cakes, prose, woes -- the photos, food & thoughts of a french-speaking seattle-native in brazil

In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it. -AB
In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An American Thanksgiving in Paris

A turkey cannot cook itself you know.
Would you like to know what an American Thanksgiving in Paris is like? It is simple--a recreation of the Thanksgiving all Americans know and love--only without mom's help in the kitchen, few American food products, and dad standing by to carve the turkey--and not to mention the forty or so French faces staring in anticipation as you fretfully attempt to carve two giant birds with a machete and pair of scissors all the while being expected to provide them with a speech--in French--on the origins of Thanksgiving. All in all sounds of a jolly good time then eh Christophe?

Thanksgiving au Foyer Mignard was to be an American celebration hosted by its seven American residents by whom all of the cooking and preparation would be done. We split the tasks into whose family favorite was most dear to whom, and who had skill with this or with that. I fell to the lot of mashed potatoes (my Dad's reason for living) and my mums marshmallow salad. The salad I know and love is a family tradition in my parents house, both on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Though a devil to re-create in France. Substitutions--what this college dorm cooker lives for. My mum's: tined pineapple, mandarin oranges, mini-marshmallows, sour cream, and shredded coconut. Mine--a wee bit different--as well as intended to feed a small wedding party. Find me sour cream in France and I will marry you.

Parisian Marshmallow Salad:
4 cans pineapples cut into chunks
15-20 satsumas (Clementines) peeled (just in case) and broken apart
golden raisins
chopped dried figs
two bags of marshmallows cut up (thank you American aisle at Carrefour)
3 cartons dessicated coconut
12 oz creme fraiche
12 oz fromage blank
12 oz yogurt

mix mix. And refrigerate over night. This recipe is one to be meddled with in proportions--the measurements are not vital, and the ones given produced a quantity for a medieval banquet. Feel free to halve, quarter, or triple if it is indeed for a medieval banquet.

The mashed potatoes--tender mashing love, more butter than even Paula may dare to use, demi creme milk, salt, pepper, and garlic. The turkey, I may add, fell to my lot as well . unbeknownst to the seven of us, there were none among us with prior Turkey dressing experience. As such the eyes turned to me, and I took the plunge. Bathe the birds, that is what my mum always did. The French birds, dinde, were fresh from the butcher, pink, and fuzzy with a few forgotten feathers. After the washing, my brave accomplice W and I did a bit of tidying up, cutting of a few suspicious flaps, and then seasoning. The dinde was treated to a full body massage with a pound of creamy butter, after which I proceded to stuff the derier full of solid cubes, as well as fresh garlic, chopped onion, rosemary, pepper, salt, and thyme. Game set--carry the two beasts down the road to the corner Sandwicherie where the bakers kindheartedly agreed to roast them for we the oven-less. As the birds cooked the others set about the yams, green bean casserole, stuffing, cranberries (thanks to the Thanksgiving Store in the 4th on Rue de Saint Paul) salads, apple and pumpkin pies, as well as all the decorations and the plethora of wine and horsdouvers to set out.

When the time came and the guests were assembled everyone looked to the birds still whole and crispy perched on the counter. No move was made as the stagecoach brushed across the floor. Oy. Fine. I will carve. To witness me carving a turkey with a saber longer than my arm and a pair of --garden sheers?--was one you thankfully had the privilege of missing. A work-out is a turkey (2 turkeys) carving, not to mention the French man hovering over with his video camera. Up to my elbows in turkey juices as the room awaited my final slice--I was called upon to recite in their language the history of our holiday. Chaos does indeed ensue as i stand palms up, saber in hand, stuttering and butchering the dates as I try to pull out Plymouth, 1620 bad winter...Indians help...1621 plentiful harvest...big feast...Abraham Lincoln first president to observe holiday...and so forth. And yes...the young French girls giggle as I mix my verb tenses and fling turkey juices around.

Enough said let us eat! The bash was a hit--the best in all the years of the Mignard American Thanksgiving we were told. Success. And, I can dress and carve a Turkey, who knew my first true American traditional "for the patriarch-role" would be in France at an American Thanksgiving. C'est la vie.

