First Things First!

(Part One:  Mostly Non-Food Tips)

What you need to know on your first trip to France …

I have welcomed dozens of house-guests into my home over the 16+ years I have lived in France.  Many were well-travelled, having been to myriad countries outside of the US and North America, as well as to numerous states in the US.  A handful, however, were European “newbies” and, thus, had lots of questions, and a few anxieties, about their first time being across The Atlantic.  Being out of their element and wanting to avoid embarrassing faux pas, they naturally needed to know how things are different from back home.  Through this experience, I have learned to tell my “newbie” guests these things on their very first day:

Yes, You Can Drink the Tap Water

Although you might not be able to guess this by watching my French neighbors buying stockpiles of bottled spring water at the grocery store, you can drink the safe and frequently-tested tap water in France.  Many French buy bottled water for its taste and mineral content.  The water is safe to drink almost everywhere in western Europe.  Because the water from desalination plants makes the tap water taste “funny” on Malta, however, most residents drink bottled water there, even though the tap water is safe.

To encourage Parisians to drink more tap water, the city’s water utility company has informative exhibits on how Paris gets its water at its visitor center (popular with local teachers and their classes).  Add this to your list of little-known-but-interesting places to see on your next trip.  Before leaving, snap up one of the charming Made-in-France carafes and serve your own tap water in your authentic “Eau de Paris” carafe d’eau when you get back home.  The carafes sport cute designs (the Paris skyline and monuments, for example) and make practical souvenirs.  The visitor center is free; the carafes are 10 Euros each.  Link:  http://www.eaudeparis.fr/nc/lespace-culture/actualites/actualite/news/eau-de-paris-lance-sa-nouvelle-collection-de-carafes-a-chacun-e-son-modele/

Say “Bonjour” First … ALWAYS!

You are polite back home, of course.  You often greet people with “Good morning” or “Hello” before asking questions; but at other times, just your smile, tone of voice, word choice, demeanor, or eye contact with a little tilt of the head is enough of a polite greeting or acknowledgement before asking questions or soliciting assistance.  Not so in France!  There’s just one way to be polite with shopkeepers, new acquaintances and strangers: “Bonjour!”  Even more polite is “Bonjour, Madame” or “Bonjour, Monsieur.”  Practice before you get on the plane, so you are ready when you land.  Follow up with practicing excusez-moi, pardon, s’il vous plait, merci, merci beaucoup, au revoir, bonsoir, bonne journée and bonne soirée … and then pack your bags.  Greet every shopkeeper as you enter his or her establishment with “Bonjour!”  Wherever you travel, using good local manners will make your interactions with residents more pleasant.  Your mom and your kindergarten teacher told you so!

You May Need to Pay to Pee

It can be challenging to find a public restroom while wandering the streets of Paris.  But cafés, brasseries, and bars are everywhere.  Pop into one, order un café (it’s cheapest at the bar, if they have one), and then go find les toilettes.  At some establishments, you’ll need to get a little jeton (token) to put into the lock-box on the toilet door.  Private restaurant “water closets” are for customers only; you pay to pee by buying a cup of coffee.  Some parks, shopping malls and department stores make you pay to pee now, too—but that also means they are attended, clean and well-stocked with the necessities.  This is a good reason to get a few Euros from an ATM soon after arrival; look for one in the airport.

Unisex Bathrooms Are Normal

There are many unisex restrooms in France.  The bathrooms inside your own home are all unisex, but you aren’t used to sharing them with complete strangers, of course!  Even when separate stalls are marked for men and women, in many restrooms the handwashing area is shared by all.  If a woman comes into the restroom and finds her designated stall already in use, don’t be surprised if she ducks into an empty men’s stall, and sometimes vice versa—which means no one will mind if you do it, too.  When in Rome, and all that.  Oh, and locate the light switches on the stall wall upon entering, so when the timer turns the light off you aren’t fumbling in the dark for too long!  Reflect on what a great energy-saving feature this is while fumbling.

Taxes and Tips Are Already Included in the Prices

The price tags on merchandise already include the taxes.  And, in restaurants, prices on the menus already include both the taxes and the tip (usually 15%).  You don’t need to leave extra, although many folks round the bill up to the nearest Euro or leave a few coins.  Americans will often leave an extra 5%, but it’s OK if you don’t.

