Friday, July 28, 2006

Quelle prise de tête

In a recent conversation with a friend, Chimp, I said that, when it comes to books, I have to enjoy myself. I can no longer read things that aren't pleasurable in one way or another. Which is not to say that the topic can't be serious. I recently re-read Nickled and Dimed: on not getting by in America (imagine that title is underlined because I can't figure out how to do it), which is a great book, thoroughly enjoyable, but the topic is quite serious and the conclusions even more so.

Which got me thinking about what I don't like. Which is when a book or a movie or anything, really, is une prise de tête. Literally, a taking of the head. It can be a verb, prendre la tête. As in ça me prend la tête, that takes my head. Or reflexively, il se prend la tête. He takes his head.

All of which means something along the lines of complicated where it could be simple. Or making something important out of something that needn't or shouldn't be. Or taking my head hostage by using pseudo-intellectual wannabe highbrow blah as a weapon. Or taking one's self too seriously to a point where one's head becomes the center of a ridiculous universe.

We're going on vacation tomorrow. Which, I hope, will be sans prise de tête. Bonnes vacances!

Update: Nickle and Dimed: on not getting by in America. Look what Eric taught me. I can be taught.

Update 2: Lorraine just taught me how to make these nifty lines. Aren't they the greatest couple?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


I hurt my back this weekend. I was looking for my diplomas, if you can imagine that. I haven't seen the things in years. But one of my new employers wants a copy of each to, I don't know, prove to someone I actually have them, I guess. I looked in my current filing area. No diplomas. So I tackled a closet in the bedroom where I keep stuff from home I don't need but don't want to get rid of. All those research papers from graduate school, tons of linguistic books, and maybe some diplomas. A big, full filing box was up on a shelf, I took it down in a way that did not please my left hip or my entire lower back. Picky, picky, picky.

So, since saturday morning my back's been pissed at me. I was hoping things would just kind of work themselves back into place, but apparently not. So, yesterday, while continuing to look for the diplomas, I called around to see if I could get an appointment, quickly, with an osteopath. Done! One I've seen before, who is quite competent, could see me on tuesday. Yeah! And, bonus, yesterday afternoon I found one (out of three) diploma. But, even better, I found a transcript from all three degree programs with DEGREE EARNED at the bottom. Given that all of it's in English anyway and the fact that I seriously doubt the person who'll be reading it will actually be reading it, I figure the transcripts will do the trick.

This morning I went to see the osteopath. Who I've seen before, who has never hurt me or said anything even slightly cooky.

For one hour I was manipulated, in the osteopathic sense of the term, to help back and hip find happiness again. But, man, it hurt so much. I've never hurt like that in an osteopath's office, ever, and I've seen my fair share. The worst, or best, was that he wasn't not doing a good job, he was doing a great job. Anyway, at the end of the appointment, I, dripping in sweat (and not for sexy reasons) asked what the deal was. Why had it hurt so much and what had I done to whack things so far out?

I could not translate, or even understand, the explanation. I can only give you the last sentence, the easiest to understand and the only one I could retain.

"You may be right-handed physically, but emotionally you're definitely left-handed."


I considered asking for further explanation, but I'd suffered enough for one morning. AND, I realized (take that, Charlie) that I had my new joker . When the going gets tough, I can always plead innocence on the basis of what must be a serious contradiction for poor me. Right-handed in my head and left-handed in my heart.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Take that

As I've mentioned in previous posts, an American in France occasionally comes up against what I can only call linguistic snobbery. The idea that British English is superior to the American variety, in both its written and spoken forms. Whatever. It's not the kind of thing that really bothers me unless it's directed at my kids. At which point I turn into a raving bitch. But that's just the mom in me.

I did, however, lose my calm once when it was directed at me. No, not really my calm, just my civility.

An English friend looking to move here from London asked if I could take calls from a local real estate agent. No problem, I said.

Said agent called. And spoke French with a very heavy British accent. Out of kindness or laziness or both, I suggested we speak in English. I believe my exact words were, "Why don't we stop speaking French since we share the same native language."

Mr. Agent Man replied, "Oh, you think we speak the same language?"

And then out it popped. "Well, I don't know. If I say you're an arrogant a**hole, do you need a translator?"

Given his reaction, I'd say he didn't.

(Please note: Above conversation took place before St. Anthony and I started working together.)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

L'été sucks

Boys and I have been in Nantes for several days trying to get away from the heat, or at least deal with it more gracefully. So much for that. It was hotter in Nantes than in Laval. But my in-laws have a big yard and a good size kid pool so at least the boys were entertained. They slept in the coolest room in the house. They did not suffer from the heat at all. The same cannot be said for me. I slept in a bedroom upstairs with a skylight. I hate skylights. The temperature of the room at 11 pm most nights was around 90°F.

