Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My Last Trip to Versailles

This weekend I went on my last trip to Versailles.  I say "my last trip" because almost no incentive in the world could entice me to go to Versailles again.

It is not the palace's fault.  It's not the town's fault, and definitely not my family's fault.  It was just the universe converging in an annoying - for lack of a better word - way.

My family (dad, stepmom, and three brothers, who you may recall from our 2011 adventures in Normandy) is in town to spend time with Mademoiselle, and celebrate the Passover holiday.  So we went to Versailles for the day since my brothers had never been.

First clue that I had upset the universe in some way was the woman who yelled at me on the train.  We sat down in a virtually empty car to travel from the Gare St Lazare in Paris to Versailles.  I was saying something to one of my brothers across the aisle and, sure, I have a loud voice.  The French woman who had boarded after us, and chosen to sit directly behind us despite the numerous empty seats, said rudely that I was being too loud.

My first thought was, "I'm not in a library, am I?  No, I'm on a train. An empty train."  But the woman continued to berate me - though to be honest, I understand about 30% of what she said - and finally I said, in French, "You could just go sit somewhere else."  Which cause her to exclaim something I did not at all understand - in fact, a word I had never before heard but whose meaning I think all of us could guess.

This was a big outing with Mademoiselle, especially as Mr. Oil was staying behind to work, but as an experienced mom, I was fully prepared.  Diapers, burp cloths, a spare outfit, bottles for the baby; diapers, snacks, water bottle for Baby Oil.  You name it, I had it.

But about five minutes after we entered the palace, I realized the Baby Oil's water bottle had leaked all over my bag, completely soaking the burp cloths, spare outfit, several diapers, paper towels, and tissues.  Awesome.  While trying to dry out my bag in the corner, Baby Oil spied the Goldfish crackers I had brought as a snack and insisted on eating them throughout the palace tour.  Needless to say, you are not allowed to eat in the palace of Versailles.  But every time we tried to pry the crackers away, screaming ensued.  Instead, I made sure to place myself between the munching toddler and any guards we saw.

Finally we sat down to lunch in one of the garden restaurants.  It was a medium-chilly day, the kind where you can sit comfortably as long as you keep your jacket on.  My stepmom was holding Mademoiselle when wham! - baby poop explosion.

Which is why I had brought the spare outfit.  Oh, right, but now it was soaking wet.  As a result, we had to strip my poor two-month-old baby naked in about 45 degree weather, wipe her clean, wrap her in a t-shirt and a fleece jacket, and try to get her to stop screaming her traumatized little head off.  In the middle of lunch.

And here's where my day got really awesome.

If you have had a baby, or spent time caring for one, you know that when the baby is screaming, you start babbling to try to calm her down.  Most of the time, you couldn't pay me to tell you what I am actually saying. It's a stream-of-consciousness-thing designed to soothe the little one with varied success.  On the empty table behind us, I was attempting to get Mademoiselle into the Ergobaby carrier both for warmth and comfort.  While doing this, I was engaged in the aforementioned babbling.

Suddenly, an American woman about my age sitting a few tables down looked over and said rudely, "Excuse me, but some of us are trying to eat lunch here."

Thinking she misunderstood what I was doing, I said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I'm not changing a diaper or anything, I'm just trying to get her in this carrier."

She replied, "Well, you are announcing to all of us that your baby pooped through her clothes while we are trying to eat."

Taken aback at this - since a) I had no idea what I had been saying and b) is this girl for real? - I replied, "Well, maybe one day you will have a baby and then you'll understand."

Now, I realize this is not a terribly politically correct thing to say.  It's patronizing and makes all sorts of assumptions, but to be honest, the baby was still screaming and I really didn't understand why this woman was acting like a total b*tch.

She responds, "Actually, I am a child psychologist."

Apparently, this is meant to imply that she does understand.  And therefore, that she is in fact simply a b*tch.  (Because if I replace the letter "i" with an asterisk, I am definitely not using profanity.)

My come-back?  "Well, then it's too bad you don't know how to be nice to adults."

And then I exited the restaurant as fast as possible.  I'm not known for my confrontational abilities.

