Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I take it all back

I've spent the past week being grumpy about my BTS students. Anyone who asks me about my students gets variations on the theme of not that great. They seem passive to me, unwilling to take responsibility for what they need to learn and what is necessary to progress. They complain about the homework (too much and too hard), they complain about the work we do in class (ditto), and they complain about the supposed French genetic language learning deficiency (yeah right), which all translates into the ever-irritating oh-poor-us syndrome.

Imagine my surprise when, after a cruel listening comprehension exercise, one of the students said, "Hey, I did ok on that. I've learned more English in three weeks with you than I did during my four years in high school." Banished all my grump.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Party #2 and surprising myself

Yesteday was Boy1's family birthday party. Husband's parents, sister and brother-in-law (with their 3 kids), and Husband's cousin V and her husband A (and their two boys, the oldest is my godson) came for the day. Boy1 got a magnetic dart board, a small pinball machine, and a small pool table. His room looks like a pub for short people.

I cooked a lot. And while planning the menu it seemed simple and saturday I worked in the kitchen preparing things that could be done in advance. So how it is that my poor mother-in-law slaved by my side all sunday morning, I cannot say.

-bagna caôda (hot olive oil with anchovies and garlic) with crudités and country baguette for dipping
-tuna mousse with breadsticks
-lemon and pecorino crackers

main course
-daube de boeuf (which is similar to a boeuf bourgignon but with different wine, orange zest, nutmeg, onions and carrots)
-cream and sheep cheese stuffed potatoes

-Normandy apple tart (which is a regular apple tart minus the jam glaze plus an egg yolk, cream, and brown sugar base) for the adults
-Sour cream fudge cake decorated with m&m's (at Boy1's request) for the kids

A few comments about the meal:

At the last minute, I had doubts about the tart, it looked like it had too many apples and not enough cream. So during just before serving it I made a batch of salted butter caramel and poured a couple of tablespoons on top of the tart slices. It was really good.

The cake was served a couple of hours after the tart and ended up being for the adults and the kids.

During preparation of the breadsticks and crackers, my mother-in-law said, "You do realize, don't you, that you can buy these instead of making them yourself?"

People were VERY hesitant to taste the bagna caôda. Husband, of course, showed everyone that it was safe to eat. After tasting it the first time, everyone invariably sounded very surprised when they said, "Hey, that's really good."

Daube is also a slang word meaning crap. At the end of the main course someone of course had to say, "Your daube is not a daube."

I had originally planned to make a lemon tart instead of an apple one, of course. But friday night, a friend with many apple trees gave me a lot of apples. So I decided to move forward into the unknown land of two desserts without one of them being lemon if the other one is chocolate.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Party #1 and the extraordinary healing powers of pez

Tomorrow is Boy1's 6th birthday. He's got 4 friends from new school coming over at 3. Not really sure what I'll be doing with them. I've bought a pumpkin for each so they'll be able to carve - or at least design and I'll carve - I don't want any drama. Most French kids (and certainly all of these kids) have never carved a pumpkin - or eaten a pumpkin pie, for that matter. So I'm hoping they'll find it interesting.

I'm also making caramel corn, so I'm going to let them make their own caramel corn balls or disks or whatever. Also a new thing for French kids, who are used to sweet popcorn, but just with sugar, not with caramel.

Boy1 really wanted me to make corn dogs and onion rings for everyone but I vetoed that. I've got in-laws for the weekend and 14 people for the family birthday dinner on sunday. I'll be spending enough time in the kitchen as it is. Happily, but still, I told him not to push his luck.

This afternoon in the car Boy1 started to talk about Christmas. I've been getting him used to the idea that my mother won't be able to come this year, although he swears when he asks her on the phone she says she doesn't know yet. Anyway, he said, "Can you imagine how horrible it will be for me if Grandma can't come for Christmas? What will I do without her here?"

I empathized. He moped for 30 seconds and then said, "I know what we can do to feel better. We'll both eat a lot of pez. That will help us be less sad about missing Grandma so much."

There you have it.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Answer me this

Why are the bad guys in American movies always killed at the end? Why can't they just go to jail?

