Here we go: let the goodbyes begin

The best part of living in Paris? Without a doubt, it’s the people we’ve met and the friends we’ve made. The hardest thing about leaving Paris? Leaving those friends behind.

Our year in Paris has been a wonderful time of making new  friends: classmates and parents from the girls’ school, people I’ve met playing in a band, and especially those we’ve met through our church, Trinity International.

Yesterday was our last Sunday worshiping there.

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After our last service at Trinity, with our friends, Paco and Leslie.

And not only was it our last Sunday, I also got to preach the message. I hadn’t preached since we moved to Paris (other than giving a brief devotional at a missionary retreat in the south of France last fall), but it went well and I even got a few laughs from my jokes—and if I can get my teenagers to laugh, they couldn’t have been too corny.

(Just a brief aside on preaching in an international context: this was my first time having to prepare for a congregation that had a considerable number of people who don’t speak English as their first language. It meant getting my message ready further in advance than normal so that the French translator could prepare. It meant thinking through the language and idioms I use that might be a bit tricky to translate or that could be confusing to some people—because some might be listening who don’t speak English as their first language but don’t speak French either! All in all, it was a great experience.)

From the first, we were warmly welcomed when we found Trinity last fall. Right away we met other expats as well as French people in addition to people from every continent (well, except for Antarctica).

Obviously, simply being in Paris is a wonderful thing, but it’s even better when it means making new friends to meet for dinner, or coffee, or a picnic. It’s meant getting together for game nights, going for a hike, or having a friend to go to a museum with. The girls have enjoyed the youth activities, we’ve done a treasure hunt that took us all over Paris, and even got to go see the Pentatonix with another family. We were welcomed into friends’ homes for Easter dinner and barbecues and pizza night.

Who knew we’d meet such a great group of avid gamers? Terra Mystica, Blood Rage, Code Names, Dead Men Tell No Tales… We had no shortage of good times gaming.

Creative Nights at the church’s Genesis Center were a hit with the girls. I save my creative energies for writing and music, but I always had fun talking it up with other people.

Food–one of my favorite things…

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…and something that definitely brings people together.

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The fall retreat.

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Carolyn and me singing at Music Night.

Finding Trinity turned out to be another great opportunity for music. With only a year here, there was no time to waste waiting around; after feeling so welcomed, I quickly asked about getting involved in the music. Soon enough I was getting chances to play bass and even serve as one of the worship leaders.

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Most of our songs were in English, but I’m going to miss worshiping in French!

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Thank you for such a wonderful year, Trinity. We’re going to miss you.

 

Drop everything and go to Rome

My phone buzzed and a message appeared: “How difficult is it for you to get to Rome?”

When you get a chance to see a friend in the Navy who’s been deployed and out to sea, you take that chance. And when that chance means a rendezvous in Rome—just a two hour flight away—you take that chance.

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The Colosseum always impresses… from every angle.

The girls and I were out to dinner in the heart of Paris when Mark’s message came in. (I know, I know, you’re not supposed to text during dinner, but I make exceptions for far-flung friends sending unexpected messages that they happen to be on the same continent.) He was going to be in Rome in a week, but just for a day. A quick web search turned up some flight possibilities. The one wrinkle: he wasn’t sure of his schedule—in particular which day he would be free. Hmm. It seems that making sure old seminary friends get their chance to meet up in an ancient European capital isn’t exactly the U.S. Navy’s top priority. So over the next few days we kept the com channels open as best we could—internet access isn’t always possible for those underway on a Navy vessel—to see what his schedule would actually be and what flight would make the most sense for me.

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Is French toast French?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that, but I do know this: if you’re lucky enough to find it in France, do yourself a favor and get it. But here’s the deal: it’s called pain perdu (literally “lost bread”) and it’s not on the breakfast menu. It’s a dessert, baby. I like mine with ice cream. And whipped cream (chantilly). And mint.

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So where did French toast originate? I’ll let the food historians sort that one out. I just know that when I get some, it doesn’t last long.

Step away from my crêpe and nobody gets hurt

Sometimes you want your crêpe and you want it now. Chalk this up as one of the many things I’ll miss when we go back to the States (and that day will be here before we know it): ready-made crêpes from the grocery store.

I’ve made crêpes from scratch, and from scratch is obviously a great way to go… but these are just so freaking easy and good. I suppose getting them made hot and fresh at the corner crêperie is even easier, but having them at home has its own virtues.

