Sunday, December 30, 2007
Let me be more precise. We had Blackberry, an aging, winsome chow-hound whose life-list of Things I Have Eaten included an oil painting, a cord of firewood, and the contents of my son's sacks of Halloween candy, every year of elementary school. A paragon of good manners, however, she always discarded the Snickers and Twix wrappers, and anything with licorice, into a delicate pile. Blackberry's special skill was artfully worrying her eyebrows, with an anxious sideways glance at her bowl, to convince the next sucker arriving in the kitchen that she hadn't been fed dinner yet.
We had Cleo, the bulimic, bi-polar feral feline from Hell, whose goals in life were to pee on freshly folded stacks of laundry and to puke behind the sofa. Her only sliver of endearment in the bosom of our family was strictly for the theatrics. When evicted from the house for misbehavior, which was often, she slunk to the side yard. There she would play dead out on the lawn, waiting for the neighborhood mockingbirds to dive-bomb her lifeless body, whereupon she sprang up to maul them in a most unappetizing fashion. Cleo was pure Hitchcock and Hollywood. Blackberry was purebred Merchant Ivory, zapped by Comedy Central.
Blackberry and Cleo arrived in our household as puppy and kitten, within weeks of each other. Every day of her happy-go-lucky Labrador life, Blackberry, wagging and wiggling, would nuzzle hopefully toward Cleo with a friendly wet nose and a goofy doggy-smile. Every single day for 14 years, Cleo would sharpen her claws in anticipation of this ritual, then with electric fur arch her back and hiss and swat as if Blackberry were some unknown Pitbull looking for lunch.
After Blackberry's tail thumped its last sweet thump, we mourned tearfully. Cleo was subsequently outsourced to live in a barn where she could chase mice and pee at will. We were petless. Almost.
We had acquired, in the meantime, a fantail goldfish. He was christened "Matisse," as a nod to the artist's painting of "Les Poissons Rouges." When Blackberry and Cleo were still around, Matisse had served mostly as a decorative object. On the kitchen counter in a tall jar (to save him from angling kitty paws), he swam around a slender plant and didn't ask for much. An occasional sprinkle of food and change of the water were all the attention he needed. Or got.
Eventually, though, with the furry pets departed to their respective greener pastures, and the kids living away at school, before I knew it Matisse had taken on new importance in my solitary life. When I ambled downstairs in the morning in that big empty house, I had someone to talk to. Somehow we started a quirky little duet. I approached his jar, he swam to the glass and made kissy-faces at me until I got out the little red box of fish food. Seeing the famliar red, he would dart excitedly through the plant, then race to the surface to wait for his little flakes, smooching tiny air bubbles until he was fed.
Yeah, right. I know you don't believe me. None of my friends did either, until they saw it in person. This was a goldfish with Personality!
I started calling him by ridiculous little nicknames (which, of course, he couldn't even hear). Ti-ti, Teetles. "How's my little Teetlebaum today?" I would inquire. Egad, what was coming over me? I had never used cutesy love-names like that even for my own children, so why was I suddenly bestowing terms of endearment on a slimy 79-cent purchase from Petco? Thank God no one was within earshot. I embarrassed myself.
When the time came to leave that big old house and pack up a lifetime of memories, I was heartened to think of Matisse as my companion for the transition. Then, when the sudden decision came for a preliminary move to Paris, I became determined to take Matisse with me. Okay, obsessed is a better word.
I fretted about how to transport him, and the water he would need to travel in (this was before the 3-ounce carry-on fluid limits). After much searching, I found a gallon-sized neoprene jar with a handle to take on-board for the flight. I envisioned Matisse in coach class, under my seat, where I could open the lid and reassuringly feed him little nibbles.
Then I became worried whether a fish could physically sustain cabin pressure at cruising altitudes of 30,000 feet. I scoured Google. I called vets and pet shops for solutions. No one could answer my queries. Did I detect muffled snickering as they hung up the phone?
