Wednesday, October 26, 2005

(A Conversation in Four Courses)
--dedicated to my father, who said yes

Last night, my father and I had dinner with La Chef and her friends Patrizia and Andre. Patrizia is American, and Andre is French. They met as undergraduates in the United States some twenty years ago, married, and have made their life together in Paris. They have known La Chef for many years and share a common circle of friends.

My father and I arrived early to help with the cooking, and La Chef had even printed out copies for us of the recipes for the evening's meal. We drank a Cote de Bordeaux as we cooked and changed to a dry champagne after Patrizia and Andre arrived.

L'ENTREE (The First Course)
La Chef and I had begun negotiating the evening's menu days before, and since it is fall, I wanted our choices to include seasonal chestnuts and rabbit. We went back and forth on the chestnuts: souffle or soup? soup or souffle? A chestnut souffle is, by definition, a dessert, so with other ideas in mind for that course, we opted for a chestnut veloute (cream soup) with a surprise ingredient. As we ate the soup, a lovely light brown, served in small yellow bowls, La Chef quizzed the dinner guests. Could they identify the secret ingredient? My father finally guessed that it was chocolate, and La Chef pulled out a small round container of Valrhona Xocopili, the French take on Mexican chocolate, which La Chef is quick to clarify comes from Aztec culinary traditions.

Patrizia points out that, had we been eating our chocolate soup in Aztec times, only the men at the table would have been allowed to enjoy it. Chocolate was a food reserved for men, usually the priestly class, in Aztec culture. My father adds that Aztec women were prized, too. As sacrificial beings. Patrizia mentions having read, in fact, about anthropological discoveries of the remains of monkeys and humans in Aztec middens. The conversation turns accordingly toward canibalism in modern times, something about which I've learned from my sister. She's written a book about Malaysia this year and included a piece on canibalistic practices in Borneo. The British officially outlawed canibalism there in the 1930s, but it continues anyway, despite the interdiction.

LE PLAT (The Main Course)
The main course is lapin aux pruneaux (rabbit with prunes), a lovely, braised rabbit cooked slowly in a cast-iron cocotte with red wine and butter and seasoned with shallots, a little garlic, a bouquet garni, and lardons (small chunks of bacon). La Chef has been all over town on the search for this rabbit. At this time of year, rabbit is common on French dinner tables when guests are invited, and the Sunday market butchers are mostly sold out by the time she gets there at noon. Finally, at the big Bastille market, she finds what she's looking for--even bigger and meatier than she'd dared hope for--and returns home in triumph.

When the rabbit is almost done, we add big, plump prunes and a handful of raisins and let them soften in the ample pan juices for a few minutes. La Chef then makes a simple sauce by reducing the liquid until it is thickened. She serves the rabbit in a clay tagine, which her daughter brought back from Morocco for her one year. I brush clean a heap of dark black trumpetlike mushrooms, soft and damp to the touch, called trompettes de la mort (trumpets of death). Along with a puree de pommes de terre, the trompettes will be our side dish. With this course, we drink a lovely Russian River red, brought from California by one of La Chef's students.

Conversation drifts toward politics, and I ask Patrizia if, through her marriage, she has become a French citizen and has voted in French elections. She confirms yes on both counts, and I bring up the recent referendum in France on the European Union constitution, which sharply divided the French electorate. Drafted behind closed doors and mailed to voters to interpret on their own, the eighty-page constitution left the majority of French voters feeling isolated from the political process and angry at their political leaders. The constitution was voted down in France; Patrizia and Andre were split. She voted for, he against. La Chef not only voted yes, she also campaigned for the referendum, standing on a street corner one Saturday afternoon handing out literature to passersby.

Her campaign was short lived, however. When a passing man took one of the tracts and began to quiz her on Article 5, Subsection 13, she froze. La Chef is an urbane intellectual, but even she had not fully digested the giant constitutional tome. Unable to respond to the man's challenge, she gave up her campaigning on the spot. Andre says the constitution was excellent bedtime reading. It put him to sleep every night for a week. In the meantime, the constitution is "under reflection," and eventually, a new draft will come to a public vote.

LE DESSERT (Dessert)
After the cheese course--luscious, ripe Vacherin--Patrizia slices each of us a piece of the almond-fig tart that La Chef and my father have made. After pulling it out of the oven, they placed fresh raspberries among the figs and sprinkled chopped Sicilian pistachios over the top. During dessert, my father mentions that I've been teasing him about his bad French, and Andre asks for examples.

One of my favorites is, "Les toits, c'est moi!" ("I am the roofs!"), a mispronunciation of Louis XIV's famous "L'etat, c'est moi!" ("I am the state!"). Another is, "cheminee sur la chaussee," which, in my father's mind, refers to going somewhere on foot, but which to my ears sounds like a reference to a fireplace or chimney ("cheminee") on the sidewalk ("la chaussee"). Andre corrects me. He says my father's errors are poetically nineteenth-century in nature. "Cheminer," which sounds just like "cheminee," is actually an old-fashioned verb that refers to making one's way or to taking a leisurely stroll, so he's not surprised that the woman to whom my father addressed this phrase understood what he meant. And, to a French ear, Andre says, "les toits" ("roofs") would never be associated linguistically with "c'est moi" ("it is I"). Rather, a French person would hear "les tois" as a pluralization of the informal "toi," or "you." This turns my father's rendition of the royal proclamation into something much more profound than staking a claim to the roofs of France. "Les toits, c'est moi!" would mean that the king subsumes the people; all the yous (the people) are his. My father swells with pride, and I'm reminded of the complexities of language, of the many layers of linguistic knowledge that accrete over time for true mastery.

LE THE (Tea)
French meals usually end with coffee, but since it's late, after eleven, La Chef instead serves us an infusion de tilleul (a tea made from the slender, dried leaves of the lime tree). It's a very mild yellowish green tea, barely coloring the small glasses into which La Chef pours it. Andre tells us that French tilleul is threatened by the Chinese domination of the tilleul market; La Chef confirms that it is French tilleul we're drinking tonight.

For my help in class, La Chef has teased me about preparing a certificate of achievement for my efforts. I've told her that what I'd really like is to make a short film of her, using the new digital camera from my father. She has agreed to the idea, and after tea is served, announces that now is the moment to make the film. I've brought my camera, but knowing that Andre is knowledgeable about movie making, I'm nervous. So, I cloister myself in the small bathroom off La Chef's kitchen to make sure I've got everything under control.

I hear robust laughter behind me as I scurry from the room, but once I reemerge, La Chef sits up straight, ready to be interviewed, and the guests sit quietly so we can make our film. La Chef is a natural, talking easily about her work and the culinary principles she aims to share with her students. The film seems to make itself, and I promise to send a copy to La Chef when I get home. We finish our tea on other topics--film making is nothing special in this group. At midnight, my father points to his watch. The Metro stops running at twelve-thirty, so it's time to say our good-byes. Walking to the station, I feel contented, with the meal, with the conversation, with my film, and with the possibility of new friendships that I have found in this beautiful city.
Fashion in Paris (Part 2)

KIDS (BOYS): U.S. baseball caps, often worn backwards; scarves; all colors, except black

KIDS (GIRLS): hats, hats, hats; dresses and jumpers; appliqued flowers on dresses and coats; striped tights; scarves; all colors, except black

MEN: Puma tennis shoes, mostly in neutral colors

WOMEN: zouave pants (casual pants that puff down toward the ankles); sweater coats to the knees, usually in neutral colors such as white, beige, and black; loosely crocheted ponchos, often in wild monochromatic colors; poofy taffeta (rather than satin) jackets and matching layered, poofy skirts (usually in monochromatic tones); Puma tennis shoes in neutral colors as well as red or pink; suede boots to the knees, often with a fold-over flap at the knees; pashmina shawls over evening wear, wrapped loosely in front and thrown over one shoulder for panache

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Today was my last day assisting La Chef. She's invited my father and me to dinner before we leave, but that will be a social event--no students. We'll make lapin aux pruneaux (rabbit with prunes) that evening, a very French dish that La Chef rarely makes in class. Americans aren't generally interested in eating rabbit.

