I've had it, you can bet I'll be adding them to my cooking at home.

More tomorrow...stay tuned. 

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