Why do French movies always have lame endings? Amélie being a rare exception.

Why did Boy2 start saying 4 the day after I posted about the fact that he never says it?

Why did I agree to throw Boy1 two birthday parties?

Why does Boy2 look so sweet when he's being such a brat?

Why can't I filter out background noise? It's like a hammer in my ears that drives me to madness.

Why do I always end up making something lemon and something chocolate whenever I have to make two desserts?

Why do my 6 and 3 year old boys still have cradle cap, since they're both long out of the cradle?

Why do I miss Seattle so much? It's just a place.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


I usually do ok in the kitchen. Sometimes quite well, others less, but nearly always, at least ok.

I planned last night's dinner at the last minute, which is not how I usually do things. I always have a menu for the week, all the necessary ingredients and all that. But I wasn't in the mood for the meal I had planned for last night and I had a couple of spare duck thighs in the fridge. So I decided to cook those with some shallots and potatoes and apples and raspberry vinegar. Excellent ingredients and I usually know how to cook, so what could go wrong? Well, I'm not sure. But it was nasty. I'm suprised anyone ate it. Seriously. The apples melted (I put them in too early), the potatoes weren't tender enough (too late) but they somehow mangaged to render the sauce really starchy. Yuck. The thighs shrunk down to half their size, the skin wasn't crispy in the least (took the lid off too late), and the vinegar just tasted vinegary and not saucy.

I'm supposed to be making mustard-crusted chicken tonight, but I'm feeling pretty chicken myself. I may just order Indian take-out.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Ah, les vacances scolaires

Just about every six weeks or so, another school vacation hits. Kids start school here the first week of September. And now, just a short time later, or at least that's what it feels like to me, it's time for Autumn Break. Tomorrow is the last day of school until November 6th.

The theory is that the kids are tired and need a break. Never mind that lightening the load all year round might take care of that problem. But whatever.

Then they'll go back to school for 6 more weeks and it'll be time for Christmas Break. Then again until Winter Break mid-February, then another in April. The stretch between Easter Break and the end of school (July 3rd or something like that) is a bit longer, but May is studded with holiday upon holiday so three-day weekends abound.

None of this really mattered to me while I wasn't working. Now it's another story. I'm beginning to think all these vacations are actually a clever way to fill up the Municipal Treasury. Because what do you do with the kids when you work and there's no school? If you're lucky, you can send them to mamie and papy's house for a while. If you're not, you've got a limited number of choices. Activity day camps are available in smaller villages. In a town like Laval, there are big day care centers for bigger kids with activities and cafeterias and stuff like that. But how does sending them there help then get over the intense fatigue they're all experiencing? Beats me.

Our boys will be shuffled around between grandparents' house (Boy1), a friend's house (one morning while I have class) , the library at the Husband's firm to watch a dvd while Husband works (another morning) and the drop in day care center he went to last year on occasion (Boy2 when Boy1 is away). Not restful for anyone, particualrly me, as I will spend most of the time they're being shuffled feeling guilty. Vacation my ass.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

What would life be without 4?

When Boy1 was little and just starting to speak both languages, he mixed things up sometimes. He never said 'that' in sentences like 'Papa told me that I could have some more cake.' He would say "Papa told me que I could have some more cake." The que is easier to pronounce, I figured he'd figure it out eventually, which he did, when he was about 3 1/2. He also never said 'for' and used the French pour instead, although never at the beginning of a sentence. So he would say, 'for me!' if I asked him who the first crêpe was for. But he always said things like, "This book is pour you." I'm sure it was all very logical and systematic in his head. And again, after a while, he figured it out. Interestingly enough, when learning to count in English, he always skipped four. 1,2,3,5,6, all the way up to 10, but never including a four, and never substituting anything for it. Four didn't exist. Poor four.

Boy2 is three. His English is quite good and much more advanced than his French. He says things like, "I already peed!" "My pillow belongs here!" and "Of course you can have a hug." And my favorite, "You can't touch my cookie Mama. Because I said so, and I mean it!"

