Friday, October 29, 2010

Au Revoir

I’ve been home for a week. The reverse culture shock is beginning to wane, and I’m starting to remember what life in the States is all about. My reintroduction wasn’t pleasant on the American Airlines plane due to the bad food, loud Americans, and rude flight attendants – one of them even spilled water on my head... On top of that I came home to a broken furnace which could result in a whole new heating system for the house. It was, however, great to see Lisa in Portland right after I got back who also had Buckley. He was soooo excited to see me. I saw a couple of friends in Seattle, and then got on the plane again to visit Meggie in Utah. Being with family is making the transition easier especially when they let you blab on for hours and hours about France.

I was having baguette withdrawals when I got back, so I went to the grocery store and bought one of the “high end” baguettes called the Parisienne. It was barely edible. Rather than continue to be disappointed with bad bread and cheese, I began to remember what things Americans do well. I had a killer cocktail at Mint in Portland called a Velvet (orange rum, blueberry puree, and cream) and a mind-boggling grilled cheese from the Grilled Cheese Grill. It was called The Jalepeno Popper with roasted jalapenos, colby jack, cream cheese, and tortilla chips. And of course, I had a few of the rich and creamy lattes in Seattle which will brighten anyone’s day.

I can always continue to cook French food as well, especially since I have an arsenal of French women who are eagerly waiting to send recipes and advice. I fully intend to take advantage too. The only things I brought back from France were clothes and food. The things I decided I couldn’t live without were real Dijon mustard that makes you cry when eaten by the teasponful, lentilles du Puy that get their unique taste from the climate and volcanic ash they’re grown in, sucre roux which I only ended up with after a long search to find a substitute for brown sugar, gros sel which are the big fat crystals of sea salt (bigger than Kosher salt), the more refined fleur de sel, the yummy ginger biscuit spread Speculoos, more Bernachon chocolate, and some rillettes – the regional specialty of the Tourraine. Unfortunately I couldn’t figure out a way to bring back the butter packed with crystals of sea salt which makes me melt every time I think about spreading it on a big crusty piece of bread.

More than the food though, I will miss all the people I met in France. I am sure some of us will keep in touch for the rest of our lives. Everyone was friendly, warm, and welcoming. They were eager to help and show me their country. And for everyone I’m returning to in the States, thanks for reading the blog. It was fun to write and a bonus to know that you enjoyed reading it. I will obviously miss life in France, but as my host mom Barbara said, “Il y aura toujours un avion à prendre pour revenir.” (There will always be a plane to come back.) So then, gros bisous et à bientôt!

Mon Départ

I spent my last night in Paris at Sylvia’s apartment so that it would be easy for her boyfriend, Simon, to drive me to the airport in the morning. Unfortunately (and in true French fashion) his car broke down that evening, so I was going to have to take the metro and the RER. No problem. The metros had been running normally regardless of the SNCF strike. Sylvia also checked the website, and there were no reports of any disruptions. She even offered to take the same RER line with me on her way to school.

We had a leisurely petit-dejeuner and got on the metro with my much-heavier-than-before rucksack. Then the problems started. We made the change to the RER, but it was only going to Gare du Nord, not the airport. At Gare du Nord, we eventually figured out that I was going to have to take the tramway and only a third of them were running due to the strike. Sylvia took me to the platform, but then had to say a rushed goodbye to head to school.

The whole world was waiting for the same train as me, and everyone’s nerves were on edge. As soon as it arrived the pushing began, and it was difficult to hold back the crowds to let the arriving people off. Luckily I managed to get on the train. People were pushing and yelling. I was wedged in at an awkward angle with my rucksack weighing down on my shoulders. It was hot and claustrophobic. I had to remind myself to stay calm and take deep breaths. The trip was long, and by this time I started thinking I might miss my flight. At one point I had to get off the train to make room for others that needed to exit. I almost didn’t make it back on, and some people couldn’t even get off the train at their stops because they were wedged in so tightly.

I made it to the airport five minutes before boarding time. When I arrived at the check-in counter I wasn’t surprised to hear the woman tell me that I was too late, and I would have to go to the ticket purchasing counter for a new ticket. I walked over and had just put down my bag for the first time in two hours when the same woman came running up and told me to follow her. Luckily, a lot of people were in the same situation as me so they allowed us all to check in and run to the gate. I couldn’t believe it and was even a little sad. I wouldn’t have been disappointed to extend my trip a couple days...