Today in class, we make a veal roast as the centerpiece, doing only a little shopping at the local market in the morning. No stop at the boucherie or the caviste on the way home--La Chef has purchased everything but the cheeses, carrots, and bread the day before.

The students today are a congenial group who hit it off right away: a middle-aged man from Victoria, B.C., a retired woman from Manhattan, a woman from Berkeley who is in Paris to look for an apartment, and, arriving late, a mother-daughter pair from New Jersey. They're here to celebrate the mother's fiftieth birthday, and the trip to Paris--complete with cooking class--is the daughter's birthday gift to her. La Chef tells me to stay behind at the Metro station to wait for them. We'll catch up with the rest of the group at the cheese vendor's stall.

When the mother and daughter finally surface, they practically throw themselves into my arms in relief. They've only just arrived the day before, with multiple delays and a wake-up call this morning that never came through. I orient them to the day's activities, and we meet up with the rest of the class to finish our shopping and head back to La Chef's kitchen to begin our work.

La Chef doesn't have to direct me much today, since we've got our system down, and she remarks that, when I leave, she's going to miss my efficiency and ability to second-guess her. I'm going to miss her warmth and generosity, and all the good food we've been making.

Along with the veal roast, we peel and slice carrots to cook slowly in a bath of butter, honey, and an exotic Moroccan blend of twenty-four spices called Raz el Hanout. It's my job to brush off all the dirt and moss from a large bag of rich yellow girolles (chanterelles mushrooms) that we'll saute for a side dish. Then we dip small crottins de chevre chavignol (rounds of goat cheese) in egg, then in breadcrumbs, and saute them in olive oil to serve atop a bed of mixed greens dressed in a light vinaigrette. For a final touch, we assemble the fixings for a roquefort souffle, melting the cheese in the roux before folding in the egg whites and pouring the mixture into individual ramekins. To accompany the meal is a Bordeaux that comes from the vineyard of La Chef's vintner friend. We end the meal with La Chef's famous chocolate-apple tart. She praises the Valrhona chocolate--a French chocolate from the valley of the Rhone River--which she uses exclusively.

Oddly enough, none of the students has opted for the afternoon tour of Les Halles, though by the end of the meal, they all want to buy tart pans and a year's supply of the intriguing Raz el Hanout. La Chef has other commitments, so she asks me to take the class to the spice store for her and to then direct them to Dehillerin, an iconic kitchen supply store. I would go with them to Dehillerin as well, but I have a massage appointment late in the afternoon and will have to hop on the Metro as soon as we're done at the spice shop. La Chef has called ahead, so the owner of the shop is expecting us when we arrive. He explains the long history behind Raz el Hanout. Every corner spice grinder in Morocco has a unique version, blending his own combination of spices. The mix came to France through the Arab conquest of Spain centuries ago, the cultural influences of which drifted north into France over time. Said to have aphrodisiacal powers, Raz el Hanout was also traditionally used for medicinal puposes, especially for women after childbirth.

We say our farewells, and I head to the Madeleine area for my appointment at L'Espace France-Asie (EFA, or France-Asia Space), where O. will give me my weekly traditional Thai masage, followed by a treatment of medicinal herbs that warm slowly in a small electric heater at the foot of the futon on which I get my massage. I arrive a few minutes early, as does a trim fellow about my age in a business suit. He is a little flustered and talks to the receptionist about the awful traffic he encountered on his drive over to the EFA. She advises him to ride his bicycle next time, and he replies that he doesn't want to die young.

I laugh out loud. The idea of riding a bike in Paris at rush hour, fighting with cars, scooters, and pedestrians for space on the narrow streets seems ludicrous, especially if, like most Parisian cyclists, you choose not to wear a casquette (helmet). I mention my thoughts on the subject to the fellow, and as we drink the green tea served by the receptionist, we fall into conversation about physical exercise in Paris. I ask about lifting weights, and he launches into a description of his wife's routine at her gym: weight lifting, stretching, swimming, and yoga. I tell him that I do all those things at home too, but that yoga and stretching have become difficult lately due to a painful strained hamstring muscle.

He tells me not to give up. Pain, he says, is ninety-five percent psychological. From there, we're deep into a philosophical discussion of consciousness and the extent to which the human experience of what we call reality is centered in the mind or in the body. I see his point: the mind and the human emotional perception of being are powerful energies, often underestimated in the industrialized Western world. But, I muse aloud, we're both here at the EFA to tend to the five percent of experience that is entirely corporal. When O. calls me for my massage, my stomach grumbles, reminding me of the recent pleasures of a satisfying repast. And I'm glad, in that moment, for my corporal incarnation.

Monday, October 24, 2005

(Mountaineer's Pizza)
--Dedicated to SJG, who's patiently waiting at home for her Reblochon

My father and I discovered this French pizza at Le Relais du Chateau, the little pizza-to-go shop across the street from our lodgings in Azay-le-Rideau. The shop has a window onto the street where you place your order and can watch the very friendly chef make your pizza. When our pizza was done, we took it back across the street to our overgrown garden and ate it under a bower close to the house as a light rain began to fall.

Pizza Montagnarde
1 pizza crust for a 9-inch, thin-crust pizza (not pre-baked)
2/3 cup creme fraiche, or enough to cover the crust well
3 small yellow potatoes, peeled, boiled to almost done, and then sliced into medium-thick rounds (or mashed is easy too)
6-8 narrow slices of Reblochon cheese (a cow's milk cheese from the alpine Savoie region of eastern France)
1 round of fresh mozzarella, cut into bite-sized chunks
1-2 medium yellow onions, caramelized
a few kalamata olives

1) Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees Farenheit.
2) Place the pizza crust on a pizza pan (or pizza stone, following instructions).
3) Spread the creme fraiche evenly over the crust.
4) Arrange the potato slices in concentric circles, leaving space for the pieces of cheese. If you're using mashed potatoes instead, spread them evenly over the crust.
5) Place the pieces of Reblochon and mozzarella among the potato slices and distribute the caramelized onions evenly over the top.
6) Place the olives on top and bake the pizza for 15 minutes, or until crust is browned and the cheeses are bubbling nicely.

Season to taste with freshly ground black pepper or with a hot-pepper infused oil and serve with a sweet white wine. Serves two.

Friday, October 21, 2005

(Fashion in Paris)

MEN: jeans or a black suit; scarves; leather, tie dress shoes; short hair, carefully trimmed facial hair, no sideburns of any kind; piercings (facial, tongue, ears); black, black, and more black.

