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September 30, 2010

A Real Frenchy Dinner!

When I first learned I was coming to Digoin, I researched the crap out of it. Given that there are only a handful of Digoinais Internet sites, most of which are a time warp to 1995, that didn't take me very long. In desperation, I then turned to Facebook, and carefully looked over everyone who had "liked" Digoin. I chose a woman who looked nice and asked her for advice on how to best travel from Paris to her fair city. We commenced a correspondence, and when I told her I had arrived she suggested meeting up last night.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect, since Polly Platt told me in her book "French or Foe" that it would take months, years even, for a French person to feel comfortable enough with a stranger to invite them into their sanctum. Maybe we'd go out for some pastis, I hypothesized. Perhaps she just intended on taking me on a tour of the charming countryside.

But non! She took me to her sanctum! She lives up in the hills just outside of Digoin, in a charming stone house with an ancient bread oven outside. She introduced me to her rotund dog, Desi, who looked distinctly human and who, after pleasantries were exchanged, held court in the armchair, sitting on her hind legs with one paw proffered as if she were queen and I was supposed to kiss her ring.

Suzanne went upstairs to grab her laptop so I could show her pictures of my family, and meanwhile her son Fabian came home. Fab just received his Master's in geography (juste comme mon frere!) and was in the process of moving to Macon to study dams. After I went through Facebook and showed her the important peeps in my life, she went through her own files and showed me all the family trips she's taken in the last year.

While we waited for her husband she served me vin de noix, a wine she had made with chestnuts. It was about a 3 on the sweetness scale from one to Manischewitz. Her husband Christian then arrived home from a rousing game of boules (the French version of Bocce) with his friends, and we sat down to eat. The first course was avocado halves filled with mayonnaise and an olive and sprinkled with pepper. The mayonnaise here is different from at home-- it's tangier and has more of a yellowish tint. What I ate last night was probably homemade. They then poured me a glass of AOC* Beaujolais, and Suzanne served me chicken, mushrooms and potatoes as a main course.

I attempted to explain to them what my job was in Portland, but it was difficult to do since nothing similar exists in France. Here, the state takes care of most of what nonprofits do in the US. I had a heckuva time trying to explain workplace giving. Plus, I mispronounced culture (cool-TUYR) as couture (coo-TUYR), so they thought I raised money for art and sewing. Bof.

Christian encouraged me to use baguette to sop up all the juices on my plate before the next course. "En Frace, c'est la sauce qui est la plus importante," he explained.

Next Suzanne presented us with a cheese plate. Christian went through each one and explained its origin, what kind of milk it is made with and how strong it was. He told me one was from Gier, and I thought he said giraffe, as if the cheese had been made from giraffe milk. Bof encore. There was a camembert, a roquefort, and five other cheeses whose names I forget. He encouraged me to start with the most mild and end with the strongest. "Mais tout est fort!" Suzanne countered. The last one I tried was so strong it made my eyes water. "Du vin! Du vin!" they exclaimed when they saw my expression.

Finally, dessert. Suzanne had marinated figs in a sauce of cinnamon and ginger, and offered a selection of petits fours to go along with them.

After dinner we retired in front of the fireplace and first watched a scintillating program about windmills, and then the soccer match between Lyon and Tel Aviv. Lyon won. It was about 11:00--or, excuse me--23:00 when I arrived back to my cell, stomach gurgling from all that lactose but heart happy that I had triumphed over Polly Platt.

*AOC= Appellation d'origine controllée, a designation given by the French government to wine, cheese, butter, etc. that comes from a specific geographical region and has met certain standards. Nothing but the mustard created in Dijon that meets the AOC standards may have AOC on its label.

September 28, 2010

Digoin Digest

I arrived yesterday in Digoin, the city of 8,500 souls where I will live and work for the next seven months. One of train conductors struck up a conversation with me on my way here from Paris, and when I told him where I was headed he wrinkled his nose and said, "Mais... pourqoui?!? C'est tout petit!" He seemed genuinely concerned that I was going to have a terrible time and hate France, so he gave me his number and said to call him if I was ever in Chalon.

My contact from the school was waiting for me at the station when I departed the train-- it wasn't hard for her to find me since I was the only person who got off. My new conductor friend had inflated my confidence by telling me that I spoke very good French, but all of that evaporated when I started talking with the teacher. I kept answering questions incorrectly (Ex: Her: Was it a long journey? Me: I arrived in France on Saturday.) and stuttering my French conjugations, so she must have thought I was a prize idiot.

