Sunday, December 30, 2012

Grapes and Goats

Not wanting to spend the entire ten days of Mr. Oil's holiday vacation in Paris, and being too pregnant to travel far, we chose to spend four days in Burgundy.  Why Burgundy?  No real reason, other than it being a less than four hour drive from Paris, a region we hadn't spent much time in, and we found a fantastic place to stay for dirt cheap.  Off to Burgundy we went.

We stayed in Farges-les-Chalon, a village that nobody will ever have a reason to have heard of.  Really.  It is so small, there isn't even a boulangerie (gasp!).  We had the great luck to discover La Maison Brulee, a new bed-and-breakfast there, which is being run by a young American couple (her family owns the property - she's half-French).  For four days, we stayed in a gorgeous country home of which we occupied an entire two-story wing.  Wood-burning fireplace, huge living room, a bathroom bigger than our kitchen and bathroom in Paris combined, and two beautiful bedrooms.  We shared the kitchen facilities with our hosts, who were so unbelievably gracious as to offer to babysit Baby Oil so we could enjoy a dinner out on my birthday.

Burgundy in winter is quiet and cold.  Many establishments simply close down for several weeks around the holidays.  Like most of France, there is often rain, though we were fortunate enough to have multiple days with actual sun shining.  Wine is what puts Burgundy on the map, of course - this is pinot noir country though there are a number of good white wines from the region as well.  Along the rolling hills of the Cotes des Nuits, the Cote de Beaune, and the Cote Chalonnaise are endless vineyards bookended by picturesque villages.

One morning we headed to the village of Monthelie to taste the wines of Florent Garaudet.  Florent is typical for the younger generation of winemakers - quick to point out that he is the fifth-generation of Garaudets to make wine in Monthelie, he also has started his own wine label rather than work on his father's wines.  We learned that this is common - younger winemakers learn new tricks and approaches both in school and in their various apprenticeships (Florent has spent time working in Languedoc and Bordeaux), and are eager to try things a new way.
Village of Nuits-St-Georges

Chateau de Vougeot
Florent met us in front of his tasting room sporting track pants and a jacket that may have seen better days in 1987.  Effusive, chatty, and relaxed,  this wasn't the kind of wine-tasting you may have experienced in more established wineries.  He presented four wines to us - we had brought J & K, the hosts from our B&B, along for the ride as they themselves as still learning the endless wines of the region - and even Baby Oil gave the nod of approval.  Or should we be worried that at dinner that night, Baby Oil asked for more wine?
In the goat nursery

French countryside is not only about wine so we made sure to visit one of the local goat cheese farms - our host K's French family has been buying their cheese from this particular family for years.  They have a lot of goats, and a lot of cheese.  Baby Oil was instantly enamored with the goats and the tractor.  The cheese ranged from dry, aged goat cheese to fresh fromage blanc that you can eat by the spoonful (in Burgundy, they like to serve their fromage blanc in a savory manner, with garlic and pepper, etc).

One of the aspects of French countryside that struck both Mr. Oil and me is simply how long people have lived and worked on the land.  We're not strangers to rural areas - growing up in Ohio and Oregon, respectively, we've both driven through and/or visited country throughout the US.  But in France, when you stop in the town of Chablis for lunch and learn that Chablis wine-making dates back to the 9th century, and that throughout the Burgundy region are scattered Roman ruins, the countryside takes on a persona of its own.   This is land that has lived. 

It's funny how quickly you can get used to the idea that a trip to the grocery store involves a 20 minute drive, and that the most noise you'll hear in an evening is the church bell ringing on the hour.  These few days in Burgundy gave us a glimpse into the calm peacefulness of the countryside in the off season, when vines must be trimmed and goats are still milked, not for the benefit of the next busload of tourists but simply because this is what they do.  Grapes and goats, and so much more.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


I learned a new English term this week for a very Parisian activity - bumping.

Let me back up for a minute.  As I've mentioned, we recently acquired a car.  Driving in Paris requires confidence, some aggression, large amounts of patience, and a general disregard for any driving safety rules you may have learned.  There is something special about driving in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, or driving across the Seine.  Yet I'm not sure that the benefit outweighs the stress and headaches caused by traffic and crazy drivers.

Parking in Paris requires all of the above, plus a serious amount of creativity.  Anything you might consider an illegal or inappropriate parking spot - the corner of two streets, the middle of large boulevard, etc - is apparently fair game.  More importantly, there is absolutely no requirement that you leave any space at all between your vehicle, and those on either side of it.

When I first saw just how close cars are comfortably parked, I thought it was charming. I even snapped a picture.

But then I left my apartment earlier this week, planning to drive somewhere.  When I got to my car, the Parisian parking approach was no longer charming or even humorous.  It was darn right annoying because the car behind us was literally on our bumper, and the car in front had left approximately two inches of space.
Back of our car.

Front of our car.
Understandably frustrated (possibly even irate), I texted Mr. Oil even though he was on a work trip in Brazil.  I had tried to work with the inch or two I'd been given, to no avail.  Mr. Oil conferred with his French boss and informed me that I was supposed to gently push the cars in either direction until one of them moved enough.  Though this seemed bizarre, I gave it a try.  Sadly, I quickly realized that our 1997 not-in-the-best-shape car was more likely to suffer lasting damage than to leave the parking spot.

I went to my source for all-things-Paris, the online forum of my expat moms group.  Several moms wrote back within hours, informing me that bumping is in fact the accepted and anticipated result.  "Bumping is a 'sport'", one wrote. Another posted, "I called it "bump & grind" because we had to bump the cars in front and behind to get out of the parking spot while grinding our teeth because we would be so angry."  The French even have a sense of humor about it, with an entire website dedicated to posting photos of ridiculous parking jobs.