A bientôt

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Bike Named Émile

"The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work." -Émile Zola

Paris is known for its extensive and dependable system of public transportation--the largest underground labyrinth of snaking metro trains, punctual street buses, the RER--the urban train system that transports the suburbanites to and from the city, and the world famous TGV, the fastest modern train yet to date.

Are you presently reading a sales pitch for RATP transport services? No, but it must be made clear that it is impossible to not get where you are going in Paris--whether from one side of the city to another, or just down the street on a rainy day there is something and someone to get you there. Unless of course there is a transportation union workers strike--the Greve--that literally cripples the rhythm of everyday Parisian life. Surprisingly though, the Parisians do not bitch, they accept and move on. When public is down Parisians turn private--which means to take to the streets. From dawn until much after dusk the main avenues and boulevards become blood clots of honking motorists spattered by flocks of snaking bikers and herds of rushing pedestrians on foot. Chaos ensues as unexperienced bikers, drivers, and yes even rollerbladers unfamiliar with the above-the-ground route to their destination strain to read road signs and traffic laws that seem nearly non-existent. As a temporary Parisian resident I only feel it my duty to contribute to the street circus--therefore I join the perturbed masses dans la rue on my bike, a 50-some year old rusty orange two-wheeler named Émile (ehh-meal).

Bikers are a different breed of people; bikers choose to bike even when it is far easier to arrive via some other mode of transport. Bikers enjoy numb faces and frozen fingers, they do not mourn over the tears that are ripped away from the eyes and carried away by the frozen wind, and they accept the imminent outcome of disheveled hair and a broken sweat. City biking is a game of adrenaline, pleasure, and stealth. Bikers play the role of the motorcar but with the perks of the pedestrian. Bikes belong in the street, observe traffic laws and lights, but have the bonus of snaking and sidewalk jumping to pass, weasel, and play as one wills. There is a rule however, it is to play responsibly and to not die.

I acquired my velo from a guy named Eddy. Eddy runs his bike business from a subterranean garage full of a near 200 used bicycles--some sparkling and new, and some rusted and flat. I told him I wanted a 60euro or less--he wheeled out around 12 rusting beauties and I proceeded to spin around on each in the deserted parking garage. After eliminating the models without brakes, he flat tires, and the broken bells, I found Emile--rusty, orange, hard-seated, but with a little something reminiscent of charm and past glory. Look closely and it's mark is a Jacques Anquetil--for those Tour de France patrons out there the name will lift a brow as he was the first to win five maillot jaunes. I took Emile after only 20minutes, and my first adventure through the streets of Paris took me from the northernmost tip of the 18th to the southernmost dip of the 16th. Taking the Champs-Elysees, the actual street, not the sidewalk, by night and in the rain for the first time was yet again one of those moments. An hour and a half ride past the glittering Eiffel Tower and the tourists along the seine and aboard the river boats--yes I had my map as I loose myself in the metro much less in the actual streets--but I have become a Parisian biker and am beginning to feel the streats, and though to many Emile is naught but a rusty bit of junk and at first un peu embarrassing, he has traversed the city and has not failed me yet. And though it isn't quite as exciting as a key less-entry previously owned by a former White House adviser (hehe), I do not have to worry about it's theft! When the chain falls off: put it back on I say. Unless of course the wheel falls off.

Émile is named for Avenue Émile Zola, which we ride along on our way to class. He will stay in Paris after I have left though--he belongs in Paris. Paris is made for bikes, whether its a historical connection or an evolution over time, there is a respect, expectation, and place for them in the rue. Émile Zola said, "The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work." And though this has nothing to do with bikes or anything of which we have discussed up to this point, it is quite a smart thing to say.

A bientôt & happy birthday dad.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fall in der Viktualienmarkt

Bavaria Calling--Aus München. I have an incredible fondness for the French language--evident as I am living in France--but it is a rather difficult and intimidating language to practice. The German language on the other hand, is more of a sport or game to partake in. Back in school, French surmounted to academics, while German represented the break period of the day, for I stand firm in the conviction that Deutsch is the most most amusing language a human could speak for pleasure. Not convinced? Say birthday and anniversaire, then try geburtstag. Changed your mind eh? Welkommen aus Deutschland! Aus Bayern München wo wir können in der Viktualienmark gehen--one of the most widely known outdoor food markets in Western Europe.