A few nights ago it was ham, swiss and mushrooms. Classic. This morning it was smoked ham, swiss and egg for two of us and nutella and banana for another. More classics. Isn’t it great how crêpes are perfect for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert? Why yes, yes it is.

Getting older in Paris

It’s been a great day for a birthday in Paris. Sunshine all around, coffee with friends, a writing session (with more coffee) with my writing group, a great morning with my prayer group, more writing in a park, and seeing Eddie the Eagle with my kids. But definitely the award for the most unexpected feature of celebrating another year gone by goes to… picking a place for a birthday lunch.

That’s right. A couple of days ago I texted a friend–also named Matt–about getting together. Last night I thought I’d better confirm we were on. And since Matt’s lived here far longer than I have and knows a thing or two about Paris, I was hoping he’d have an idea  of somewhere to go. Little did I know what I was getting into…

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Right on. I knew he’d be up to the task. But he was just getting started. Never in all my days have I ever experienced such a thorough process of picking a restaurant that took into account every possible preference variable. Time to buckle up!

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(He doesn’t think I can handle the spice? I think he’s on to me…)

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Adventure? Vacation? Colors? Movies? And if you asked me a different day, I’d give you five different movies… Is this all for real? Yes. But we’re not done yet!

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The computer apparently crunched all night. Not sure how much coffee it required. But in the morning, the verdict was in.

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Noura–a Lebanese restaurant–turned out to be a great place. Skewers of lamb, beef, and chicken. Hummus. Tabouli. Other tasty stuff. Baklava. Coffee (of course). Matt didn’t steer me wrong! And not only was the food good, but so was the company, as we covered everything from the Paris cinema scene to the best way to tour Normandy and the D-day sites (which we’re planning on doing in June).

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But what about all those questions–were they for real? On the walk over I got to pick Matt’s brain. Turns out even the throwaway, just for fun questions played into his restaurant selection equation. Really, even favorite color? Green is my favorite, but I threw in “jewel tones” just for fun (though I do like them). That made him think of the purple of Noura’s decor. Favorite movie? I mentioned Lawrence of Arabia. I’d already said ethnic, and that movie led him away from Vietnamese and toward Lebanese or Moroccan. Wanting to visit Turkey ruled out Moroccan and put things firmly in the Lebanese realm. Not sure if my favorite vacation had anything to do with anything, but then again, Matt doesn’t reveal all of his secrets.

I took a lousy selfie of us, but this is a better picture from another time:

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All in all, a birthday to remember. I think I’ll end it with a chocolate (or two) from the nice box I got from my kids!

 

Becoming French

Today: a guest post from a friend of mine here in Paris. Pringle Franklin is another parent from our girls’ school here and hails from Charleston, S.C. She and her family have been in Paris for a few years now and she’s an inspiration to me to make the most of our time here.

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I must be turning into a French woman.

Today at lunch, in a casual cafe in the village of Poissy, my eyes literally filled with tears because my roasted leg of guinea fowl was cooked to perfection. Crispy skin, savory and delicious, with moist tender dark meat underneath–the combination almost made me weep. That, along with the hand-cut french fries that had been twice fried in duck fat, and the skinny haricot vert that tasted of sweet butter yet without being heavy or greasy, forced me to suggest to my husband that I might never agree to leave the terroirs of La France.

“Remember when we went to lunch that day in Germany, in that cute little patio garden on the Mosel?” I said to Sam. “I ordered the baked ham, and it was so tough and fatty that I could hardly eat it. The entire meal was blah, just blah! How lucky we are to be in France. I mean, we eat wonderful food all the time. That is just how it is here!”

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The meal that I cried over.

We were sitting at a table for two at the far end of Le Zinc Cafe, in a small town that lies about 30 minutes southwest of Paris. We had taken the RER train out for an afternoon excursion and had soon found ourselves engaged in that most serious of activities: sniffing out un bon restaurant. The l’ardoise du jour (chalkboard menu) tempted us inside by offering an appealing 3-course menu for 15 euros (you would pay at least double for that in Paris). The cafe had an authentic zinc bar up front, with a few regulars already standing around drinking glasses of wine at 2 p.m. The lunch crowd occupied most of the small tables, a good sign that this undiscovered-by-the-guidebooks spot was popular with the locals. It was the kind of place where a grandmother pushing a baby stroller popped in for an espresso before heading back out to the park. Very authentic.