WOMEN: layered skirts (cotton, wool, or rayon) on the bias, often with matching layer of voile exposed about 4 inches at the bottom; satin skirts and matching jackets, as puffy as possible; flared 3/4-length skirts; mini skirts; scarves; sparkling appliqued sequins on jackets and tops; lime green anything paired with reds or purples; tight flared jeans; hip huggers with wide black belts; converse tennis shoes of any color; fringed head scarves for black (African) women; ballet slipper-style shoes; black leather boots in general; cowboy boots specifically, black, low-heeled and extremely pointy toes (I bought a pair for myself in shoe-town heaven); plastic glasses with monochromatic colored frames (red and green are popular); long hair, pulled up in a bun or hanging loosely; leather backpacks slung over one or both shoulders; piercings (facial, tongue, ears, though more common on men); black, black, and more black.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


As we speed out of Paris on the TGV from the Montparnasse station, the cityscape gives way quickly to expansive, flat agricultural fields, now mostly barren. Occasionally, a tractor or a grouping of baled hay come into view. We're on our way to Tours for a visit to the chateau country of the Loire Valley. Last year, we visited castles along the Cher River, a tributary of the Loire; this year, we're to see the sites along the Indre, another of the Loire's tributaries. The train is packed, though quiet, and the woman up ahead of us shares her sandwich with the dachsund seated comfortably on her lap.

It's a short trip from Paris to the TGV station outside of Tours, where we pick up our rental car--a sporty, keyless Renault Megane--and are quickly on our way. My father has memorized well in advance the map of the region and tells me which signs to look for. Our first stop, the chateau of Villandry, is not far, only 20 kilometers, but the route there is a maze of frontage roads, four-lane expressway, and winding country lanes. The trees are turning red and mist is still rising off the valley floor. The air is cool, and I'm glad I've packed my wool sweater.

At Villandry, built in 1536 by the finance minister to Francois I and owned privately since the early part of the twentieth century, we start our tour in the potager--the kitchen gardens. Laid out in nine squares, the garden is bursting with geometrically patterned rows of fall produce and herbs--pumpkins, leeks, cabbages red and green, decorative kale, peppers, celery, and bushy purple basil. In the corners of each square are staked tree roses in full bloom, and along the periphery of the potager are fruit-bearing pear trees. Gravel pathways dissect the potager, and small fountains in the central gravel artery spray gentle arcs of water into the air. Few people are here at this time of year, so my father and I stroll peacefully through the potager, into the neighboring medicinal garden, and up a set of stairs along a terraced canal to the water garden above. A single swan grooms his white feathers in the large central basin, on either side of which spreads a labyrinth of immaculately groomed boxwood hedges, interrupted only by several circular fountains.

We wander to the back of the property to the greenhouses, empty now, and return by way of the ornamental gardens. The boxwood here is trimmed in geometric patterns symbolizing different kinds of love--tender, passionate, fickle, and tragic. It's a "love garden" in greens (boxwood) and reds (impatiens), and I'm struck by the possibility for beauty in the simplest of plants and in the most basic of geometric forms.

Late in the afternoon, after ambling through the chateau itself, which offers a splendid aerial view of the gardens from the rooftop of the keep, we make our way to the town of Azay-le-Rideau, where we'll spend two nights and visit the chateau of the same name in the morning. Azay is a small town, and as we drive in, everything seems to be closed. Few people are on the street, and when we miraculously find ourselves in front of our chambre d'hote (B&B), even it seems to be shut up. The giant green gates to the side don't give when I push, and the front door is locked too.

I push a buzzer off to the side and wait an eternity before an older woman, Madame B, opens the door. She seems suspicious, so I quickly explain who we are and that we have reservations to stay there. She offers a quiet smile and steps out onto the sidewalk in her flowing silk pants, her hair falling loosely down her back, to explain the complexities of parking the car at the back of the property.

We park the car and walk up to the house along an allee of cypress trees and bamboo and through the back garden, a mass of giant climbing roses, yucca in bloom, a single pink hollyhock, and small urns of fading geraniums perched atop the columns of the low stone wall surrounding the garden. Rusting, antiquated iron chairs and tables cluster near the house, which is filled with fading Oriental carpets, giant armoires and marble-topped tables, cheminees (fireplaces) in every room, and Nabob, an Afghan hound sitting regally in the darkened parlor. Crumpled lace and heavy linen curtains hang from the floor-to-ceiling windows, and oil paintings and sketches line the walls at awkward angles.

Madame B takes us to our rooms on the premier etage (second floor). We have a suite overlooking the back garden. On closer inspection, I notice that the floors slope, the antique dressers and armoire are in less than perfect condition, and the greyish blue paint of the French windows in the bathroom is peeling. Madame B leaves us to settle in, and my father whispers to me, "I think Blanche DuBois lives here!" I'm touched by the way he's hit on the exact mood of the place, its faded glory, its worn elegance, its charm. And, like Blanche, there's something fragile here, something sad, and I wonder if it's the way Madame B, with her aging antiques and her bohemian garb, seems to be preserving a nostalgie d'autrefois, a love for a long-ago way of life. With her elegantly draped lamps, covered in linens, lace, and tassled silks, Madame B has created an enchantment in the face of a reality I can't quite pinpoint.

And, the next day, I catch a glimpse of it. As I return to the house from a trip to the nearby post office and turn my big brass key in the lock at the front door, I see a small doorway into a little room I'd not noticed before. On a hospital bed, only the end of which I can see, stretches a skinny pair of old legs, pushed into white therapeutic stockings to promote circulation and slippered in oversized bedshoes. Illness and mortality emanate from the room into the hallway, and I feel the tremendous courage of all the Madame B's, of all the Blanche DuBoises of the world, who drape their heartbreaking realities in beauty.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


The other day, I went to A. Simon, a wonderful kitchen supply store in Les Halles. It's off on a side street that angles away from the post office on the rue du Louvre, the post office that's open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I wanted to buy bread knives for my partner's sisters and a variety of bowls and plates, large and small, made by the famous French porcelain company Pillivuyt. I knew A. Simon would be well stocked; I'd bought little white ramekins there on a previous visit and experienced their impressive collection.

The store was quiet when I arrived, and an older man in suit and tie stepped forward to help me. I told him what I was looking for and the sizes I needed, and he took me to the various corners of the store to choose exactly what I wanted. As he wrote up the sales ticket (by hand), I explained that I was hoping to have everything shipped back to the United States, and he looked at me somewhat askance.

"You know it's very expensive to do that, don't you? The laws have changed," he said, "so it will likely cost you more than the dishes themselves to send them back to the United States."

I assured him I was prepared for some expense, and he took me to la caisse (the checkout counter) to pay for the knives and dishes. We agreed that he would call me the next day with the exact euro amount for the shipping. It was understood that the transaction was dependent upon my final okay. I extended my hand to shake hands with him for being so helpful and learned that I had been dealing with none other than Monsieur Jacques Simon, one of the brothers who own the store together.

The next morning at nine o'clock, which is early in France, the phone rang. It was M. Jacques calling to let me know that the total cost of expedition to the United States (including shipping, handling, and insurance) would be 309 euros (roughly $386), indeed well over the cost of the purchase itself. I asked for some time to consult with my family at home and promised to call him back the next day.

My partner and I, laughing together, decided that the price was too exorbitant, and we settled on the knives and four small salad bowls only, a compromise that I can easily carry home in my hand luggage. Experienced in French retail habits, however, I knew I was in for some negotiating. Changing your mind and returning things in France just isn't done. And, since much here is dependent upon relationship, I knew I would need to handle the situation in person.

So, I went back to A. Simon after cooking class the next day and asked for M. Jacques. He was out at lunch still, so Brigitte helped me instead. I explained my case and that I wanted to take only a selection of the original sale home with me that day and to be refunded the difference. The French get a certain stern look in their eyes when you've asked for something that they view as odd or importunate. I got that look. Brigitte took out her cell phone and made several calls while filling out, by hand, a new sales ticket for the items I did want. I followed her around the store as she verified item numbers, supply, and prices, talking on the phone about me as she went.