Viktualienmarkt is located just a few steps south of the famous Marienplatz, the location of the old market before it outgrew itself. The market has been a traditional farmers-market style venue since the early nineteenth century. The name stems from the latin victuals--food. Today the market hosts myriad stalls--140 in all--of produce ranging from home grown legumes to imported exotics from around the world. The copious butcher shops, or Metzgerei, that line the market alleys are packed with the carcases of freshly slaughtered swine, game, and poultry, as well as stuffed window displays of linked sausages and bursting cases of bratwurst, weisswurst, and schweinwurst.

Aside from the meat, the fresh dairy and cheese stalls, pretzel vendors, wine and beer stalls, bakeries offering rustic style bröt and cakes--and everything in between from novelty honeys and jams to pine cone bird feeders. But--above all others is the marzipan one will find , windows ans windows of deliciously sculpted marzipan have solidified my German dreams of hospitality, warmth, and fun. One could easily pass the day away in the market under the chiming of the nearby Marienplatz clock tower, and the whinnying of hounds as they stare longingly through the butchers window as their master strikes a deal.

There is a jolliness in Munich, one that is lacking in Paris. Whether this is a shared opinion or a personal stretch I know not. But I have a secret love for all things German--one that leaves many friends and colleagues here in Paris puzzling over--did you pick the wrong country? I have been asked on many an occasion. My ear catches the German at a bar and I move in. What it is I cannot say, perhaps a certain misunderstanding of the German language, culture, and people that I act the champion against. I have fought and will continue to fight for the beauty of the language--too many cringe and spout phrases for description as "ugly, angry, spitting, and harsh." I do not see it. Instead I think of rhyming songs for children about hats, and the poetic verses of Goethe and Heinrich Heine.

Munich is a gem, an insult I payed in only remaining in her hospitality three nights. A city so full of history one can almost claim giddiness. Return is inevitable, Bavaria is vast, and the North beckons as well. I will remain torn between the French and Germans, but I would very much prefer to have the two. Perhaps I should move to Strasbourg. Until then--

A bientôt & Tschüβ

Saturday, November 10, 2007

P is for Pilsner in Prague

Dusting a Fairytale Land Walt Disney may have patterned his fairytale castle after the famous Newschwanstein Castle in Fussen, Germany, but it is beyond any doubt, in my mind, that Cinderella, Snow, and Tink all made residency in the Czech Republic--in the enchanting gilded city of antiquity known the world around as Prague.

There are far too many elements one could recount and embellish on from a weekend passed in Prague--the streets, skyline, food, markets, people, puppets, music, sparkle, and nightlife--as such it is an act of great difficulty to synopsize the finest points of Prague. Over the past few decades it has risen to the ranks of one of the most densely visited cities on the European continent, a tourist haven on par with the dazzle of such cities as Paris and London. Though the Czech Republic was made EU member only in 2004, Prague has been a world cultureal and economic center for over 1100 years and remains under the aliases of the Golden City, the Mother of Cities, and the City of a Thousand Spires. Prague seems of existence for the single purpose of gaiety and a good time, an unspoiled majesty remains on the land that perhaps before one thought only possible to find on Main Street and Splash Mountain. It is a nonpareil city in this respect; a poignant contrast to the cool sad grayness left behind in Poland. There are Pixies and Pucks to be found in the winding streets of Praha, and a certain mystery seeped in the odd and puzzling atmosphere of a Scandinavian village mingled with an Eastern Turkish feel and a whimsical Bavarian charm. I say, put down the map and look up--there is a puppet show to be seen, and a 20 crown Pilsner with your name on it.

What is this? This can't be real? Are the classic first words heard to escape ones mouth as they emerge from the winding cluttered village onto awe inspiring Charles bidge. The sheer population and commerce found atop the Charles Bridge is enough to deem it a city upon itself; portrait artists, painting peddlers, puppeteers, novelty salesmen, and musical artists of every make inhabit the outer lanes of the bridge from dawn until dusk. The ever present classical and authentic Czech style music paired with the smell of sweet roasted street nuts is a constant reminder that you are on vacation in a fairytale kingdom.