When my first bumping effort failed, I took the bus instead.  And like the non-Parisian that I am, I simply waited until one of the cars blocking me in left. At which point I didn't actually need to go anywhere, nor did I need to move the car.  But I reveled in the knowledge that now I could. Bumping is unlikely to be a skill I acquire anytime soon...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Madagascar Meets LVMH

Every winter, the windows of Printemps and Galeries Lafayette along Boulevard Haussman are transformed into a spectacle of puppets - somehow this marriage of fashion, artistry, and absolute kitsch hits the spot during the holiday season.

This year, the windows are sponsored by Louis Vuitton at Galeries Lafayette and Christian Dior at Printemps.  But for any parent, or simply any person who has ever seen any of the Madagascar movies, the Louis Vuitton windows in particular are both fantastic, and fantastically hysterical.  I'm not sure whether the true intention was some pushing-the-envelope-of-fashion or a nod to childrens' love of wildlife, but surely you will agree that the lemur in 300 euro shades is a sight to behold.

Even the penguins get an opportunity to strut in luxury.

Down the street, the more feminine presentation of girls ice-skating and promenading in Dior's "Inspirations Parisiennes" are less jarring to the senses.

But Dior is not without its wild side, as indicated by the animal-masked ballroom dancers.

It's important to understand that these windows are a tradition - Parisians bring their children to see them every year, with child-sized viewing platforms erected in front of each display.  It's also crucial to understand a bit about the long history of puppets in France.  In fact, throughout Europe puppet shows have been entertaining the continent's children for centuries, and France is no exception.  You can take in a puppet show at the Jardin du Luxembourg, or arrange one for your child's birthday party (we've already been to one such fete). 

And of course the reality is that photos cannot do these marionettes justice - there is music, and movement, and it's rather enthralling - even the lemurs.  I see it now - Madagascar 4 - the Animals take on the Champs-Elysees!

One final note - today is the last day to vote for What Am I Doing in France in the 2012 Expat Blog Awards!  Leave a review/comment here to help this blog win an award!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Priority Lines

One of the perks of being pregnant in France is the caisse prioritaire.  This is the priority check-out line, which most supermarkets and other large stores offer.  Anyone can enter the line, but pregnant women are given priority - in other words, you are both allowed and expected to cut the line. 

Now, the rule-following, law-abiding American in me chafes a bit at the notion of simply cutting the line.  Especially because having a screaming baby or toddler with you does not entitle you to priority status, but sporting the baby bump does - this has never felt quite right to me.  That said,  if you've got it, you might as well flaunt it.  And I've definitely got the baby bump now.

My first experience using the caisse prioritaire was at the urging of Mr. Oil on a trip to Ikea.  And by urging, I really mean that Mr. Oil said, "You are pregnant. We are cutting this line."  It was quite a line.  It turns out that when you point to the belly and say something along the lines of, "Caisse prioritaire...", everyone nods in an understanding manner.  There were one or two quiet grumbles, while the nicest people about it were the only other couple with a toddler in the line. 

A few weeks later, I happened to be in the priority line at our neighborhood grocery store - I have regularly chosen this line since well before I was pregnant because it is the widest check-out line and therefore the easiest through which to navigate a stroller.  There is a certain irony, I suppose, to the fact that I've been standing in the priority line without demanding my priority rights for most of my pregnancy.  In any event, one day the employee at the cash register looked up at the man standing in front of me and said, "Excuse me, sir, but I am first going to help this pregnant woman" - and proceeds to point at the woman behind me.  Quickly realizing that my wooly maternity sweater must make me look simply like an obese woman, I unbuttoned the sweater, pointed dramatically at my belly, and declared, "Madame! Je suis enceinte aussi!" (I'm also pregnant!). 

She was somewhat embarrassed - a very un-French emotion - and apologized profusely for not realizing that I was, in fact, pregnant and not just fat (well, I'm implying the latter - she did not actually say this).  At the same time, this experience helped me fully embrace the power of the caisse prioritaire.

My prowess at undoing my jacket and declaring my pregnancy, often wordlessly with just a strong point of the finger, has increased.  My confidence in this area has grown as well, culminating in a recent episode in which I actually responded to a snarky woman who tried to deny me my line-cutting rights with a few choice French words.  Yes, that's right - I can stand up for myself in French, which has more to do with attitude and tone of voice than vocabulary, but that's really besides the point.  The point, snarky woman, is that I am pregnant and the sign says pregnant women get to cut the line. 

I have about seven weeks left of government-sanctioned line-cutting at the grocery store and  I fully plan on utilizing this right at every possible junction.  It's not clear that pregnant women need to be able to cut the line in this manner - there are not any pregnancy precautions about waiting in line that I've ever heard about.  When in France, though... 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Chasing Peacocks

Sometimes you don't even have to leave the city to feel like you're no longer enmeshed in urbanity.  Due to our fortunate recent acquisition of a 1997 Renault, which we've named Carla Bruni, our freedom to explore more corners of this city of endless discoveries has greatly increased.

On a recent Sunday, we drove just 15 minutes from our building and found ourselves at the Parc de Bagatelle.  Enclosed within the Bois de Bologne on the western outskirts of Paris, the Chateau and Jardins de Bagatelle were originally a hunting lodge, or city escape, for the Marechal d'Estrees (don't worry, nobody else has heard of him either) and then later for Louis XVI's brother, the Comte d'Artois.