I wanted to find out about airline pet transport regulations. I swam through the maze of passenger service, cargo, and myriad customer service agents at Air France. They were polite and attentive, and said they'd look into my request. Finally, someone was listening! The agent got back on the phone after checking with his supervisor. "I am sorry, Madame, but we have no regulations concerning carrying a live fish on board Air France," he said with utmost civility. "You see, no one has ever asked to do so before." I felt sheepish, but somewhat of a pioneer.
Finally, pragmatics prevailed. I simply had too much luggage to allow me to bring Matisse to Paris. My wise friend Sheila, who had coached and aided me through the whirlwind packing-for-Paris ordeal, generously offered to care for Matisse until I could come back to fetch him. I knew he was in good hands.
When I returned to the States to touch base several months later, I had, I'm ashamed to admit, all but forgotten about Matisse. Paris had been so thrilling, such a cultural learning curve, that I'd had precious little time to think about a piscine pipsqueak in a tall jar in Massachusetts. Paris does tend to put elements of your life in perspective.
I called Sheila to catch up for lunch. "I have some bad news for you," she offered solemnly after a long silence. "Matisse died a month ago."
"Oh -- Matisse?" I said blithely. "Well, he was sweet, but after all, he was JUST a goldfish. I hope you said a 'praise be to Allah' before you flushed him down the loo!" Sheila, who had witnessed my Matisse obsession first hand, didn't know whether to be relieved or furious, I think.
Since then, I've been truly petless. I'd love to have a dog in Paris, but time and money budgets just don't allow it. And after 14 years of Cleo, I no longer fancy owning a cat.
Last Friday, after my kids had returned to the States, I knew it was time. First, I found a sack of marbles for €1 at the marché in Belleville. Then a large vase at Monceau Fleurs. A quick visit to Vilmorin Animalerie on quai de la Mégisserie, and I found her.
She was swimming, ballerina-style, unlike the hundred other clumsy poissons rouges in the tank. "Celui-là," I pointed her out to the attendant. He had a tough time catching her in his net, but I wasn't going to adopt just any goldfish.
Before I had left the store, I had instantly given her a name. "Louise," a nod to one of my favorite French authors, Louise de Vilmorin, whose ancestors started the Vilmorin seed and plant company.
Ah, you should meet my little Louisette. My Lou-Lou. Ma petite Lou-Lita-la-Belle. We already love our little morning chats, we two.
Bayard, a professor of French literature at the Université de Paris 8, published Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus? earlier this year, and its translation into English has made it a top-seller as well.
Here is a video clip (in French) of a literary discussion last February on France 2 television, "Is Literature in Danger?". Bonus: the only woman on the panel is none other than Carla Bruni. She likes to read!
So maybe if she becomes Première Dame de la République, French Culture won't be in as dire straits as some predict.
Saturday, December 29, 2007
Friday, December 28, 2007
Thursday, December 27, 2007
However, when the kids want to bring some friends for a visit, or plan to do a lot of Paris socializing, my apartment (and my middle-aged nerves) just can't absorb the tsunami of extra adolescent bodies and concomitant belongings. Last year I was fortunate to find a weekly rental apartment a few blocks away, overlooking the dome of Les Invalides. There they can hang out sleep until noon, have some independence, and still head home to my place for meals, laundry, and all the other creature comforts that a Mom provides. A great solution, and cheaper than renting more square meters than I need the other 340 days a year.
Jean-Patrick, the easygoing, affable owner of the apartment, showed me some of the other flats that he rents. I've been recommending them to my friends ever since. Now -- a boon to all travelers -- he has a website and an official name for his short-term apartment-rental business, "Paris Like Home."
In fact, I like the apartments so much I was torn over even writing about them, for fear that our favorite wouldn't be available next time the kids are here. But Jean-Patrick is such a great guy, so cheerful and accommodating (and speaks perfect English). So I just had to pass along the tip. But we get first dibs for next Christmas, I hope.
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Monday, December 24, 2007
Sunday, December 23, 2007
This evening we happened to be crossing rue du Bac as we headed home, and the Nespresso shop looked slightly less full, so I decided to give it a try. The slim young security guard opened the door to let us in. There were about 15 people inside, patiently waiting in a central line. It was moving blessedly swiftly as they completed their transactions. If you own a Nespresso machine, you understand my sense of mounting rapture as I approached the caisse to make my purchase. Ah! Good coffee at home again! I was feverish in anticipation.