But, just like Boy1, he always leaves the 'four' out when counting. And he always says pour when it's not found in a sentence initial position. What is up with that? Is there something inherently objectionable in the words for/four? I am a great believer in the wisdom of children's intuitions so I guess there must be.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Ah, la pièce montée

I visited a blog yesterday, jintrinsique, and saw some pictures of wedding cakes. Which got me thinking about my wedding cake, which was just about the ugliest wedding cake EVER.

The traditional French wedding cake is a pièce montée. Cream puffs are piled together in a cone shape, about 2 ft. high at least. The puff mass is then decorated with pieces of nougatine and candied almonds and then the whole thing is coated with a sugar glaze that hardens, holding everything in place and adding crunch.

I like cream puffs as much as anybody. And I never say no to nougatine, who could? But I did not want a pièce montée. I was getting married in France but I didn't want it to be too French - I am American. I, probably like many little girls, have adored wedding cakes for as long as I can remember. I loved the big white kind they made when I was growing up, with lots of white frosting (no doubt made from hydrogenated fat and sugar) and those big frosting roses. Then people started to get creative and wedding cakes got better. I loved the pretty lemon curd filled ones, and the coconut groom's cakes, and the avant-garde chocolate ones. I tried to talk to bakers here about it. They were all stuck in the white cake phase, having seen too many episodes of bad American daytime television. None of them had ever made anything particular for a wedding other than a pièce montée.

The woman organizing the meal for the reception tried to understand. She consulted with the chef, they suggested a fraisier. Perfect! It's one of my all time favorite cakes. It's a vanilla genoise with strawberries and pastry cream in the cake or baked into the edges. I tried to describe how I wanted it to look. Apparently not very well.

When they brought it out, I could only laugh. Had I been a little more on edge, I would've cried. But I had already had my freakout crying session at the hair salon that morning, so laughing was the only option. Besides, I had just gotten married, my friends and family were with us, life was good.

There were four fraisiers, of various sizes, on a large aluminum foil covered board. A small plastic newlywed couple was stuck on top of one of the cakes. The organizer woman looked at me and said, "We tried to do just like you said." Yeah.

It was, without a doubt, the ugliest wedding cake I had ever seen. But, it was also the most delicious. Really amazing. The cake was not soggy, a risk with that kind of cake. It was a perfect balance between moist and firm. The strawberries were sweet and juicy. The pastry cream was light and vanilla-y. Even though it didn't look like it, it was the wedding cake of my dreams. I had two slices.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Ah, la redevance audiovisuelle

Which is just a fancy name for television tax.

You know those PBS (Public Broadcasting System [public tv] for those of you residing outside the U.S.) fundraiser drive things? Well, the have something kind of like that here, but not really. We give 116€ a year to public television, although no one politely asks us if we want to, we just get the bill.

It came in the mail today, on a pretty pink and green and white form. It tells us that the money will be given to the public television channels, France 2, France 3, and la 5. Every household owning a television pays the same thing, regardless of the number of televisions you have. We only have one anyway, so it wouldn't make a difference. We didn't pay it for the first few years we lived together - in-laws gave us one of their televisions so we weren't on the tv tax collector person's master list. But they get you, one way or another. When we bought a vcr for our hand-me-down tv, they got us. When you buy any television accessories, the sale is recorded and your information is transmitted to the AV people.

No one seems to think much about it here, it's been like this for so long. I tend to kick up the dust every year when we get the bill. I do watch channel 2 occasionally, but they have commercials in between programs, which, to me, means it's a lot more private than public. But what do I know? I'm sure if I didn't get billed for it, I wouldn't give 116€ and then where would public television be? I'd answer that, but it would sound bitter.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Ah, l'adaptation

When you live in a foreign country, you adapt. No matter how well you speak the language, no matter how much you look like a local, no matter how much about the culture you think you've learned, you never finish adapting.

It's not a linear process. More like a spiral one, with ins and outs and ups and downs. There are things you understand and others you don't and probably never will.

I'm not sure what it means to be in a constant state of adaptation. And I suppose I'm lucky to have the leisure to contemplate it. If I were a refugee or a clandestine worker in a foreign country, I'd have a lot more to worry about than the essence of adaptation and its effect on my state of mind.