The grounds are well tended but peaceful;  that you can really only reach the park by car deters many crowds, and we were there on around 10:30am on a fairly chilly Sunday morning.  That said, being able to so quickly enter a beautiful green area that feels as though it could easily be an hour outside the city is a wonderful boon.   Plus, there are peacocks.

I don't know why there are peacocks.  And I didn't know that peacocks are comfortable in cold weather.  There were several peacock families that we spied - and Baby Oil chased - throughout the park.  They added just a touch of the exotic, a small surprise in an otherwise lovely but somewhat unremarkable park. 
If you are visiting Paris, there's no reason to ever stop by the Parc de Bagatelle, or visit its chateau (although the game of pinball is said to have originated here, and was originally called Bagatelle.  It was played on a specially-built billiards table, and players hit balls with cue sticks up an incline with fixed pins.  If you don't believe me, ask Wikipedia.)  But in terms of living in Paris, it's a great escape that doesn't require any actual escaping.  Three-hundred-year-old estates remain somewhat mind-boggling to this American, and this one comes with peacocks!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dinde Entier

Last year, we skipped Thanksgiving.  No turkey, no stuffing, no pumpkin pie.  We had only been in France a few months, and it was just another Thursday.  This year, however, we decided to give it the good ol' American effort.  First task - acquire a turkey.

If you're American or live in the US, you probably have not spent a lot of time considering that there is only one time of year when whole turkeys are widely available, and widely consumed.  Consider a country where Thanksgiving doesn't exist - like, say, France - and you suddenly realize there is no time of year in which one can presume to find a turkey by just walking into a store. 

I assigned Mr. Oil the role of Head Turkey Hunter, since it would involve calling the butcher and I still have not quite gotten over my reluctance (read: total avoidance) of speaking in French on the phone.  In the first phone call, the butcher said that he would work on getting a turkey and get back to us.  When we hadn't heard anything a few days later, we placed the second call.  We were then told that he had acquired a 12 kilo turkey (that's 26 pounds), and he knew that would be too big for our needs.  Which, while presumptuous, was in fact true. 

When Mr. Oil called the third time, the woman who works at the cash register (it's the same woman every time we've ever been to the butcher) answered and then, placing her hand over the receiver, shouted, "C'est Monsieur Oil, le dinde entier!" (It's Mr. Oil, the whole turkey!)  We were pretty sure our message had been received.

I went to pick up our turkey on Thanksgiving Day (we are having belated Thanksgiving dinner this weekend).  When it came to my turn at the counter, I explained that my husband - though I did not give our name - had called about a whole turkey.  The butcher helping me (there are 3-5 men who work behind the counter) nodded in recognition. "Monsieur Oil," he said, "le dinde entier." 

Right, that's us, the nagging Americans who want a whole turkey for some reason that is likely still unclear to our kosher butcher shop.  In the end, though, I shoved an eleven-pound turkey underneath the stroller while Baby Oil helpfully said, "Boggle boggle."  This is Baby Oil's version of "Gobble gobble" - either that, or he knows he is destined to be a mastermind at the word game Boggle just like his mom.  "Boggle boggle" wasn't terribly explanatory to the butcher, but I just gave my best, "Hey, we're crazy stupid Americans!" smile, and we took that turkey home. 

And if you're wondering - we brought back pureed pumpkin and cranberry sauce from the US last week.  Boggle boggle to all - happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 19, 2012


Whether or not I can say that I've been to Iceland is up in the air.  Technically, I have now spent approximately 2.5 hours in the Reykjavik airport.  Both Baby Oil and I have Icelandic stamps in our passports.  Thanks to the ubiquitous and, in my opinion, successful pro-Icelandic tourism advertising campaign that makes us quite a bit of the Iceland Air experience, I can tell you any number of fascinating facts about the island nation in the North Atlantic.

For instance, did you know that while more than 30 percent of Icelandic people have a college degree, over 50 percent of the country believes in the elves?  That the national dish of Iceland is cured shark?  That the most popular restaurant in Iceland is a hot dog stand?  Both times we landed and took off in Iceland, it was dark so I can't personally vouch for the glaciers, mountains, and gorgeous countryside that fills the IcelandAir in-seat entertainment screens.  

The background to all of this Iceland stuff is that Baby Oil and I flew to the US on Iceland Air to attend a wonderful wedding in Ohio (the soon-to-be-Mr-and-Mrs are now officially Mr and Mrs!).  Iceland Air offers significantly cheaper flights from North America to Europe (and vice-versa) than the standard airlines, but naturally the trip includes a requisite layover in Reykjavik.  This was our first trip purchasing a seat for Baby Oil - yes, he's still under 2 so we weren't legally required to do so, but 10 hours with a 28-pound toddler on my almost-7-month-pregnant lap sounded like a really bad idea. 

On the way to the US, all I could think about was that I really want to actually visit Iceland.  After the trip back, I'm not sure I ever want to step foot in Iceland again.  This is not because of Iceland Air, whose service far surpasses that of the American carriers we've flown overseas.  This is because of the scarring, traumatic experience in which I finally became that parent -  you know, the parent with the out-of-control screaming kid that everyone else on the plane and in the airport really, really hopes is not on their plane.

Look how deceiving Baby Oil can be, dressed as a happy kid ready for bed in the Dulles airport:

Just kidding!  Instead, Baby Oil thought that not sleeping on the 6 hours from Dulles to Reykjavik was a much better plan.  Also that every 30 minutes or so, he should start screaming for popcorn.  Not goldfish crackers, grapes, pretzels, or cookies, all of which I had on me.  No, no, I believe he purposefully picked popcorn, knowing there was no possible way I could provide microwave popcorn on a 757. 