Then something happened. A small, well-heeled group began gathering outside the entrance, and the guard wouldn't let them in. He was under strict orders: the boutique had to close its doors at 6 pm, so no more customers were allowed in after 5:45. Indignant, they began arguing their case. It started with pleading. "Mais nous avons téléphoné -- but we called, you said you were open until 6 pm." The guard stood fast. No way was he letting them in the door. More customers arrived. The mob was getting outraged, and I honestly expected a brawl to begin. These folks were PISSED. They wanted their Nespresso capsules, and they wanted them NOW.
Well. You know that feeling of smugness when you're on the inside and others want to be there, but they're not? (Kinda like snagging the last Cabbage-Patch Doll , Tickle-Me Elmo or iPhone.) Okay, I admit it -- I was smug in spades. God forgive me. We stood demurely in line, analyzing George Clooney's seductive pose on the store poster, trying to pretend that we didn't notice the frantic antics outside. I wasn't proud of this feeling. I felt their pain.
The kind clerk at the cash register was so courteous and solicitous. "Is there anything else I can help you with?" she asked multiple times, as if we had hours to select more Nespresso products.
By the time we finished our transaction one lady in the clamoring crowd outside was shrieking at the guard, "Alors, if I order on line, are you going to deliver them to me and pay for the shipping?" It looked as though they were going to use brute force to stampede through the doors.
We sauntered out, proud shopping-bag of capsule boxes daintily in hand as we squeezed our way through the fracas. (In hindsight, if I'd been really scheming and evil, I could have bought hundreds of boxes and scalped them right on the spot. Damn.)
Oh well. Let them drink drip.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
It's a growing trend, says the PriceMinister marketing guy, up 6% last year and expected to increase steadily. Most folks are doing the re-sell on the sly, as only 14% admit telling the gift-giver that the cadeau missed the mark.
The biggest turnover in presents?
Gifts from in-laws and parents.
Friday, December 21, 2007
In Paris it seems that the cold penetrates more, with all the stone in the built environment. Am I imagining it, or does the stone just pull the heat right out of you?
We were spoiled by a mild winter last year, so this is new for me. Anyway, it seems that most Parisians are heading out of town for the countryside or the mountains for les vacances de Noel. We're staying put here. I don't need to dream of a white Christmas. I've got my Christmas dream already -- aged 19 and 21, respectively, still sleeping as I write.
I gather that back in New England the weather has been, well, wintry. Snow, sleet, ice, with below freezing temperatures and treacherous traveling. So I can't complain. I honestly don't miss snow a bit. I don't miss shovelling through it, trudging through it, taking those clumps of snow out of the heel of my boots. Not that I don't like snow. I love to visit snow.
Lacking snow at Christmastime in Paris, I thought it would be fun to at least have some virtual snow. And my all-time favorite is the collection of photographs by Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley. The first person to photograph individual snowflakes, in 1885, Bentley ultimately produced 5000 images of snowflakes, none of which are exactly alike, of course. His own words:
"Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind."
There are more modern photos of snowflakes, but Bentley's images are pure poetry. His photographic oeuvre is worthy of exhibiting at a Paris gallery.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
This windshield flier for laser hair removal caught my eye. First, a fifty-percent-off introductory price sounds good for starters. Second, no toe-curling wax strips to make you scream. Why, gee, this new technology laser hair-removal place sounds not bad at all! If you feel the urge, that is. And razors (in France at least) are sooo last century.
Then I started to do the math. Women seeking silky private and public parts have multiple price structures to fret over. And for the truly hirsute male, you could find yourself semi-permanently smoother than a Mexican hairless for a mere 2475 €. That's about $3725 at today's depressing exchange rate -- not including tip. Oops! There goes the holiday budget.
(Of course you remember that ou means "or" and et means "and.")