She painstakingly compared the new receipt with the old one and finally took me to la caisse to settle my account. There, she began to explain the situation to la caissiere (the checkout clerk), who refused to comprehend her own role in the transaction. Brigitte patiently explained things to her three more times, at which point la caissiere got out her handwritten ledger and made copious notations related to my sale. She then made Brigitte write out a note on the sales ticket explaining the reimbursement, made her sign it, made me sign it, and made M. Jacques--who had by this time returned to the store--sign it too. The entire file, a dossier really, since everything in Frances is in triplicate, was then clipped together and carefully inserted into la caissiere's ledger book.

Thinking I was nearing the finish line, I took out my VISA card, assuming the reimbursement would be credited to it, since I'd originally paid with plastic. For mysterious French reasons, it was made clear to me--despite my protestations and pleas--that the reimbursement, which was well over 100 euros (roughly $125), would have to be made in cash. I wondered about the sanity of such a policy, but since I wasn't making any headway on this particular point of business, I decided to take the cash, thank Brigitte and M. Jacques for their patience and help, and be grateful that the entire negotiation had taken only half an hour. I'll buy the pasta bowls and plates next year.
[dedicated to Paul, for the dessert below]

On Friday morning at nine o'clock, I'm to meet La Chef and her six students of the day at Le Metro, a big corner cafe on the Boulevard Voltaire. The night before, I get out my Metro map to plan my route. The easiest way, though not the most direct, requires only one correspondance (change of Metro lines) at a small station on the Right Bank. I try to avoid the big stations--mazes of hot, underground passageways, where multitudes rush to catch their trains. I arrive at Le Metro right on time, and when I come up onto the street, I spy a group of six waiting in front of a large kiosk. They're obviously together, though they seem uncomfortable as a group, so I make my way toward them to introduce myself. Indeed, it is La Chef's group, and they're relieved to have a leader. La Chef hasn't arrived yet, so I explain my role and that she will join us shortly. La Chef lives right in the neighborhood.

The group is American, and as we share our coordinates, it's clear that we represent a broad swath of the continent. Two of the couples are from California, a young pair who live near Irvine, and two lawyers from the San Francisco area. Hailing from the other coast is a businesswoman from Boston, and in the Southwest, a merchandiser who has retired in El Paso. With my midwestern roots, I represent the midcontinent.

Within a few minutes, La Chef arrives. She looks lovely in a safari-style pant suit, ropes of colorful glass beads wound around her neck. She must have rushed out of the apartment this morning, for I notice that one of her pant legs is caught in her stocking. She introduces herself and talks a little about the wealth of weekly outdoor markets in Paris. There are about sixty of them, and today, we're going to the Marche Oberkampf, a Friday morning market.

Our menu will resemble the others: a cheese-tasting course for starters, a curried cauliflower veloute (cream soup), and a salad of fresh mushrooms and roasted beets, followed by a main course of puree de pommes de terre (mashed potatoes) and herb-stuffed tenderloins of pork and veal. For dessert, we'll make an almond-fig tart.

Since La Chef hasn't had time to do her usual day-before shopping, our grocery list is more comprehensive today. We have to buy just about everything, so we stop for ingredients from the market's cheese and dairy, fruit, vegetable, and fresh herb vendors. La Chef knows all her providers, and at the herb stand, we're treated to photos of the vendor's baby daughter. Just two months old, her name is Elisabeth. Then we're off to La Chef's boulanger for baguettes and to the boucherie next door for the veal and pork. The butcher cuts thick scallops for us, slicing pockets into the meat where the herb stuffing will go. Our final stop is at the caviste for wine. After an extended negotiation with La Chef, the caviste suggests a Syrah Cuilleron, a light-bodied red.

I'm becoming familiar with La Chef's routine by now, so when we get back to her apartment, I pour a carafe of water for the students, unpack the groceries, arrange the cheese plate, and start rinsing the fresh herbs. Little except the milk, creme fraiche, and meat go into the refrigerator, and there, I've made another mistake. La Chef likes to cook her meat at room temperature, and in her mind, even the dairy can remain on the countertops, since we'll be cooking with it soon enough. An animated conversation about bacteria and hygiene ensues, with no real consensus other than that the French and we Americans treat food very differently.

We start by chopping the herbs--tarragon, Italian parsley, chives, and chervil--and a handful of baby spinach. Together, the chopped greens are called a chiffonade, for the way they resemble strips of cloth or ribbons, and we set them to cook slowly in butter. La Chef chops a beautiful creamy white cauliflower into large florettes and places them in a casserole to cook slowly in milk, cream, and a sprikling of curry powder. Next, we chop the mushrooms and roasted beets--sold already cooked--for the salad, drizzling fresh lemon juice and olive oil over the top. Soon, the chiffonade is soft and ready to stuff into the veal and pork scallops. La Chef does not wash her meat before handling. "E. coli" and salmonella seem to be of no concern here.

Once we've stuffed the meat with the chiffonade, we roll the pieces in homemade breadcrumbs (crushed nuts is another option that my father and I try the next day with walnuts he picked in the Dordogne) and saute them in two large pans. Next comes the tart, a simple preparation once the crust is partially baked. For the almond filling, we cream together butter (82% butterfat), sugar, a little flour, and powdered almonds, adding an egg and kirsch to make a moist paste. The young woman from Irvine helps spread the paste over the crust. She's hoping to become a pastry chef and has been accepted at Le Cordon Bleu's California pastry school. Classes start in January.

In the oven, the paste cooks briefly in the crust while we slice fresh figs to arrange carefully over the top. The tart goes back into the oven for another few minutes to release the juices of the blood-red fruit, and we turn to pureeing the cauliflower and preparing the potatoes. At last, we direct our attention to the final preparation of the meal--the sauce for the meats. Sauces can seem tricky, but if you've got a nice cut of meat with plenty of natural fatty juices, the work is done for you. One of the San Francisco lawyers lifts the scallops out of the frying pans and onto a platter, and his wife adds white vermouth to deglaze the pans, turning the heat up high to thicken the mixture of wine and drippings. At the last minute, La Chef directs her to stir a dollop of creme fraiche and another of French mustard into each pan, and lunch is served.

1 partially baked pastry crust for an 8-inch pie
2 pounds fresh figs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup powdered almonds
1 TBSP flour
3 ounces softened, unsalted butter
1 egg
1 TBSP kirsch (optional)
1 TBSP honey, warmed slightly

1) Wash the figs. Cut off the tops and slice the figs into rounds (don't peel them).
2) To make the almond paste, mix the sugar with the powdered almonds and flour. Cream in the butter. Add the egg and kirsch and stir til blended.
3) Fill the partially baked pastry crust with the almond paste, spreading it evenly.
4) Bake the almond-filled crust for 10 minutes at 350 degrees Farenheit. Remove from oven.
5) Arrange the fig slices in concentric circles on top of the paste, coat the figs lightly with the warmed honey, and return to the oven.
6) Bake the tart for 15-20 minutes more, or until the almond paste and figs are colored. Remove and serve at room temperature. Note: fresh berries are a nice substitute for the figs.

Friday, October 14, 2005

France has a long and complex history with the Arab population in its midst. As a former colonizer in the Arab world, especially in North Africa, France now has the largest Arab community in western Europe. With a bloody, troubled past, the relationship is fraught. And, as a secular, assimilationist society, having recently banned head scarves in the public schools, France views its Arab citizens with suspicion.

