Search this blog

December 31, 2010

Wes Anderson's Happy Place

I'm coming off of a week of hardcore Paris touristing with the little brother, which came on the heels of a week of hardcore Morocc'ing, both of which I fully intend to tell you about. But I want to wait till I'm back in my Digoin palace and have the leisure of staring contemplatively at the wall for hours on end, which is how I usually prefer to blog.

I spent yesterday and today at a much more leisurely pace, and tried my best not to feel too bad about wasting precious Parisian hours in a movie theater watching Love and Other Drugs (en version originale, no less) and in St. Nicholas and Kelly's apartment reading March by Geraldine Brooks.

But then the guilt was just too much, so Kelly and I hit up the NYT-approved Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature. It's full of taxidermied animals and velvet wallpaper and twee hand-written explanatory signs and drawers with elaborately decorated guns in them and boar heads and stuff.

And bears!

And weird stuff in jars!

And the heads of small horned beasts arranged geometrically on the ceiling!

And stuffed gorillas about to dine near an artist's rendering of their innards!

And the insides of hunting cabins so twee you can hardly stand it!

I know of several people who would get a huge kick out of this place (Will, I'm looking especially hard at you), so why don't you just drop the pretenses and fly to France this month? I'm looking at at LEAST a 1.5-month-long visitor drought till manf gets here.

Just saying.

December 20, 2010

Morocco en bref

I'm sitting in an Internet café in Meknès right now, a city where our host Fayçal studies the science of plant protection. I promise to do an in-depth, day-by-day recap when I return to Francey, but for now a few quick observations:
  • I have experienced incredible hospitality here. Fayçal's friend Hattim has opened his home to us and made sure we have everything we need. Fayçal's mother has gone all out preparing us not one but two elaborate, multi-course Moroccan meals, during which she frequently insists, "Mange, Nina," despite my protestations that I might actually die if I force something else into my mouth. The flavors and textures and smells are all divine; it would be a happy death.
  • The city of Fès, where we're staying, is full of small, red Petits Taxis, which can hold three people at a time and cost the equivalent of 1-2€ for a cross-town voyage.
  • We visited the 1200-year-old Medina on Saturday night, designated by UNESCO as the oldest in the world. There were stands with heaps of dates, figs, dried apricots, and nuts. There were stands selling traditional caftans and the ubiquitous robes for men with pointed hoods. Stands for felt hats (including fezes, bien sur). Stands for live chickens with one glassy-eyed camel head. Goat heads. Pottery decorated in famous Fès blue. Silver. Leather. Etc...
 I'm going to head out in search of lunch, but look for more Morocco Pants on Thursday, Inch'Allah.

December 17, 2010

Holiday melancholia

Right now, at this very moment, my fiancé is sleeping in my bed at my parents' house, having just eaten a scrumptious dinner prepared by my dear mama and presumably having been schooled in Scrabble by my older brother, entertained by He Who Makes Noise (my younger brother), and philosophized to by my papa. And I am so, so jealous.

I'm not usually one who gets homesick very easily, but this is the first holiday season I've spent so far from all my peeps. Oh, how I miss them! How I miss Duluth and Minneapolis and Portland, the places where I've left the largest, most irreplaceable chunks of my heart.

I miss pumpkin pie and Blue Moon beer and doggy bags and big American breakfasts and customers always being right and cookies and gyms where everyone ignores you and always having correct subject/verb agreement and COUCHES and ovens big enough to cook two turkeys if I wanted to and wearing bright colors and cheap haircuts and hot apple cider and knitting and being 100% comprehensible (unless I'm mumbling) and personal space and people caring that Sarah Palin might be our next president and keeping Portland weird and reading real books in English and soft water and...

You. More than anything in the whole entire world, I miss you.

December 12, 2010

Bonne nuit, Francey Pantsers!

I hope this gives you as much gut-busting, creeptastic joy as it gave me. 

*Sent to me by my Main Mec, Baptiste

December 11, 2010

The most adorable two hours of my week

I ran into one of the English teachers from the local middle school at the cantine a few weeks ago, and he requested that I come into some of his classes of sixièmes (10- and 11-year-olds) to talk about about what life was like for their compatriots across the pond.