Don’t Handle the Produce in the Market Stalls

In regular grocery stores, you select your own produce, and then bag it and weigh it yourself. The market merchants do this for you in most open-air markets.  It is rude to handle, squeeze and sniff the food there!  Market vendors consider themselves experts on the fresh produce and other foods they sell, and are proud of their offerings and service to their customers.  Ask questions, yes, but please don’t touch.  This holds true for the antiquarian booksellers or bouquinistes who operate out of those dark green, clam-shell stalls perched on the walls along the Seine—it’s best to ask to handle the old prints, books and papers … just in case.  Even better:  ask to handle only if you really intend to buy something!

Carry a Reusable Shopping Bag

France is moving away from wasteful and polluting, single-use, plastic bags and encouraging everyone to carry their own reusable bags.  I carry “stuffable,” washable nylon ones.  If you are not offered a bag for your purchases (very common now), and you don’t have any with you, just ask for them and you will be charged a nominal fee per bag for what you need.  The cashiers have a stash to sell you.

In Part Two, I will address some basic food tips “newbies” should have before venturing into their first Paris restaurant.  And, now for the haiku:

——————————————–

Wandering from home …

Step in the right direction

To avoid faux pas 

——————————————–


Joyeux Noël and Bonnes Fêtes!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

It’s Christmas in France (and Hanukkah, too, this year!).  Under the Christmas tree (sapin de Noel) the crèche scene is now complete, as the baby Jesus made his appearance there at midnight last night, Christmas Eve.  Sleeping in later than usual this morning, after over-indulging on long evening dinners of smoked salmon, oysters and foie gras last night (finished with beautiful log-shaped, frosted cakes called bûche de Noël, decorated with miniatures of forest or lumberjack or North Pole scenes), my neighbors will eventually all be out strolling along the Seine this afternoon.  They will be impeccably dressed and out enjoying fresh air with their parents, grandparents, babies and dogs.

In the Paris cafes that are open to serve tourists on Christmas, you can enjoy some vin chaud and hot chocolate.  Try the various roast poultry and fowl, with chestnuts if possible, for lunch or dinner.  Buy a little sack of roasted chestnuts from the street vendors roasting them over round charcoal stoves.  Enjoy the decorated windows, and the fresh pine garlands that encircle doorways.

I do not find the “touristy” Paris Christmas markets particularly interesting, but they can provide a destination point for a nice promenade in good weather, and any young children you have in tow will find them attractive. If you’re in the Alsace-Lorraine region, however, then these Christmas markets are “must-sees,” as they are authentic in this region and stocked with higher-quality goods and food.  If you have a couple of days, take a train to Strasbourg for an authentic treat!  You’ll need a car or bus tour to explore the smaller, charming towns in the Alsace region (Colmar, Eguisheim, Riquewihr, and Kaysersberg, to name a few of my favorites), but the train to Strasbourg is easy and quick. Unlike the German Christmas markets, which all close on or before Dec. 24, the larger French ones stay open through New Year’s.  Go, if you can. And, now for the haiku to mark the season:

——————————————–

Signs of the season

On the hearth and on our plates

Yule logs ev’rywhere

——————————————–

yule-log

To Market, to Market!   To Buy Some Fresh Figs!

Hurry, hurry!  Fresh fig season is almost finished for the year!  It’s early October, and if you see fresh figs in any menu item right now, order that dish—whether an entrée (appetizer), plat (main course) or dessert (or all three, if you love fresh figs as much as I do).  Especially do not pass up my favorite seasonal entrée–roasted figs and chèvre (goat cheese) with a drizzle of honey, served warm.*

I was so delighted to return to France from my summer vacation in time for mirabelle season (see my August 2016 post), that I completely overlooked the figs that were coming in, too.  Fig and mirabelle seasons overlap.  The two fruits sometimes even appear together in the same dessert.

My First Fresh Fig

I’ll tell you a little fig story.  There were no fresh figs in my childhood in Minnesota.  I loved Fig Newton cookies, sure.  And, I could identify those hard, brown, squished, leathery-looking “things” in the dried-fruit tray we gave Grandma every year for Christmas as “the figs.”  But, there were no fresh figs.  No one cooked with figs or made them into pies.  Nope.

