Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Ex-Wife's Cousin

Good title, right? Sounds like some sort of murder mystery or something intriguing.  In this case, it was how we were introduced last night to innumerable folks at a French-Tunisian-Jewish engagement party we attended just outside of Paris.  The recently engaged man is a cousin of Mr. Oil's (don't even dare suggesting that he is a remote cousin or a "fake" cousin, even when you hear that Mr. Oil's great-grandmother was the older sister of this guy's grandfather, and also that in almost 8 years of our relationship, I've never met this guy. He's a cousin. Legit.), but the relationship is on his mother's side.  His father is a Tunisian Jew whose entire extended family lives in and around Paris.  Needless to say, as you put the pieces together, the parents are divorced. So over and over, we were introduced as "le cousin de ma ex-femme."  Isn't that how you'd like to be introduced to a bunch of strangers?

A few things to know should you ever have the opportunity to attend a French-Tunisian-Jewish engagement party on a Wednesday night.

1. There's no dress code. You may wear artfully ripped jeans with five-inch purple suede heels, or you may wear a sequined dress and your best diamonds.  While I thought I looked quite Parisian in my navy-and-white striped dress with ballet-ish flats, it turns out that minimum 3-inch heels are encouraged.

2. Arrive late. Stay late. The party was called for 8pm.  We arrived at 8:30. We were the second people to arrive. We left at 10:30. As we said goodbye, dinner was served.

3. Don't be fooled by the extravagant and succulent display of hors d'oeuvres - including beef carpaccio, blinis and caviar, sushi, sliders, an entire table of various Chinese meat and vegetable dishes, and more.  This is not dinner (which we learned as we left. See #2.).  A rookie mistake, which I haven't made since my first shmorg at an Orthodox Jewish wedding in 2003, but I really was not convinced that on a Wednesday in a random synagogue in an equally random suburb of Paris that this was not an elaborate buffet dinner.  I was wrong.

4. Everyone is an uncle or a cousin. And unlike our relationship to the groom, which several French attendees pointed out would not be considered a cousin in France, they are all actual cousins.  Or brothers. Or uncles.

5. Small talk in French is really hard if you don't speak French.  I particularly enjoyed it when people looked right at me while asking my husband, "Elle ne parle pas Francais?" (She doesn't speak French?).  To which I respond with my big line - which is quite clever, I believe - "Je comprende plus que je parle." I understand more than I speak.  This has the merit of being actually true, and also allows me to nod and smile as if I understand when in fact sometimes I have no idea what's going on.

6. When in doubt, pull out iPhone and commence showing photos of your son. This was my go-to awkward-silence-foreign-language-barrier breaker.  It worked really well!  It went like this:

Other person: Oh, so you live in the 8th, you have been here since July, your husband works here, and you have a kid.  (Subtext - we have now covered all topics of conversation that your vocabulary allows, you silly American.)
Me: (Grinning like an idiot, as if this is the best party I've ever been to.) "Oui, oui, c'est bon." (Pull out iPhone). "Mon fils!" (Shove phone in face)
Other person commences ooh-ing and aah-ing over my adorable kid. 

7. Avoid the Tunisian vodka.

8. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, realize that the sweet American fiancee of your husband's cousin who doesn't speak French is REALLY overwhelmed.

In truth, it was actually a really nice evening.  And we exchanged contact information with a few people, so let me just say - if any Tunisian Jews want to adopt us into their extended family for our sojourn in Paris, feel free.   Next time I know to wear heels, not gorge on the buffet, and I'll have new photos of Baby Oil to display.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Paris Pick-Me-Up

I can't help it - my love affair with Paris seems to only improve with time. Eight plus months in, and I'm waiting for the honeymoon phase to wear off. Instead, beautiful weather, flowering trees, and above all, Paris itself - I just can't get enough.  This morning I woke up exhausted - combination of adjusting to daylight savings plus recuperating from Baby Oil's awesome decision to be awake from 3:30am-6:30am on Sunday night.  I could have waited for the nanny and then crawled back into bed to sleep for a few hours.  But I got dressed, packed up my computer, and headed out - and as soon as I had walked just one block, Paris had proved all the pick-me-up I needed (definitely the large cup of coffee I had at home plus the free espresso from Starbucks plus a latte had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all.).

