It’s Getting to Be That Time of Year

Written by kvfawcett on December 23, 2010 – 11:29 am -

It’s getting to be the time of year when family and friends ask what I’d like for the holidays. When I respond love, peace, health and happiness, I’m told that’s not the right answer—not an answer at all. When I told my granddaughters that I didn’t want them to fight, they responded in unison, “We can’t give you that, Gran,” as they hugged the other.

My other answer tends to be “nothing.” My take is that gifts shouldn’t be given (or exchanged) on a specific day. Unless a child’s bubble will burst because he or she would definitely know there’s no Santa or Père Noël, my philosophy is presents should be given when you see something that someone would love or really needs.

Leaving out the fact that many of my friends are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever, December has become the ho-ho-ho month of giving—and Christmas, which has become generic rather than religious, is simply our largest commercial festival. So, as I listen to Christmas carols, here’s a list of what I’d like to receive, merci. Hey, I can dream like everyone else!

First on my list would be a yearlong pass on Open Skies.  That way, I could hop on a flight between Paris and Washington, DC, wherever I felt the urge. Even though I do travel between the two cities frequently, I’m having a mini-guilt attack that I missed Grandparents’ Day at my 7-year-old’s school. That’s an example of when the Kodak moment, now e-mailed, is not quite the same as being there.

So here’s the rest of my wish list—and forgive me if it’s not in logical or alphabetical order. Holidays and birthdays have that type of impact on me. On the other hand…

I do love chocolate, and having tasted and tested more than my fair share, those from zChocolat have a special place in my heart. One of the company’s slogans isA single bite is an instant of pure seduction and sensory bliss one has never experienced before.” You know, the French really do have a hard time getting to the point—or writing advertising copy. But their stuff does make me weak in the knees.

I’ll never forget the day Born to Shop Suzy Gershman and I agreed to be chocolate guinea pigs. We drove to Aix and sampled so many that we finally yelled ça suffit! Not only are these chocolates you’ll never forget, but also J-P (who owns zChocolat) is a genius when it comes to packaging. Perhaps I’ll have a box made this year for my son and daughter-in-law; the box will have a photo of their daughters, two of the loves of my life.

That was the day (or one of the many) that we got lost, so a Garmin GPS would have come in more than handy. Suzy and I were always taking off in pursuit of cookware of all types and we amassed quite a collection. Perhaps if we had the perfect pots, we’d become accomplished chefs. It’s a doubly good excuse—to shop and not to cook.

Those were the days before you could download cookbooks on a Kindle but we’re both converts now. For people who haven’t made the jump to the i-Pad (I’m waiting for the price to come down before adding it to my wish list), the Kindle is a great solution.

Another gift I’d give my travel-holic friends is a MedjetAssist policy. This is a service that guarantees to transport you to the hospital of your choice if you’re away from home and get sick. As much as I love France and French medicine, friends from the U.S. want to be able to return to States in the event of being in medical extremis.

On the cheerier side: gift certificates to restaurants from Ideal Gourmet make ideal presents for so many occasions.

What do I really want this year? I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d be more than delighted to spend more than a few nights at various hotels. The elevator in my apartment building is going to be redone and it’s going to take six weeks.  Walking up five steep flights of stairs will do nothing but good things for my weight and lord knows I won’t need a gym.

Still, I wouldn’t mind spending some nights at a hotel or three in many places throughout the world. I grew up reading Kay Thompson’s Eloise at the Plaza and wanted to live in a hotel where I could call room service. The Meurice or L’Hôtel would certainly fit the bill. If I wanted to stick closer to home, I’ve always wanted to stay at Hôtel des Academies et des Arts which is considerably less expensive!

This is some of what I want—and you may want as well.  Feel free to ship them to me, even if they arrive a few days late. The French tradition of giving étrennes on New Year’s Day gives everybody an extra week.

And what would you like? Let us know because you never can tell what good things may happen if you just ask.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC

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Posted in Paris |

Living in Paris for Too Long?

Written by kvfawcett on December 23, 2010 – 11:26 am -

Wait, there’s no such thing as living in Paris for too long. Anyway, that’s my opinion.  Anyone who reads Bonjour Paris is aware I’ve been a champion of its positives for so many years that I feel as if the French government should be employing me. At the very least, it should give me a medal. A Légion d’Honneur would be acceptable, but I’d never be so presumptuous.

Paris isn’t perfect, but it’s always pretty good. UNESCO, suffering from too long a diet of Parisian cuisine, wants to declare French cooking a World Heritage… thing, I guess. Next, we can start looking for monumental bronzes of blanquette de veau, navarin d’agneau, and moules marinière strewn here and there around the city to reflect—or gloat at—the honor. Any city has its frustrations and annoyances, but France is filled with so many good things beyond its food that I always look at it with something like stars, or maybe they’re tears of joy, in my eyes.

I’m writing from Washington, D.C., where my family and friends gathered for Thanksgiving. As expatriates know, being with family takes on a very significant meaning the longer you’ve been away from where you were born, grew up or where your nuclear family resides.