Lèvre supérieure - upper lip
Menton - chin
Bande de ventre - abdomen
Sillon fessier - er, buttocks crack
Aisselle - underarm
Maillot - bikini
Maillot brésilien - yup, a brazilian
Maillot intégral - the whole bit
Bras entier - whole arm
Avant-bras - forearm
Demi jambes - calves
Cuisses - thighs
Jambes entières -- entire legs
Cou - neck
Main - hand
Doigts - fingers
Torse - upper body
Ventre -- belly
Epaule - shoulder
Hmm. A gift certificate could be the perfect stocking-stuffer for the favorite warm-and-fuzzy Teddy-Bear on your Christmas list.
This advertisement would normally have been an entry in my sidecar blog, Pare-Brise du Jour, but it was just too tendance to pass up.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
This is serious business, with political, legal and professional ramifications.
So please excuse me, but it just tickled my funny bone. Can you imagine seeing a headline "American Divorce Lawyers on Strike"? Go ahead, make my day.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Monday, December 17, 2007
Remember the throngs of fans, the police barricades keeping the crowds from crushing their heroes? How the Fab Four greeted their well-wishers, signed autographs. Sometimes a too-ardent fan might try to snip a lock of hair, or would give anything to have a piece of their idol's personal property? If an admirer was close enough to touch a sleeve or, the ultimate -- shake a hand -- they sighed in sweet agony, "I'll never wash that hand again."
Remember how Beatles souvenirs were everywhere? If you had even a tattered ticket stub to a concert, that was gold. Failing that, younger members of the groupie generation got Beatles lunchboxes or other widely available memorabilia.
Many got Beatles haircuts. The Beatles were simply all the rage. There was nothing they could do, nowhere they could go, that wasn't of highest interest and utmost fancy and fantasy. We were a nation on the verge of a new order, and the Beatles, the heroes from the other side of the pond, symbolized everything in that new way of thinking of ourselves as a nation.
Well, in 1824-1825, the Marquis de Lafayette, the last living general of the Revolutionary War, toured the young United States and created that socio-cultural phenomenon. Perhaps he was the first "American Idol" on a road tour.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Lafayette's six-year old daughter, Anastasie, penned this sweet note to George Washington in 1784, when Lafayette was in the United States for the third time.
The current Cornell exhibit on Lafayette has much to offer, including "Lafayette and Abolition" "Lafayette and Women" and more.
Friday, December 14, 2007
"Pay for all your purchases in Paris with your MasterCard from 8 November 2007 to 5 January 2008 and you could win €10,000 to cover the cost of your holiday and the chance to come back and do it all again on us! So what are you waiting for ?
Indulge in your favourite French cuisine and go back for more. Visit the brand new exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay then relive the enchantment of the Eiffel Tower when you come back. Get your Christmas shopping wrapped up on the Rue de Rivoli then hit the January sales for some bargains.
It’s easy. Simply spend on your MasterCard to win the chance to come back again, on us."
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Left to right: Michael W. Krajovic, Fayette County PA; Chris Berry, Lafayette CO; Joe Morton, Fayetteville GA; Dan Coody, Fayetteville AR; Carol Federighi, Lafayette CA; Lafayette actor; Joey Durel, Lafayette LA; Mike Small, Fayetteville Village NY; Jim Newberry, LaFayette-Lexington KY; Jan Mills, West Lafayette IN; and Mike Olson, Fayetteville Village, NY.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Oh my. It's a proverbial little old lady who wants help crossing the street, but Paris-style.
I positively melt. MELT! I'm not quite sure why. First off, I'm honored that from a quick glance she has deemed me trustworthy enough to ferry her across a treacherous passage. The curbs, you know, and the cobblestones are so uneven and the traffic so aggressive. I'm also pleased that she addresses me in French. And finally, of course, I do sincerely like to help, and this has never happened to me in the States.