The Charles Bridge is perhaps the most prominent landmark of Praha; of the myriad bridges that traverse the Vltava River, it is the most highly decorated and revered as it boasts the history as the replacement of the first bridge (the Judith Bridge in 1170) when it collapsed in 1342. Charles Bridge is named for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, and is the direct link between the old town and new town on opposite sides of the river. The bridge is lined with a near 30 baroque style statues depicting Christian characters and icons pointing and jabbing in directions every which way. Of the many, the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk is the most eye chatching--though do not be fooled by the sparkling austerity of his golden crown, for all of the bridge statues are replicas of the originals who have since 1965 been residing in the national museum. Regardless they are wonders to marvel at. Though once across the bridge on both banks there are spectacles to gaze upon that leave all thought of counterfeit deceit behind: Prague Castle, the Opera House, the the Town Hall Tower and Celestial Clock, St. Vitus Cathedral, Tyn Church, and the Old Jewish Quarter. This city has by far too much to see. But make sure you squeeze in a black light show or you will regret it to the end of your days.

If there is a single thing one picks up on in cross-border travel, it is the similarities and differences in the everyday and average aspects of life. For instance--beer. Beer secretly runs th the world and civil society as we know it. In Ireland one must dig deep to find an add, sign, or human not boasting the label Guinness, and in France it is without a doubt Kronenburg seen on the tables of the nouveau-sans-vin generation as it is manufactured in Strasbourg in the Alsace region of France. In the Czech Republic it is Pilsner, and there is no competition. As often as one encounters Guinness in Dublin, once encounters Pilsner in Prague.

Pilsner Urquell originated in the Bohemian city of Pilsen in the mid nineteenth century, and has since become one of the nations top grossing manufactured exports world wide. Aside frm the beer, kabobs are rudy everywhere in Europe--though I much prefer and recommend the rabbit roasted and stewed in a red wine and plum sauce served with golden raisins and potato dumplings followed by a slow mulled hot wine. But would you believe if I said 10 euro for said feast? Fairytale land, I will emphasize once again--the currency of Crowns, or Koruna, is an unearthly wonder for an An American living USD through Euro. Yes, Prague is quite the affordable city.

It is common knowledge that a travel companion can make or break a voyage--it is paramount to find an amicable, trustworthy, and dependable associate in order to not only survive but to have a good time. For every Frodo there is a Sam, every Huck a Jim, every TinTin a Milou, every Lewis a Clark--my expedition was no different, Prague was made only more bright by the company of my comrade H, whose life as a professional photographer meshed well with my charade as an amateur one, and whose similar fondness for marzipan allowed us time for the search as well as a newly mustered mutual respect for our shared interests. Travel is stressful, unpredictable, and certain to proffer a dilemma no matter how carefully the schedule is followed or the steps taken measured--it is not the circumstances of how or when the inevitable happens that matter in the least--but rather that one can come out of them just as happy as when one entered. (As well as, I suppose, not being kidnapped and sold into slavery to an illegal black market puppeteer--but come now, I had everything under control.) That is the unit of measure of a travel companion--if you can laugh and work together through the marshes then it is hardly possible to ask for more short of a Gandalf. But who needs a wizard when you have a friend and a bar of marzipan.

Violins, puppets, and paper mache eggs are symbols of Prague's novelty and beauty. A visit to a medieval village preserved from time is enjoyed through afternoon lattes and evening mugs of grog as the glistening shafts of the dying sun poor through the dusty haze--proof of the City's being sprinkled by golden fairy dust. Even now it seems surreal, a pastoral image paralleled to the likeness of those created by Monet, Sisley, and Bruegel on canvas. But it is real. And had Disney not so knavishly claimed his kingdom the happiest place on earth--such a title would indisputably fall upon this cracker-jack city in the east.

A bientôt

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Porta-Loo Business

First Stop: Krakow
Krakow--why, many have asked, would a fall vacation lead one into the cold, distant, and rather foreign land of Poland when the beautifully warm sands of the Mediterranean lie but six hours south? Good question, I'll get back to you.

Poland pulled for many reasons, and in the end it came to this: if not now then when? Krakow is a beautiful city, the medieval cathedrals and castles joust the sky with the whimsical feel of ancient European charm, but there is something else in the air, stained on the streets, and writ on the faces of the inhabitants, something forced and unprovoked that lingers even after the wounds have closed and the patient discharged. Evidently this reference is to the German invasion in 1939, and though Poland was not alone in twentieth century home soil suffering as every nation was pained during the course of the Great Wars on this continent--but Poland appears different. True Paris was leveled, and rebuilt, but there is no lingering aura of torment, whereas once in Poland one is invaded by a sadness made only more poignant by the contrasting beauty of the land surrounding.