Yet, a visitor to France immediately recognizes that it is Arab workers at the wheel in the sanitation and street-sweeping trucks, Arab women cleaning shops and taking out the garbage early in the morning, and Arab families running the neighborhood epiceries (corner stores)--the ones that open well before and close long after everyone else. And, it's a dour, older Arab man and his young male assistant who run the small Internet cafe in my coin du quartier (corner of the neighborhood). They're open ten hours a day, every day except Sundays, and unlike some of the bigger cybercafes in the city, this one is cheaper and permits clients to stay as long as they want, paying at session's end, rather than for a fixed amount of time up front.

Right across the street is one of the Alliance Francaise campuses, so a majority of the cafe's clients are young Americans. Invariably, they speak to the man and his assistant in English, and one day the young man and I laugh out loud together, wondering what good it does to take lessons in French if you can't put your lessons to use right across the street.

Last year, when my father and I first stayed in this neighborhood and discovered the cafe, the older man was gruff and rude to us. We needed help figuring out the French clavier (keyboard), and it was neighboring clients who helped us, not him. His cafe, however, has the corner on the market. It's a 30-second walk from the apartment, and the only one closer is near the Pantheon, all the way across the Luxembourg Gardens. So, though we trembled each time we went back to his cafe, we remained loyal.

This year, I decided to make a friend out of this man, and I used flattery as my tool. One Sunday, I had trekked across the Luxembourg to the Pantheon cybercafe. It's huge and noisy, and I felt rushed. I hated it. Relieved to be back with my Arab men on Monday, I told them how much I preferred their shop to others. The older man beamed, and, for the first time, he looked right at me rather than down at the counter. Now, when I come in each morning, we have a friendly chat, albeit about banalities such as the weather and the number of clients in the shop. But, I notice that he assigns me the best computer these days--the one in the back with the big flat screen and the English keyboard.

Today, the young assistant was running the shop by himself. He's very handsome, with curly dark hair cut close, liquid brown eyes, and a muscled physique. For some reason, I wondered what his name is, and, feeling emboldened, I introduced myself. He recognizes
me--I'm at the cafe every day at the same time.

"I'm Domenica," I tell him. "And you?" I ask.

He hesitates for a fraction of a second. "My name is Mohammed," he responds, with the accent (a la francaise) on the last syllable.

"Oh," I say. "Just like the Prophet!"

The moment the words come out of my mouth, I feel I've gone too far, and I worry that Mohammed will shut down and cut me off. I'll have to trudge across the Luxembourg Gardens every morning to the horrible Pantheon cafe. But, instead, he flashes a big, generous smile, and I know I'll be able to come back tomorrow.

[Note to readers: I won't be posting again til the end of next week. We're off to chateaux country for a few days, so I'll post about that trip, and today's cooking session, when I return.]

Thursday, October 13, 2005

(le ruche, or apiary, left, at the Luxembourg Gardens)

I've been going to the Luxembourg Gardens in the late afternoon this week. The light at this time of day is softer, and I'm generally fatigued from the duties and pleasures of the day. I head down the rue de Fleurus, where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas made their lives together in the last century, and I walk the two short blocks from my apartment to the entrance gate at rue Guynemer. Guynemer was a World War I-era pilot, killed in action near the end of the war.

If you follow the main paved pathway from this entrance, it takes you past the tennis courts and the ponies to the Grand Bassin, where children launch small wooden sailboats with cotton sails for three euros an hour. The bassin is at the heart of the garden. It's where my father heads each time he visits the Luxembourg, and in choosing a green iron armchair under a potted palm, he joins the many tourists and visitors who are drawn here too.

I, on the other hand, prefer the garden's many quiet corners, where old men cluster in groups to talk, or to play petanque on the hidden-away courts reserved for this game. Women, too, sit together, more often in twosomes, and young lovers express their yearnings, squeezed together on a single chair or more comfortably on a garden bench. Street people and lunatics gravitate to the recesses of the garden as well, though they are always on best behavior here and bother no one.

Entering the garden, my pulse slows and my breathing relaxes. There's something soothing about being here. The giant beeches, oaks, and chestnut trees spread their branches across the carefully groomed pelouses (lawns), off of which the blue-suited Paris police regularly chase picnickers, children, and dogs. Everywhere there are flowers--in beddings, spilling out of urns, or clustered around elegant statues. The other day, I discovered the garden's miniature artist's model of the Statue of Liberty. She too was surrounded by blooming plants.

It strikes me that there's nothing exotic or fancy about anything that grows here. The gardeners work with simple, everyday plants--geraniums, pansies, salvia, nicotiana, lantana, marigolds, and later in the fall, mums. Yet everything is carefully tended, and much attention is paid to the aesthetics of color, size, and shape.

Today, I head toward the experimental gardens, where fruit trees are growing in rows along the fence on the rue Auguste Comte side of the garden. I spot a chair with a perfect westward orientation, and as I walk toward it, I discover that the garden keeps bees as well. They're buzzing around a number of wooden bee hives, and I wonder if the apiary produces honey for purchase. A group of four young French women are seated near my chair, laughing and chatting happily together. I imagine they'll be coming here across the next fifty years; this is a practice run for what will become a way of life.

I sit down in my chair, take off my shoes to let my feet feel the warmth of the sun, and pull out my pen and the two postcards I've bought for people at home. The air has a light camphorlike smell I've also noticed near the sea in the south of France. I've never known exactly what creates this scent, whether it's related to moisture in the air, a certain flower or evergreen shrub, or some combination of each element. I love it and wish that, instead of the various physical items I'll be stuffing into my bags for the return trip, I could bring some of the Parisian air home with me.

I write my postcards and eat an apple. A businessman walks by, a young man with a grey cat on a leash amble past, and three police officers do their duty, chasing the many transgressors off the manicured lawns. Small signs posted everywhere make it clear that the pelouses are strictly off limits. Checking my watch, I see that it's time to head home for dinner. As I walk slowly through the garden, I take a slightly different path out, wandering past a large playground bursting with children and their parents. Beyond the playground, the noise level drops, and I marvel that everyone in the park--besides the children--seems to be reading: books, newspapers, magazines, reports, letters, palm pilots, anything in script. I make a mental note. Tomorrow, I'll bring my copy of "Le Monde."

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

(My Fabulous French Haircut)
The neighborhood I'm in has at least one salon de coiffure (hair salon) on every block. It's a wonder any of them stay in business since there's so much competition and most seem to be empty when I walk by. The one exception is the salon de coiffure right next door to our apartment. Unlike the other salons, which charge two and three times as much, this one charges only 15 euros (approximately $18) for a man's shampoo and cut, and only 18 euros (about $22) for a woman's. Consequently, the owner-stylist, who runs the shop by himself, is packed with clients all day, every day.

My hair has needed a serious trim for quite some time, but knowing I would be in Paris this month, I decided to wait until I arrived in the city to arrange for a cut. So, last week, I poked my head into the shop and made an appointment for today at one o'clock.

The shop is a little dingy, and, as I lay back for the shampooing in the antiquated and uncomfortable stylist's chair, I realized it needs upgrading too. But, the stylist--a gay man in his fifties-runs a tight ship, washing my hair, taking appointments over the phone, greeting acquaintances walking past on the street, and attending to the steady stream of handsome gay men who pop their heads in to make appointments in person, all with complete ease.

In the United States generally, and certainly at a hair salon specifically, conversations with someone you've just met stay on the surface, rarely straying from safe topics: pets, jobs, and maybe a recent movie. In France, conversants leap right into politics, economics, and sex without even taking a breath. And, true to course, the stylist and I immediately hit on economics as our theme.