I offer my elbow, and we begin five minutes of exchanging pleasantries. "Oui, oui," I nod, "it's not so easy crossing the streets these days. Oui, je comprends, non non, madame, cela ne me dérange pas du tout -- it's my pleasure." We wait for the walk light to change, as she clutches the crook of my arm, and we cross slowly while she looks up at me, chatting in genteel appreciation. As we reach the safety of the next curb, she offers her most winning smile and heartfelt “merci”. Then our mutual "au revoir et bonne journée,” and we part company. I pick up the pace and continue on my route, this time with a bit more of a spring in my step.
Each time this scenario happens, I get a lump in my throat. Why? Perhaps because I have an 84-year-old mother. Perhaps because I recognize my own future, and I hope that some day thirty-plus years from now I'll be tottering down the streets of Paris, coat buttoned against the winter winds, approaching a curb and eyeing the passersby to find a younger woman whom I can approach and ask, "Excusez moi, madame, est-ce que je pourrais vous demander de me rendre un service?"
Saturday, December 08, 2007
My initial cynical reaction was to say that it was probably a scam. I checked out the website, http://www.ccfsettlement.com/ and wasn't 100% convinced yet, just because I'm skeptical. But due diligence prevailed, and I found out that this is probably a bona fide class-action lawsuit. It certainly seems worth bringing to the attention of anyone who has been travelling or living abroad in the past decade, and getting US Dollars exchanged in the process. Check out the article in USA Today, which in my book is trustworthy enough.
Friday, December 07, 2007
So, Paris residents and visitors alike are thus encouraged mightily to join the Paris Choral Society this Sunday, December 9 at 4 pm. for the traditional Handel's Messiah Sing-Along (Christmas portion + Hallelujah Chorus).
Bring your own score if you have one, or buy a copy at the door.
Only enthusiasm is needed; and a rousing, festive is occasion assured. Then you can spend the rest of the evening humming Handel refrains while touring the city to marvel at the Holiday Lights.
Sounds like a plan to me.
Best to arrive early for good seats. Concert begins at 4 pm sharp. 15 euros, 10 for students.
American Cathedral in Paris
23 avenue George V
Metro: George V or Alma-Marceau
Thursday, December 06, 2007
"Dear Polly-Vous Francais,
Some of my magazine-reading friends texted me to say that French culture is dead. My MySpace friends say 'Did you read that in Polly-Vous Francais? If you see it in Polly-Vous Francais, it's so.' So, tell me the truth, s’il vous plait: does French culture still exist?
And here is our response.
Your magazine-reading friends are wrong. They don't believe except what they see in headlines or hear in sound bites. They don't look beyond Time's cruel cover-page headline to see the essence of a fine, thoughtful article by Don Morrison, who so aptly lamented the decline of popularity of current French culture beyond the Hexagon. Magazines, Virginia, must write provocative articles and even more provocative headlines because they need to sell millions of copies to pay large staffs and to humor their owners and investors. Impoverished bloggers can give straight-up answers because no-one will fire us. No advertiser-pressured editors can put constraints on the truths and patently one-sided opinions that we lowly blogsters are so free to spout. We answer only to ego-gratifying daily stats.
Yes, Virginia, there is French culture. It exists as surely as the Louvre or le Mois de la Photo, Le Grand Corps Malade or Aznavour and the nostalgic sosngs of the troubadours of the 60s -- or of the middle ages. And you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no French culture. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias, no Polly-Vous Francais. There would be no Margaux-drinking, no haute couture, no Michelin stars, no Connaissance des Arts, no Prix Goncourt or Prévert poetry or, heaven forbid, no French romance to make tolerable this existence. We would have no refined enjoyment in sense and sight. The eternal light with which French culture, past and present, fills the world cannot be overestimated.
Not believe that French culture is alive! You might as well not believe in Babar or brie! The Big Guys might get their pollsters to analyze all the French culture being ignored in the world, but even if millions have not yet experienced French culture first-hand, what would that prove? The rest of the world may witness less French culture, but that is no sign that there is none. There are Alliances Françaises all over the United States, Virginia, whose hardworking, underpaid staffs and volunteers work their fingers to the bone, unsubsidized, in order to spread French culture to Americans just like you. But it's hard, Virginia. Silly Americans study French less nowadays. (Alas, too many otherwise intelligent students believe the unfounded urban myth that Spanish, albeit a lovely language, is much easier and more practical.) And French culture doesn’t mean just literature, museums, and music! There are excellent French films which the rest of the world (even non-French-speakers in France) never see because they get no subtitles. Even so, Virginia, the most beautiful things in the world are those that people who no longer study French can nevertheless see. Did you ever see a painting or even a poster of Monet's Water Lilies? A photo of the mur végétal at the new Musée Branly?