They were still boarding when I made it to the gate. Ayumi called me right before I walked on the plane, so I was able to say goodbye to her and two of my professors one last time. I had to hold back tears as I walked on. I called Maryse as I sat on the plane to let her know I made it and say goodbye again. Jerome called just as I was hanging up with Maryse to say goodbye too. The plane somehow left on time. I was completely flustered and sad. I already miss everyone I’m leaving behind in France. This will be a difficult return to Seattle.


My week in Paris was fabulous because I got to spend time with one of my best friends that I grew up with in Saudi Arabia. Sylvia is in her second year of a Masters program in film, but she’s lived in Paris for five years. We haven’t been able to spend more than a couple days or even a couple hours together from time to time since I was 12. When I arrived, we picked up right where we left off and it was as if we had never been apart. It only could’ve been better if Meggie were there too. Sylvia even let me come to two of her film classes. The first was a film history class where we discussed the works of David Lynch. The second was a viewing of Apocalypse Now Redux with an introduction given by the editor, Sean Cullen, who is also the new editing teacher at the school.

I did see some of the sites while I was in the city as well, and made sure to partake in the excellent restaurants, patisseries, and chocolate shops. I had an excellent hotel in the St-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, and the price was unheard of - only 55euros a night!

I got to spend time with Sylvia’s French boyfriend as well. Simon is a gentle giant who drives celebrities and models around the city all day for work. His real passion though is his band that travels a lot for concerts. He was also a model for about six years, and Sylvia showed me his portfolio regardless of his protests.

My favorite culinary experiences in the city were pastries from Ladurée, falafel from L’As Du Falafel, Henri Le Roux's CBS caramels, Bernachon chocolate, and roasted chestnuts from the street vendors.

My overall feeling of the city was that it was huge and international. I was shocked at how much English I heard (as well as other languages). It was very different from the rest of France that I visited. Everyone I spoke with was nice, and I was very happy to be able to speak some French. Even though I heard a lot more English, I think the visit would’ve been difficult without knowing some French.


After leaving Tours, I headed to Bourges to visit my 3rd cousin. My great-grandmother was French but immigrated to the US after meeting my great-grandfather during WWI. My cousin, Maryse, is the daughter of my great-grandmother’s brother (there was a large age gap between the siblings). Maryse lives in Bourges, which is about 2 hours East of Tours and 2 hours South of Paris (both by slow train, not TGV). I was 3 years old the last time I saw her, so although I had always wanted to reconnect with her, I was a little anxious to meet her again.

Maryse, unfortunately, broke her leg in the spring. She is still not able to get around very well, and uses canes or a wheelchair. She lives alone but has very good friends who stop by the house everyday to help out. I was able to meet most of them during the five days I was in Bourges. Since Maryse couldn’t take me on a tour of the city, her friends acted as tour guide in her place. Her friends Annick, Serge, and their son, Jerome, did a lot for me during my stay. They drove me around town, gave me numerous tours of the city, and took me out to restaurants (Saxo the dog got to come too!). Maryse, of course, accompanied us whenever there wasn’t too much walking involved.

The minute I got to Maryse’s house from the station, I was immediately family. She talked a mile a minute with her friend, Annick. I hadn’t been there five minutes when she told me I ought to marry Annick’s son, Jerome, because Maryse is his godmother and then we would all be a family! She was always happy, always smiling, and she talked a lot! I generally understood about half of what she said, but it was always fun.

We ate a lot of food and drank a lot of wine. Maryse took me to les Marais, which is a huge network of gardens owned by the habitants of Bourges. Each garden is seperated by water, and everyone takes old wooden boats to get to their gardens.

Annick and Serge took me to the cathedral, and we climbed the 373 stairs to the top.

Jerome took me to museums and walked around town with me. We even got a look at the manifestation. On my last full day we all took a drive into the countryside where we visited a village of potters. The funniest part of my visit was when Maryse would tell me I was skinny and then pinch my shoulder, elbow, or knee. My best memory of the trip was when Maryse taught me how to make mayonnaise.