The conspiracy to make my night miserable went much further than popcorn - it included a sleeping guy in the aisle seat who never got up one time during the flight, a shooting pain in my hip/lower back courtesy of the baby bump, spilled milk that dripped behind Baby Oil's seat onto the belongings of the woman sitting behind us, and Baby Oil's minor tantrum that I dared poured his milk out of the cardboard-box-with-straw into his sippy cup and ensuing refusal to drink milk in the apparently tainted sippy cup.

Arriving in Reykjavik, the situation further deteriorated.  Pretty soon, that adorable baby from the Dulles airport looked like this:

Wait, that's just a red blob.  To protect your senses and your sanity, this is the closest I can come to displaying evidence of the thrashing, shrieking mess of a child that haunted the Reykjavik airport.  I'm still curious about the elves, the hot springs, and the fact that every Icelandic person can trace their family's lineage back to the first settlers.  I'm just not sure Iceland would want us back. 

The postscript is, by the way, that Baby Oil did sleep for the 3 hours from Iceland to Paris, and seems to have made a decent recovery.  It's my psyche that we should remained concerned about. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wall to Wall Chocolate

Imagine, if you will, a large expo center filled with wall-to-wall chocolate vendors from France, Switzerland, and Belgium; chocolate and cacao importers and vendors from Brazil, Madagascar, Gabon, and other African nations; chocolate art displays, chocolate cooking demonstrations, and even a chocolate fashion show.  Yes, you have arrived at the Salon du Chocolat and it does not disappoint.

While each stand markets and sells its products - despite the entry fee - there are samples galore.  Nibbles of single-origin chocolates, broken truffles, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, flavored chocolate.  I was forced to make one purchase at Chapon's Bar a Mousse au Chocolat - but how can you pass up a chocolate mousse bar?!  They offered four different chocolate mousse options, each based on a chocolate from a different origin (Cuba, Sao Tome, etc).  The descriptive listings associated with each mousse resembled a gourmet wine description - long in the mouth, smoky, subtle, fruity, bright in the mouth, etc.  I went with the Cuba (the smoky one) because the Sao Tome (fruity and long in the mouth) was sold out.  And man was that some amazing chocolate mousse. 

Even pregnant, there's only so much chocolate I can consume before approaching saturation (read: turn slightly green and run for something salty).  Fortunately, the Salon du Chocolat provided ongoing entertainment, including a chocolate fashion show:

And a performance by a musical/dance group from Madagascar.  Baby Oil in particular was enamored with the Madagascaran dancing and tried at times to emulate their movements. 
Mr. Oil and I also were able to participate in the French cultural experience of yelling at children that do not belong to us.  In classic French fashion, there were any number of 8-13 year old children gathered around the stage with nary a parent in site.  The oldest few were having a good time, if that's what you can call shouting, jumping, pulling hair, and generally creating a ruckus while the rest of us were trying to enjoy the Madagascarian moment.   Several other adults in the audience, including Mr. Oil and me, took turns shouting "Arret!" to those trouble-making kids.  It's kinda fun to yell at some stranger's kid who is behaving badly in public, and it is totally acceptable here.  Though I would still prefer if an actual parent or supervisory figure would do the dirty work. 

In other blog-related news, this blog has been nominated for an Expat Blog award by the friendly folks over at Expats Blog. One of the judging criteria is related to comments left on the listing for the blog (available here), so please, regular readers, visit and share how delightfully entertaining you find me.  Or whatever (but something preferably nice).

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Million Billion

Recently, an unemployed woman in southwestern France received a phone bill for 11.7 million billion euros.  Yes - 11,721,000,000,000,000 euros. 

This alone is cause for a chuckle at the errors that computers can create (her actual bill should have been 117.21).  But what makes it so very French is that when she called the company to report what clearly was an error, she was told there was nothing they could do.  "It's calculated automatically," one person told her.  Another offered to help set up a payment plan.  

Multiple calls later - and after the press had caught wind of the story - Bouygues Telecom corrected the error and in fact waived the 117 euros in light of how ridiculous they looked.  It is difficult for me to imagine another country where you call to report the world's largest telephone bill, and the company representative simply shrugs and says there is nothing to be done about it. 

Oh France.  You are good for a laugh at times.

Read story here or here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

London Actually

When we moved to Paris, I informed Mr. Oil that I did not care if we went to London at all while we were living in Europe.  "I've been to London," I said, utterly convinced that there was nothing more that London could offer me.  Yet when deciding where to take a long weekend this fall, we ended up choosing London primarily based on the fact that a) it's an easy 2.5 hour train ride and b) they speak English.

I'm happy to own up to my own ignorance and stupidity, and be the first to admit that London is a fantastic city with a tremendous amount to offer.  Our London holiday was a smashing success.  And I say that with my best British accent on (though, to be fair, as with all of my accents, I end up sounding like a scary person from nowhere in particular).

We arrived in London to cold, gray rain.  So we did what any parent would do - fill up on vegetarian Indian food and head straight for the toy store.   In this case, that meant Hamley's on Regent Street.  Being London,  this is a toy store that has been around since 1760, but what really makes it fun is that there are a large number of toys for kids to play with in the store.  This didn't stop Baby Oil from pulling half of the Thomas trains off the shelf (sorry, Hamley's staff) but it mean we could spend a nice chunk of time inside without buying anything.  Of course we still bought stuff - one stuffed Paddington bear and three Thomas books - yet we could have left without purchasing a thing.
Baby Oil chows down on the papadam at Sagar
Still raining, we headed down to Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly.   This store exemplifies words like "gentrified", "aristocratic", and, basically, "British."  Dating from the mid-18th century, Fortnum's began as a grocery store and has always been highly regarded for its tea selection.  In 1886, Fortnum & Mason became the first store in Britain to stock canned baked beans - which might take away from the aristocratic theme I was going for, but it's such a fun fact that I can't not include it.    On the train out of London, we sat next to an elderly woman who told Mr. Oil that she had been a "gift attendant" at Fortnum's in the 1950s, and that she remembered fondly as the highlight of the Christmas season the day that the Queen would do her Christmas shopping at the store.