When I moved to France in 1988 (for six months that morphed into 13 months and then…), seeing family and friends was no big deal. Invite and they would appear—and more often than one might really want when there were deep-discounted airfare wars so Americans could travel to Paris, often for less that $300 round trip, including taxes, but excluding TSA knows-all-sees-all screenings or security pat-downs.

My son would come to Paris at the drop of a hat and an issued ticket. My mother even arrived one year with a Butterball turkey defrosting in the cargo department because those were the days when it was impossible to buy a large enough bird to feed our friends for Thanksgiving dinner.

Since then, times have changed. Family members have died and dynamics have shifted. My son and his wife have two perfect daughters, and transporting this mob isn’t so easy, plus the cost isn’t insignificant. The children also have other grandparents and interests that have nothing to do with strolling around the Luxembourg Garden. Expats can either decide to miss out or take their turn to pick up and make the reverse commute, whether it’s transatlantic or simply flying across the continent.

Much to my surprise, it’s hard to avoid culture shock no matter how frequently you go from one place to the other, and this even holds true when assembling this traditional family meal where you’d feel guilty if you were to serve roast beef.

What’s the most striking when you live in France versus the U.S. is that a fresh turkey costs 89 cents per pound (if you have a grocery store loyalty card) and one trip does it all. The cranberries and all of the fixings were in the same area and I didn’t need to go to four stores to find what was needed to serve the crowd.

I certainly needed a car to get the many (too many) bags home, but come to think of it, if I’d been in Paris, the groceries could have been delivered whereas relatively few chain grocery stores offer that service unless you order online, and somehow that doesn’t feel right for such an important meal.

If you’re the type of cook I am, you have to meet the turkey (even through it’s wrapped in plastic) before making the commitment to stuff the bird and spend part of the day basting and making two different types of potatoes, corn bread, cranberry sauce—and that’s just the beginning.

Living away from the U.S. causes you to forget the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the dirigibles or are they blimps or very large blow-up dollies? The thing that has shocked me the most is the Black Friday phenomenon. I haven’t been away from the U.S. so long that I do remember the day after Thanksgiving has traditionally been the kick-off date for Christmas shopping, but it seems to have acquired a new and malign branding, as if a holiday itself. Shop or else! Line up at three in the morning! Trample the slowpokes!  Sounds a little like bayonet training.

However, having stores open at midnight is news to me. In recent years, Wal-Mart would open before dawn, but now everything is discounted and how. Winter sales in France don’t begin until January 12th, so don’t think you can get away without paying retail for gifts that are going to be delivered by St. Nicholas, Santa or an emissary. And now that people walk around with electronic devices that can surf the internet such as an iPhone, iPod, Android, Blackberry or some other claptrap, the retailers are expecting you to say you’ve located the desire of your heart for six bucks less somewhere else and they’ll meet the lower price.

Even though the developed world is becoming more homogeneous, there are simply traditions that don’t change in one place contrasted to another.  Most people would consider that a plus, but it still takes more than a bit of compromising and adapting to different styles of living.

The one constant is that if you cook a turkey either in France or in the U.S. these days, there always seem to be leftovers. But I’m still convinced that born-and-bred-in-the-USA birds are fatter. The other constant is that no matter where this meal is served, the hosts leave the table wondering how so many dishes could have been used, and if they’re lucky enough to have a dishwasher, odds are that more than one load will be required if you’ve invited a crowd.

Even though I consider myself more than flexible, will I be continually confronted and feel a boomerang effect because of cultural differences.  Or will I be able to say, here is here and there is there?

(c) Paris New Media, LLC

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Posted in Paris |

How Times Have Changed When Talking Turkey in France

Written by kvfawcett on December 23, 2010 – 11:22 am -

Ah, it seems like yesterday, but it wasn’t. To be precise, it was twenty years ago. Being a good American, there was no way that I wasn’t going to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was the one holiday where we’d get together, eat too much, laugh and have a good time.

Of course, getting up at the crack of dawn in the U.S. so the bird would be ready before noon was kind of a pain, but Thanksgiving and the NFL football games went hand in hand. It seems distant now, but that was the way it was in those days when I lived in Washington.

After Victor and I moved into our new Paris apartment, we decided to invite our American friends to come and celebrate, which (for Americans) falls on the fourth Thursday of November unlike Canada where it falls on the second Monday of October. We included some French friends who thought it was more than a strange meal and a stranger ritual.

All I knew was that I was hell-bent on having a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. What I didn’t anticipate was that we could have gone to the most expensive restaurant in Paris and eaten for less than that dinner cost, but we wouldn’t have feasted on turkey—and please don’t say “so what?” In those days, it mattered.

Being of the Butterball generation, it didn’t occur to me that chemically treated über humongous birds simply didn’t exist in France. I went to the butcher only to be told that it was impossible to buy a turkey large enough to feed twenty people before Christmas.  Didn’t I understand these were free-range birds and weren’t going to grow large enough just because I wanted one?

OK, that was no problem. Being resourceful and being able to add, I ordered two turkeys. Defeat would not be mine. Oh, how I wish I hadn’t been able to add when the bill was presented. It was nearly $125. Were the birds stuffed with gold?