This weekend we set out to explore the Jardin des Plantes in the 5th.  This jardin is part of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle (Museum of Natural History).  So there's the garden, a zoo, and a number of galeries.   Being Paris, of course its not simply a garden or just a zoo.  The entire natural history museum complex originated as a garden for medicinal plants under Louis XIII in 1626 and opened to the public in 1640.  The zoo opened in 1794 and most of the architectural elements are still from the 18th and 19th centuries.  I only know this from the website, though, because someone (eh-hem Mr. Oil) thought it wasn't worth 9 euros each to visit the zoo.  Never fear, Baby Oil and I will make a return trip to the zoo.

On our bus ride to the Jardin des Plantes we beheld a fantastic showdown between the bus driver and a passenger who refused to pay for her bus ride.  The woman got on the bus and attempted to by-pass the part where you present your ticket or pass. The driver called her out on it.  She then explained that she lost her pass and her debit card and she had no money (she was fairly well-dressed, by the way).  The driver then pulled over and opened the doors, asking her to please leave the bus. At that, she took great offense, and instead moved fully into the bus and took a seat.  It took a few minutes for the other 20 or so of us on the bus to understand why we were stopped with no traffic.  We figured it out when she began talking loudly at the driver, explaining that it is not his responsibility to check for tickets, only to drive the bus (questionable interpretation of the large sign that says "the driver makes sure everyone has a valid ticket") and that the driver could decide to take pity on her.  The driver was having none of it.  Finally, another passenger gave the woman a ticket. And she didn't even say merci! 

Later that afternoon we met up with Soon-to-be-Mr-and-Mrs for a trip to the Salon des Vins des Vignerons Independants. Which you might remember from this.  We were determined to be more strategic this time, to drink less and plan out our visit. Plus we were bringing our granny cart so that we could actually buy wine.  The first snag in our plan occurred with the following conversation, about a week or two earlier:

Me: So, should we get a babysitter for the wine fair?
Mr. Oil: No! We can totally bring Baby Oil to the wine fair.
Me: Really? Because last time it was really crowded and also, don't we want to drink some wine?
Mr. Oil: Well, we aren't going to drink as much as last time, and I think it will be fun to bring Baby Oil.
Me: Okay, darling husband. Let's hope you're right as always.

Turns out, of course, that Baby Oil + wine fair was not a good idea. Whether he was trying to get his hands on a disgusting, dirty piece of salami on the floor, or wanting to push the stroller through the throngs of adults, or generally wanting nothing to do with sitting still, needless to say our strategy suffered a major blow. Much like all of your NCAA brackets did when Duke lost to Lehigh. Except that nobody thought Duke was going to lose, and some of us suspected the baby-at-wine-fair was, while quite French, a bit foolhardy. Instead, we began rapidly buying any wine that fit our carefully planned out categories (some bordeaux, some rose, some champagne).  We managed to amass quite a haul in a short period of time, and when we unpacked at home, we had more than one bottle at which we exclaimed, "Where did this come from?"

In other wine-related news, I'm very much enjoying that at Parisian first birthday parties, the adults all drink champagne. We've been to two first birthday fetes in the past two weeks, and have been served champagne at both.  Makes me feel a bit less bad about having to cancel Baby Oil's party back in January, because I had not received the champagne memo. 

My coffee buzz is wearing off - it's time to head outside for another Paris pick-me-up. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Bubble Lady

I know now what it takes to be the coolest adult in the playground at Parc Monceau.  Ready for this? Bubbles.

I took a bottle of bubbles to the playground today, to celebrate the gorgeous spring weather we're having (this sounds better than "because I get bored at the playground").  Baby Oil, naturally, could have cared less about bubbles (which typically he enjoys) but every other child on that playground came flocking as if I wielded some magical spell.  Isn't there some fairy tale about some guy who plays a flute and all the rats or children or something come running?  I'm like that guy. Without the flute. Also without the rats. Note to self - carry bubbles at all times.

This week we've had the privilege of playing host to some of our most favorite friends, who I'll call Soon-to-be-Mr-and-Mrs (that's right, they're engaged, you're very smart. You should get some bubbles.) Soon-to-be-Mr-and-Mrs are the first in what is about to be a fairly long and certainly exciting series of visitors over the next couple months, so they were our guinea pigs for what we want our friends to see and do.