She took me to a grocery store so I could buy some provisions: baguette, chevre, Nutella (bien sur) and then took me back to my new home. She opened the door with a flourish and said, "Bienvenue a ton grand appartement!" Gulp. My first thought was: jail cell. It seems much smaller than the single dorm room I had in college, though maybe with the bathroom included it's the same size. The walls are painted a depressing shade of blue, and they seemed to have crammed as much depressing gray furniture in it as possible. A bed, desk, wardrobe and shelves are all squeezed in alongside a mini fridge, cabinet, hot plate and toaster oven. I'm going to wait to take a picture of it until it looks less cell-like.

Rather than wallowing, I took off to try to explore the village in the waning sunlight. I spied a library and a gym filled with beefy French dudes, as well as a lot of closed storefronts. I got a bit lost on the way back and ended up having a very creepy experience by a fog-filled cemetery. An ancient episode of Gossip Girl I happened to have on my computer lulled me to sleep in my Internet-free lodging.

This morning I went out to explore the city and get some much-needed items, such as a towel and a knife with more cutting power than the butter knives in my room. I plastered a huge smile on my face and forced myself to say a cheerful, "Bonjour!" to everyone I passed. Most responded likewise. Some detoured to the other side of the street. I made a detour at the river, which looks like this:


After my stop at a supermarché, I returned home for a shower. I waited for ages for the water to heat up to no avail, so I went to my school's office for help. While I waited in the head secretary's office for a janitor, I made the acquaintance of several teachers coming in and out. One asked me how in the heck I had ended up in Digoin. "Did you fall out of the plane?" he asked me in French.

My plumbing fixed, I met up my contact teacher. She invited me to sit in on her English classes. I thought I was just there to observe, but instead she had me stand at the front of the class and field questions about myself. I made an apparently fatal error when answering the question about what music I like with "Carla Bruni." They all laughed. I redeemed myself by saying I also liked Louise Attaque. Their other questions included, "'Ave you been to Las Vay-gass?" "What ahr your 'obbies?" "Do you love Barack Obama?" "What you think about zee snails?" "What words of French do you know?" "What age do you 'ave?" "Pleeze speak mooch more slowly."

I was told my job would consist of helping small groups of these students prepare for their oral examination at the end of the year, where they must discuss "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and another surprise text.

Since I was surviving on the pain au chocolat and few gulps of orange juice I'd had that morning, by 18:00 I decided to come into town for a proper meal. I'm sitting at Entre Mer et Montagne, which thankfully has wifi, and waiting for it to be 20:00 so I can get dinner. The building I'm in is on the left side of the street in the picture below.


Thus begins the most awkward (and hopefully most rewarding) period of my life...

September 26, 2010

Pastry Porn

My No. 1 goal for my weekend in Paris was to hit up Ladurée, an amazing pastry shop introduced to me by my good friend Sarumph on my last trip here. This is where I fell irrevocably in love with French macarons, a fancy meringue cookie sandwich with ganache in between. If you're coming to The Wedding, you have Ladurée to thank for the fact that we will have macarons in lieu of a cake.

They have the prettiest pastel window displays.
After considering the Saint-Honoré Rose-Framboise so I could see what "raspberry stew" was like, I instead went with the Divin.
Almost too pretty to eat. Almost.
St. Nick and Mrs. Clause each got the macarons. The flavors represented above are chocolate, pistachio, coconut, lemon and coffee.
OMD this was good.
If you come to Paris I will take you here toute de suite.

Three of my meals thus far have had a Nutella course

I'm trying to stay up as late as I can to limit my jet lag to one day, so I thought I'd update my favorite ninnymuggins on my adventures thus far.

After my travails trying to make my flight in San Francisco this summer, I was determined to make it to the airport with plenty of time to spare yesterday (my goodness; was it only yesterday? feels like many moons ago). Thankfully The Dude was able to wrangle a gate pass, so I didn't have to spend that extra 2.5 hours staring moodily into the distance and missing him. Instead, my fellow passengers were treated to a gross display of human emotion as I boarded the plane and we were forced to part. What can I say. Four months is a long time without your beloved.

I wedged my way into my window seat next to a fleshy Englishman intent on invading my personal space. He promptly dozed off, leaning ever-closer to my shoulder, when he would awake with a snort and correct his posture. This continued for all six hours of our flight into Reykjavik, as I made several failed attempts to find a comfortable position that would allow me to doze. We made it into Keflavik Airport at 6:30 a.m. Icelandic time, 1:30 a.m. Minneapolis time.

(At this point jet lag claimed me. It is now Sunday morning for moi, the middle of the night for toi.)

I stumbled around the airport bleary of eye and definitely not bushy of tail. I got a croissant that was 250 krona. I thought it was kind of a lot of money for a croissant but I handed over my card anyway.