I mention that my dream apartment in Paris would be in this very neighborhood, but that even the smallest seems to cost about one million euros (roughly $1.2 million), far exceeding my meagre means. He's off and running about the real-estate bubble in France, the inflating expense of property in Paris and the suburbs, and the disastrous state of the French economy. In classic French style, he begins to quiz me: Am I aware of the reasons for this deplorable fiscal state of affairs? I say that I've read that some people blame it on the forces of Europeanization and the globalization of local economies. He rejects this outright and instead blames France's fiscal problems on the increasing reliance of the society on credit. He refers to this as the Americanization of the French economy, and I'm in no place to argue. Americans are indeed burdened with debt, but I'm not sure I see this as the sole dynamic behind the pension, health-care, and job security issues that plague both societies.

He tells me not to move my head as he cuts, and I let him talk without further interruption from me. I can't really hear him anyway because by now, he's already trimmed the five centimeters I requested and is blow-drying and styling my hair with a blow dryer and brush dating surely to the 1970s. Nonetheless, this fellow is efficient; it's only one thirty, and he's almost done.

A few minutes later, he holds up a large, bright orange mirror smudged with fingerprints and asks, "So, what do you think?" I'm amazed. My hair looks fabulous, and I thank him, with a big, happy smile, for my "jolie coiffure francaise."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

My father headed out the door this morning at eight o'clock to catch his train at the Gare d'Austerlitz for his trip to the Dordogne region of southwestern France. He'll be gone for four days, penetrating the area's deep caves for a look at the ancient pictographs there. I'm somewhat regretful that I chose not to go along, but he loves, and needs, his solitary ventures, and I'm eager to discover what it's like to be on my own in Paris.

The moment I close the door behind my father, I'm filled with panic. Will I survive the separation? Will I be overcome by loneliness, boredom, or anxiety? As fears race through my head, I turn to the task that has seen me through many of life's travails. I dig out the Ajax and a scrubber and attack the apartment bathrooms. In time, the sinks and mirrors are gleaming, the toilets sanitized, and the floor tiles returned to their lustrous glow. I feel I can take on the world.

Today is the day I've arranged to meet Michael for lunch. Michael is an American writer new to the publishing house I work for, and he is in the city on sabbatical with his wife and two young children. We meet at the fountain in front of St-Sulpice, just as the noon church bells ring, and we walk to a neighborhood restaurant just around the corner from my apartment. It's the kind of restaurant I love best--small, family run, and offering simple and limited fare. I order lamb chops, and Michael chooses the cassoulet, a traditional white bean and sausage stew typical of southwestern France.

We talk easily across a range of getting-to-know-you topics, while Monsieur DeSilva, the restaurant owner and its sole waiter, seamlessly serves the entire lunch crowd. For dessert, we choose the tarte tatin, a sort of upside-down caramelized apple cake, served during the fall--warm--in France. Though somewhat unorthodox, I like creme fraiche with mine, to cut the sweetness of the caramel, and Monsieur DeSilva obliges me.

In France, meals are served in courses, so even a simple lunch like the one Michael and I share can stretch across two or three hours. Coffee comes last and is generally served in small cups, usually with a saucer, but sometimes in small stand-alone porcelain beakers. Espresso is the drink of choice and comes with sugar cubes and often a bite-sized piece of chocolate on the side. (Lemon is an Italian accompaniment.)

Even lustier coffees, such as cafe creme, are served in small cups. A person lingers over coffee here in a way not possible with the jumbo approach to coffee at home.

Michael and I part mid-afternoon with plans to meet later in the week for an evening of jazz with his wife and her colleagues. I run the day's errands--stamps at the post office and groceries at Monoprix, France's one-up on Target. I'm planning to make my own version of cassoulet, substituting lentils for the white beans, and I know that Monoprix's prices will beat those at La Grande Epicerie--Paris's version of Dean and DeLuca--where my father (normally penurious) loves to shop. As an unanticipated treat, I buy a bunch of dark, near-black grapes from Provence. They are filled with seeds, but I rediscover how intensely sweet a grape can be, and the seeds of these Provencal beauties seem only a minor distraction in pursuit of their pleasures.

Walking home up the Boulevard St-Michel toward the Luxembourg Gardens, I feel confidence in my stride and turn my face toward the sun and the sky in a sort of salutory gesture of happiness. It's almost eighty degrees today.

I like to enter the gardens from the Senate side. There's less of a human crush, and by going that way, I can again enjoy the photo exhibit mounted on the gates of the garden along the rue de Vaugirard. The exhibit is always changing. This month, it's photographs by the likes of Henri Cartier Bresson, Elliot Irwin, Andre Kertesz, and other masters, free for all to enjoy.

The garden is peopled with sun worshippers today, and new plantings of petunias and salvia have appeared in bedding that was bare yesterday. Up ahead on the gravel path that passes the Orangerie, small forklifts are moving giant potted palms into the pavilion. A group of elegantly clad dowagers is watching the process, and in response to my query, agree that the gardeners must be pulling in the more delicate species in preparation for winter. And indeed, when I peek into the pavilion, it is filled with other palms and large potted orange trees. On a warm day such as this, winter seems incomprehensible, and the ladies and I shake our heads in wondrous disbelief.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Jane Fonda was on French television last night, promoting her new book, "Ma Vie," which, in French, is a straight translation of the book's English-language title, "My Life." She was the guest on France 2's "Vivement Dimanche" (roughly, "Sunday Live"), a talk show with not one but three (male) hosts, one of whom--the French equivalent of Larry King--had been specially invited.

Mostly the hosts did all the talking. They praised Jane profusely and summed up for her the major points of interest in her book. They read aloud a seven-page letter from a fan, who compared Jane to Christ. They fawned and cooed. Jane listened politely, and, when the occasional question was directed her way, she responded. In flawless French.

I knew Jane had been married for some time as a young woman to French film director Roger Vadim, but I wasn't prepared for the confidence of her French-language delivery, the near-perfect accent, or the currency of idiom and syntax. And, of course, she looked fabulous. A perfect coiffe, understated make-up, a flattering green wool bolero jacket, and perfect posture. In her composure, she reminded me of the new adjective I learned the other day: "feutre." It means to be subtly elegant, like felt.

I admit it. I was riveted....and jealous. Certainly, Jane has her history, her fault lines, her blemishes. But, if I ever reach the point in my life where I can appear, calm and confident, in a public forum in France, answering questions in perfect French, I'll be content.
AVEC VOS BEAUX YEUX [With Your Beautiful Eyes]
"Domenica, avec vos beaux yeux, find the photos of the coquilles St-Jacques." La Chef hands me a glossy food magazine. She, her six students for the day--my second on the job--and I have returned to her kitchen from le Marche des Enfants Rouges, a small neighborhood market. This time, our chariot is laden with coquilles St-Jacques, veal chops, creme fraiche, two baguettes, more apples, a lemon, leeks, celery, carrots, and two bags of yellow potatoes. We stop again at the wine shop on the way home. I mention that I had not liked the sweetness of last session's Sancerre, so La Chef asks for a drier white wine. The caviste (wine merchant) suggest a bottle of Perilot for the coquilles, and two bottles of a smoky red wine for the veal.

Today's students (all American women) are young and eager. Four are working abroad--two in London investment firms and two in the fashion industry in Paris. The other two are New York lawyers on holiday. In their early thirties, these young professionals have a wide-eyed enthusiasm for life and easy access to its many possibilities. They take copious notes, check their cell phones constantly, and quiz me on how I learned to speak French so well.