Fresh figs first entered my life 16 years ago, when we moved to France.  I hate to admit this, but I did not know what they were when I first laid eyes on them—plump, deep purple, teardrop-shaped dollops of heaven.  I was shopping in my town’s open-air market when I spotted them.  Each was partially wrapped in a bit of paper and carefully separated from its neighbor in a tray with little cupped depressions in it, because fresh, ripe figs are soft and fragile (not hard and dry!).  My eyes wandered up to the little signs hanging overhead from the market stall awning … figues.  Figs?  “You’re kidding,” I thought to myself.  I bought half a dozen to try and the rest, as they say, is history.

My husband, who has travelled all over the world for his job, and thus has much broader culinary experience than I do (but I’m catching up), knew they were figs and knew how to eat them, of course.  A good thing, too, because I wasn’t sure if they needed to be peeled!  Well, they became a favorite and I look forward to them every year.  There are numerous varieties, but I stick to the big purple ones (la figue noire or figue violette) with their brownish-pink flesh, because they are beautiful to serve.  Delicious goes without saying.

The advice from my August mirabelles blog post holds here, too:  don’t overlook grocery stores as sources of tasty gifts and edible souvenirs.  Even if you miss fresh fig season while you’re in France, consider buying some French-made confiture de figues (fig jam) to bring home!   The figs themselves may come from several different countries, but the French-made jams are typically wonderful.  And don’t miss the “true” fig haiku down below!

* (Note:  I love fresh raw figs, but sometimes they cause my mouth and throat to itch a bit.  The dried ones don’t do this.  Cooking the fresh figs seems to break down the molecule causing the slight irritation for me, so I prefer them cooked.  This works well for other fruit, too.  Both apples and cherries are often served cooked at my house because the raw ones bother different members of my family.  We enjoyed this roasted fig recipe several times this fall:   http://www.popsugar.com/food/Easy-Roasted-Fig-Goat-Cheese-Recipe-9205886 )

Clandestine harvest—

Birds in the neighbor’s fig tree

Drop figs in my yard

figs-photo-2

The Little Joys of Late Summer

Whew!  I made it.  I arrived home from my wonderful tour of China just in time for mirabelle season in France!  It’s late August and fresh mirabelles are appearing in the open-air markets.   Mirabelle tarts fill the pastry shop windows; mirabelle jams cram the shelves in the grocery stores.  Myriad bottles of eau-de-vie de mirabelle will be on sale soon.

What are mirabelles, you ask?  A reason to visit France in late August!  These little yellow plums (the size of a large olive) have a short season and are limited in availability.  They’re colorful, soft, sweet, fragrant, flavorful and perfect.  Grown mainly in the Lorraine region of France and loved by everyone, they will disappear quickly!

If you’re in Paris, or anywhere in France, during mirabelle season, get a bagful at the market and try the tarte aux mirabelles if offered for dessert in a restaurant.  Then, duck into a grocery store and buy a jar of mirabelle jam to take home as a souvenir!  Or, better, buy two!

I have a friend whose country-house property in Normandy has a mirabelle tree and I have harvested these little joys of late summer in the traditional manner there—by shaking the tree branches and catching the ripe mirabelles in a blanket spread under the tree.  And now a haiku (in modern form) to mark the season:

 

late summer–

the fruits of our labors

ripe enough to eat

mirabelles photo

Happy May Day! 

The first of May is Labor Day (la Fête du Travail) in France, a holiday.  The day honors the work of all workers, and is similar to Labor Day observed on the first Monday of September in the United States.  Because it falls on a Sunday this year (2016), many French workers will get Monday off; some businesses and most government offices will be closed.  Check that your intended destination will be open before you set out!

The first of May is also a traditional day to wish happiness or bonheur to anyone you are visiting.  In France, a sprig of Lily-of-the-Valley is considered a good-luck charm, or un porte-bonheur.  Offering your friends or family members a sprig of Lily-of-the-Valley (un brin de muguet) on May Day is one of my favorite French traditions.

The tradition goes back as far as the first day of May in 1561, when someone offered King Charles IX of France un brin de muguet as un porte-bonheur and he decided to offer them to the ladies of his court every May Day after that.  Other typical French lucky charms are four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, and lady bugs.

How lucky I felt ten years ago, when we bought a house in France, to discover that the tiny white bells of this little lily sprouted up from their slumbering bulbs right outside our new front doorstep in late April, ready to pick on May 1st.  Fresh sprigs pack quite a punch for such a small flower.  One sprig fills a room with the delicate scent for a week.