My next flight was much more comfortable and pleasant. I enjoyed looking at the quaint English hamlets from above and imagining that they populated by Middle Ages peasants as illustrated in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The plan was to meet my high school buddy Nick (henceforth known as St. Nick) at the RER station at Terminal One of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Which was great, except it doesn't exist. I took the airport shuttle to the next terminal, where I approached an official-looking man in a red vest to ask, with a huge smile plastered on my face, "Euh... excusez-moi, monsieur, mais ou est la station RER?" (I worked really hard on pronouncing that AIR-euh-AIR in my sleep-deprived state.) His response was something like, "Garble garble nonsense ferme garble garble bus nonsense. Tu comprends?"

I tried again. "La station AIR-euh-AIR. C'est ou?" Big, big smile. That tipped him off that I was a dumb American, and he told me, "The train ees close. You mus' take zee bus to next station. Go by there. OK?" No, I told him. Not OK. I was supposed to meet my friend by the train station and now I don't know where to go and I think I need to call him and I need a phone is there a phone I can use? At this point a Helpful European decided to take me on as his cause and he led me to a pay phone. He told me I could use my credit card to make a call. I thanked him profusely for all his help. Which was great, except my credit card wouldn't work. I awkwardly wielded my two suitcases into a shop with bizarrely small doors and bought a phone card. I awkwardly wielded my two suitcases out, went back to the phones and, as I called St. Nick's wife Mrs. Clause, I saw a tall lanky dude loping toward me. St. Nick! Merry Christmas!

Thank Rudolph for St. Nick, for I have no idea how I would have lugged my two gigantic suitcases up and down the dozens of flights of stairs on the way back to his abode. Elevators, Paris! Get on it! Mrs. Clause was waiting for us in their adorable French apartment with the yellow cupboards and blue and yellow dishes and view of Parisian rooftops. She made us delicious baguette sandwiches and, more importantly, proffered a giant vat of Nutella for dessert.

Once I could make my legs move again, we headed out for the Centre Pompidou, home to the world's best modern art. I'd gone there maybe five times before but never made it inside. The first gallery we went into had a gigantic painting of two faces. That's odd, I thought. That one's mouth looks like... and that one's eyes look like... oh. And there was a fiber sculpture in the room that looked like a weird canoe, except... oh. And there was a video of blood coming out of... oh.

Moving on...

I saw more nakedness in that museum than I have in my whole life. There were videos of butts clenching and unclenching. There were videos of naked ladies hula hooping with barbed wire on the beach. There was a massive sculpture of bloody gloves.

Once I get my teacher's card that gets me into national museums for free I'm totally going back.

The rest of the evening was a blur of skinny, booty, scarfy, chic, skinny, OMD eat a crepe Frenchies; me trying to make OMD (oh mon dieu) happen; Nutella; and crashing.

September 23, 2010

A Decade's Dream Down the Drain

Seven years, eight months, and 27 days. That's how far I got in my goal for a Puke-Free Decade. So tantalizingly close.

It all started on Boxing Day 2002: my 17 and 1/2 birthday. I was working my high school job selling tickets at the Duluth Omnimax Theatre when I started feeling odd. I was desperate to go home, but I had promised my big brother that I would comp tickets for him and his friends to see Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure at our 8:00 show. Shortly before he arrived, I upchucked. They came walking through the door joking and demanding a behind-the-scenes tour. "I can't," I groaned. "Jake, please take me home. I might die soon."

He refused, dedicated to learning about Shackleton's frigid plight. Then I upchucked again about 10 minutes into the show. I dragged myself up the stairs to find him at the top of the theater so I could stage whisper, "Jake. I'm begging you. I really need to go home. Please, for the love of Shackleton, take me home." Finally, he acquiesced.

I celebrated a much happier half-birthday the next year, and realized that it had been a whole year since I had puked. Then it was two, and then three years, despite my introduction to college drinking in general and UV Blue in particular. In '06 I had a Four More Years party, wherein my brother's friends tried to make me take shots and ruin my streak.

But nothing could ruin my streak. I apparently had a stomach of steel. Sure, there were times when I went one past my three-drink-per-night quota when I felt awfully dizzy and nauseated, but I refused to give in. Once I hit the five-year mark I set myself on a new goal: The Puke-Free Decade.

It seemed so easy, so attainable... until I jolted awake at 1:26 last night with terrible pains in my tummy. I rolled over, trying to find a more comfortable position. This wasn't just a normal stomachache, though. I felt an urge my body hadn't experienced in the entire life of the average second grader. "Am I really going to vom?!?" I thought to myself as I raced to the porcelain telephone. "I'm really going to vom! Noooooooooooo!"