I don't like summer. There. I've said it. I really don't and I haven't for a really, really long time. Some people get down and mopey when it's grey and cold and mists all day. I am not one of those people. I am, however, one of those people who gets down and mopey when it's over 23°C which is about 70°F I think.

Needless to say, given the 35°C + temps we've been having here (way too hot°F), I'm miserable. And totally useless as a mother. I'm not an easy mother to have in the best of times but in the worst of times (summer), I feel sorry for my poor boys. The activities and games I'll participate in include making more iced tea or coffee, reading a book in the shade, sitting without moving in front of a fan.

I should mention that NOTHING, aside from the grocery store and my husband's car, in Laval (or Nantes for that matter) is air-conditioned. No homes, shops, cafés, parks, streets, nothing. So essentially, unless I'm standing in the frozen food aisle at the grocery store (and after about 20 minutes, people start to stare and the boys start to shiver) or driving in Husband's car, there is no relief.

The weather people are saying this thing they call a heat wave, with is stupid because waves are usually refreshing and this is anything but, is going to last at least 3 more weeks.

The boys will be raising themselves by then.

Monday, July 17, 2006

An act of fancy

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, we had a little Bastille Day / Independance Day gathering. I had planned the menu at least a week before. Actually, as soon as Lorraine mentioned making corn dogs. So the menu on Bastille Day at my house was as follows: apéritif was beer with rosemary potato chips with a couple of dips I made (shallot/sour cream and gorgonzola/tomates confites), dinner was corn dogs (go to Lorraine's blog - Here's the thing for the excellent corn dog recipe) served with my homemade (that means 8 hours in my oven while it was 87° outside) Boston baked beans and coleslaw. Dessert was a caramel cheesecake that my new American friend and her daughter made.

The evening before Bastille Day, Husband called and asked if it would be alright if he invited a couple of client/friends. Sure, it would be fine, I said.

The following morning around 10:00 am, Husband said, "Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you last night, P is a vegetarian. Is that going to be a problem?"

And then I did the unthinkable. I rolled my eyes and said, "oh jeez, give me a break."

I was a vegetarian for 12 years.

Unfortunately, many people who are 'reformed' from something, good or bad, become, like I had, intolerant of what they once were. Think about it. The former smoker (not you Lorraine or Eric) who CAN'T STAND to be around cigarette smoke, the reformed sinner who CAN'T STAND hanging out with unreformed sinners, members of a minority who CAN'T STAND members of a minority smaller or newer than their own.

Which is not to say that I can't stand vegetarians. Not true. Many of my friends and my sweet mom are vegetarians and I love them all. But jeez, menu planning and cooking are a lot less fun when vegetarians are involved. Ever made a vegetarian corn dog? And DON'T tell me to use a soydog, they don't have them here. They have some soy mush sausages that are nasty and that's it. And I'm totally open to soy products, when they're good.

Anyway, the dinner was delicious. I had to get poultry dogs for NAF (new American friend) and her daughter since they don't eat red meat, P had no dog at all, and boys and Husband and I had the real dogs. And they were excellent. As for the baked beans, well, let's just say technically, at the time they were eaten, there was no meat in them. I will say nothing about their amazing clove, molasses, and slightly smoky flavor or how they got the latter of those three flavors. Everyone enjoyed the beans.

Friends and family who endlessly tweaked menus on my behalf during those 12 self-righteous years, bless you all. You are kinder than I am. If you ever rolled your eyes at my various dietary restrictional phases, don't feel guilty. I totally deserved it.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Don't bite, Charlie

We had a little gathering at our house on friday evening. It was Bastille Day, Husband had the day off, and we hadn't done anything for the 4th of July because the kids and I had to make a trip to Nantes that week. So I told the boys it would be a combo Independance Day / Bastille Day party.

I invited a new American friend of mine (T) and her 5 year old daughter. T's English husband was away on business. Also in attendance were two clients/friends of Husband's that I hadn't yet met. Both are English. I had planned a very American menu to represent the Independance Day stuff and we were all planning on drinking wine here in Laval, France so I figured that counted as the Bastille Day stuff. Oh yeah, and we walked up the street to watch the parade in the morning. The boys were very impressed by the bands and soliders and fire engines. I was happy we had a spot in the shade and an iced coffee right afterwards.