Today's menu is a variation of the previous session's meal. We start with a cheese tasting. La Chef scolds me for having put the cheese plate in the refrigerator. Cheeses need to come to room temperature for the full flavors to emerge. We then make a seasonal sorrel soup, topped with a dollop of creme fraiche and chives. La Chef serves the soup--a musky green--in small ochre-colored ceramic cups.

As we prepare the coquilles St-Jacques, La Chef hands me the food magazine for show-and-tell. It has lovely glossy photos accompanying inviting recipes, and I realize La Chef has forgiven me my cheese error. I like to think that, when she refers to my "beaux yeux," it's my eyes she's admiring rather than my snazzy new red Parisian readers that I've perched on my nose.

The coquilles are simmering in a saffron-vegetable stock, while the gratin dauphinois (scalloped potatoes) is baking slowly in the oven in a yellow clay casserole. We've added the scrapings of an exotic Venezuelan bean--the tonka bean--to the potatoes. The dark, wrinkled bean is reminiscent in flavor of a cross between nutmeg and vanilla and can be added to dishes both savory and sweet.

Before we saute the veal chops, we prepare the chocolate and caramelized apple tart and measure out the ingredients for a chocolate souffle, to be baked at the last minute. La Chef says Americans all want the same thing--chicken or fish....and chocolate.

La Chef's full-time assistant, Lily, rings at the door. She's a Californian studying for an MBA at one of the city's top schools, working for La Chef to help finance her student life in the city. She and I set the table and bring out the wines for the meal. I'm scolded again. I've put the red wine in the refrigerator. But, with sauces to prepare still, photos to be taken, and apples to be flambeed in Calvados, there's time enough for the wine to come to room temperature. I scrub as many dishes as I can. I know my assiduous attention to the mounting pile of bowls, chopping boards, paring knives, and stockpots will impress La Chef.

The conversation over lunch is lively and animated. The young women have much in common and are articulate in their observations of cultural differences in workplace and social etiquette. They hint obliquely at loneliness, and though reluctant, at first, to say so, admit to difficulties adjusting to life away from home. They eat everything on their plates, ask for seconds, and drink all the wine.

We finish lunch well past the appointed hour and head out for a walking tour of the Les Halles neighborhood, a center of culinary supply stores in the city. At a spice shop, we all buy bottles of tonka beans. Valrhona chocolate and caramels from Brittany are the hit at Georges Detou, a shop frequented by the city's bakers. Knives are on sale at Kitchen Bazaar, and at Dehillerin, La Chef's salesperson pulls out an enormous electric crepier for making crepes. It requires seasoning, and the large round cooking surface must be rubbed smooth over time with a stone. I'm curious if the stone is part of the package. This elicits a roar of laughter from La Chef and her salesperson. I chuckle along, having survived the cheese and wine blunders.

We say our good-byes near the Palais Royal, and since La Chef and I are heading in the same direction across the river, she invites me to take the bus with her. It's a magical time of the day, near sunset, and with the angle of light, the rooftops seem to glow. The Musee d'Orsay even looks as if it has a thin layer of snow on the roof--impossible, since it's in the seventies today.

On the ride home, we talk about family. La Chef tells me of her ex-husband's tragic Polish background, and I bring her up to date on my partner's slow but steady recovery from knee surgery two years ago. I feel an unexpected intimacy beginning to bud, and as we step off the bus and exchange la bise--the French air kiss--our cheeks actually meet, and I think to myself, "I'm making a new friend."

[dedicated to Felicity, Jeff, and Michael;
above, strikers in Romans, France]
On the day we'd planned for shoe shopping--Tuesday 4 October 2005--France went on strike. Schools closed, rail and bus service was interrupted, and many workplaces, private and public, closed in sympathy. In big cities like Paris and Marseilles, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, wearing costumes and face paints and carrying banners calling for the protection of jobs and benefits.

The small town of Romans in southeastern France, where we were headed, is an old tanning community situated on the banks of the Isere River. It's been a shoemaking town for centuries and has become a popular destination for city shoppers looking for good bargains on designer shoes. They head into town on their way back to Paris from Mediterranean and skiing vacations, or like us, take the high-speed TGV from Paris--a short, two-hour trip each way.

In a peculiar arrangement, the striking unions agreed not to completely disrupt bus and train service on the Ile de France, where Paris is (as they did a few days later in Belgium), or to target TGV traffic. So our train left on schedule. Once in Romans, we ate small ravioles for lunch, a specialty of the town, in a small restaurant, the structure of which dates back to the eleventh century. After lunch, we bought our shoes at the bargain-basement prices we'd come for.

On the way back to the car from our last stop, we heard a loud voice over a microphone shouting, "Down with Villepin [the prime minister]! We've had enough!" Romans was on strike. Marchers of all stripes walked slowly through the streets of town, halting traffic and bringing out shopkeepers and bystanders to watch. Old and young marched, men and women, even a poodle. In times of rising unemployment and other economic pressures, French workers are worried about the push toward increasing privatization, pension and health-care cuts, and other loosenings of the social contract between the French government and French citizens.

To many Americans traveling in France, the strike of 4 October was a pesky inconvenience. And, we tend to think of western Europeans as a coddled lot, with an economic and social safety net we can't even imagine. Yet, as I watched an entire town turn out to make a stand for their rights, I felt a shiver of admiration for the soul of a community, which instinctively recognizes that economic and social policy--though perhaps neutral in the abstract--bears ethical and moral weight. The French may lose their safety net, but they won't have done so without a public outcry.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Crossing the rue de Rennes this morning on my way to catch the Metro, I catch sight of the Montparnasse tower to my left. Early morning mist shrouds the building, which ordinarily dominates the neighborhood. I join the workaday commuting crowd, on my way to the Thursday market at the Place de la Bastille--my first day on the job as La Chef's assistant.

The market is one of the largest in the city and offers everything from fresh seafood to duck and rabbit, from breads, cheeses, spices, and dark grapes from Provence to scarves, tee-shirts, and thread. We buy fresh sorrel, mint, and tarragon, grapes, a small piece of parmiggiano, two whole-wheat baguettes, three renne de rennettes apples, and a bouquet of assorted flowers. The six students--three women from California, two sisters from Atlanta, and a Canadian photographer from Vancouver--snap photographs. My job is to pull up the rear, filling up the little chariot with provisions chosen by La Chef from her favorite vendors. Much of La Chef's shopping for her classes is done in advance, and she keeps basic supplies on hand in large quantities. Five pounds of Valrhona bar chocolate are in her pantry on any given day. So today, we buy only the last minute necessities, stopping at a neighborhood wine shop for two bottles of Sancerre (from the Loire Valley) on the way home.

La Chef works out of her home, which was once part of a large jeweler's shop. Her kitchen is spacious and bright--a Parisian luxury-- with two French windows opening onto the courtyard below. Each student, including me, dons a large white apron in preparation for cooking, and La Chef begins to explain the day's menu. Since it's autumn, we'll start with a pumpkin soup. The next course will be a mushroon and cheese souffle. For the main course, it's a modified coq au vin and a veal dish with greens. The dessert is to be a chocolate tart with caramelized apples.

I am assigned the chore of cleaning greens, tedious work, since greens in France come with the dirt they were raised in, so a lot of rinsing is required. And, La Chef is worse than I in the kitchen--she uses every utensil in sight, and she has a lot of them, so I'm kept busy washing knives, bowls and measuring cups, saucepans, roasting pans, electric mixers, an impressive grater called a rasp, spatulas, cutting boards, even the French equivalent of Tupperware containers.