The craziest experience I had was visiting Jerome’s school where he is a teacher. When I arrived in Bourges he and his mom picked me up at the train station. I hadn’t been off the train for a whole minute before he asked me if I wanted to visit his school. I said, “Why not?!” Then the night before my visit, he explained what to expect at the school. I was surprised to learn that I would actually be presented to the students in his two classes so that they could ask me questions about the U.S.! He handed me a piece of paper with a little bio of myself and a list of questions to expect. Luckily, the English teacher had prepared them for me in English, but I was expected to respond in French as much as possible. Jerome reassured me that the students were very nice and I had nothing to be nervous about. The experience turned out to be really fun. The students were indeed nice and asked a lot of questions. They wanted to know which French celebrities I knew and which French brand names are available in the U.S. They were shocked when I told them I worked a minimum of 40 hours a week at Boeing and that I only had 10 days of vacation each year. When I told them I was going to Paris next they told me what I should visit, and then tried to convince the teachers that they should all get to spend a day in Paris with me. It didn’t end up working out, but it was really cute. I was totally shocked, but afterwards Jerome told me that my visit to the school was going to be in Bourges’ local paper! I was even more shocked when it actually appeared a couple days later.

I was really sad to leave Maryse. Due to the strike going on she was very worried about me getting to Paris. She and Annick dropped me off at the station, and even found a woman who was going to Paris and asked her to keep an eye on me. I had to take a bus first, and Maryse told the bus driver that her “little American” was going to Paris and to take good care of me. I hope to return soon!

Apartments in Tours

***written a few weeks ago***

I’m on the train yet again traveling through the French countryside on my way to Bourges. This time, my stomach is in knots. It was much more difficult to leave Tours this time. The two and a half months I spent there was truly a rich experience for me. I was lucky to have the opportunity to live with two different women, Martine and Barbara. Although they are colleagues and friends, they are quite different. Their differences are apparent in the way they keep their apartments.

Martine lives in the heart of Tours in a square called La Place de la Résistance. It’s a five minute walk to the medieval quartier of Tours (which is also where my school was). Her apartment is on the 4th floor of a building that was built after WWII due to it being in an area that had been bombed. The building was constructed with the traditional façade of limestone walls (truffeau) and a grey roof.

The apartment has old hardwood floors that creak, marble fireplaces, crown molding in the salon, and beautiful enormous windows that somehow always manage to find a breeze.

The kitchen is the traditional French style (i.e. tiny) with a door, and there are two bedrooms. Martine loves antiques, so everything in the apartment is old and mismatched, which creates an overall laidback feeling. The walls are covered in her artwork, her friends artwork, and photos of her family and friends.

The bathroom has an old bathtub with feet, a handheld sprayer, and no curtain. It took a little get used to, and I still managed to spray the floors from time to time. Her bathroom is also littlered with perfume bottles and pretty shopping bags from stores like Hermès.

The apartment is very cozy and very Martine.

Barbara lives in a completely different part of town. She and her son, Nans, live in the quartier Giraudeau, in the SW part of Tours. It’s a thirty minute walk to my school from the apartment, but I had the opportunity to walk through more neighborhoods in Tours that I otherwise would have never seen. It’s a much more modern part of town with a much more diverse group of people. Most of her neighbors are either French or North African.

The building is small with stores on the first floor facing the street, and two floors of apartments on the back side. It sort of looks like a concrete shoebox. The building was surrounded by high rise apartments on all sides. There was actually grass, a playground, and big trees where a huge flock of birds lived and chirped at all hours of the day. It was much quieter and peaceful (although the noise at Martine’s was never a problem, just different).

The apartment has three bedrooms, one bathroom, a salon, and a kitchen. The kitchen is une cuisine americaine which means it has no door.

Everything in the apartment was much more modern. All the windows were new double pane windows with outdoor blinds that opened and closed with the push of a button. The salon, Barbara’s bedroom, and Nans’ bedroom all had french doors and a balcony. The floors were all laminate, and all the rooms were whitewashed except for one pink wall. Barbara is a bit more computer savvy, so there was wi-fi in the apartment, as well as a printer, and cable TV. I hadn’t watched any French TV when I arrived at her place, so it was a new experience for me. French TV has a reputation of being horrible, and I can now say that I agree. Most of it consists of bad American series and films dubbed in French. All the décor in the apartment was also more modern with an Ikea-ish style.

The apartment also came with two pets! There was Valine the doxen and Caroline the tortue. Valine liked lounging on the Tintin sheets on my bed. Caroline preferred to sleep in a dark corner in the kitchen. When the weather was warm enough, she'd emerge and I'd find her in a different corner.

The bathroom was also more modern. There was a shower curtain, and I had the option of standing up to shower!

Overall it was a really comfortable apartment, and I’ll miss it.