French culture is not to be measured by the same yardstick as American culture. Here in France, we have Brittany, not Britney; Paris, not Miss Hilton; our Madonnas are in stained glass or marble. So, even if you've never visited Paris or France and all the culture this country has to offer, that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are yet to be experienced in France.
Publications may look at statistics and judge French culture by numbers, but there is a strong contemporary cultural brewing in every quartier, every département, building on a rich cultural past. Others abroad might miss it because the language veil hides it from their view. But curiosity, creative thinking, poetry, love, French language, and romance (lots and lots of romance) can push aside that curtain and allow all to view and picture the supernal beauty and glory that is France. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia – or may I call you Virginie? -- in all this world there is nothing else so real and abiding. And so very pleasing and satisfying.
No French culture! Thank God! It lives, and it lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten thousand years from now, it will continue to make glad the hearts, minds, and souls of enlightened people the world over, if they will only study their passé composé and their subjonctif, and keep open their eyes and ears.
"Ah! CHARLOT!!" squealed the little kid in delight.
I think I know what Père Noel will be leaving for that youngster on Christmas morning. But I wondered how many American preschoolers might have the same appreciation for Charlie Chaplin? Not a cartoon version, either.
Incredible to believe, but it was 30 years ago this Christmas that Chaplin, then aged 88, died in his home in Switzerland. The Larousse Chronique du 20e siècle said of his death, "Il reste Charlot, éternel gentilhomme de la misère, poète, farceur, et qui, poursuivi de la mesquinerie et le malentendu, s'enfuit au bout de la route..."
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
I think that surreptitiously fixing a clock for a year, under cover of darkness, without being discovered in the Panthéon is pretty sexy too, don't you?
Hmm. Not to be disrespectful, but maybe if we changed the name to Pantie-Off it would grab more attention. Lingerie (or lack thereof) sells news!
Thanks to Jay for the link.
Designed by American artist Kermit Oliver, who has created more than a dozen Hermès works, the scarf features images from Lafayette's life and many American historic figures. Currently available only through Lafayette College, the commemorative silk scarf is printed with a red border and is a collector's item. It is a limited edition (less than 100 still available) and can be purchased for $325 (through Dec. 31; $345 after Jan. 1.). Later a version with a blue border will be available at most Hermès boutiques.
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Monday, December 03, 2007
A number of events will be taking place in Paris over the next few weeks to celebrate the two and a half centuries of French/American friendship symbolized by this notable Frenchman.
On Wednesday December 5, authors (and Paris residents) James R. Gaines and Michael Oreskes will talk about "France and the Founding Fathers" at the American Library in Paris. Even though it is not focusing strictly on LaFayette, this discussion is a must for any Americans in Paris who have even the slightest interest in the founding of our nation. I trust that means everyone.
Mike Oreskes, Executive Editor of the International Herald Tribune, is co-author of The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country--and Why it Can Again.
James R. Gaines, a former editor of Time, People and Life magazines, is the author of For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and their Revolutions.
American Library in Paris
10, rue du Général Camou
Métro: Ecole Militaire, Alma Marceau
Sunday, December 02, 2007
This is a long-standing passion. Not the kind of I-joined-the-mustard-bandwagon-in-the-90s story. I have been defined as "the weird person who likes mustard with everything" since the Pleistocene era.
When I was wee demoiselle americaine, all I knew was French's mustard. In our family, it dwelled in a fat glass pump-jar on the middle shelf of the fridge. I was regularly ridiculed by my older siblings for making mustard sandwiches. So what? I happened to enjoy tracing squiggly designs on the slice of white bread before folding it in half to devour. But god, did I ever love that thrilling pump jar -- and that yellow, yellow, yellow mustard. Sometimes I indulged in just a little dollop on my fingertip between meals. Fortunately for my evolving palate, my French's-mustard era came to an end when, at eighteen, I spent a summer in France.