After enlisting the help of fabulous Texas middle school teacher Aberdeen, who was also in my French classes of yore at the U of M, I compiled answers to the teacher's list of questions: How long is the school day? Do the students wear uniforms? What kinds of clubs are available? What food do they have in the cafeteria? Etc. (Thanks Aberdeen! Now everyone go read her blog.)

I got to the classroom a bit early, and the students were crowding around the door, waiting for their teacher. They. Were. Adorable. Some of them seemed barely 3 feet high, and they just had the cutest little French faces. Once they discovered that I was The American talking to them that day they encircled me and chirped, "'Ello! Good afternoon! 'Ow ah yoo!"

When the teacher came he unlocked the door and they filed in, each repeating, "Good afternoon!" before going to their desk. They all stood politely beside their chairs until they were told to sit down. They started the class by practicing their questions. The teacher would prompt them in French, telling them to ask me things like whether I had any brothers or sisters. Those who knew the sentence structure would point their index finger in the air and moan, "Mister! Mister!" when they wanted to be called upon. Some of the questions I was asked included:

Do yoo lahk flowers? Do yoo lahk Michael Jackson?* What ees your address mail? Haff yoo got a boyfriend? Do yoo spek Portuguese? Do yoo spek...attend...c'est quoi le mot...Chinese? What ees your telephone numbah? Do yoo beleef in Fazzer Christmas? Do yoo lahk leesen zuh blues? What your muzzer do for job? Do yoo lahk your fiancé? Do yoo sink Barack Obama ees good president? Do yoo haff an animal pet? 'Ow old ah yoo?

For the latter I told them 25, and they whispered among themselves trying to decide what that translated to in French (numbers in another language are always so hard). One of them announced, "Elle a trente-sept ans! (She's 37 years old!)"

After my interrogation was over, I told them about life in America. They were envious that students there get out of school at around 2:30 or 3:00--here they have school until 6:00--but astonished that Americans have to go to school all day on Wednesdays. Elementary students here have Wednesdays off, and everyone else only goes to school till noon. They were similarly incensed that the kids only had about a half hour for lunch. Here they get two hours.

The Duluth Public Schools lunch menu was another source of envy. Several clutched their chests and smacked their lips when I told them their friends overseas enjoyed chicken nuggets for lunch last Friday. They also thought Rotini Hotdish sounded divine, which means I did not explain it correctly. Turkey hot dogs, however, did not sound as appetizing to them. They were impressed at the number of sports available for students, and that if you're a member of a high school team you practice your sport every day after school. Jaws literally dropped.

I offered to teach them the "We've got spirit, s-p-i-r-i-t spirit" cheer, which is always a big hit. They were amazed at the complicated clapping that accompanies it, and when I finished I got a deafening round of applause. When the bell rung the teacher told them all to thank me, and I got a chorus of adorable gratitude.

One student, who still hasn't mastered his "th" sound, beamed and yelled, "F**k yoo!"

*Fun fact: The school has a Michael Jackson club.

December 9, 2010

More creepy French mannequins delight, terrify American tourist

I know I've been posting like a mad dog this week, but I'm trying to make up for the time I'll be sans computer in MOROCCO in a mere week and change. Did I mention I'm going to MOROCCO? I'll be travelling with a very lovely lady named EJ, an assistant in Angers (pronounced /ON-zhay/, not /AIN-gurrs/). You should read her blog. Anyway, we're going to have a lovely five days in Fes wearing the eponymous hats, huffing spices and riding magic carpets. Bonus: she speaks a little Arabic.

But MOROCCO (did I mention I was going there? In like a week?) is not the reason why we're gathered here today. No sir; we're here to talk about the creepy brand of museum mannequin that France does so very well.

"I hope you don't mind if I stand here and get a really good vacant stare going, my good sir. It is ever-so-tiring to maneuver through Medieval France with these ridiculous wings on my shoulders." "Oh, not at all, Sister! I intend to do the same."