Living in Europe has turned me into more of a tea drinker than I ever have been, but I'd like to think that Fortnum & Mason's tea would have done the job on its own - genuinely the best tea I've ever had.  I'm also pretty stoked about the jar of mincemeat (it's not a meat, silly) I bought in order to make my own mince pies!

We hit our travel groove the next day, making it to Westminster Abbey, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (to be fair, that was entirely by accident), Harrod's, the Natural History Museum and a walk through Kensington.  No trip to the UK is complete without a pint of ale, so we stopped at a pub for Mr. Oil to enjoy a Guinness.  And apparently it's never too early to start your child on beer appreciation...
"What is this stuff?"
"Yummy! More!" - uh oh.
 A happy surprise at the end of the day was the discovery of the Ottolenghi shop in Kensington.  Yotam Ottolenghi is an Israeli-chef with two gorgeous cookbooks and several shops in London.  I first heard about Ottolonghi from my friend Rivka at Not Derby Pie but neither Mr. Oil or myself realized about the London stores.

Thank heavens we had to wait 15 minutes for the next bus or we never would have stumbled on the Kensington outpost, and the gastronomic delights awaiting us there.  Roasted squash with seeds, soft cheese, and herbs - oh yum.  Roasted eggplant with chili yogurt - spicy yum.  Dense, gooey chocolate cupcake filled with light, airy cream and topped with coconut shavings - oh dear.  Insert British for "best thing I ate all weekend".

The following day we explored Camden Lock Market, as it was just up the street from our rented flat.  Having heard that this was a "cool" place we were not quite expecting the incense and punk/grunge-filled scene that awaited us.  Though if you want to buy a graphic t-shirt, this may be the place.   And I think if you want to buy illegal substances, this would also be the place.
Down the canal from the market - much more scenic

Determining quickly that we are more comfortable in a slightly more upper-crust setting, we headed to the Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Hyde Park followed by an amazing, if upper crust, fish and chips experience at Geales.  This is not your wrapped-in-newspaper fish n chip, but rather a high-end sit-down restaurant offering four types of fried fish among other seafood options.  And it was worth every pence.
Toddler food coma after fish and chips - though to be fair, he only ate the chips
 Baby Oil made himself right at home at Queen Victoria's Privy Council table in Kensington Palace (though our favorite part of the palace were the bathroom signs.)
"I've got this monarchy thing down."

A definite highlight of the weekend was the moment when Baby Oil spotted a Picasso painting in the Tate Modern, pointed to it, and loudly said, "Sheep! Baaaa!"  The painting was "Bust of a Woman."

Borough Market, near the London Bridge tube station, was another favorite discovery.  And not only for the incredible cinnamon danish and Chelsea bun that we acquired from Konditor & Cook.   Or the smooth, delicious coffee we had at Monmouth.  Or the scrumptious cheese we sampled at Neal's Dairy Yard. On second thought, it probably was those things, along with the promise of future deliciousness on a next trip to London.  I've learned my lesson, you see, and I will be happy to go to London as many times as possible throughout my life. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Zombie Eyes

I'm not sure that I've done justice to the quirks of the French health care system.  There is a strong emphasis on patient responsibility - both in terms of lugging your paperwork around town but also when it comes to prescriptions. 

For instance, Baby Oil is currently on an antibiotic (I'm calling him the Mucus King of Paris, if that gives you an idea of what's going on) that came in a glass bottle with a screw-on top filled with powder.  You are supposed to removed the screw-on top, fill the bottle to a certain point with water, shake it up, then add more water, and voila - antibiotic.  However, it is not clear where those fill-lines are for the water - the illustrations in the instructions never look like the actual bottle.  In one previous case, I for sure did not add enough water - or something else was off - because I supposed to give Baby Oil the meds for a week, but it only last four days.  It is, I suppose, also possible that my limited French vocabulary combined with French instructions influenced this situation as well.

Baby Oil also currently has an eye infection (unclear if it is pink-eye, only because I don't know enough French to understand what the doctor said it was) for which he was prescribed eye drops.  Except these eye drops are bright orange.  As a result, for the past week my child has resembled a toddler zombie - either his actual eyes are tinged orange from a recent administration of the drops, and/or his eyelashes and eyelids are tinged orange from the liquid that seeps out when the drops are applied.  On the one hand, you know when the drops get in.  On the other hand, I can't recall ever experiencing the zombie eye drops in the US (not even the summer when virtually every camper and counselor at my beloved summer camp came down with pink-eye).

Naturally, I've also now come down with the eye infection but fortunately the adult drops are not orange.  They are just normal, clear drops, and I really hope they start working soon because as it stands, the computer screen is blurry from all the goo in my eyes.  At least I don't look like a zombie. 

Because challenges in life never come alone, in addition to Baby Oil's ongoing health issues, the elevator in our building was broken for the past eleven days.  I did not write about this problem earlier because I was unsure whether I could manage to do so without falling into a full-on mental breakdown. 