By the time the fixings were purchased (what do you mean one can of Ocean Spray cranberries costs $6?), it was time to contemplate taking out a loan. But defeat would not be mine: a tube of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce on a plate, with the marks from the can looking like ribs, is a sine qua non of Thanksgiving, particularly if no one eats it and it is thrown out whole.

I won’t bore you with what it cost to import enough pecans to make a sticky and gooey pie. It was sheer determination… defeat would not be mine. Ah, hmmm. That was until I picked up the fowl that morning only to realize there was zero way both could possibly fit in one oven, especially ours which was French and small.

That was the year of our becoming extremely friendly with the concierge of our building. We usurped that oven and shuttled up and down five floors so we could baste both turkeys. Each time we went down to the ground floor apartment, we took a bottle of wine. After all, that was only polite.

Dinner was a roaring success. In fact, it was the best Thanksgiving we ever had as twenty people were stuffed into our dining area, which usually seats eight.

I went to bed with a headache that night, undoubtedly from the stress of cooking for so many people and the fact that the guests each brought a lovely bottle of wine—and there was no way we could insult anyone by not drinking all of them.

Since this wasn’t a French holiday, dinner didn’t begin until 8 p.m. By the time it ended after midnight (thank goodness someone brought a bottle of first-rate cognac), I wondered how our guests were going to be able to work the next day.

But this being France, the only one who had a real hangover was I. And clearly it was due to the fact that I refused to go to bed until all of the dishes, glasses and silver were washed and put away.

Happily, Thanksgiving comes only once a year—it takes that long to recover. But that evening was one I’ll never forget.  Nor will our guests and the concierge who’s still talking about it:

Vivent les Américains (even if they are crazy).

(c) Paris New Media, LLC

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Posted in Paris |

Culture Shock of a Food Junkie

Written by kvfawcett on June 25, 2010 – 1:12 pm -

Some people gauge a country by its museums and monuments. Others gravitate to a place because of sand and surf. Many head to destinations based on what they can buy and bring home. None of these reasons is right or wrong. People travel for their own reasons—and that’s their business, not mine.

But no matter where I go—and I’m always ready to go anywhere, even to places where I can’t get a visa—there are always some must-sees after the usual major tourist attractions. You don’t come to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower any more than you go to Siem Reap in Cambodia and not visit Angkor Wat: granted, we know that.

After Notre Dame or the Luxembourg Garden, my list also includes places where people shop for food. Street market or supermarket, it’s all the same to me because we can learn a lot about a culture from the food people eat when they’re at home—in other words, the food for sale in the markets. The prices of groceries, from staples to produce to meat, can give some idea of the general condition of a country’s economy and a rough notion of how large a proportion of household income the locals are willing (or forced) to pay to feed themselves.

Perhaps my fascination (obsession?) with grocery stores began when I moved to Paris and didn’t speak French beyond bonjour, s’il vous plaît and merci. I was intimidated by the open markets where, if I touched a tomato, the vendor might slap my hand loudly saying, N’y touchez pas. I’d slink off and wonder if my cooking days were over and what were those cuts of beef and why did the chickens still have their heads on and no, I didn’t want it, merci.

I found solace in the Monoprix, where I could read the labels, take my time because there wasn’t someone else standing behind me and what do you mean, you have to bring your own bags and pack your purchases? I spent hours in that store on the Rue de Rivoli across from our apartment on the Place des Vosges. And I learned enough to grow confident in taking on the real markets.

This is true everywhere. You have to get used to the way food is displayed, priced, and used. Those elements after all are cultural, not universal. For example, Australian supermarkets are expensive even when buying local products such as fruit and cheese. I was surprised by the high cost of Australian beef. The wine is good, but (OK, I’m prejudiced) wines of comparable quality can be purchased for less in France.

Now, in Asia, I modify my list unless I’m in a grocery store that caters to foreigners. It’s not hard to identify them since they stock many items few locals would consider buying, and the stores generally have bigger grocery carts. There will be boxes of cereals and few Asians begin their days by eating Wheaties (“the breakfast of champions”) for their get up and go.

Rice is cheap according to Western standards. Not too many foreigners are searching for tiny portions of dried shrimp and other weird-looking items. If you crave peanut butter, chances are it’s going to set you back more than you want to pay unless you can’t do without a fix. Forget wine and opt for beer.

Obviously, no matter where I travel, I compare products with what I’m used to finding in France. But then, consciously or not, I inevitably compare shopping in France to shopping in the States. Parisian markets are for the most part much smaller than American grocery stores. If you want to go to a huge one, you’ll have to go to the suburbs to stock up, but without a car getting your purchases home presents a problem.

The good news is that Internet shopping has come to France, and local markets deliver. About once a month, I’ll order all the heavy stuff that I don’t have to look at—like bottled water, cleaning products, and wine. I know what they are—and let someone else lug them. I’d rather confine my daily shopping to produce, meat, fish, and my caloric downfall—cheese, glorious cheese. And then there’s the mainstay of life, bread. There’s nothing as good as a baguette that’s just come out of the oven, and please let me confine my croissant intake to a maximum of one a day.