That magic summer I discovered Moutarde de Meaux and Dijon mustard. An awakening, an epiphany, a spiritual rebirth! My French host family used mustard daily as a condiment for lamb, sausages, steak, virtually any red meat. It was the basis of all manner of sauces. Looking back, I think this culinary discovery weighed heavily in my becoming such an ardent Francophile. Any country that truly understood and adored mustard the way I did simply had to have a permanent and central place in my life. And finally I understood that "French's mustard" had nothing to do with French. It was just the company owner's last name, for cripes sake.
I entered college two days after leaving France that monumental summer. As an undergrad I hoarded jars of Grey Poupon and one beloved wax-topped earthenware crock of Meaux in my dorm room, to sneak it into the dining hall to make the institutional food palatable. Since the cafeteria lacked carottes rappées with a perfect mustard-based vinaigrette, back in my dorm room I invented the art form of crunching on whole carrots dunked unceremoniously in an open jar of Dijon mustard. In that post-hippie era of seeking whatever head-rushes one could get, there was no better rush than the sinus-burning thrill of a good hit of Dijon. Even my skeptical roommates began indulging in the occasional mustard-and-carrot habit, though I think it was just to humor me. Or maybe it was that knock-your-boots-off sinus kick.
By the time I graduated from college Dijon mustard was finally showing its face in more public venues in major cities in the US. Whenever possible I dined only at restaurants (at best, upscale burger joints) that served Dijon mustard. When after two years I was departing from my first post-grad job at big Boston corporate firm, a colleague lampooned me in a goodbye toast:
There was a proofreader named Polly
So talented, charming and jolly!
When asked how could she
Stomach this company,
She said, "Not without mustard, by golly!"
I dreamed of opening a small mustard shop in Harvard Square. I wrote fan letters to the Heublein Company, owners of Grey Poupon. Friends and family pooh-poohed my entrepreneurial idea as sheer folly. "Who on earth would go to a place just to buy mustard?" they laughed. "You're the only one who could love mustard so much."
So instead I became a mere moutarde aficionado. A dijon dilettante. Subsequent trips to France, whenever I could scrape together funds and vacation time, found me bringing home three cheap basics -- espadrilles, classic market paniers and a dozen or so glasses of Amora mustard. The kind decorated with cartoons. I amassed a sizable collection of "Lucky Luke" Amora drinking glasses. This practice continued until one fateful return trip, when a half-liter mega-jar of mustard shattered in transit and oozed into every pore of the contents of my suitcase. It was the only time in my existence that for a full 24 hours I never wanted to see mustard ever, ever again.
Fast forward through the twentysomething years. As a young bride, I knew before taking the doctor's rabbit test that I was pregnant: one day, the taste of mustard suddenly repelled me. I spent nine forlorn months of gagging at the mere smell -- it couldn't even be sneaked into a sauce. I cried, I wept, I longed for mustard, but had to wait until celebrating my daughter's birth before I could down a dab of my beloved Dijon. Later, when my kids were toddlers, I regularly offered them good Dijon mustard (by now much more readily available) to improve the gastronomic quality of their favorites, mini-hotdogs or chicken nuggets. Though I tried not to take it personally, my darling son always preferred smothering Ranch dressing on every dish except breakfast and dessert. If I hadn't given birth to him personally I would wonder if he were really a child of mine.
Of course, I would NEVER favor one child over the other, but I do admit that my daughter probably gets many, many more presents than my son at Christmas because she exhibits extreme maternally-inherited moutarde-love. (Heh-heh, just kidding, Harry!)
As Grey Poupon gained popularity in the states, Moutarde de Maille also started making its way to the grocery store shelves. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, mustard in every form imaginable started sprouting up. Unrecognizable mustard. Honey mustard, horseradish mustard, grainy mustard, Jack Daniel's mustard, fruit-flavored mustards. Mustard, mustard everywhere. Ugh. Suddenly it seemed that yellow French's-style mustard was creeping back into popularity, only surreptitiously disguised. There was so much quasi-variety that it was hard to find the genuine, unadulterated article.