We live on the 5th floor - but that's the fifth floor, European style, which to Americans is the sixth floor. It's about 124 steps (I had ample opportunity to count).  I have a 25+ pound child who cannot yet walk up that many stairs (and why would you when you know someone will carry you), I'm lugging around another child in utero, plus assorted groceries, toys for the sandbox, etc.  Leaving the apartment suddenly required a huge amount of motivation.  My father termed it "our experiment in 19th-century living" and what I can tell you is that a) I don't think I would have paid this much rent in the 19th century for a walk-up; b) I am sure that 19th-century mothers were stronger and less flabby than me; and c) thank heavens the elevator was fixed after eleven days.

In classic French style, we were informed on day 3 or 4 that the elevator might be out of service for up to two months.  That's right folks, two months.  And apparently, that's just something that can happen in France.  Some vague bureaucratic processes were described as well as unknown issues surrounding the actual process of fixing the elevator.  If you haven't been here in person, I should explain that our building is home to what may be the oldest working (or occasionally working) elevator in France.  It is really old.  You can only press one floor button at a time.  It runs on a cable pulley system.  It has a wooden accordion-style door.  This is not an elevator that surprises you when it breaks; rather, it seems a surprise that it remains an acceptable elevator.

In any event, the actual elevator repairman thought it was ludicrous that we had been told two months, as he informed us when he began work yesterday.  And he was right - before the end of the second day of work, the elevator was operational.  I now can resume leaving the house at regular intervals as opposed to staying inside for 3 days straight. Now I just need my little zombie to get better so he can go to back halte garderie...

Sunday, October 7, 2012

How to Become Parisian

Last night, Mr. Oil and I attended a hilarious one-man show called "How to Become Parisian in One Hour."  We went with friends of ours, a French couple I'll refer to Mr. and Mrs. We-Love-America.  I call them this because they go to the US more than most Americans I know, and they think the US is pretty great.  Which we do too, but its not a typical attitude here in Paris! 

In any event, Mr. and Mrs We-Love-America had suggested this show as a fun night out together.  Until a few hours before, I didn't even know what we had agreed to see - I had just heard the words "show in English" and said, "Mais oui!"

If you live in Paris, or have a free night while visiting, I highly recommend this show, which makes fun of Americans at least as much as it does Parisians.  Covering everyone's favorite topics from dealing with waiters in restaurants, taking the Metro, getting into nightclubs, and finding an apartment, the tourists and French audience members were equally tickled throughout the performance. 

Facial expressions - pouty lips and an arrogant yet thoroughly disinterested stare - coupled with the classic Parisian sounds - think "ffff" or "buhf" or other related guttural exclamations - seem to make up a significant amount of what you must master in order to become Parisian.  We're working on that.  Meanwhile, this week we also worked on becoming Parisian by attending the Parents' Night at Baby Oil's halte garderie

Now, this was my first open house of any kind since my son's not yet 2, but I can't imagine that a group of parents standing somewhat awkwardly around as the staff explain in great detail just how all of the activities in which the children partake are essential to their development is that different in the US.   Just to be clear, we're talking about baby yoga, painting, collage, music, and gymboree.   I did learn that it is vital to send my child with a change of clothes because if something happens to his clothes (paint or whatever), it is important to his personal sense of self that he have his own clothes to change into. 

I understood about 40% of what was being said.  But as I said to Mr. Oil and another Anglophone mom with whom I sat in the back and whispered, anyone who can talk for that long and that seriously about how 1-3 year-olds spend their time has sufficiently convinced me that they are suitable to care for my child 10 hours each week. 

Following the open house, we went to dinner with my back-row whisperer friend and her French husband. We checked out the menu at one restaurant, left, then turned back around and decided it would work great.  In that time, the restaurant clearly determined that we were not French.  Though the restaurant was largely empty, the waiter ushered us to a table in the basement as opposed to the main floor.   I thought nothing of it, but our French companion was immediately insulted.  "How dare they sit us with the tourists!" he exclaimed. And true enough, the other seated table was a group of Asian tourists.  "That f**king guy, I can't believe he put us down here - I'm French!" said our friend.

This led to a prolonged conversation about how to project a Parisian persona - which, in a similar theme to what we would learn at the show last night, apparently boils down to, "If you show one moment of niceness, this will be interpreted as weakness, and you will be screwed."    Ah, the glamorous, romantic Parisian life!  

If you do show weakness, or are otherwise defeated by the challenges of living the Parisian life, you should drop everything and head to Cafe Pushkine and pick up their vanilla croissant. It is a gigantic, oversized, perfectly baked specimen of croissant with a layer of vanilla flavoring inside that adds just a touch of sweetness.  It is magical.  It transports.  We ate one this afternoon after a 20-minute screaming toddler meltdown inside the Printemps department store.  The meltdown was miserable and somewhat embarrassing.  The vanilla croissant made it all go away. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Back on the Chateau Circuit

As much as we love Paris and our urban life here, the truth is that Mr. Oil and I are not really city people.  (Seriously, honey, we're really not, even though you like to pretend that you are).  This past Sunday we escaped from the city for a visit to Fontainebleau and Barbizon, which made for a fantastic day. 

Though the weather last week had been cold, dreary, and oddly winter-like, the weekend weather was fall perfection.  Clear blue skies, crisp air - perfect Parisian scarf weather.  Or day trip weather, depending on your priorities. 

Fontainebleau is about 35 miles southeast of Paris.  The chateau was used by French kings dating back to the 12th century, though most of today's buildings were constructed under the rule of Francis I in the early 16th century.  I had wondered if after our first few months here we were chateau-ed out, but in fact we were quite happy to be back on the chateau circuit.
"Yes, folks, on today's tour I'll be guiding you through the 800 year old palace of Fontainebleau!"