The students chop herbs to make a bouquet garni for the coq au vin, they grate cheese for the souffle, chop apples for the tart. On the stove, the chicken and veal cook slowly in wine in their separate cocottes, while the pumpkin simmers in homemade chicken stock. I do the odd job here and there, melting chocolate, separating eggs, and reach up to the top shelves to retrieve sundry items for La Chef. She seems to think I'm exceptionally tall, and we laugh when I explain that I live in the land of the Vikings, where many women tower over me.

In a group of this size, I realize I'm there to help with the social aspect too. La Chef invites me to talk of the day trip my father and I took earlier in the week to the shoe town of Romans, which lies on the Isere River to the southeast of Paris. The bargains for top designer shoes--Clergerie and Manoukian--get everyone's attention, and pens come out of purses to take down all the details. I start to feel like a bit of an expert.

Eventually, the entire meal comes together, and we sit down at the large oak table in the center of the room to begin the feast. We toast La Chef and move in relaxed succession from one course to the next. I'm especially entranced with the soup. We serve it in small glasses, sprinkling chopped parsley, shaved parmiggiano, and two single threads of chives on top of each one. La Chef says, "Presentation is everything."

We mop up the juices of the coq au vin with bread. La Chef shows us how to do this with a fork--for polite company--but we all give up and use our fingers instead. Soon, we've come to dessert, and as I eat my piece of tart, I look to see if there's any more left. There isn't, and I'm disappointed. I'll have to make this for my father. That way, we can each have a very large piece, and I'll feel satiated.

Coffee follows dessert, contact information is exchanged, good-byes are said. I must have done a good job--La Chef invites me to come again on Saturday, and I say yes.

Monday, October 03, 2005

It's a big week ahead. I have my first cooking class on Thursday! We're going to meet at the big outdoor market at the Bastille, on the right bank of the Seine. The menu isn't planned yet, so we'll see what La Chef has in mind on the day itself. I'll be chopping and dicing and doing dishes, and afterward, I'm invited to help with some socializing. I think La Chef likes me; she's started to call me "ma chere," which is quite an endearment.

In the meantime, the French national railroad is on strike tomorrow, which is, of course, the day we're supposed to head to Romans on the fast TGV to buy luxury shoes at the various discount shops in the town. We trekked over to the big Montparnasse railroad station this morning to see if we could find out if our train will be cancelled or not (two out of three trains will, in fact, be running; they just don't tell you which ones). The young blond man who helped us at the station was very handsome and bestowed his winning smile quite liberally. So, though the information he shared was mostly vague, we felt attended to. We'll see what happens tomorrow.

This afternoon, I'm dragging my father to the Luxembourg gardens to make a short film with my new digital camera. He doesn't like cities, he doesn't like crowds, and yet, he loves Paris and the crowds who gather every day at the park. He's been coming here for more than forty years, and when he dies, he says he expects us to scatter his ashes in the park. I want to get him to talk on film about his love for the park. We'll laugh as we watch it while he's alive, and we'll weep after his ashes have settled into the garden soil.

(the Paris kitchen, above)

Sitting in the little Paris kitchen in our apartment (it's a stretch to say it's 8 x 5), I wait for the fresh figs to bake and think back to Chef Jean-Claude Gramond's first trip to the United States. Chef Gramond has a farm in the Vosges region of eastern France, and with his wife, Jeannine, runs a small restaurant in Paris on the rue de Fleurus, within a stone's throw of the Luxembourg Gardens and just around the corner from our apartment. Stepping into the restaurant is to walk into another world. French presidents, bishops, and other world dignitaries once frequented the restaurant, and the Gramonds live in a small house on the premises. The restaurant has only six tables, a fish tank by the door, and a legendary wine cellar.

Chef Gramond is trained classically. At this time of year, autumn, he serves mostly wild game, turning up his nose at farm-raised varieties and selecting only the truly "sauvage" specimens. The figs I'm waiting for tonight are to accompany the duck breast I'm grilling from the neighborhood butcher. I'm trying to re-create the meal the Gramonds served to us last week.

The Gramonds have a son who has lived in Connecticut for many years. He's raised his children there and is now officially an American citizen, a fact of which his parents are proud. Chef Gramond gets a faraway look in his eyes when he remembers his first venture to the United States as a young man. He speaks with the peculiar longing of nostalgia when he recalls flying over the Great Lakes through skies so clear he could see the topography below. He tells us of traveling the western United States, a classic road trip, stopping at little roadside motels for the night and visiting Las Vegas and Los Angeles--the iconic America.

He asks me what I do for a living and when I tell him that I'm in children's educational publishing, he seems to think I'm in the trenches, battling forces of social decay, which he sees all around him in France. I comment that we in the United States also have difficulties in education and in defining the family, but he inserts a corrective. "Yes, but you are a big nation. Everything is possible there."

I reflect yet again on national character, on the marvels of the American imagination and its forward orientation. Yet, we admire the French for preserving classical traditions and for their steadfast hold on the riches of the past. I tell Chef Gramond that I respect him for these traits, and he thanks me.

My duck with figs turns out to be what my father describes as a "marvelous failure." It looks beautiful on the platter and smells scrumptious, but the duck is a little overdone and needs more seasoning. The figs aren't sweet enough (La Chef tells me on the phone later that it's because the fig season is over), and the sauce is too thin. But, I'll try again. Everything is possible.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Last night, we went to the Palais Garnier to see "Le Parc" (The Park), a ballet by French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj. Preljocaj's "Ceci est mon Corps" (This is my body), a reflection on the biblical text, had left me in tears last year. An exploration of faith and trust in the face of despair and danced to the rhythms of shattering glass and gunfire, the performance had hit a nerve exposed by my mother's recent death.

This year, I anticipated something different, lighter in fact, since "Le Parc" was to be danced to Mozart. The live orchestra started with a short adagio in C major, luring me to think I had been correct in my assumption. But Preljocaj's familiar thematic strains quickly surfaced: the tensions between the forces of light and dark, between social constraints and individual longings, between hope and despair. Mozart was balanced against the whine of tape-recorded jet engines; dark-leather clad automatons moved in counterpoint to demoiselles in 17th-century finery, and elaborate courtship rituals were stripped down in the penultimate act to a near-naked love-making pas de deux. The twosome's dance is called "L'Abondon" (Abandon). The pair moved to the haunting simplicity of the andante from Mozart's piano concerto number 23, spinning across the stage as if to rise up off the floor, freed from the pull of gravity.

I was wrong. This wasn't light fare at all. The andante was the single disk on my mother's CD player on the day she died, and here, at the Palais Garnier, I wept for her, for the loneliness at the end of her life, and, in the hope that she, like the spinning lovers, has been freed.

As planned, we met up with La Chef and three visiting Americans after the performance and walked through the streets together to a nearby brasserie for drinks. Talk among the six of us stayed mainly on demographics as we learned about jobs, family life, and the details of our various Parisian experiences. Eventually, we paired off, and I found myself with Barbara, an urban East Coast real-estate broker. She looked at me finally and asked, somewhat hesitantly, "Did you like the dance?" Thinking of the sodden handkerchief in my purse, I replied, "Oh, yes! I was in tears at the end. Did you like it?" Barbara sighed. "Well," she said. "You know, to be honest, I prefer something more like...... 'Swan Lake.' "

We continued to the brasserie and ordered drinks, chatting about pets and grandchildren, and separating around midnight to go our separate ways to our temporary homes in the city.