One of my cousin Kiki's very most favoritest hobbies is to go wine tasting. Living but a wee distance away from Nappa Valley in California, it's something she's able to partake in on the reg. As she is currently residing in Burgundy, it was only natural that we sample the local, world-famous brand of delicious fermented grape.

My partner in crime Missy Rococo wrangled her buddy Atomic Tom into chauffeuring us to Beaune, a city known for its beauty, hospices, and wine, of course. Every year the city holds a gigantic wine auction to benefit charity.

"No, I don't think I shall sew anything today. I'll just fondle these spools of thread and stare vacantly into the distance. Tis the new fashion, you know."

After we sampled what the caves at Patriarchie had to offer (b-t-dubs... you're left completely alone in their cellars and can sample as much of the wines on display as you dare), we made our way to the Hospices de Beaune, a hospital founded in 1443 under the rule of Burgundy Duke Philip le Bon. It features beautiful tiled roofs, examples of red-blanketed hospital beds tailored to the short men of yore, and a healthy stock of be-wimpled creepy mannequins. Jackpot!

"I'm famous 'round these parts for being one of the few people who can appear to be engaged in the task at hand. That and skinning rabbits."

December 7, 2010

Why you should always be nice to secretaries

Meet Sophie and Christianne, two of the coolest chicks Diggy Town has to offer. These fabulous ladies really take care of me. They're the ones who moved me into my palace from the cell when they learned I would be having guests. They're the ones who thought it imperative that I learned the wonders of French chocolates and promptly bought me a box. In short, they rock.

Whenever I try to thank them profusely for their generosity they say, "Bah, mais c'est normale!" 

When Christianne found out my cousin was going to be in town this week, she hatched a plan to make us real French crêpes ("Not zuh pan-cake!") one afternoon. She'd go home and make them during her lunch period, and then we would feast at precisely 16:00.

As toppings she brought Nutella, honey, and a homemade fig-almond jam. She also brought me marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) and speculoos cookies, which I plan to crumble into my speculoos paste to make chunky speculoos paste. I apologize if I just blew your mind. As we noshed on the excellent fare, she gave us advice on the best wines (Burgundy, of course) and a great Chinese buffet 45 km away. 

I translated their French for Kiki and her English for them, but they said they didn't need a translation for our grunts of satisfaction.

Thumbs up for crêpes!

December 6, 2010

Strasbourg: Capital de Noel

I spent much of my life resenting Christmas. As one of three Jewish kids at my grade level in the entire city, I had a yearly obligation to bring my menorah in and explain dreidel and respond to questions about the "Jewish Christmas," which got really old, really fast. In protest I would merely mouth the words of Christmas carols at school holiday concerts, and snottily retort, "And a Happy Hannukah to YOU!" when I was wished a Merry Christmas.

Thankfully, I eventually got over it and realized that people were not trying to rub my other-ness in my face when they genuinely wanted to know why I didn't have a Christmas tree. This year, I decided to fully embrace the holiday by going with my cousin to Strasbourg, the self-proclaimed Christmas Capital of the World, for their famed Christmas markets.

Our six-hour train ride there was the perfect way to get into the spirit. A light snow was falling as we wound our way through the Alsatian countryside, passing picturesque hilltops and frozen lakes. Our Couch Surfing host picked us up at the train station, and after a snack of St. Nicholas pastries and hot cocoa we left to freeze our tuchuses off at the Christmas Markets.

We got there right at dusk, and were delighted by the fairy lights covering the old city. We wandered around the merchants selling pretzels, choucroute (sauerkraut, lardons, and spaetzle), lots and lots of vin chaud (mulled wine) and every kind of Christmas present you could want. Ornaments. Little Alsatian houses and figurines to accompany them. Beer steins. Tablecloths. Ceramic molds for making kugelhopf. And the gift for the man who has everything: a CD from the local Peruvian pan flautist.

There were about a half-dozen pods of wooden huts grouped together in various parts of the city. The streets connecting them were all decked out with lights, ornaments, and stuffed animals. Despite the frigid cold, the decorations made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

After a few hours our feet had turned to blocks of ice, so we headed back to our host's abode to thaw out. But we were right back in the thick of the action the next morning, wearing three pairs of socks and two pairs of leggings under our jeans and boots.