That afternoon, while I was in the kitchen cooking, Boy1 started to ask some questions. What was Bastille Day? What was Independance Day? Husband was standing in the hall and stayed close by. He has, I'm sorry to say, very little faith in my culture générale, and I suppose he has his reasons. It all started when, after having bought me a bouquet of flowers, he started talking about the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. Up until then, I'd never heard about a revolution in Portugal. Yes, I know, my ignorance is showing. I've got a few university degrees, but not much general culture. On the up side, he is quick to say that I have somewhat more general cultural/historical knowledge than many Americans. Cold comfort when you see the results of that exam they give all the BA grads at University of Arizona - you know the one I'm talking about - half the people can't find Portugal on a map or say who we fought against during World War I. (Please note: Husband's not being judgemental, he just knows how little some Americans know about the rest of the world). Anyway.

Back to the kitchen conversation with Boy1. I told him that Bastille Day was about a time when France was ruled by kings, not presidents and prime ministers and unions. The kings hadn't been running the country very well, the poor were very poor and the rich were very rich and the poor were fed up. So they took to the streets and changed things. Husband listened with approval. No mess-ups so far.

Independance Day, I told him, is about a time when my country was still ruled by the English. We wanted our Independance and so we fought a war against them to win it. Husband then joined the conversation. And you know what, he said to Boy1, the French helped the Americans fight that war.

Boy1 looked at us and asked, why did the French help the Americans fight the English?

I replied, because the French LOVE to fight the English. Husband laughed and made no modifications to my explanation.

History lesson à la Nicole.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

My blunder (This post will be offensive to some)

So read ahead with serious caution. Mom, don't read this post at all. You won't like it. I mean it.

I have a real flair for saying inappropriate things sometimes. Always in social situations where I'd be much better off keeping my mouth shut. But somehow, it never seems to work out that way. I'm a total lightweight. All it takes is one glass of wine and I'll start saying things I ought to keep to myself. This is especially true in France where I haven't really mastered the whole scene, or much of anything for that matter. My other problem is that I take no notice of audience. Rookie mistake. In our mid-30's we're still rookies, right?

So here goes. Here's my lastest, but not greatest, gaffe (blunder).

Husband and I were at a dinner. Hosted by some friends of friends of ours. Knowing how our friends are, I actually thought I did know the audience, but apparently not. Anyway. There were 12 of us. I was acquainted with 3 of the other couples, their kids are at the same school as Boy1 was this year. The other couple are good friends.

The wine flowed. The conversation was interesting at times and not at others. At one point, my former vegetarianism was mentioned. The French tend to be fascinated by anything that eliminates whole food groups from one's diet. They just don't get it. But that's a whole other post. So, many made many jests thoughout the dinner about vegetarians. It was in good fun. But it was getting a little redundant.

The host was talking about his new office space. And his new secretary. And the window though which everyone walking by can see his spiffy office space and pretty secretary. He was kidding when he said, she's great, but I think she's a vegetarian.

And just like that. Out of (seemingly) nowhere I said, "I suppose by that you mean she won't swallow?"

Husband and G and P, our good friends, cracked up. Hard. From everyone else there was total silence for about 10 seconds. Then all the husbands started laughing. And the wives just looked at me strangley. Husband (he's so sweet) said to the host, "You know, you pretty much asked for it."

P said, "You've got to watch it with Nicole. You just never know."

I know, I know, I'm not doing much for our image over here, am I?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Marathon Meals

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, Husband and I attended a wedding in Normandy this weekend. After the ceremony, we were divided up into teams based on the reception table arrangements and given a scavenger hunt type plan with a bonus math problem. All of the information gathered was supposed to help us discover the location of the reception. The math problem was for a prize at the end of the night, which of course we missed as we were the first to leave.

As I looked at the 3 page, typed document, I thought, what a pain in the ass and then I thought, man, dinner had better be good.


I can't complain too much (at all) about the info scavenger hunt episode. PM and L pretty much took care of the whole thing (except the math thing which was handled by Husband and another husband {not mine}) as they had lived in St. Lô for 10 years. The rest of us spent the alotted 90 minutes drinking cold beverages at an outside table of a biker bar.

Once everyone arrived at the place, which was a renovated 18th century farmhouse and stable, it was time for apéritif. Which was crappy champagne mixed with some strange blue-green liquid and small pieces of crustless white bread (seriously, it looked just like the Wonder Bread of my childhood) topped with saumon fumé (lox), saucisson sec (dried, cured sausage), or cucumber slices. All three were themselves topped with mayonnaise or cream.

The first course was the best. Scallops and langoustines in lemon zest and cream sauce. There was much mopping up of sauce at our table.