I knew we were in for a few good days when Soon-to-be-Mr selected wasabi as his first Parisian macaron flavor.  I've often considered trying this unusual flavor at Sadaharu Aoki, but why pass up the opportunity for one of his succulent cassis macarons?  As it turns out, the wasabi macaron is incredibly mild and none of us got even a remote whiff of true wasabi.  A bit of a bust, to be honest.  But it still was the beginning of a solid few days of eating.

Yesterday Mr. Oil took the day off of work and Baby Oil was with a sitter, so the four of us adults played tourist for the day.  We kicked off our Parisian jaunt with a visit to the Marche d'Aligre in the 12th arrondissement since we've read in a few places that this is an excellent marche.  Truthfully, it seemed pretty average.  The most exciting thing was Mr. Oil getting yelled at after taking an obviously free sample of orange.  I would have tucked tail and ran, but Mr. Oil actually kinda likes getting in trouble so he thought it was great.

At a boulangerie on the corner of Boulveard Beaumarchais and Rue de la Passage de la Mule (Au Levain de la Marais), we sampled a carre de speculoos - think pain au chocolat but with speculoos instead of chocolate. Oh, you don't know what speculoos is? You should. Even Wikipedia knows what it is. This pastry furthered my theory that nothing bad can be made with speculoos.  But the gingerbread-y treat was soon overshadowed by the always specatular pasteis de nata at Comme a Lisbonne just a short walk away.  Yes, that's right, we went for pastry after having a pastry. And you know what? The speculoos wasn't even our first pastry of the day.

Our morning was complete with a requisite stop at Jacques Genin for caramels (though much to my unending frustration, Soon-to-be-Mr-and-Mrs adamantly refused to sample their caramels throughout the ENTIRE day until AFTER dinner, which I believe is only because they had never had them before, and I made it my mission to nag them about this all day long. I was totally vindicated when Soon-to-be-Mr couldn't even open his eyes while eating his mango-passion caramel, as he was so carried away by the explosion of tropical paradise on his tongue. Next time, listen to the bubble lady!)

Since we hadn't eaten all morning, we headed to Breizh Cafe for lunch.  Delicious galettes (you may know these as savory crepes) filled with fresh veggies, cheese, and more. Made even better by the refreshing and crisp bottle of French cider we shared.  Five places to eat before 1pm - can you get a better day in Paris?

That evening - after some resting, some baguette-and-cheese-eating, and drinking a bottle of wine - we left Baby Oil snoozing away with a sitter, and headed to one of our favorite spots, Rue Sainte-Anne, also known as Paris' Little Tokyo. On the way to our sushi dinner, we saw a classic sight. A city bus was careening down the tiny street, and just as I remarked that it seems crazy that buses can go on these streets, we noticed the bus pull to a stop.  A sushi delivery scooter was parked jauntily against the curb, blocking the bus' way.  So the bus driver stopped the bus, got out, put up the kickstand, moved the scooter, put down the kickstand, and returned to her bus.  As if it happens every day (which, quite possibly, it does). 

Soon-to-be-Mr-and-Mrs have now left our apartment for a "romantic" weekend in a "hotel" - sharing a bathroom with a 14 month old isn't romantic? Come on!  I think every engaged couple dreams of a waking up in Paris to comments like, "Wow, that's a big poop!"  Meanwhile, in other news, Baby Oil has taken his first steps, has been declared "not so fat as before" by his doctor, been accepted to nursery school for the fall, and won't eat his dinner if he sees a fresh baguette on the table.  Springtime in Paris - bring on the bubbles!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Real People Unite

You know it's a nice day in Paris when you spot the local police officers gathering for their morning coffee out of the back of a police van.
That's right, taken through a bus window.

In what was hopefully (albeit unfortunately) one of the last days in a while that I had my nanny yet no work, I set out to explore some new shopping territory.  While we were in the US, friends stayed in our apartment in Paris for a few days.  The wife left me some American magazines (yes!! always appreciated!!) and there was a fun piece in Lucky about shopping in Paris, written by some model-turned-designer-turned-author.  Most of the places she mentioned were unknown to me, and I set out to remedy that.