When I lived in Washington, DC, I shopped at the same grocery store. Occasionally, I’d stray to the French Market but invariably was horrified by what I’d need to shell over at the check-out counter. The Georgetown Safeway (a.k.a. The Social Safeway) was the store of convenience and choice. When Washington was a village, I had to allow extra time to say hello to neighbors, friends, and parents from the school my son attended.

After being closed for a year, the former building has been replaced with a 71,067 square-foot one that’s state of the art everything and is “the greenest supermarket in the District of Columbia.” It has been built and will be maintained according to LEED Standards. There are even especially assigned parking places for cars that are fuel efficient like hybrids and electric cars. This is the ultimate in going green. And yes, you’re expected to bring your own bags—if not, each plastic bag costs five cents.

Who’d ever guess I’d experience total and absolute culture shock surrounded by produce, every type of food product and thousands of bottles of wine? And this wasn’t in an exotic destination where you’re not quite certain of what’s precisely being sold.

On May 6th the new Safeway had the grand opening the area’s residents were eagerly awaiting. People entered the store totally wide-eyed to be greeted by so many employees asking if they could help you, did you find everything and passing out samples. When I asked where the ladies room was, someone walked me to it and opened the door. I was fully expecting for them to enter the room with me and… never mind.

A guest from the U.K. accompanied me on one of my visits and was clearly overwhelmed by the size of the store and its vast selection. Choosing a cereal was enough to send him into a cold sweat. And what’s this about having a sommelier and a temperature-controlled wine room selling vintages that cost in excess of $100 per bottle.

Yes, this is an over-the-top store. Even the selection of flowers made me stop. When I ended up at the cheese counter that has an enormous selection, I was so happy until I looked at the prices, swallowed hard and put them down. There was no way I was going to pay that amount of money for a pasteurized Brie and will wait until I’m home in Paris.

I had a revelation. People who work in French supermarkets will never kill you with kindness. I suspect when the Georgetown Safeway is running smoothly, many of the company’s senior management will disappear and shoppers will be left to their own devices.

But, the food items I want—bread, cheese, wine and produce—cost substantially less in France. And who cares if I can’t choose from 22 brands of toilet paper. I’d rather buy cheese,merci, not to mention truffle salt.

No matter where I go, I take myself. And within my inner core, there’s an indelibly etched part of France, and certainly its food that will be with me until the day I die. C’est normal. You can’t live somewhere for 22 years and not be impacted by its culture.

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Posted in Around the World |

Some People May Think the French Are Rude But…

Written by kvfawcett on June 10, 2010 – 11:53 am -

Some people may think the French are rude. But they certainly aren’t Bonjour Paris readers. Nor did the readers of last week’s article here and in the blogosphere of social networking. There’s no way everyone can be a Francophile.

Our email box looked as if we were offering a free trip to Paris that included two first class air tickets, ten days at the The Marriott on the Champs Elysees and breakfast, lunch and dinner at two- and three-star-rated Michelin restaurants.

Each comment was read and re-read. To be honest, they supply inspiration and serve as an incentive for all of our contributors. We’re conveying the message that the French aren’t rude. Or if they are, it’s a lapse and the exception rather than the norm.

Frequently repeated comments:

It makes an enormous difference if visitors attempt to speak some French—even if their accents are terrible. No one should assume the French speak English, but you should be able to say Bonjour, merci and s’il vous plaît.

If you treat people with courtesy, they’ll respond in the same way. Don’t think if you raise your voice, the French will be charmed. They won’t be and you’ll have a harder time dealing with them. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

Visitors should have the courtesy of familiarizing themselves with the cultural differences between their native country and France. Don’t expect things to be identical to what you experience at home. If that’s what you’re looking for, don’t bother making the trip.

Gwyn Ganjeau said, “I think many Americans go to France and expect the French to be the same as us—but with an accent. But there are significant cultural differences. Reading about those before my first trip was like receiving the secret code. I learned there were so many ways I could have inadvertently been considered a stereotypical ‘rude American.’”

Another person commented that as a former New York City resident, she’s found Parisians not to be any different from other big-city residents.

Some observations:

Amy Gruber commented, “I think Parisians are delightful. Let me give you one of example from my six-week-long stay in Paris last year when I didn’t meet one rude Parisian. One morning, I was waiting outside of a shop, which was late opening. A woman arrived and we began talking. The owner’s phone number was written on the door and the woman phoned her to let her know clients were waiting.

“Then, she asked me what I was looking for. When I told her what it was, she said she had seen something similar at a nearby store. She couldn’t remember its name and asked me to wait a few minutes. Ten minutes later, she returned with the card. Did she have to do that? Not at all.”

William Cover posted that they’d rented an apartment near the rue Montorgueil. Each time they would purchase something from the merchants, they attempted to speak a bit more French. “A small gift of a rose or flowering plant was also a big hit with our favorite vendors. A young girl sales clerk at Stohrer’s, with whom we became friends, spoke some English. She appreciated our trying to speak French. If we passed by, she would say ‘Coucou!’ and wave. When it was time to leave she used her fingers to signify tears going down her cheeks. That was followed by a big hug. We exchanged email addresses and she always writes, ‘Miss you! Kiss Kiss!’”