Mademoiselle finally calmed down and slept the rest of the afternoon.  Baby Oil actually had a great time exploring the grounds of Versailles, and we all made it back to Paris in one piece.  Nonetheless, between the two different verbal attacks, the wet bag, and the poop disaster, that was my last trip to Versailles if I have any say about it!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

NYT Fail

The New York Times loves a good article about Paris.  They even have a regular Paris correspondent, Elaine Sciolino, who has an incredibly impressive resume.   That said, the NYT's eagerness to report on the intersection of Paris with an always-popular Jewish theme has sorely missed the mark this week.

I'm referring to the article titled "Solving the Passover Puzzle in Paris."  The article presents a seriously limited picture of what it is like to prepare for one of Judaism's biggest annual holidays (and certainly the one that requires the most effort) here in Paris.

It is true that the French have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize their religious identity such that it is difficult to ascertain the average Frenchman's religion or level of religious observance,  that most synagogues are located within unmarked or minimally-marked buildings, and that a neighborhood's kosher market may look like a regular store from the outside.  Yet this does not mean that it is difficult to prepare for Passover, nor that the only options, as presented in the article, are a trip to the Marais or to Rue Richer.

We live on the border of the 8th and 17th arrondissements.  Within a fifteen minute walk of our apartment are three kosher butchers, a kosher bakery, two kosher markets, and multiple kosher restaurants. There are even Passover products available in the chain grocery store down the street, and the kosher markets carry much of the standard Passover fare one finds in the US - matzah ball mix, frozen gefilte fish, potato starch, largely-tasteless Passover cake mixes, and more. 

Even better is that several of the kosher restaurants in Paris - of which, by the way, there are well over 100 - remain open during Passover.  Last year's list of kosher-for-Passover restaurants includes over 15 businesses.

Do you have to find out where to shop for specific products, or where your local kosher market is located?  Sure, but that is no less true in Teaneck, New Jersey than it is here in Paris.  Are there many more Sephardic-approved products here that you must be aware of if you follow Ashkenazic traditions with regard to Passover food?  Sure, but they are clearly labeled as such.

So listen, New York Times.  I know that people love to read about Paris (really - I love to read about the city, and I live there!) and I know that Jewish-themed articles invariably end up on your most-emailed list.  But next time you want to write about how to find or eat kosher food here, or celebrate a Jewish holiday in Paris, please consider talking to someone who is either a) actually Jewish, or b) has a wider view of Jewish life in Paris than Ms. Sciolino.

The anecdote about the pork-filled duck is cute, but I promise it is much easier to simply walk to the kosher butcher who can provide the same array of products minus the pork.  I also realize that this post is a bit of a deviation from my normal style, but what can I say, my apartment is already filled with matzah and this article just pushed my Passover buttons!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Forget Fondue

Forget fondue.  Really.  All you need is a Mont d'Or, one garlic clove, and a little white wine. 

Mont d'Or is a French cheese that comes in a round wooden case, much like a camembert or brie or many typical French cheeses, originating from some of the mountains on the Swiss border.  However, Mont d'Or is a seasonal cheese that is only available in the winter. 

We were completely ignorant about this cheese until David Lebovitz blogged about it last week.  As usual, we followed his instructions to the letter, and we were not disappointed. 

When we purchased our Mont d'Or at our neighborhood fromagerie, Mr. Oil asked the sales clerk how to prepare it properly.  She looked at him as if he had just asked how to breathe air, and replied, "White wine."  Evidently, we had shocked her with our uneducated queries. 

Our next stop was of course the wine shop, where upon explaining that we planned to eat a Mont d'Or that evening, the man simply nodded and without hesitating sold us a bottle of white wine from Savoie. 

At home, we duly sliced a garlic clove, made small openings in the top of the cheese, pushed the garlic slices into the cheese, wrapped it in foil (top open), and poured on a small amount of white wine.  We then placed it in the oven for about half an hour.

Mont d'Or is a creamy cheese to begin with, but when it warms up, mixed with the garlic and white wine, and you slice a fresh baguette that you dunk directly in your bubbly, warm, oh-my-I-just-went-to-cheese-heaven confection, it is an entirely new cheese experience.

It is the second week of March, and it is snowing here in Paris.  Part of me is dismayed because I very much want to spring to start already, but another part of me is thinking - time for another Mont d'Or!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Thick or Thin

I'm not sure why it took us a year and a half to discover French honey, but it did.  But now that we've found it, there is so much to learn.