Napoleon, having eschewed Versailles for being too reminiscent of pre-Revolution royal extravagances, brought Fontainebleau back to life in the first years of the 19th century.  And yes, I'm being ironic about Napoleon since having now visited, I can confidently say that Fontainebleau is equally as lavish and luxurious as its brother palace on the southwestern side of Paris.
Good call, Napoleon.  This is way more low-key than Versailles.

One important lesson for me was that no matter how beautiful the chateau, your enjoyment can be curtailed if your 21-month-old decides he only wants to be carried through the chateau - and only carried by you, the 5-months-plus-pregnant mommy.  Surprisingly - or not - he recovered when it came time to eat pommes frites for lunch.  Pommes frites totally sounds healthier and more legit than French fries.  Plus, of course, nobody in France considers them French fries.  Which reminds me of my ongoing question about French doors - you know, the elongated window doors that we call "French doors"?  What do the French call them?  It turns out a British friend of mine once mentioned something about their French doors to her French husband, who responded, "French doors?  If we were in England, would they be English doors?"  So apparently, like pommes frites, they are just called windows (or is it doors?). 
The backyard of the chateau.  We had family naptime in the sunny section on the right.
After lunch, we strolled through the chateau grounds and even took a relaxing rest on the banks of the canal while Baby Oil napped in the stroller.  Recharged, we headed a few kilometers away to Barbizon, which is now firmly on my list of favorite French villages.  Barbizon is most well-known for the "Barbizon school" of artists in the mid-19th century (though I'll be honest and tell you that I'm not terribly familiar with most of the Barbizon gang - Jean-Francois Millet, Jean-Baptiste Corot, Theodore Rousseau, and others).   In any event, today the main street of the village is filled with art galleries showcasing contemporary artists and small museums dedicated to the lives and works of the Barbizon school. Oh, and some of the best ice cream we've had in France!  Mr. Oil had tarte citron meringue - as in lemon tart with meringue topping - in an ice cream.  When he asked the woman if he could sample it before ordering she simply shrugged and said, "Yes, but you will want it."  Which he did, and even Baby Oil couldn't get enough (in part because I, already eating ice cream for two, didn't actually want to share....don't judge.)

Even the disgustingly terrible traffic we hit upon re-entering Paris could not sway us from our total enjoyment of this delightful day.  If anything, the day has us seriously considering purchasing a car so that we can better escape the city and explore what the greater Paris region has to offer. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mona & Mary

Tonight Mr. Oil and I had the privilege of attending the opening of a Mary Cassatt exhibit at the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art & Culture.  Yes, occasionally we are just that cool.  Also it helps that one of my close friends is the director of exhibitions. 

Mona who, you might ask?  Mona Bismarck had the kind of life that many might think only exists in the movies. She grew up in Kentucky, and through a series of (five) marriages to some wealthy guys (and some who wanted her wealth), became a paragon of style and fashion, eventually becoming titled as "The Best Dressed Woman in the World."  Which apparently is actually a title.  In 1958, she was named to the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame.  Again, apparently this is a goal to which I did not even know that one could strive.   But Mona wasn't just about the clothes - she loved art and culture, which may explain why she had a home in Paris, and why Salvador Dali painted her portrait.   Upon her death, she continued the support of the arts that had begun in her well-dressed life by establishing the Mona Bismarck American Center (yes, it's a mouthful) which exists today in her gorgeous former home in the 16th arrondissement.
Mona Bismarck, one fashionable lady.

Seeking to marry American and French cultural interests, Mary Cassatt of course is a natural candidate for an exhibition at the Mona Bismarck Center.  An American who spent much of her life and career in France, Cassatt was also a path-breaking female artist at a time when that universe was still dominated by men.  Because simply being a woman limited her access to the kinds of scenes her male peers were painting (bordellos, etc), Mary Cassatt focused her artistry on depicting the daily lives of women.  Which provides for a wonderful historical perspective on quiet moments at home in the late 19th century. 
Mary Cassatt, "The Fitting"

Mary Cassatt, "The Bath"

The exhibit features drawings and engravings from Cassatt's wide body of work, showcasing her interests in print-making and pastel transfers as well as illuminating how she was inspired by Japanese wood block prints.  Spread over three large, classically Parisian rooms (think beautiful molding, fireplaces, etc), the setting inspires just the kind of quiet contemplation that Mary Cassatt's works portray. 

When you attend an exhibit opening, in addition to getting first glance at the exhibit, you also have access to some fantastic people-watching.  I was somewhat under-dressed, as I wasn't wearing my fur wrap, or a one-shoulder leopard print dress.  In fact, I was wearing jeans because I realized this afternoon that the only maternity pants I have are jeans. Which suits my work-from-home/stay-at-home-mom life except when that life is interrupted by my super-cool-artsy-Parisian life.  Apparently I'm no Mona Bismarck. 

As if the night wasn't already excellent enough, Mr. Oil and I stumbled onto a fantastic Thai restaurant just a few blocks away from the Center, which - wait for it - actually had a vegetarian menu.  With tofu!  And was delicious.  We love you Tong Ming.  What a great night!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Maternity Style

In a city where style is paramount, I was curious about what Paris has to offer when it comes to maternity clothes.  So I headed to les grands magasins for a little maternity window-shopping.  I probably should not be surprised that most of the clothes I saw I would never wear, even if I wasn't pregnant.  But somehow I was surprised, nonetheless.

Exhibit A:  Maternity miniskirt. Please note that based on my pregnancy with Baby Oil, the amount of material that makes up this entire skirt would not have covered even my pregnant belly.

Exhibit B:  Overalls.  Perhaps if you are quite slender to begin with, and gain only a small and adorable bump during your pregnancy (read: most Parisian women), then you could pull off this look.  I'm fairly positive I would look like an overweight hick. 