The staff here did not speak English, allowing us to enjoy the experience of managing the entire situation in French. We prefer it this way but sometimes, in Paris, a helpful waiter will simply roll into English after hearing our accents. Admittedly, this happens less often these days, but I am still relieved when I travel far enough from the big city to interact with French people who are not used to talking with tourists. They always seem wonderfully surprised that we are able to manage it, and the smiles that they give us (and the relief on their faces) makes me feel like I’ve just been handed a gold medal for linguistics. By contrast, in Paris where so many ex-pats are fluent, our brave but awkward French does not impress the shop keepers or waiters. “You could do better,” they seem to suggest with a raised eyebrow.

But in the suburbs or countryside, the reaction is the reverse. When we were skiing in the Alps, the receptionist at the hotel was stunned that I could tell him my room number in French (trois cent cinq). His eyes became large as saucers, and he congratulated me. I accepted his praise like a child getting a gold star from her teacher. After I had relayed the episode to Sam, I added, “Of course that man has no idea that I have been living in Paris for the past year-and-a-half! If he did, he wouldn’t be so impressed. But compared to the tourists who have just flown in from Britain, I must sound pretty darn good!”

While my French remains a work in progress, I find myself acting more like a Parisienne every day. Apparently it is much easier to absorb the French mindset than to master those vowel sounds. Besides shedding joyful tears over my meals, I am shopping at the funky vintage stores and pairing pieces of clothing together that I would never have considered wearing in Charleston. Leggings can mix with a short dress, covered by a swede shirt, tied off with a leather belt. Or a second-hand men’s blue velvet vest can pair with an elegant black velvet skirt, high-heeled boots, and a houndstooth blazer. And hats–all kinds of hats! The options are endless. Today, I saw a woman wearing a fuchsia crushed velvet fedora near our Metro station. “You know,” I told Sam, “in the U.S., that would be considered a pimp hat, but it works here. It actually looked good on her.”

Who is this person that I am becoming? Last night, I was explaining the whole choreography of the bonjours to a newcomer to Paris. We giggled at how the French take this standard greeting so seriously. Yet tonight I found myself insisting on exchanging the scripted words with a new cashier at our Simply Market. This guy was French, in his 20s, and when it was my time to check out, he did not say bonsoir to me. I stood there and waited, and he just looked at me. Without even realizing it, I puffed myself up like a pea hen and said, “Bonsoir,” stretching out the rrrs at the end and rolling it out with a flourish, to emphasize that this ritual of politeness could not be neglected. The cashier just blinked. I waited. He blinked again, but he said nothing. A French lady of about my age was in the line just ahead of me. She smiled at me, giving me an encouraging look that implied: that’s right madame, you show him how it’s done.

It was her approving look that woke me up to my entrenched position. I had automatically begun to feel offended that this kid that not exchanged the prescribed greetings. Sacre bleu! What is the world coming to these days?

I snapped out of it and proceeded to bag my groceries (you have to do this yourself in Paris) and tell the cashier the name of the strange green thing that he needed to ring up (“schoo kyle“/curly kale). As we marched through the necessities of the exchange and completed the purchase, the cashier was perfectly nice and appropriately focused on his job; I could see that he was not a creep. He was not “mal eleve” (poorly raised). He had just missed a beat in the daily dance. And I am attentive to the rhythm of life here that it threw me off.

Now, I will never pick up the cigarette habit or fully understand the French need to go on strike, but I find my cultural assumptions have shifted dramatically. What will I find myself doing next?

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck…

Surely you’ve done it: come home from the store and discovered you hadn’t bought what you’d thought you’d bought. Diet Coke instead of regular. The wrong kind of cream cheese. The wrong size light bulbs. So have I… but never like this.

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Today I picked up a chicken at the grocery store to roast for dinner. We’ve had mixed success with chickens here in Paris. The best one was from the little grocery store without much selection. The toughest, least flavorful one was sadly a spendy bird from the butcher. And none of them have been quite the same as what I’m used to at home. So when the one I picked up today seemed a touch narrow, the wings a bit more prominent, the flap of neck skin longer, I took note, but chalked it up to the fact I still don’t know my French chickens very well. I halved a mandarine orange and stuck it in the bird, popped it in the oven along with some quartered potatoes, sliced onions, carrots and garlic and roasted that thing.

Turns out it’s not just my chickens I don’t know very well. I started to carve the bird, taking off the first leg, the wing, and then moving onto the first side of the breast. As soon as I sliced into it, I knew: that’s no chicken… that’s dark meat!