As with everything, honey is not simply honey in France.  There are an infinite number of kinds of honey, from the thin, syrupy type that you might pour in tea or use in cooking, to honey thicker than butter that you spread directly on your toast.  We finally visited La Maison du Miel, which, while touristy, is certainly worth a visit for no other reason than you can taste a lot of delicious honey for free.  The store has been around since 1905, so they certainly know their honey.  And if eating honey isn't enough for you, there are honey candles, honey lotions, honey candy, and more. 

Lavender honey, rosemary honey, rhododendron honey, mountain honey, lime-tree honey, acacia honey, fir tree honey - and that's just the tip of the iceberg.  Some tasted almost smoky, some had a bitter after taste, but all of them have a unique flavor.  We came home with a thick, spreadable lavender honey that even Baby Oil has been requesting on his toast. 

Most of my life right now consists of feeding Mademoiselle (you know, when I'm not feeding myself).  In France, you only visit your pediatrician a full month after you leave the hospital.  During that month, and the months following, however, most people visit their local PMI (Protection Maternelle et Infantile) at least once.  Each arrondissement has a PMI office, which holds daily "pesees-conseils" (weight advice sessions) during which you simply drop-in, weigh your baby, and can discuss with the staff whether your baby is gaining enough weight, how often they are eating, etc.  You can also take care of immunizations at the PMI if you prefer - and all of this is completely free of charge. 

Mademoiselle was a bit underweight at her one-month check up, so I went to the PMI to check on her weight for each of the last two weeks.  So last Thursday I showed up, they weighed her, recorded her weight in her carnet de sante (portable health record that the parent keeps), and calculated how many grams she has gained each day on average.  Baby Oil played with the excellent selection of toys available while I chatted with the PMI workers. 

The next day - Friday - my phone rang around 5:45pm.  It was the woman from the PMI, and she explained that the previous evening she realized she had made a mistake in calculating Mademoiselle's weight gain per day, and she wanted to correct it in our records.  This error bothered her so much that she was standing outside our building, wondering if she could come up for a few minutes to correct the mistake. 

I said yes, of course, but was mostly flabbergasted by what was happening.  To be honest, I hadn't even looked at the number she had written down - I paid attention to her actual weight but wasn't sure I had to care about the grams per day business.  The woman walked in with white-out in her hand, whited-out the calculation from yesterday while explaining that upon realizing her error, she had been unable to sleep all night.  She then filled in the correct number, and told me that now she could rest easy for the weekend. She also told me that she hoped I would not hold this mistake against the PMI and that I would continue to come and partake of their (free) services. 

I don't know if this is typical or not - frankly, I'm guessing not - but it certainly was impressive! 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Goat Cuddles

A new Chagall exhibit opened last week at the Musee du Luxembourg.  We wanted my mother-in-law to feel like she had done something in Paris other than play with Baby Oil and rock Mademoiselle to sleep, so we headed to the small museum just inside the Luxembourg Gardens.

It turns out that Chagall is fantastic for a toddler, mostly because his art features a lot of farm animals.  For instance, take Chagall's well-known "Midsummer Night's Dream":
Credit: Marc Chagall

Baby Oil took one look at this painting and declared, "Goat cuddles!"  And really, that does look like one cuddly goat.

We also spent quite a bit of time studying "The Dance" - rather than consider the bright colors and possible biblical symbolism, we mostly discussed the chicken. And the violin.
Credit: Marc Chagall

Mademoiselle thoroughly enjoyed her first museum (it was also her one month birthday!), and celebrated by sleeping soundly throughout the visit.

Winter is long in Paris.  Maybe not every year, but definitely this year.  It is now March, and I can barely remember when the world was not gray and cold.  It makes venturing out with both kids significantly less appealing, to say the least.  One of the few bright spots (besides the whole new daughter thing) has been our discovery of an amazing patisserie/boulangerie just north of Place Marechal Juin on Avenue de Villiers in the 17th.  This is not actually near our apartment at all.  It is 3 metro stops or over a mile walk away.  Yet we've managed to get there at least five times since Mademoiselle was born in order to gorge ourselves on the best raisin bread ever, or the spectacular desserts that rival any to be found in the big-name places around town.  Given that there are at least 8 boulangeries within a four block radius - and untold numbers within a three metro stop radius - you must believe this one is something special.  Winter has its silver linings, and when it gets really cold and dreary, there's always goat cuddles to keep you warm...