I won't describe what happened next, other than to say it wasn't pretty. I trudged back to bed and wept salty tears of disgust and defeat. I mentally cursed everything I'd eaten that day, especially the sausage rolls appetizer I'd wolfed down at Brit's Pub last evening. I won't say they're full of poison, but I'm pretty sure they're full of poison.

Now I feel worthless. My Puke-Free Decade was the one thing I had going for me, the one thing that made me special and interesting. I have no reason to celebrate my half-birthday anymore. The streak was the perfect reason to throw myself a party. Celebrating your half-birthday for its own sake is just weird.

Sigh. I guess I'm seven hours in to my new streak...

September 14, 2010

Weeks of 10,000 Checklists

It's been nearly three weeks since we landed back in The Land of 10,000,000,000 Mosquitoes and so much has happened. We've reunited with family. We've reconnected with beloved friends. We've eaten alligator at the MN State Fair. We've welcomed the Jewish New Year. We've planned the crap out of our wedding. And we've started readying ourselves for the four-month separation when we'll be on different sides of the Atlantic.

I can't help but feel so grateful and full of love for everyone we have in our lives.

OK. Enough mush. Let me break it down for you so you can get caught up:

FRANCE UPDATE
  • I never told you about my visa experience, did I? After the agony of waiting until the very last minute for my paperwork to arrive so I could go on my planned trip to San Fran, it arrived the very next week and I was thus able to keep the 6 a.m. flight to Oakland I had booked. To make a long story short, I had set my alarm for 4:40 p.m. instead of a.m., and made it to the airport mere minutes too late to get on my flight. Woe! But then I sweet-talked an airline agent into getting me on the very next flight to San Francisco and all was well in the world again. Weeee! The next morning my cousins and I arrived in the city with an hour to spare before my appt. We spent that time browsing the racks at Zara, where time apparently stands still. Oh wait. No. My watch stopped. Woe! But I made it on time and all my paperwork was in order and they sent my passport to my rents' house the next week with a beautiful visa in its pages. Weeee! Emotional roller coaster: over.
  • I received an email from my school saying they would provide me with free housing in the school itself! Aside from the fact that I've always wanted to sleep in a school (nerd alert!), this is awesome for several reasons, namely: I don't have to bring a gazillion dollars to cover my deposit and first two month's rent before I get paid. My contact said they even provide all my linens and dishes and EVERYTHING! 
  • I get in to France on a Saturday and I won't be able to get into the school till Monday. Which means: weekend in Paris! And my fabulous friends Nick and Kelly are willing to house me in their apartment! Double score! 
  • Exclamation point!
WEDDING UPDATE
  • My FMIL (future mother-in-law) and I went shopping for the materials to assemble the brooch bouquets. My ma is hosting a fete des bouquets next Sunday chez PP in Duluth. Let me know if you'd like to join in on the fun.
  • I went bridesmaid dress shopping with my 'maids at Flutter in Uptown on Saturday. Each one has a completely different dress-- silhouette, designer, and color. They're going to look so hot that if I was a bridezilla I'd make them wear bags over their heads. But I'm not so it never even entered my mind... er... yeah. They were kind enough to join me afterward for my hair consultation, some OMG SHOEZ shopping, and my makeup consultation thereafter. They are champs of the highest order.
  • Not only did the ladies find dresses, but the FMIL did too! Actually, she found four, and I don't envy her having to choose between them because they're all hot to trot.
  • So now all I have left to do is the save the dates and the invitations and the wedding website and the menu selection and the music and the I need to go vom now.

September 3, 2010

These girls are pretty hot, but they're all butterfaces*

My favorite part of the Minnesota State Fair always has been and will be the Princess Kay of the Milky Way revolving, refrigerated chamber of butter heads. It's some sort of beauty pageant for women related to dairy farmers. Though there can be only one Princess Kay, everyone's a winner because all the finalists get their heads carved out of a giant block of butter.


I like imagining this year's Thanksgiving dinner at these ladies' homes, where the turkey is not the piece de resistance. No, the most joyous moment of the meal is when Princess Kay's parents march in, holding their daughter's head immortalized in delicious Minnesota butter. They triumphantly plant her upon a pedestal in the middle of the table as Great Aunt Myrtle weeps and Grandpa Gilbert's chest puffs out with pride. At first people are hesitant to mar this masterpiece, but they soon get over their squeamishness as they smear a bit of her ear on their roll, the bridge of her nose on their corn. Cousin Jimmy will use a lock of her tresses to smother on his mashed potatoes, and make the inevitable joke about there being hair in his butter as everyone rolls their eyes. 

*Joke courtesy of Chris Lund.