But what was it? A small goose? A duck? But how could it be? I know the word for duck, it’s canard, and I knew I hadn’t seen that when I bought it. I dug the plastic wrapping the bird had come in out of the trash. In large, fancy script was emblazoned the word Canette. I’d taken that to be the brand name or something. Turns out it means duckling!

Oh well! I finished carving and served up. I’d never roasted a duck before, but I knew it wasn’t just like roasting a chicken. The girls were good sports, but none of us were exactly crazy about how it had turned out. Mind you, not that it was inedible or anything. Just a bit tougher than what we were hoping for.

Maybe I’ll buy one on purpose sometime and do it up proper, taking advantage of all that duck fat and getting the skin nice and crispy. Next time. Or maybe next time I’ll make sure I’m actually buying a chicken.

Bad bread in Paris?

Why yes, yes you can get a mediocre, burned-on-the-bottom-and-rather-flavorless baguette in Paris.

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Bakeries are all over Paris, in every arrondissement, every neighborhood, and sometimes it seems like every street. Some specialize in bread, others in pastries, some do both–but not always equally well. We definitely have our favorites nearby. Aux Pains de Manon for baguettes and croissants. Desgranges for pastries. La Pâtisserie des Rêves for still more pastries, although it’s a bit of a walk, so we don’t get there often–which is probably just as well…

Manon is closed Mondays, so I today I picked up a baguette from a bakery I hadn’t tried before. It seemed okay when the woman handed it to me, but then I got home, pulled it out of the bag, sliced into it, and saw a spray of black crumbs!

It wasn’t the first mediocre baguette I’ve had in Paris, and it probably won’t be the last. Unless I just stick to Manon. Maybe I will.

Cooking with Julia Child… sort of

It’s the end of the year. My sister and her family are staying with us, and some other friends are in Paris as well. Sounds like a good time for a big meal. We’ve done well with getting ready-to-eat things from our local grocer and butcher, like an amazing Beef Wellington (my favorite) for Christmas Eve that was as good as anything we’ve made at home. But this time I decided to go all out and cook something from scratch. And we’re in Paris, so why not Beef Bourguignon a la Julia Child? Why not, indeed!

Shopping is getting easier all the time as I figure out the French stores and so I managed to find all the things I needed that we didn’t have on hand, like a bouquet garni, pods of beef broth, tomato paste (it comes in a tube, like toothpaste—I love that!), and of course, two kilograms of beef. I had a hard time pronouncing “bourguignon” correctly, but the butcher was patient and figured out what I meant. He picked out a beautiful piece and got it all cut it up for me.

Back home, everything started off well, even though our place doesn’t have a dutch oven; our kitchen has a thousand skillets, a pile of pots (but just one lid for all of them), two, yes two pressure cookers, but nothing with a lid that can go in the oven. Well, we found three ceramic baking dish kind of things. With some aluminum foil to cover them, it seemed like we should be able to get by—or so we thought.

It was all going so well, the bacon and meat and veggies all nicely browned. We got it all divided among the ceramic dishes, the stock and wine added, and were bringing them all up to a simmer on the stove top…

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Then it happened: one of the ceramic dishes practically cracked in half and a whole section of the side broke off, releasing a flood of broth all over the stovetop. A second one cracked a few seconds later. Houston, we have a problem!

But all was not lost. That’s why you buy extra bottles of wine! We got everything turned off and quickly transferred the contents of the two dishes that hadn’t totally failed along with the meat and veggies from the broken dish into the largest pot we had, poured in some more wine and finished it on the stove, skipping the oven. It’s not how Julia would have done it, but it still turned out delicious.

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Green salad with goat cheese rounds rolled in herbs. You can buy pre-sliced rounds of goat cheese at the grocery store. Perfect!

Happy eaters. Twelve people for dinner, but only seven chairs. Some of the kids got to eat around the coffee table.

For dessert, Merideth picked up a Gateau Saint-Honoré from one of our favorite pastry shops, La pâtisserie des rêves. Worth every euro!

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Happy New Year! We’re looking forward to more adventures in the year to come. I hope you are, too.

Baking diversion

Carolyn is turning 13 and she really wanted to make chocolate chip cookies, so we embarked on our baking adventures in France–which of course has entailed its own learning curve. For one thing, our apartment’s kitchen isn’t exactly fully equipped for even all the cooking things I’ve wanted to do, much less for baking. We bought a baking sheet yesterday, but didn’t manage to find a hand mixer. No worries, we’ll figure something out; after all, humankind baked for centuries without electric mixers.