There were so many additional comments, many having to do with political differences, the Americanization (rather than globalization) of France and other perceptions as well as misconceptions. The reality is that people everywhere have the right to, and do, disagree.  I so wish people would travel more so they could experience people on their home territory and acquire first-hand knowledge of different customs.

Bonjour Paris’s Margaret Kemp, who writes each week for the site, said she believes as most food lovers do, that many of the world’s ills could be solved by sharing a meal together, adding that “French cuisine is alive and well and showcased in every corner of the globe.” Perhaps food could be the common denominator.

There were so many thought-provoking comments….  to be continued

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Posted in Paris |

Eating out — what are your expectations?

Written by admin on October 28, 2009 – 4:31 pm -

Eating at a restaurant should be a positive experience. But is it? After all, it’s the time when someone else shops, cooks, serves you what (you think) you’ve ordered and takes away the dishes and glasses to a mysterious place. Best of all, you’re not responsible for washing them. In spite of these definite pluses, people appear to have more gripes than you’d think. And they make no bones about voicing them.

Whether it’s your  local joint down the road,  a  recently opened trendy new café or a big name/big chef /big tab restaurant that’s drawing rave reviews, small and large irritations can mar a dining experience.

Pet peeves about dining out — Here’s a laundry list of what a survey of dedicated eaters had to say.

  • Dining rooms that are so noisy you can’t hear yourself think much less hold a conversation with your tablemates.
  • Tables that are placed  so close together you have to be a contortionist to get in and out and there’s no possible way to hold a private conversation.
  • Music too loud. People want to eat their meals in peace and relative quiet and not feel as if they’re in a high-decibel dance hall.
  • Lighting should be bright enough that you can read the menus; but not so bright that you feel as if you’re getting the third degree.
  • Restaurants should have coat rooms and sufficient space that you and your things aren’t competing for space on the chair and at the table.
  • Bathrooms should be clean and well stocked. More than a few people feel there’s a direct correlation between the cleanliness of a restaurant’s WCs and the kitchen.

Service irritations:

  • Being greeted at the door and grilled as to whether or not you have a reservation. If you don’t, the host or hostess will often shoot you a dirty look and lead you to a table as if they’re doing you a favor.
  • Finding yourself even more irritated because when you get up to leave, the restaurant is still half empty.
  • Sitting down and waiting more time than you care to before being handed a menu.
  • When you’re ready to order, being forced to wait. The group of people, who were seated after you, have the waiter’s attention and are firing away what they want to eat. You’ve missed your chance.
  • While you’re waiting, not being asked if you’d like to order a drink or being served water.  Some restaurants serve bread immediately, Others force you to wait so you’re crying, “bread and water — please.”
  • Waiter etiquette:  There are the ones who act as if they’re doing you a favor by serving you. Then, there are too many who want to become members of your family and participate in the conversation. I’m glad your name is John but please remember who’s the waiter and who are the clients.
  • The service personnel not being sensitive to your needs and wishes:  e.g. – when you want attention and when you don’t. There are times conversations are private and should remain that way. Professional waiters appear to have a sixth sense about anticipating a diner’s needs and seem to have eyes behind their heads.
  • Spare diners from waiters who refuse to write orders down. Being able to memorize a list of dishes may impress some people but others would prefer being served the correct dish.
  • Please don’t ask, “Is everything all right?” before someone has tasted the food.
  • Not serving everyone at the same time; Ditto for clearing the table. Many people find it offensive when a waiter removes a few plates at a time, as if to say to the diners who are still eating, “hurry up and leave.”
  • Meals that arrive so quickly that you know they’ve been sitting on a steam table or have had a quick zap in a microwave.
  • Having to wait forever to be served and then receiving the check before you’ve had a chance to drink your coffee. A meal should not be a marathon. Rather, it should be orchestrated to fit the scenario.
  • Some people complain that portions are so large they detract from the meal and its presentation. Not everyone wants a doggie bag.
  • Waiters who fail to check back with you after the meal is served.

There were complaints about parking, stratospheric menu prices, outrageous mark ups on wine. People jumped at the chance at adding their input. And I want to hear yours. You’re bound to have a lot of comments and post away.

Before you do, please stop and ponder what complaint is missing. It seems so obvious. But it doesn’t appear to be a high priority among the majority of people who eat out.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

(Photo: seventh.samurai/Priscilla Flickr/Commons)

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

What and How to Eat, and When?

Written by admin on September 24, 2009 – 7:38 pm -

Before embarking on a trip to a foreign destination, brush up on how, when and what the natives eat. Should you be France-bound, you may need to adapt to a different style of eating; that is, if you want to.

One of France’s many pleasures is its food – so why not enjoy what many people consider one of the country’s major attractions? And even though you can get a bad meal in France, many dedicated eaters still make gastronomic pilgrimages here with the priority of eating. So much so, that as soon as they’re ticketed and know where they’re staying, they make restaurant reservations. Some may consider this traveling by your stomach, but there are worse sins.