The main course was magret de canard (duck breast - which, by the way, if you haven't ever tried it, you MUST, it's {when not overcooked or served with a bad sauce} delicious) with a sauce that very closely resembled the turkey gravy served at the Dixie Truck Stop somewhere in between Astoria, Illinois and Shorewood, Illinois. Only here, they added some airelles (huckleberry or bilberry) and not enough salt, which was never the case at the Dixie Truck Stop. The duck was served with dry gratin dauphinois and stringy green beans wrapped in a slab of bacon. While charmed by the company and thrilled for the bride and groom, I was not happy about the food situation.

The cheese course was disappointing as well, very classic cheese, a camembert, a pont-l'eveque, a swiss (really! holes and all) and a processed goat cheese log. Served with a few leaves of boston bibb.

Dessert. You know, I'm hard to miss on desserts. I love sugary things. And yet. It was a mille-feuille aux fruits rouges. Basically, a two finger size of sponge cake topped with a tablespoon of raspberries, strawberries, and pineapple (which is yellow, not rouge - but now I'm just being bitchy), covered with a strange half pastry cream half butter cream thing and the mille feuille which looked and tasted more like a strange sweet cracker than a pastry. I ate the fruit and the sponge cake and left the rest. Coffee was served next. It was rancid. There was a chocolate coated almond on the saucer which was excellent. I stole and ate Husband's. He was out smoking at the time so I figured he deserved it for having an excuse to leave the table, and just for smoking in general.

The entire meal, not including apéritif, lasted 4 hours.

I am told that the meal after my own wedding lasted just as long. But in my foggy memories of that evening, the food was good.

Monday, July 10, 2006

More names

Husband and I attended a wedding this weekend. We left saturday morning and drove for two hours to Saint Lô, in Normandy. The two hours in the car were not very interesting, it was misting, and the views weren't spectacular. So I found fun were I could. Looking at the signs and asking Husband silly questions.

We passed a place called Villedieu les poêles. So ville - city, dieu - God, les poêles - pans (as in frying or sauté pan). Interesting and silly. Then the trick question. What does one call the residents of the City of God Sauté Pans?

Sometimes it's pretty easy.

Paris - Parisien, Parisienne (male, female)
Laval - Lavallois, Lavalloise
Nantes - Nantais, Nantaise

With Villedieu les poêles, I wasn't even sure where to begin. First, I suggested Les poêlerons. Husband laughed and said no, no, Villedieu would definitely be included. He suggested Les poêles villedieusiens. Which sounded kind of sacreligious to me, but I know nothing of these matters.

At the wedding reception, we were seated at a table with some very lovely people. Four we knew well, they are friends of Husband's since high school, and 2 we had never met before. PM and L, the unknowns, were charming. And smart and interesting. He's a journalist who works for a public tv station and she's a teacher.

Anyway, PM and L know the region quite well. We were talking about the drive is from Saint Lô to Laval and for some reason I mentioned City of God sauté pans. I also mentioned our attempts to guess the name of its residents. PM told us to give up trying, we would never guess it.

Two things to note about City of God sauté pans. It was called first Villedieu when the Templiers went there because I guess they thought it was holyish. It is also a place where, traditionally, copper cookware was made. As in copper sauté pans. Ok, so now the name of the place makes more sense.

As for the people, it's les sourdins and les sourdines. Coming from sourd, meaning deaf. Why? Well, apparently banging on copper with tools all day makes too much noise and so a lot of people had less than spectacular hearing. PM was right. I would've never guessed that.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Untitled and unnamed, or double named

As stated before, the French have a thing for titles. They also have a thing for paper work. And they also have a thing for titles on paperwork. So when you fill out any form here it's Madame or Mademoiselle or Monsieur. And then there's the name thing.

This afternoon I was to the Catholic Board of Education HQ to apply for a job for next year. While the other job I've found is cool, it's neither enough hours nor enough money. In order to avoid going back to my former place of employment (badly run), I'm looking at other options. Thus today's excursion.

Of course, despite having a copy in hand of my cv, they asked me to fill out a form. It looked like many other forms I've seen. First line says name, second says first name, and third says maiden name. I'm not a read ahead kind of person. When I see name, I write mine. Then I write my first name. Then I see maiden name. Hmm. Well, my maiden name is my name. What they really wanted for name was Husband's name. Which I don't use, for no particular reason other than I like mine, I rarely have to spell it even here (Husband cannot say the same) in France despite or perhaps because it's such a basic anglosaxon name. Furthermore, I've gotten very used to mine over the years and couldn't see any point to changing it. Particularly since in France, you don't really change it. Strangely enough, in this land where nearly all women use their husband's name, it's for fun and games only. It has no legal value at all and you don't do anything to change it, you just start using it the day you get married. Or you don't, in my case. A woman is legally Maiden Name for life. It is on all official documents, driver's license, passport and the like.