I'm tired today. Tired of speaking a language that is not my own. Tired of switching between formal and informal address depending on who I'm with. Tired of not being entirely understood, and I don't mean my words.

But I think it's really because Boy1 had a nightmare about jellyfish last night and I didn't get enough sleep so I'm just plain tired.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ah, la crêpe

I love crêpes.

In the region where I live, (which is near Brittany - the holy land of crêpes), crêpes are always eaten with sweet toppings - as opposed to savory ones which are reserved for galettes, like a crêpes but made with buckwheat flour and more salt. At the market on saturdays, there is a man in a little trailer kitchen thing who sells big fat herb sausages wrapped in a hot galette.

Toppings for crêpes can include but are not limited to: nutella, melted dark chocolate, salted butter caramel sauce, jam, butter and sugar, honey, sautéed apples and vanilla ice cream, slivered almonds, and whipped cream.

At least 3 or 4 mornings a week the boys have crêpes with nutella for breakfast, but they are probably the only children in France to do so. Most kids have crêpes for snack or perhaps for dessert. I try to talk them into trying other toppings but for the time being they're stuck on nutella, although I have tricked them into an organic, less sweet version.

The best crêpe I've ever had EVER is at a little tiny (seriously, 6 tables) crêperie in Nantes, the Ker something or other. A few of you have been there with me and have tasted the crêpe I'm talking about. Melted dark chocolate, salted butter, and thin confit slices of orange.

I haven't actually gotten (not a word about my past participles choices cbw) around to making my own confit, although I should. But I do make caramel sauce and of course, crêpes.

Makes a lot or a few depending on how thin you make them.

1/2 cup flour (I use spelt but you can use regular)
1/2 cup milk (I use rice milk but you can use cow)
1/4 cup water
some salted butter, melted (something like 2 tablespoons)
2 eggs

Put everything together and whisk. Let sit for at least 30 minutes before making crêpes. I find a heatproof half spatula is best for turning them over if you're not comfortable flipping. Cook until golden on each side, however long that is.

Top with some of Lorraine's grape jam or some of my caramel.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ah, l'amour

Boy1's teacher informed me today at lunch time that Boy1 and his friend E are said to be in love. She and Boy1 apparently quite proudly informed the teacher that they were amoureux, and would no doubt be getting married as soon as possible. Boy1 will be 6 this month so we're not looking at caterers just yet.

On the way home I asked Boy1 about it. So, how do you feel about E? We're in love, he said.

What does that mean for you, to be in love?

Well Mama, why don't you tell me what it means to you and I'll either confirm or deny.

He seriously said that. Confirm or deny.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Friday musings

I started teaching my BTS students today. BTS is a 2-year degree with a specific expertise - often technical or businessy type things. The ones I have are either in sales, managerial assistance, human resources, or client negociations. They've all at least finished high school, and their ages range from 18-25. So, technically, they've all had about 9 years of English instruction.

9 years.

That's a lot, right? One would think so. One would also think their English would be pretty good. But the poor kids looked positively stricken during class today. This is going to be fun. And I'm not being sarcastic. By the way, if anyone out their needs to do research on EFL students, I've got 15 subjects ready for testing...

Anyway, this morning I had to leave for work before the boys left for school. Usually I leave after they're gone. Boy2 needed explanations. Where was I going? What was I going to do? Would I still be at school at 11:30 to pick them up for lunch?

I answered the questions. More questions were asked. What does that mean you help big kids learn to speak English? (I have to say big kids, otherwise it's papas and mamas for him, there is no in between at this point.)

I'm a teacher, I said. A teacher? Like ma Isabelle? (my Isabelle - Boy2's teacher). Yes, like your Isabelle. His eyes lit up. You're Mama and a teacher? Wow, how do you do that?

Um, I wing it.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Integrate this; aka Integration does not equal assimilation

Answer this question honestly. And not as my friend or relative. Upon hearing foreigners of whatever variety speak a language other than English to their children or amongst themselves in a group, what is your reaction?

You don't have to answer in the comments, I was just wondering.