Food differentiates countries and cultures, as does etiquette. For example, the French keep their arms and hands on the table and use forks and knives to eat pizza, sandwiches and even tacos. You can decide whether or not to follow suit. But, if you’re attending a business meal, your colleagues are going to look askance if you eat with your hands, with the exception of bread. And it’s OK; unless it’s a very formal meal with bread and butter plates, place the bread on the tablecloth.  If you were in Ethiopia, by contrast, there’s an entirely different set of rules.

Americans tend to eat three meals each day and many succumb to snacking between (and after) them. There are the families who rarely, if ever, sit down together for a home cooked meal and this is increasingly the norm in the good ‘ole USA where too many people catch as catch can.

American breakfasts are generally big and may include eggs, cereal, different breads (bring on the muffins and toast!) juices and coffee, tea or milk. Many dieticians feel this is the most important meal of the day.

Even if it is, the French tend to eat a croissant or a tartine (a portion of a baguette with a light coat of butter) accompanied by a café, a café crème (hot milk, please), a hot chocolate or possibly some tea. If you order a glass of milk in France, be prepared to receive a glass that isn’t what most Americans are used to drinking. More than likely, the milk was poured from a carton and is probably served lukewarm.

Furthermore, Americans are more likely to skimp on lunch than people in Europe, where the mid-day meal is traditionally the day’s main meal.  That may be changing somewhat among the younger generation, who may grab a sandwich or stop at a McDo for a bite to eat.

But, think about it; eating your main meal at lunch makes great and good sense.  Perhaps the days of three-hour lunches are coming to an end though, with the exception of Sunday lunches, en famille, which is still a tradition. The French are even drinking substantially less wine (frequently only one glass) and vintners are crying the blues, as a result.  Wine sales are dramatically down and college students are drinking an increasing amount of soft drinks and beer.

Typically, in France and other EU countries, workers are entitled to restaurant subsidies if their workplace doesn’t have its own canteen (or cafeteria). It’s not unusual to see business colleagues sitting down to a meal and forking over coupons when the tab is presented.

Universities have cafeterias where students are entitled to buy meals for a fraction of what it would cost were they to head to a neighborhood café. Tourists have also been known to eat in them (if security is lax and IDs aren’t being checked), since your money will go a great deal further here than in a traditional restaurant.

School children are fed three-course meals and are expected to eat green things such as broccoli when presented. Menus are published each week in the newspaper so French parents know what their offspring have been served – and more than likely, have consumed.

Bless most French children. They don’t think it’s their innate right to say they’re not going to eat what’s served to them and are adventurous when it comes to tasting different foods. It’s wonderful to watch a three-year-old scarf down puréed celery root.

The reality is, as more couples are both working, big lunches prepared by someone else is a time and work saver, in addition to the other pluses. Dinners often consist of soups and salads accompanied by cheese and perhaps desserts. But rarely is the evening meal the 3+ course variety during the work/school week.

The French are also changing and buying more frozen products than they did years ago. Even here, there’s a different standard when it comes to quality, and many meals (for guests as well) come straight from the shelves of PICARD, which now takes orders on-line and delivers, further simplifying the lives of busy people.

Even though the French do worry somewhat about weight (and some French are gaining a few pounds as more junk food is appearing in markets), they tend to eat smaller portions. But realistically, who wants to go to bed on a full stomach? Is it healthy? Do you get the best night’s sleep and how many calories do you burn off between dinner and crawling under the covers?

It’s likely that your dining habits will change somewhat while abroad, but do you see yourself adopting the French style of eating more mid-day and less at night?

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Posted in Paris |

Staving off starving on domestic flights

Written by admin on June 4, 2009 – 5:35 pm -

It depends on the airline, but if you’re flying domestically, chances are good you aren’t going to be served food. Lord knows how much money the airlines are saving by cutting out the tiny packages of pretzel snacks that used to be served with your soft drink.

Before heading to the airport, check to see if there’s a meal included. Even if there is, you might want to pass. Airline food can be akin to food much in the same way as military music may be an ersatz form of music.

Yesterday I was on a scheduled five-hour-plus flight that took more than six hours. I’m usually fine without eating but realized I’d left for the airport three hours prior to the flight. My stomach was audibly growling.

I broke down and bought a “chef’s” salad and a beer for $15. The beer won the taste prize by miles.

Looking around, I could see and SMELL so many different meals. I am not a curry fan and the odor made me queasy. The people sitting next to me had raided McDonalds and smells of grease were intensified in the confined area with minimal circulation.

So what food should pack for flights? Here are some ideas:

Power bars, snack mixes, raisins and candy are compact. The later should be in moderation if you’re traveling with children. Sugar highs are great recipes for making kids want to run up and down the cramped aisles.

Peanut butter sandwiches, bagels with cream cheese or your favorite sandwiches cure lots of hunger pangs

Fruit (fresh or dried) is healthy and you’ll feel virtuous in the calorie department.  When grapes and cherries are in season, freeze them at home and by the time you’re ready to eat them in flight, they’ll have that fresh taste. Ditto goes for many sandwiches. Pack them in a small-insulated bag.

Raw vegetables with a dip can be filling and are good for vegetarians and the weight conscious.