May Day Memories

Lily-of-the-Valley grew under my bedroom window when I was young, and it bloomed just about the time it was warm enough to open the window on sunny afternoons for a breath of fresh spring air.  It was my mom’s favorite fragrance–and the Avon lady knew it!

The sale of flowers and other goods on the streets and sidewalks is regulated in France, but officials will normally look the other way for May Day and the sale of muguet.  Many people will offer sprigs for sale and it’s generally considered tolerable for you to buy them from anyone on the few days around May 1st.

In the May Days of my childhood in Minnesota, my sisters and I made May Day baskets from empty milk cartons and construction paper, filling them with “flowers” made from tissue paper and pipe cleaners.  Then early in the morning on May 1st, we’d hang our home-made baskets on the doorknobs of our neighbors’ houses, ring their doorbells, and run like crazy to hide!

In other countries, there are “May poles” to dance around to welcome spring, or bonfires to celebrate the midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.  (Read about “Beltane,” a Celtic celebration, in Wikipedia, for example.)    May our merry-month-of-May traditions never wither!   Wishing you happiness on May Day.  And now for a pair of haiku—one for Mom, and one for Paris:

 

The fragrance of May

From tiny white bells–

Reminding me of home

*************

In his coat pockets–

Sprigs of little white lilies

And crusty baguettes

DSC_0012

Haiku, Paris, and Black History Month—

All Come Together in Richard Wright!

When I started writing haiku seriously about two and a half years ago, I searched Amazon.com for haiku books to help me learn.  My query brought up numerous English translations of Japanese haiku written by the four renowned old masters:  Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki.  Then there were the how-to-haiku handbooks and modern collections and anthologies by members of various haiku societies.  There were also over a dozen children’s books using the “traditional” haiku form to tell a tale or teach about the seasons.

Then, there was a big surprise!  Richard Wright (1908-1960), the author of Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and Twelve Million Black Voices (1941), among many other works, had a large collection of haiku published posthumously in 1998.  The surprise got even better—Mr. Wright had written all of them when he lived in France!  I ordered a copy immediately.  (See HAIKU: The Last Poems of an American Icon, by Richard Wright; Arcade Publishing, New York, c1998.)

I was encouraged by his prolific haiku outpouring.  If such an esteemed literary figure, who wrote often about the African-American experience in the Deep South before the Civil Rights Movement, could suddenly embrace haiku and relish its elevation of the ordinary to the sublime—then haiku was a poetry genre worthy of my effort, too!

Healing Haiku

In the book’s introduction, written by his daughter, Julia Wright, we learn that haiku writing may have been a tonic, a respite, and a joy to this gifted writer whose health was declining, and who was grieving the loss of several people dear to him:  his beloved mother, Ella; his friend and favorite editor, Ed Aswell; and his good friend Richard Padmore.  Other unsettling events were unfolding in the last years of his life, too, including being embroiled in nasty Cold War politics stemming from his earlier connections with various Communist groups.

In the last 18 months of his life, unable to write longer works due to his failing health, Richard Wright wrote more than 4000 haiku and left his personal selection of 817 of them in a manuscript for his editor.  His daughter writes in her introduction, “But writing these poems kept him spiritually afloat.”   The American writer, who had moved to Paris, France, in 1946, in self-exile, died there in 1960, at age 52.  He’s buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.

Almost all of his haiku are in the standard form taught at that time—in three lines of 5, then 7, then 5 syllables, with a seasonal reference.   I gobbled them up, recognizing vintage French country-scapes in poem after poem.  There were thunderstorms, blossoming fruit trees, cats, rats, dogs, snowflakes, horses, cows, crows and sunshine.  There are another 3200 unpublished haiku hiding in a Yale library that I hope will see the light of day someday, too.  In illness, being mindful of the natural beauty around him, Mr. Wright writes of wonder.

I read one review that suggested this haiku collection would have been more celebrated and appreciated if it had been published in 1960, soon after Mr. Wright’s death, when “5-7-5 haiku” were the accepted, unquestioned norm.  But, thirty-eight years later, in 1998, when it was finally published, the accepted form of English-language haiku had changed.