I've learned not to provide Husband's name anymore because once you do, even if you don't use it, everyone uses it for you. I actually sent back my health card twice because it had Madame and Husband's name on it. I know, I'm a pain in the ass. But jeez,Madame (someone's wife) Nicole Husband's name, what was left of me? Just Nicole, and that's not enough.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Lavender Lorraine

I've been away in Nantes with the boys. Boy2 has a heart murmur that must be monitered every few years (it's still there but it's really little and he's fine) so we take him to the University of Nantes Hospital where they have a pediatric cardiologist. While I was there, I enjoyed a lovely lunch with Husband's parents.

It was wednesday, just a regular day. My father-in-law comes home for lunch everyday so he was there with us. While I was at the hospital with Boy2, my mother-in-law went with Boy1 to the open air market to get items for lunch.

L'entrée was radishes with baguette and salted butter and fresh crab with homemade mayonnaise.

Le plat principal was rabbit with green olives and tomato cream sauce. Served with splet wide noodles and green beans.

Le dessert was strawberries and chouquettes (like a cream puff but without the cream and topped with rock sugar).

Le boisson was water for all. (I had to drive home and father-in-law had to work.) Flat bottled water for everyone except me. I had Eau de Perrier, which is made like regular Perrier except that it comes in pretty blue 1 litre bottles and the bubbles are less aggressive.

After lunch I looked at a few magazines. My mother-in-law has excellent taste in magazines. And in one of them I found the following recipe for Lorraine. (Here's the thing over on the right.)

Crème brûlée à la lavande

Serves 4

150 grams whole cream
5 centilitres whole milk
2 egg yolks
30 grams sugar
1 pinch of lavender flowers
1/3 vanilla bean
20 grams light brown sugar (cassonade), but not the moist kind, it has to be grainy, or if not just use white sugar

Slice vanilla bean in half, lengthwise, and scrape out interior. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 130° C (250° F).

Beat the yolks with the sugar until light. Add whole cream, milk, lavender, and vanilla pulp.

Pour into 4 oven-proof ramequins.

Cook 30 - 40 minutes in a bain-marie if it's a traditional oven. The bain-marie is not necessary if the oven has air pulsé. I have no idea what this means, but then again, I don't have a Viking.

Remove to refigerator to cool.

Just before serving, sprinkle with cassonade. Caramelize sugar with a crème brûlée iron, blow torch, or in oven like you would for a lemon meringue pie.

Ok, clearly, I'll never make it as a translator. But you get the main idea.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Another meal

Friday evening Husband and I attended a small dinner party. Despite having lived here for nearly 9 years and attending a fair number of social gatherings, I still always feel like there are about 2 levels of something that I haven't quite gotten the knack of yet. Like there was a conversation inside the conversation about the conversation. Whatever. Anyway.

We arrived at 8:30. We helped out a bit while we waited for the rest of the guests to arrive. Apéritif was cold provençale rosé and fancy crackers.

We sat down to eat at 10:00. Of course I inwardly groaned when I looked at my watch.

First course, l'entrée, was a variety of balled melon with fresh young goat cheese and balsamic vinegar. We wiped up the juices on our plates with rustic bread. More rosé.

The main course, le plat principal, was a variety of grilled meat and meat products. The meat was lamb chops. I was the only one to finish with my fingers, but I was not ashamed. So tender and so lamby. (Can you believe I was a vegetarian for 12 years?) Much too good to leave ANYTHING on the bone and I'm apparently not that talented with a knife and fork. I did not, however, sample the meat products. Boudin noir (blood sausage) and andouillette (chitterlings sausage- yes, that's guts - or small intenstines for those who want a more precise term). The smell alone is enough to, as my mother would say, gag a maggot. These kinds of meat products are referred to as les abats, coming from abattre, to slaughter. Roasted tomatoes (smothered with pesto) and roasted potatoes (smothered with Guérande rock salt butter and garlic and parsley) accompanied the main course. More rosé.

Dessert, le dessert, was a cold fruit stew, raspberries, strawberries, peaches, and fresh mint. Served with tuiles, literally tiles, which are very thin, curved, and delicate almond cookies. Yes, of course, more rosé. Dinner was over at 1:00 and we had to leave without coffee, which made me very sad. We were, AGAIN, the first ones to leave.