If you’re watching your budget or are a quasi-gourmet, steer clear of buying food at the airport. Chances are it was made in an off-site kitchen hours before it reached its destination. And it may sit there even longer. The main exception is yogurt which may not make it through security.

Stop at your favorite deli and have them pack a picnic. Please steer clear of sauerkraut. People dislike food smells on planes. A business flyer said,  “It’s generally the leisure traveler who thinks it’s a good idea to bring barbeque food or chicken laced with garlic accompanied with cabbage.”

Other musts — and you’ll be sorry if you forget them:

Napkins, a plate or something that can serve as one, utensils (plastic – to insure they pass through security screening), a couple of plastic bags for leftovers and hand wipes should be on everyone’s list. And do bring a plastic bag so you can dispose of your garbage. It’s only polite to try to keep planes clean.

Some people go to extremes. On one Paris-New York trip and another between Los Angeles and Washington, DC, I sat next to passengers who had picnic boxes prepared by the glitzy hotels where they’d been staying. I was surprised since we were in business class. But they shared the religion of refusing to eat airline food and drank only bottled water.

How are you dealing with hunger without fainting from starvation on flights that are longer than a few hours? This is where the Boy Scout mantra of being prepared needs to be taken to heart!

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

About Provence

Written by admin on May 30, 2009 – 11:57 am -

Each year, emails flow into the Bonjour Paris mailbox with questions from people thinking of moving to Provence and setting up permanent housekeeping there. Even with the dollar-euro fluctuations, life can cost less in the French countryside, especially if you’re into food and wine. For people who are retiring (and can get medical insurance), France’s quality of life can be lovely. I know because I did it but was far from stopping to exclusively smell the roses.

My husband and I went for it full-tilt and fulfilled the dream so many people share. It was the perfect run-down mas (farmhouse) in the midst of the vines. All it would require was a little work—hah. After two years of more workmen than I could imagine and getting to know all of them in the area, the house was finally a home rather than a construction site. After spending fifteen years commuting between Paris and Provence, selling the house was bittersweet.

There had been so many wonderful events, birthdays, a wedding and memories I’ll always cherish. But for many reasons, most especially the death of my husband Victor, its time had come and gone. I considered trying to keep the house so my grandchildren could spend summers there. But it was a different era and the time had come to move on.

As I drove out of the driveway for the final time, I realized the tiny trees we’d planted when we’d first moved there had quadrupled in height. The fig trees we’d nurtured from slightly larger than twigs were bearing fruit. We’d lived through different weather systems, all too many mistrals and managed to become cat owners.

I don’t (rather didn’t) like cats. But Kitty has become a pivotal part of my life and even has a EU passport. Thank goodness, she has been insinuated her claws and ways into the hearts of others who give her incredible TLC when I’m traveling.

The house and the property were a lot of work and what we spent on upkeep… it’s vulgar to talk about money, but it was a hell of a lot. All I wanted was a staff only to find out we’d be dependent on very part-time help.

My husband was passionate about the garden. I love flowers and immediately planted peonies. Somehow, I always seemed to be somewhere else when they were in full bloom and would have to be content looking at photos of them in their glory.

We had a potager (vegetable garden) that cost a fortune to plant and to maintain. But Victor loved it and I learned to make every recipe that contained zucchini. I would literally stand in the garden and watch it grow. Our guests could hear me cursing. Neighbors knew to lock their doors and close all shutters pretending to be away in the event I came calling with three kilos of what became known as the vegetable from hell.

Naturally, the items I had hoped would grow didn’t. They were planted. But the mole population of the region knew what was good and they weren’t going to bother themselves with the zucchini that would explode a minimum of six inches if I turned my back. These devious animals aren’t stupid and were fully aware flowers are tasty. I thought about buying a shotgun or maybe dynamite, but I don’t think the neighbors would have liked that—or liked the idea that I’d drive the critters into their gardens.

Unless you’re committed to living in the country and becoming a part of the community, Americans shouldn’t strike out and buy property just because they’ve read one of Peter Mayle’s books. Or, our neighbors’ book, We’ve Always Had Paris and Provence by Patricia and Walter Wells.

It’s one thing for people who live in the EU and the UK to have second homes in Provence that they can reach easily on weekends or for a vacation. It’s quite something else when Americans take the plunge and opt to take up permanent residence on the other side of the Atlantic. Even if you shuttle between the two continents, you can’t help but lose contact with family members, old friends and professional colleagues unless you don’t mind running a hotel. And even then…

Before taking the plunge, rent houses in different parts of France where there are huge differentials in costs of buying your dream house. Let the owners do the work as well as absorb the cost of the upkeep. In addition, you become familiar with different regions of the country and where you’d be the most comfortable. Some parts of France are extremely remote and don’t open their arms to newcomers unless your French is flawless.

Other areas of the country are filled with expats, which may be precisely why you opt to move there. It’s easier to acclimate if you already have a nucleus of acquaintances. But try not to fall in the same rut that some do by not even making an effort to learn anything other than the most rudimentary French and residing in colonies.