Fast forward to now. Me. In Paris. Moutarde heaven. Every cafe, every bistro, has a basic condiment set that they place on your table: salt, pepper and Dijon mustard. No self-respecting steak-frites would feel properly dressed without it.
Oh, and that mustard boutique I dreamed of opening? Folly, indeed. Check out the thriving Maille boutique and mustard museum on the place de la Madeleine, one of the most expensive addresses in Paris. Not only do they have Dijon mustard in all of its best and most ancient recipes, in all sizes of beautiful ceramic crocks, but they also sell it fresh. On tap. Bring your own jar or buy one there and fill 'er up.
Now that's what I call a rush.
Saturday, December 01, 2007
As Madame Figaro advises, "Ladies, take notes!" (Men, too, I might add.) PG-13.
1. Pascal Elbé, Actor
"Even though I'm among men who love lingerie, I am more of a fan of Calvin Klein bikini bottoms than the lace-and-French-cancan mode. On the other hand, however, I do have one unforgettable memory of a science professor I once had who wore a garter belt; I can tell you that I switched my class seat immediately from the balcony to the front row. Unfortunately, I didn't make strides in the subject matter. But I had a perfect attendance record in class all year."
2. Samuel Etienne, Journalist
"At 15 years old, I liked lingerie that exposed as much as possible, since I was young and curious about the female body. At 20, I preferred lingerie that covered as much as possible, giving me the desire to remove it -- quick quick quick. At 25, lace scared me; it was too evocative of the mysteries of a woman. I preferred women in cotton, which was more reassuring. Since hitting my 30s, I don't have preferences anymore. I listen, to to hear what this or that lingerie is saying to me about the woman who is wearing it. But, well, sometimes my ears don't hear anything, so I let my eyes roam over the curves of her body. Promises of heaven in a world of hell."
3. Pascal Bruckner, Writer
"The only shops that make me stop in my tracks are the lingerie boutiques. Inside, everything is set up to put the female body to its best advantage. Sexuality is transformed into eroticism. I like La Perla, Sabbia Rosa, and even Princesse Tam-Tam. I often give lingerie as a gift -- of course, it is above all a present to oneself. I like the bordello antechamber style, old-fashioned prostitute: lots of lace, bustiers that lace up -- even if they're complicated to untie -- silk, satin... everything that gives to the act of lovemaking the refinement that it otherwise lacks. Lingerie defines and isolates certain parts of the body, just as desire does. For me, that immediately stirs up fantasy."
4. Pierre Arditi, Actor
"No lingerie means no eroticism -- or at least very little. A naked female body, as beautiful as it may be, is not very erotic. One must create the fantasy, inspire desire, and thus not show everything all at once. I remember as an adolescent the way my whole body heated up when my then-girlfriends let a bit of their garter be seen... Magnifique. For me, there's is nothing uglier than pantyhose. Same goes for thongs: I'm not swayed by them. I remain an ardent admirer of little underpants."
5. Frederic Taddei, Journalist and television commentator
"To me, lingerie is a piece of clothing like anything else. I have neither a taboo nor a fetish about it. When a woman wears fancy lingerie, that seems normal to me; when she doesn't, that doesn't seem like a big deal either. What excites me is the woman herself. The way she works with what she's got. I'm not turned off by any one thing. On the woman in my life, I like everything."
6. André, Artist, owner of the Hotel Amour and the Baron.
"Lingerie is like putting a matte around a painting: it frames the subject. I like garter belts, couture stockings, the nostalgic side of lingerie -- classic and timeless -- a bit like Betty Page. It has to stay light. In fact, I prefer when there isn't any underwear at all. It gives a feeling of freedom."
Okay, ladies, the Gods have spoken. Get out those Christmas wish lists. Are you sure you really want a diamond under the tree this year?
Madame Figaro article compiled by Peggy Frey, Morgane Miel, and Astrid Taupin.