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!