The nation's years of occupation by Nazi Germany that were followed by Soviet rule have left Poland a rape victim conscripted to forever carry her scars while yet make attempt at forward movement. Perhaps it was after all just the effect of the rather low temperature, and the eerie notion of a non-warming sun, but either way the nation of Poland is due its admiration. It shoulders its legacy as an extension rather than as a separate past. Slowly the nation recovers--made member of the European Union two years past, though not yet strong enough to carry the euro, adoption of modern and western forms of culture and materialism with four-story shopping malls and corporate eateries, but all the while never masking the omnipresent scent of being Polish.

The journey from Paris by plane was taken in rather French strides I must say--cheep mini bottles of Bordeaux alongside cheese, crudites, and dried fruit. H--my stalwart accomplice on the voyage--and I toasted to our narrow French escape and anxiously chirped our anticipation and excitement for the East. Upon arrival in Crakovie (the French will tell you how your name is spelled too, do not worry) the change in atmosphere was paramount--it goes without saying that yes, Poland is different than France, but it is a sense that has to be experienced in order to understand these circular and prosaic words I give here that futilely attempt to induce comprehension. Standing outside the airport, the temperature drastically lower than the energy-spiked air of Paris, we found ourselves finally completely alone and without direction, a liberating notion despite its apparent gravity. Cab, of course--but 70euros to get downtown? Rape for the non-Polish speakers. Ironically it was the French language that saved us; a French-Polish Speaking Pole called a cab and split the fare, 5euros each. He translated our French to the Polish-speaking driver and we all landed safely at our respective destination. Alright French, you win this round. Our schedule kept us in in Krakow the first night--where a shared hostel with two Brits and a Welsh-man left us with our first taste of Polish vodka and a sleepless night of bed-rattling snores. Morning was greeted early, as our first adventure took us an hour and a half north by bus to the sites of Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps. An experience I've anxiously awaited since my decision to study history. The visit was an exhausting and empowering experience, one that is best left for another time and another form of communication.

Metropolitan Krakow is a bustling tourist center full of the quaint tourist shops, sleigh rides, and cluttered cobbled avenues of authentic restaurants and novelties. Exhausted by the previous days excursion to Auschwitz and awaiting our night train, H and I passed our last hours in Krakow in an underground Polish pub. A shared bowl of sauerkraut and red cabbage soup accompanied by what else but Polish vodka quickly began to lift our sobered spirits, enhanced only by the arrival of a traveling gang of businessmen from Ireland whose generosity toward fellow English speakers provided H and I with myriad rounds of free drinks. As we will shortly discover through our journey, it is the other foreign travelers one meets abroad who provide the best company and warmest memories. Our Irish blokes commenced their introduction as a pair of Toms--one from Dublin and the other from Waterford, yes like the crystal, whose employment in the porta-loo business brought them to Krakow in an attempt to monopolize the market. Slurring Irish-men at times are difficult to follow, as such it took a few moments to discern that what they referred to were portable toilets, porta-potties for we Americans. "The cleanest rims you'll ever have the pleasure to place your tush on." Only in Poland, we told ourselves, would we find ourselves in animated conversation over porta-loos. It is the people one meets abroad--as I will be repeat in phrases to come--that remain in my thoughts of voyages and adventures. Streets will always be there, the castles and walls have been stationary for years and will remain for years to come, but people are chance, and that is the real thrill of adventure abroad.

Aboard the night train from Krakow, we left the breathtaking and proud country of Poland behind in the thick settling nocturnal mist, a fitting shroud for the melancholy first stage of our journey. Poland's past creeps into ones pores, a tristess forever embedded in the nation's identity, though one does not have to look far to find happiness--good people willing to help lost travelers, affordable sausages, the worlds most homely cat, and of course the fecundity of losing oneself in harmless conversations on porta-loos.

History is a treasure to learn, but it is even more so to feel. I have been to Poland, and porta-loos and chilly streets tucked safely in my memory, I anticipate my return someday, perhaps to a city with the cleanest street toilets ever found.

A Bientôt.