Only once we were underway did we realize that we didn’t have real cooling racks or even a real mixing bowl. But we got by. Another crucial element of hardware that wasn’t to be found was anything to measure with—either measuring cups or spoons! But no problem, there’s a great kitchen shop right nearby. Except they don’t even sell measuring cups or spoons. Instead they have these glass containers that have all sorts of measuring systems on them. Okay, got it.

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Then there are the most crucial things of all—ingredients. Butter? No problem. Sugar? Check. Brown sugar—uh, Google to the rescue. I picked up two things that look like brown sugar: sucre complet muscovado and sucre roux de canne. My French translation app said sucre roux was what to look for and a baking forum I found said muscovado was expensive and unnecessary to seek out. Still, I bought them both—and was glad I did. The sucre roux turned out to have the coarse consistency of Sugar in the Raw while the muscovado was much finer and packed like brown sugar. (Looks like I’ll be saving the sucre roux for coffee.)

Then there’s the flour. I found two small bags in the kitchen, so I should be set right? Not so fast. Maybe I should call on the power of Google to see what kinds of flour I’m dealing with. After all, even I know there are differences between all purpose, whole wheat, and cake flour. Here’s what David Lebovitz, the American baker-gourmand in Paris, has to say:

Flour varies from country-to-country. French ‘all-purpose’ flour (type 45 and type 55) is closer to American cake flour: it’s milled very finely and has less-protein and gluten (strength). In most cases, you can’t just substitute French all-purpose flour in American recipes like cookies and cakes. I know too many Americans who opened the oven door and found all their carefully rolled-out chocolate chip cookies, melded into one, giant blob. [Learn more here.]

Wonderful! Guess what kind of flour we’ve got—that’s right, one is Type 45, while the other? It’s not clear. Maybe I’ll just do half of each…

So we get the butter and sugar creamed and the eggs beaten in. Without a mixer we found that Carolyn’s hands worked better than a wooden spoon or whisk (thanks again to an internet tip). Next up: vanilla—or at least the closest thing I could find: Arôme Vanille, which is really flavored sugar syrup. Oh well. Then baking soda, which turned out to be called bicarbonate alimentaire and not anywhere near the other baking items in the store. (Thanks to the English speaking woman at the grocery who sent her little girl to go find some for us since I didn’t know what it would be called or where it would be! The French are rude? Not in my experience. Given that I’m the one who’s trying to get along without being able to speak much of their language, I’ve received no end of patience.)

Okay, time to measure in the flour. I decided to go with half of each kind we had. Only later did I discover that both bags were “Type 45”—the kind that’s not supposed to work correctly…

We interrupt this baking account to remind you of an amusing moment from Star Trek IV:

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Kirk: Mr. Spock, have you accounted for the variable mass of whales and water in your time re-entry program?
Spock: Mr. Scott cannot give me exact figures, Admiral, so… I will make a guess.
Kirk: A guess? You, Spock? That’s extraordinary.
Spock: [to Dr. McCoy] I don’t think he understands.
McCoy: No, Spock. He means that he feels safer about your guesses than most other people’s facts.

What does any of this have to do with baking? Everything! I’m bad enough keeping my cups and pints straight without having to convert ounces to grams or Fahrenheit to Celsius. First off we had a 500g brick of butter and according to my math, needed 225 grams. And the packaging doesn’t have any kind of unit markers printed on it, so right of the bat I’m guesstimating how much to use. Then comes the sugar and the flour. I’m pretty sure I got the sugar right, but the flour? Our measuring glass has units for measuring farine (flour) but to my eye it looks like way more than what I’m expecting a cup of flour to look like. So I guessed again and used only about 2/3 of what my math said I needed. We got it mixed in to what seemed like a reasonable consistency and Carolyn loaded up the first sheet for the oven. Here’s hoping my guesses are as good as Spock’s…

Well, it took longer than the recommended ten minutes (who knows how accurate the oven is–another unknown!), but in the end… we had tasty chocolate chip cookies! The consistency was slightly more cake-like at first, but they firmed up and at least we didn’t end up with a giant cookie glob.

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See–not bad! In fact, they’re pretty good. The flavor isn’t exactly what we get in the U.S., but then we’re using different flour, different butter, different vanilla… really, different everything (along with some dodgy measurements). So I’m pretty happy.

Now I can get some rest. ‘Cause it’s time for surgery in the morning!