We scoured an outdoor antique market, where I found a lovely vintage something-something for my dear m'ma. We also visited the Alsatian Museum (which I'd highly recommend) and the Historical Museum (meh...skip it). We tried to make it to the Cathedral in time to watch the astronomical clock do its thing, but it turns out you need tickets and by the time we got there it was sold out.

I guess that means I'll have to go back, which is quite alright with me. This place is charms-a-minute, and melted my cold Grinchy heart.

December 5, 2010

This is why I'm fat

My cousin Kiki is currently visiting, and she's rekindled my desire to eat my way through this country. The girl is fearless, and as such in the last week we have sampled fare not for the faint of heart. (Literally. This food is so rich it would kill you if you had a faint heart.)

Without further ado, this is why I'm fat:

Lunch at Le Relais des Canalous, Digoin
Entrées: Tartine de chèvre chaud et pesto sur saladine, demi-douzaine d'escargots
Plats: Joue de boeuf confite à la Bourguignoone, Cuisses de grenouilles à la persillade
Fromage: Roblochon with mustard seed, Brie de Meaux, Stinky goat
Dessert: Profiteroles au chocolat, Tiramasu

A blizzard hit Digoin Thursday night, dumping a whole five inches on the town by the next morning. As a result, the buses weren't running, and I had only a handful of kids in each class. Kiki and I had hoped to go to Beaune that afternoon to sample some of their world-class vino, but the roads were impassable so we had to stay in Diggy instead.

In order to make the best of our predicament, I suggested we get Burgundized at a nice restaurant. Like a rockstar, Kiki was all about getting the fixed price menu with escargots and frogs' legs. Unlike the none-too-appetizing specimens I'd encountered in Paray-le-Monial a few months back, these were served piping hot and drowning in a delicious parsley-garlic-butter sauce.

The frogs' legs were pan-fried and looked like chicken wings. They were to be eaten by hand, and were, "so garlicky and good and delicious!" quoth Kiki. I sampled one, and was shocked by how many itty bitty bones there were to eat around. What do frogs need so many bones for, I ask you? There's a joke in here somewhere about "jumping your bones," but I'm carb crashing and can't find it.

No matter. My beef cheeks were unbelievably tender, and accompanied by crisp, thick frites and vegatables. Next up was the cheese course. I've been trying really hard to get excited about cheese despite my mild lactose intolerance. But sometimes stinky cheese is just stinky, with no redeeming qualities. There was a representative from this genus of fromage-dom on the plate, but there was also a lovely roblochon with a spicy mustard seed exterior that I got friendly with.

Dessert was to die for. My tiramasu was the lightest, creamiest slice of heaven on earth. The chocolate sauce on the profiteroles were sinful, dark, and daring. Clearly, I could write a romance novel about this.

Dinner at Le Merle Blanc, Digoin
Entrées: Filets de bar superposés en duxelles de champignons et escargots, Oeufs en meurette à la bourguignonne
Plats: Canard confit avec purée de pommes de terre, Faux-filet de charolais et sa garniture
Fromage: Fromage blanc
Dessert: Ile flottante avec pralines rosés, Crumble aux pommes et aux noix en caramel laitier
Wine: Domaine Michel-Andreotti Montagny 2009 1er Cru Chardonnay de Bourgogne, Michel Sarrazin 2008 Givry Sous La Roche

Suzanne picked us up on Thursday night and took us back to her house, where Christian had been watching their two grandchildren. The boy approached me and looked like he wanted to tell me a secret so I knelt down. He planted a quick kiss on my cheek, and then went up to Kiki to do the same. The 4-year-old girl was next, and removed her pacifier to give me a bisou. It was the cutest thing, possibly ever.

We braved the icy roads and went to Le Merle Blanc, which Suzanne had deemed the best quality food for the price in all of Digoin. After our meal I'm inclined to agree. My entrée was delicious skewers of mushrooms and escargots on toasts, with a gratinéed cheese topping. Kiki sampled the local specialty oeufs en meurettes, eggs in a red wine sauce with lardons. She said it's the best thing she's eaten in France so far (she's had Ladurée macarons, so that's really saying something).