My first lesson was that models-turned-designers-turned-authors and I do not speak the same language when it comes to affordability.  Of all the places mentioned in the piece, I was most excited to visit Upla, a boutique in the Left Bank that produces casual-chic shoulder bags.  In the Lucky article, the woman wrote that the bags are "consistently affordable."  Thinking I might find a great new place to buy gifts, I entered the modern space eager to look at the Crayola-hued bags.

And here's what I have to say - real people of the world, unite! "Consistently affordable"?  The original-size bag - made of CANVAS - is 175 euros.  That's over $200 USD.  In what universe is that affordable?!  Come on, real people, you know you're out there. And while we all might like to think that we too can live like models-turned-designers-turned-authors, apparently this is not the case. At least not for me.

Somewhat better are the very cute rain boots over at Aigle.  The most adorable ones are for kids - and as I've learned the best barometer for what's chic in Paris is to check out the 9-year-old girls in the playground, I can confirm that Aigle boots are definitely in.  But even the grown-up boots are just 40 euros, though the knee-high wellington-type boots are 95 euros.

I most enjoyed the store I discovered at the corner of Rue Bonaparte and Rue Jacob, which I think is called Simrane, or something like that (you know when you promise yourself you will remember something, so no need to write it down? And then of course you immediately forget it?).  It's full of Indian-inspired fabrics and brightly-hued pillowcases in silk, satin, and cotton.  Some might call it consistently affordable; I think it's more of a place to get some great ideas.

And of course a spring day in Paris would not be complete without a random BBQ taking place at the Bodum store on Avenue de l'Opera.  

More generally, I have a bone to pick with France.  I am looking for an angel food cake pan, with which to make my mother-in-law's famous Passover sponge cake.  Apparently, they do not eat angel food cake in France. Nor do they sell the pan.  Not only have I searched on and, I have visited specialty bakeware stores and even the grand magasins. Not a large tube pan to be found. Argh!  So now I'm faced with either a)not making sponge cake or b)buying a $16 angel food cake pan from and then spending $40 to have it shipped to me.

In honor of the upcoming holiday of Passover, we are trying to sample the newly-crowned Best Baguettes of Paris 2011. So far we have tried #7, from a boulangerie in the 1st, and we both feel that our neighborhood baguette (Maie des Anges on Rue de Levis) is still superior.  Gotta get as much bread in as we can if we're expected to give up an entire week of bread while living in Paris!   And I haven't even told you about confiture du lait (aka dolce de leche), and how at brunch a few months ago we were told to just spread it right on our baguette...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Living a Cliche

It was sunny today in Paris - finally! - and I didn't have much work to do.  Feeling inspired and happy to be out in the brisk sunshine, I decided to try out a classic Paris experience - or cliche, if you will. Depends on your perspective, I think. 

For more than 200 years, the Musee du Louvre has been not only a showcase for some of the greatest works in history but also a place for aspiring artists from around the globe to visit, to enjoy, and to copy works.  For a few months now I've been reading David McCullough's "The Greater Journey" about Americans in Paris - I tend to put down and pick up non-fiction at varying intervals - and some of my favorite parts are the stories of young, ambitious American artists who make the pilgrimage to Paris in order to spend hours at the Louvre (among other activities - though it does seem like many of them really came to Paris for the art).  I've yet to visit the Louvre without seeing at least one person with a full-on easel, copying a Poussin or a David or a Rubens.  So I thought maybe I should try out this whole artist thing.
Like this guy.  Though I don't think David McCullough mentions him.

My initial challenge, of course, was that I am in no way actually artistic.  I have good handwriting.  That's been about the extent of my art career.  When I was 8 I spent a lot of time trying to draw horses.  They weren't so good.  But, you know, when in Paris.  Where is an aspiring artist's first stop?  An art store, of course.  So I headed to Lavrut, a classic art supply shop tucked inside Passage Choiseul in the 2nd arrondissement.  Lavrut and its partner store Adam have been supplying artists, designers, students and more since the 1920s.  Actually, in fact, Adam has been around since 1898. They joined forces in 1999 to market themselves as "les magasins d'art de Paris". 