Exhibit C: Formalwear.  Inspired by my friend LJ's need for a formal maternity gown, I made sure to check out the formal wear selection at Galeries Lafayette (please note that Printemps, in fact, carries NO maternity clothes.  Which is sad for me, and for Printemps.  Not sure what they're thinking there.).  Perhaps Parisian women want to flaunt the enhanced bust that accompanies most pregnancies. Also, it's not clear where the dress actually allows for the pregnant part of your body.  I'm  glad I already have a dress for the soon-to-be-Mr-and-Mrs wedding!

And finally, Exhibit D: Undergarments. It turns out that Parisians are as serious about their lingerie and undergarments during pregnancy as they are the rest of the time.  Which is to say, they certainly market a lot of these products (I have no way of knowing, of course, whether women actually wear them!). 
I borrowed this from a website, I think it really portrays more than I could describe.

The overall message seems to be that simply being pregnant is not a good reason to not look good in every layer of your clothing.  I am more of an adherent to the being-pregnant-is-a-good-reason-to-embrace-elastic-waists-and-sweatpants memo, but this Parisian message is certainly in keeping with the expectation that you not gain an unseemly amount of weight (my doctor already suggested that I ate too many "am-bur-ghers" while in the US in August) and that looking good is something that any woman should simply want to do.  I think I missed that memo as well....did I even shower today?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Date Night Paris

I've always known that I have a great husband.  Yet occasionally he does me the favor of reminding me exactly how and why he is so great.  Last night is a perfect example.  It was our first night out together in a number of months, and I have to say, he really outdid himself.

We went to dinner at Hotel du Nord in the 10th arrondissement. Located right on the Canal St. Martin, sitting outside this charming restaurant offered excellent people-watching as well as the chance to savor one of the nicest nights we've had in Paris this summer.  If you can call early September summer.  Hotel du Nord also has the unique quality of being a French restaurant that offers not one but two vegetarian entrees, in addition to multiple fish and meat options.
This doesn''t really do the scene justice.

Close-up of awesome hipster guy with crazy beard and strange glasses.

Mr. Oil selected the dos de cabillaud, which was simply and elegantly prepared.  Even better, it came with a side of possibly the best mashed potatoes I have ever eaten. We thought it might better be called "butter, with a side of potatoes." I stole more than a few bites in between enjoying my own "millefeuille de thon a la japonaise."  I'm not a food writer, so I will just show you a photo:

But what really made the dinner amazing was dessert.  In honor of a)date night, and b)me being pregnant, we splurged and ordered two desserts (we are typically the share-one-dessert type).  Dessert #1 was a classic moelleux au chocolat - molten chocolate cake - with both vanilla ice cream and a light yet delicious creamy sauce.  Totally legit cake.  Dessert #2, however, was the winner - pain perdu au caramel beurre sale.  Pain perdu is the foundation of what we know as French toast.  It's not a breakfast food so much as a rich, egg-ily drenched sweet.  In this case, served with a tiny pot of rich, succulent caramel made from salted butter.  Pour said caramel over said egg-ily drenched deliciousness, and you have a taste that will stay in your mouth for a long, long time.  Sorry, no photo - too excited to pause for documentation.

As the evening progressed, the scene got even more interesting.  Quickly I became the most under-dressed woman in the restaurant, and I had again missed the memo about short skirts and tall heels.  A parade of languages accompanied the heels as well.  Sitting outside did have one disadvantage, as patrons from inside the restaurant began to linger outside the door for a cigarette break.  We were treated to one of those only-in-France scenes in which three woman, all dressed to go out, stood around smoking and chatting.  Nothing out of the ordinary there - until we realized that in fact the woman in leopard-print capri pants and platform sandals had a baby strapped to her in a Baby Bjorn.  While standing with her smoking friends around 10pm at night.
You can't see the cigarettes or the baby, but they're there, I promise.

If you're going to have not one but two serious desserts, it is good to have a plan to work it off.  Mr. Oil's date night plan went further than just the meal.  After we finished, we hopped on two Velib bikes, part of Paris' city-wide bike program.  Across the city, there are stations where you can rent a bike for just a few euros, and then return it at any other station.  You have to guarantee the bike with a credit card so you don't steal it, but otherwise you get to ride through the city's many bike lanes on a well-maintained bike that even comes with its own nice basket to hold your bag.

We cruised down the Canal St Martin, glancing at the many, many groups of friends sitting on the edge of the canal sharing wine and food throughout the evening.  Past Republique, we turned and headed into the Marais, passing bars and bistros all bursting with Parisians and tourists alike enjoying the glorious Saturday evening.  We parked our bikes to walk for a bit through Les Halles - more bars and bistros and people having a good time, including some bars that made both Mr. Oil and I feel immensely grateful that the period in our lives in which we went to such places is over.  Picking up more bikes by the Chatelet metro, we cycled down Rue de Rivoli - past the Louvre, where at night you can see sculptures through the windows, past the Place de la Concorde, which epitomizes Paris with a view of the Eiffel Tower, Assemblee National, Les Invalides, and even the Arc de Triomphe, and up our trusty ol' Boulevard Malesherbes to home.  There's a Velib station on our corner, so parking doesn't get more convenient than that.  I was even able to overcome the fact that I've barely exercised since we moved here, and that I haven't been on a bike since before Baby Oil was born.

Romantic canal-side dinner for two followed by romantic night-time bike ride through the heart of Paris?  Date night indeed!

PS Hey, great husband - don't let this go to your head too much - instead, I suggest you focus on planning our next date night...