It’s never too late to learn a language even if your accent is terrible and you use incorrect tenses. The secret is to take lessons, studying, listening to language tapes or jumping in and speaking even if you sound foolish. Children have no shame when speaking a new language and adults should adopt the same attitude.

The cost of real estate in France with the exception of Paris has taken an approximate 10% dip according to Karen Tait, the editor of French Property News.

Buying into a “fractional ownership” of a property tempts some people. There are certainly advantages. But don’t consider buying into one without legal counsel. The developer is the main person who comes out ahead financially. Remember, whatever it’s called, it’s still a time-share.

Consult a lawyer who knows the laws and tax regulations of France and your home country. It’s money well spent since the Napoleonic Code is like none other unless you’re from Louisiana.

There are a lot of pitfalls that can be avoided by not relying on the local real estate agent and his or her chosen notaire who will be responsible for recording the purchase and sale of the house or apartment. If only we had taken this advice and sought out expert advice. But we were too busy smelling the lavender and contemplating the sunsets, which was the point after all.

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Posted in Around the World |

Slow Down, Enjoy Your Meal, and Sleep

Written by admin on May 16, 2009 – 12:05 pm -

Slow down and do as the French do and invariably you’ll be healthier and thinner. According to a recently released study conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, the French spend more time eating and drinking than any of the world’s most prosperous nations. In addition to devoting two hours a day to eating, they average nine hours of sleep each day.

Not that some French aren’t becoming heavier. They are, and it’s because some of the younger generation have adopted more than a few of the U.S.’s bad habits: e.g., eating junk food, buying more pre-packaged and processed foods such as potato chips, and drinking more Cokes than water. Even though they drink less wine, beer consumption has increased.

However, the French tend to be more physically active and not necessarily due to spending hours in a gym—although that’s on the rise as people are pumping iron and running in place. Walking is a way of life even if people live in Paris and take the métro.

Métro stops are generally no further away than five minutes apart. But walking up and down the stairs burns calories. And if you’re in one of the larger métro stations, such as Châtelet, Concorde, or Étoile on the Champs-Élysées, by the time you walk from one line to the next, you may have walked nearly half a mile.

Tourists are usually amazed by how fast the French navigate subway stations. People are eager to get in and out and to their destinations. Sure, you can stop and listen to some of the (licensed) musicians and frequently hear pretty good classical music. There will always be a hat, basket, or bucket to drop some coins. More than likely, you’ll hear music that sounds as if a band comprised of the ubiquitous Peruvian pan-pipers is performing, and if you haven’t already done so, you can buy the generic CD.

It wasn’t so many years ago you’d never see the French eating on the run. That’s changed. Now, most French bakeries have a section of sandwiches available for carry-out. They’re generally made from scrawny baguettes. Skinny doesn’t do them justice: a more accurate description would be bulimic with one nearly transparent slice of ham and one of cheese and voilà, the idea being that you don’t have to open your mouth very wide to eat it.

American delis, sandwich shops, and carry-outs of all kinds astonish the French. When French friends accompany me to one, their eyes glaze over when they see the size of the sandwiches. They’re unable to believe how thick they are and that someone could possibly eat so much in one sitting—or standing. Remember, most French people don’t know about doggie bags in spite of being a nation of dog lovers.

In addition, most French people tend to eat meals with utensils. It’s considered a faux pas to eat pizza by picking up a slice rather than using a fork and knife—ditto a burger. Many people who come to France on business are shocked to see how fastidious their dining companions tend to be, and it’s smart to take your cues from them so as not to be perceived as lacking table manners.

Some other reasons the French tend to be thin: Rather than piling everything on one plate (and you’ll rarely see an all-you-can-eat buffet in France), meals are comprised of courses. It makes for a lot of plates, but a first course, a main course, another plate with salad and a sliver of cheese plus a dessert (tiny to be sure), give people the sensation they’ve eaten a lot even with rigid portion control. Eating this leisurely way takes time—and time is what the brain needs to register the food you’ve put in your stomach and tell you to stop it now. And there’s a bonus: when dinner is over, there are a lot of dishes to wash up, and that burns up calories.

Studies conducted at Penn State University and Cornell have repeatedly documented that the more food that’s served on a plate, the more people will eat. Perhaps too many Americans were raised as members of the clean plate club. Most people don’t get the signal to stop eating if there’s food left to be consumed—rather like goldfish that will eat until they explode.

Even though Americans believe that the most essential meal of the day is breakfast (bring on the cereal, toast, jam, and eggs), the French generally grab a cup of coffee and a tartine (a piece of a baguette with a light smear of butter) and that’s how they begin their day.

Few French snack between meals. Plus, if they’re having an apéritif before dinner, it will be accompanied with a few olives, perhaps some nuts, but not a dinner before dinner. Americans tend to set out platters of hors d’oeuvres so you’ve consumed more than your fair share of calories before even sitting down for the meal.

Time will tell whether or not the French will adopt America’s bad habits when it comes to eating. The one given is that the more affluent the French are, the thinner they tend to be. I’ve always believed French females are born without hips and thighs and it’s in their genes. That’s one way of rationalizing why Parisian women wear size six (or smaller) pants—and, if will make you feel better, you can believe that too.

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Posted in Around the World |