Yesterday I went to the shoe repair shop to have my very very very favorite boots fixed. I got them 10 years ago from a friend. We traded. I gave her a vintage black wool short-waisted jacket (that didn't suit my figure) and she gave me her brown American Eagle scrappy cowgirl boots (this was when American Eagle had not yet become whatever they are now). I wore the heels down last winter, the soles were peeling off, and the sides were lifting off the base. I took them in with the boys. I spoke, in French of course, to the shoe repair person who starting taking the boots apart before my very panicked eyes. He stopped and said, "It looks like I'd better wait until you leave. Your eyes are popping out of your head. Don't worry, they'll recover."

At some point the boys started asking me questions, in English of course, about when we were going to the park. After I answered them, in English of course, Mr. shoe repair person said, "Please reassure me and tell me they speak French too." I nearly took offense (shocking, I know), but I decided not to and stayed cool. "Of course they speak French, they live in France and their father is French. I would not live in a country and refuse to speak its language. But that doesn't mean I have to speak it to my kids. Integration, sir, does not equal assimilation."

But, actually, I think for a lot of people, it does.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Political correctness hits France, results suck

My children are enrolled in a Catholic school. It is technically considered private but today it was revealed to me how public it actually is.

In all fairness, it's not their fault. The system is such that if a private school wants financial support from the government, it is considered sous-contrat - under contract to the government, and therefore obliged to follow certain rules. The academic program set up by Education Nationale must be followed, a certain number of hours of school must take place, and instructors must be of a certain qualification. Nothing bad there.

In a small city like Laval, the schools don't have their own kitchens. The city of Laval makes the food for all the primary schools and delivers it daily. Each day, the boys' teachers tally the number of students who will be eating at the cafeteria the following day (a system of tickets I discussed in the chef de famille post) and within that total is a subtotal of muslim students. There are 3 in Boy1's class. Don't ask me why their parents have chosen a Catholic school, I have no idea. I have no problem with diversity in the classroom. I will admit I find it strange to see a mother with a headscarf come to pick her son up at St. Joseph's. But that's just evidence of my small-mindedness. Anyway, back to the food thing. The subtotal of muslim students receives, the following day, a specially prepared meal (no pork, for example, on days when it's on the menu). Again, no problem.

Here's my problem. The boys at at the cafeteria on Friday. What was on the menu? Braised pork roast. On a friday. So, the muslim students were given an alternative meal, but the Catholics, again, IN A CATHOLIC SCHOOL, were not. Many Catholics aren't strict about the no meat on fridays thing. But some are. And besides, it's the principle of the thing.

Wish me luck, I'm going to call City Hall right now.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A foody post

Friday was Boy2's third birthday. We had a small celebration for him that evening, just the four of us. The bigger event was yesterday, and it was still very moderate. There were 8 adults and 5 kids. I was feeling ambitious when I planned the menu last week, so we had cassoulet. Which was actually kind of fun to make.

I looked up lots of cassoulet recipes and decided to wing it. I soaked the white beans on friday night. Saturday morning, I browned onions, garlic, and giant slabs of bacon in a smidge of duck fat. To this was added a large quantity of the drained beans, homemade stock, and fresh thyme. This mixture cooked very slowly for hours.

In a cast-iron dutch oven, I browned more onions and garlic in duck fat, 5 duck confit thighs, 5 herb saucisses, 1 saucisse de Morteau (a huge cured sausage which is famous but I don't know why, although it was delicious), 1 saucisse de Montbéliard (also famous, also don't know why, also delicious), and of course, a giant l saucisson à l'ail (garlic sausage). I added tomato paste, a bottle of white wine, and 2 bay leaves. This mixture also cooked slowly for hours.

Sunday morning, the two were brought together with minimal splashing and staining of white shirts (why oh why wasn't I wearing my apron?). Then the happy couple cooked together slowly for 4 more hours.

The result was served with a kick-ass Bordeaux and garlic bread made with two baguette de campagne, chives from the yard, and Brittany rock salted butter.

Dessert was cake au citron and a chocolate chiffon cake which I layered and iced with whipped chocolate ganache.

Wish you could've been here to see him blow out his candles.