The next course brought me deliciously rich duck confit, made from the same beast used to produce foie gras. The creamy mashed potatoes made the perfect complement. Kiki's Charolais steak (another local specialty) had a chunk of herb butter melting on top, and was flanked by chestnuts and cabbage. She was already getting incredibly full, and could only finish about half of what was on her plate. France, please get doggy bags already.

She was the only one with a cheese course ,and had to really psych herself up to be able to stand even a spoonful on such a full belly. But, like I said, she's a rockstar. She liberally sprinkled sugar on her fromage blanc-- very fresh cheese that almost has a yogurt consistency. Christian informed us that he prefers to eat it with salt, pepper, and garlic.

All the while, we were downing the excellent Burgundy wines that Christian had selected-- a very floral red from Givry and an impeccable Chardonnay from Saint Vallerin. Myam.

I must admit, I was more enamored with Kiki's dessert than my own. She got an apple cobbler in a divine caramel sauce. I was lucky enough to get a bite, and had to restrain myself from grabbing the rest and running away to savor it in private. I had wanted to try the Ile Flottante, meringue in an anise-flavored English cream. It was alright, but not really my bag.

Chez Couch Surfing Host, Strasbourg
Entrée: Sauerkraut topped with sliced magrette (smoked duck breast)
Plat: Chicken sausage, andouille (blood) sausage, apple sauce, chestnuts
Dessert: Tarte flambée

We arrived in Strasbourg on Friday afternoon for a weekend of Christmas marketing. After dropping our stuff off at our host's apartment, we braved the frigid temperatures to go back in the city and enjoy the lights, gift displays, and vin chaud. We were pretty frozen solid by the time we returned a few hours later, and we were more than ready for some hearty Alsatian fare.

Both Kiki and I adore sauerkraut, and were delighted by the flavor combination of the pungent cabbage with the flavorful duck. She was brave enough to try the blood sausage, but I opted instead for the infinitely more Kosher chicken. The healthy portions of chestnuts and homemade apple sauce left me full to bursting, but I of course squeezed in a slice of pie.

So when they have to roll me down the aisle at my nups, you'll know why.

*One more food-related revelation from the weekend: hot orange juice with honey. Try it. You're welcome.*

December 2, 2010

Those Puritan Hearts Will Go On

Today I played an American trivia version of Jeopardy with some seniors.

A: This is the name of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to New England in 1620. 

Q: What is... Titanic?

December 1, 2010

From the mouths of babes

Last evening it started blizzarding in Digoin, and didn't quit until this morning.  I thought for sure classes would be canceled since the buses weren't running anywhere in the Saone-et-Loire department, but apparently they're obligated to have classes, even if the only people who are able to show up are those who live in the dormitory.

I had tiny numbers in all my classes, and not a soul showed up to my 10:00 one. I had only three students in my last class of the day, and decided to use my Chat Pack in lieu of a real lesson. The Chat Pack consists of hundreds of questions intended to get a conversation started, everything from, "If you won $1 million, what are the first three things you would do or buy?" to "If you could be anywhere in the world on New Year's Eve, where would you be and why?"

Luckily the three kids in the class were real characters, and gave the following amusing answers to the Chat Pack's scintillating questions:

Q: If you could uninvent any invention, what would it be?
A: Crazy people.

Q: What movie had the biggest emotional impact on you?
A: La Rafle (a film about the horrors of the Holocaust). And Titanic.

Q: Who is the most famous person you've ever met in real life?
A: My boyfriend (one of the two other students in the room).
Q: Where is your boyfriend famous?
A: Everywhere in France.
Q: What is he famous for?
A: Being handsome.

Q: If you were to die tomorrow, what trait would you want your friends to remember you for?
A: That I'm lucky.
Q: Do you mean that you're lucky to have your friends in your life?
A: No. I'm lucky in games.

Q: If you were to write an autobiography, what would the title be?
A: My Horrible Life.