Due to the great structural differences between the Japanese and English languages, including how to count “sounds” or syllables in their words, serious haiku poets learned that, more often than not, a17-syllable English-language haiku was much longer than a Japanese-language haiku with 17 “sounds,” a few of which even act as voiced punctuation.  New standards for haiku writing in English evolved, so that by 1998, many of Wright’s haiku seemed a bit old-fashioned and long-winded to writers of more “modern” haiku.

Worth Your Time to Read

Oh, but there are gems here!  And there’s evidence that Mr. Wright knew when just enough was said to make a perfect haiku—without counting syllables.  He was a great wordsmith, after all.  Here are a few of my favorites:

——————————————————-

Just enough of rain

To bring the smell of silk

From umbrellas.

———————————————

Yet another dawn

Upon yellowing leaves

And my sleepless eyes.

 ——————————————

Winter rain at night

Sweetening the taste of bread

And spicing the soup.

———————————————————

Last summer, my husband and I took a little “field trip” out to the tiny farming village of Ailly, in Normandy, where Mr. Wright had owned a country retreat.  Many of his haiku were so obviously written there.  Then we wandered around the serene “Le Moulin d’Andé” compound, once a cozy writers’ colony where Wright spent time with friends and fellow writers.

I stood at the edge of the mill pond and looked out over the water.  I paid my homage by imagining him here with his friends, in the prime of life, with his family, relaxed and appreciated and free.  The mill pond was teeming with life:  little fish and frogs, sunning turtles, ducks and singing birds, and dragonflies, bright blue ones.  And, of course, I wrote a haiku.

—————————————–

He stood here once …

Watching other dragonflies

On other lily pads.

—————————————-

I recommend HAIKU: The Last Poems of an American Icon, by Richard Wright; Arcade Publishing, New York, c1998.

wright

The old writers' colony at "Le Moulin d'Andé" in Normandy, as it looks today, with its mill pond.

The old writers’ colony at “Le Moulin d’Andé” in Normandy, as it looks today, with its mill pond.

 

It’s La Fête de la Chandeleur (or Candlemas) Today!

And in France, That Means Crêpes!

It will be difficult to find a seat in a French crêperie today, February 2nd.  Families and groups of friends will be eating crêpes in restaurants, or at home; and crêpe parties are common among colleagues at the office, too.  Why?  Because it’s la fête de la Chandeleur, of course!  For Christians, the feast day marks the presentation of Jesus at the temple.

But why celebrate with crêpes, exactly?  A source of English-language news on France, “The Local,” enlightens us here:  http://www.thelocal.fr/20160202/why-do-the-french-eat-crepes-on-le-chandeleur

While based originally on a religious observance involving the blessing of candles and candle-lit processions in churches, even the non-religious enjoy the fun of la Chandeleur crêpe-making traditions, and its associated good-luck game, too.  To play, hold a gold coin in your left hand while tossing and catching a crêpe in a frying pan with your right hand.  If you are successful, you will be rich in the coming year!

While crêpes with sweet fillings from stalls and open-window, take-away outlets in Paris make wonderful snacks and street-food, a perfect meal at a crêperie consists of a savory crêpe as your main course, a sweet one for dessert, and a bowl of cidre, or hard cider.   My favorite crêpe-on-the-run combination is banana with dark chocolate—it’s almost a meal replacement on a busy day!

A Typical Crêperie Meal

Main course:  The savory crêpes, called a galettes or galettes de sarrasin, are made with an unsweetened buckwheat flour batter, and are available with numerous combinations of meats, veggies, cheeses and sauces, often topped with an egg, if you wish.  You’ll typically find ham, tuna, chicken, tomatoes, lettuce, mushrooms, cheese and ratatouille among your choices.

Dessert:  The sweet crêpes, called crêpes de froment, are made from a slightly sweetened wheat flour batter, and are offered with choices such as butter and sugar, salty-butter caramel, berries, whipped cream, chocolate, jams (or confitures), banana, and a hazelnut-chocolate spread (often Nutella), among many others.

Beverage:  The traditional beverage to enjoy with crêpes is chilled cidre, a “hard” apple cider with alcohol content similar to beer.  The brut versions are drier and have slightly higher alcohol content than the sweeter doux versions.  Some restaurants offer it in pitchers, while others offer it only in full bottles.

And, now for the haiku, of course!

B&W gargoyles haiku

Crepe-maker 2012