It was fun to experience both living styles because they were so different. With each host mom I was also able to meet their families and see how they lived. I will miss them both very much!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fièvre des Champignons

Autumn in France is mushroom season, and everyone, including me, is excited. Whether you talk to a teacher, a butcher, or the guy who drives a scooter around town vacuuming up dog poop (yes he exists...) they will all have something to say about mushroom hunting. Where to find mushrooms and what types grow in your region is common knowledge here. Not only that, but a French person can tell you what type of mushroom grows under which tree and will then rattle off a dozen recipes for cooking the mushrooms. Don’t expect someone to give you the coordinates of their favorite spot though. The best locations are kept secret and passed down through the generations like a family heirloom.

Mushroom hunting is also a risky business, but fret not, you can take all the mushrooms you find to a local pharmacist who will tell you which are edible and which are deadly... Many of the pharmacies have posters in the windows right now with descriptions of the local fungi. Even the local shops are getting in on the fun displaying all the essentials: mushroom knives with little brooms on the handles, books, and compasses.

I’ve been waiting patiently (except for a little pouting last week) for Martine to take me on a hunt, and finally, the day arrived last Saturday. She and I drove into the country after lunch. I was dressed sensibly for the forest in my Mizuno trail runners, Patagonia hiking pants, and rustic sweater. Martine was also dressed sensibly for the forest in a beautiful brown wool (possibly cashmere) turtleneck, brown leggings, and brown riding boots.

We drove about 30 minutes until we saw a trail on the side of the road marked ‘public’ and pulled over. One has to be careful not to get caught collecting mushrooms on private land. This time of year there are “mushroom rangers” patrolling the woods, and if you’re caught in the wrong place you have to hand your mushrooms over to the ranger who then has a lovely dinner that night. Luckily all the woods are marked clearly.

Once in the woods, I found a lot of mushrooms. Unfortunately, most of them were poisonous. Martine could point out right away whether or not they were edible, and had an excellent eye for spotting the little guys. The mushrooms we were looking for were les cèpes, and she found the first one. She found three more before I found my first (and only) one, but it was gorgeous! We didn’t find any more cèpes after that, but we did find wild apples and collected a few. We drove around a bit more and found all sorts of goodies on the side of the road. We found a walnut tree (which may or may not have been private), blackberries, and wild pears!

We returned back to her apartment with our bounty. We had just enough cèpes to serve them with dinner. Martine cooked a turkey leg with potatoes, and she sautéed the mushrooms in butter and garlic. She even threw together a quick apple tart. Ayumi and Pierre joined us for dinner as well. Good company, good food, formidable!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Bien Vivre

My host mom, Barbara, ironed ALL my clothes (including my jeans and pajamas) yesterday, and in the evening she showed me how to make a soufflé. Could life be any better?

Friday, September 24, 2010


Martine and her friends enjoy having dinner parties from time to time, but rather than slaving away in the kitchen preparing extravagant meals, they keep it simple. The first get-together was a Soirée Crêpe. We went over to Martine's friend's house, Laticia, who owns a Maxi Crêpe! It's a large electric griddle with seven circular indents on the surface for making the crêpes. It's placed in the middle of the dining table surrounded by all the toppings. First we made crêpes salées with chevre, ham, and gruyere (if I remember was awhile ago). Each person is given a little wodden spatula to flip and remove their crêpes. As soon as they're removed, Laticia would add more batter to our divet. As we ate, we'd also be flipping and adding toppings to our crêpes on the Maxi Crêpe. Halfway through we switched to crêpes sucrée. We had honey, brown sugar, butter, chestnut spread, peanut butter (!), nutella, and jam for toppings. My personal favorite was Breton style: honey, brown sugar, and butter.

Laticia and her Maxi Crêpe

The second gathering was last night. Barbara hosted a Soirée Raclette and invited Martine, Ayumi, Laticia, and Laticia's daughter, Valentine. Barbara owns an electric raclette, also known as a raclonette. The raclonette is an electric griddle with two layers. On the first layer, there are slots for six little wedge shaped spatulas. You put your cheese on the spatula and then put the spatula on the hot raclonette to melt it. The top layer is also hot and you can put anything up there that you want to cook or keep warm. Barbara placed a dish of potatoes on her's. A special cheese is used for the raclette called fromage à raclette. While your cheese is melting you pile your plate full of charcuterie and potatoes, and then dribble the melted cheese over everything. Everyone eats four or five pieces of cheese, so there is a constant cycle of cheese melting and then eating a little.

The raclette électrique or raclonette with cheese melting on the spatulas and the potatoes being kept warm on top.

My plate with charcuterie, potatoes covered in the melted cheese, and more slices of cheese waiting to be melted.