Lavrut is a very cool store. It has everything you could want from paints to pastels to oils to canvas to sketchbooks and more. A lot of stuff that someone like me has never seen and definitely has no idea what it is, or what it's for. You can buy a wooden model of a hand. Or of a horse (this might have come in handy when I was 8).  There are about a billion different sizes and styles of paintbrushes.  And again I emphasize, a whole lot of really cool looking things that I could not identify.  Never fear, though, I left with a sketchbook and a few pencils in tow (and who doesn't love colored pencils, I ask.  Totally underappreciated.). 

Then I had to brave the crowds of the Louvre and figure out where to go.  I didn't want to draw Jesus or the apostles or the Virgin Mary, and I was looking for something that would have a heavy focus on buildings because I decided that would be easier than people.  So I picked this one:
Pannini's Galerie de vues de la Rome Moderne, 1759.

Hahahahahaha!!!!!!! This is me laughing at myself and I promise you should be laughing at me too.  And while my end product only vaguely resembles this very cluttered and intense masterpiece (it seems I have some issues with proportions, and also perspective, and more generally with drawing), and while I felt a bit self-conscious when various tourists would peek at my "work", it was actually a pretty pleasant way to pass 40 minutes.  And now I can say that I have lived the Parisian artist cliche - although it would have been better if I was chain-smoking and partaking in deeply bohemian conversations while drinking wine in Montmartre.  So are you ready for my masterpiece?

I know. Speechless, aren't you. I have so missed my calling.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Nephew Watch 2012: Arrival

The nephew has arrived!  I don't think I can get France to call a day of celebration, so I'm compensating by over-buying many gifts.

This very adorable little guy actually arrived on his due date after something like 37 hours of labor. Yeesh.

I promise I'll get back to posting about things actually in France very soon.  But come on, who doesn't love a scrumptious newborn photo like this?!?!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Nephew Watch 2012

It looks like Nephew Watch 2012 has begun!  My sister has been having contractions since last night....we're waiting to hear updates.  Crazy and hard to be in France for this - definitely feel out of the loop and wish I could be there to support her.  Upside of my being induced was that my sister was able to fly in from Chicago to be there when Baby Oil was born (in Washington DC).  Downside of Paris (and Paris + 14 month old) is that I can't do the same.

But this isn't about me. This is about our hopefully-soon-to-be-born very first nephew!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Back in the Saddle

Baby Oil and I arrived back in Paris on Thursday morning. Is it possible that was already four days ago?  It's been a long, long few days of cranky, jet-lagged baby who generally refuses to sleep.  On the up side, despite a double ear infection and eye infection, he was remarkably happy on the overnight flight.  Less happy was the guy sitting next to us. A few minutes after sitting down, I heard him mutter something to his wife.  I knew it had to be about the baby, so I said, smiling, "I'm sure you're thinking, oh man, I have to sit next to the baby. For what its worth, he is usually a really good traveler!"  As if smiles and exclamatory statements could convince anyone.

The guy - a 20-something on his first trip to Europe with his wife of less than a year - looked at me and said, "No, actually, I'm just having a really bad day. My dog died suddenly." 

"Oh no!" I replied.  "That's terrible."  And then I realized (and said out loud), "Your dog died AND you have to sit next to the baby? That is a bad day!" Baby Oil, however, deftly won him over, eventually crawling off my lap into his and giving some adorable cuddles.

Another gem of the trip came a number of hours later, when everyone on the plane seemed to be asleep except me, Baby Oil, and the woman across the aisle (she just couldn't fall asleep - I would have gladly fallen asleep!).  All of a sudden, I feel a tap on the shoulder and the woman says, "Um, I think your baby is escaping?"  I had involuntarily dozed off for a second, and Baby Oil had climbed down from my lap and was making his way up the aisle.  He didn't get far, but I felt a bit sheepish.

Paris seems mostly the same.  It is still gray, and it still rains.  The bread is still the best in the world, and the cheese is still to die for.  Parc Monceau is as beautiful as I have described it to be, and it is good to be home.  Spring is coming sooner than later - our first Parisian spring! - and we have neighborhoods to explore, trips to take, and food to eat.  Back in the saddle indeed.