Fun with Anthropomorphism

November 28, 2006 at 4:09 pm | Posted in food, vie quotidienne | 5 Comments

There is a rumor afoot in these parts. I don’t want to be counting any chickens, but word on the street is, there might be an approved carte de séjour making the rounds of French bureaucracy today. It has also been casually hinted that a paycheck (including three months back-pay!) may also be on its way.

Do you know what this means? Groceries!

In related news:


Is that not a weird looking eggplant? It should be a character in a children’s show.

eggplant face

Fais dodo, Monsieur l’Aubergine!

Tomorrow: eggplant parmesan.


Silver Linings

November 24, 2006 at 10:53 pm | Posted in vie quotidienne | 8 Comments

I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the summer, when it sizzles
I love Paris in the winter, when it drizzles.

Yes, we all love Paris, but man, Frankie wasn’t wrong about that last line. It’s undeniably winter around these parts, and that means rain, rain, rain. And not those big, exciting extravaganzas of lightning and thunder that you get in the spring and summer — no, for the next four to six months, we’ll be treated to a steady, unrelenting grey drizzle.

bedroom window, rainy day

This is the view from my bed every morning for the past month. It’s also the view at mid-morning, lunch time, and mid-afternoon. By five pm, it’s pitch dark. As a result, I’ve more or less gone into hibernation mode: for some reason, I find it nearly impossible to wake up before 11 am. Usually I spend the day alternately editing and napping, then have a little soup in the evening and head back to bed — when the world is this grey and wet, leaving the apartment for anything more than a baguette requires a huge emotional investment.

This morning, however, we had a mission. Brumaire and I got up at a decent hour, wrapped ourselves in as many impermeable layers as possible, and slogged our soggy way over to Credit Lyonnais to open a French bank account.

I admit, our hopes were low as we trudged through the rain. After two months in France, we are becoming quite familiar with the endless bureaucracy involved in every official transaction — incomprehensible forms, contradictory instructions, endless demands for documents… We were fully expecting to come away from the bank with nothing more than an appointment for a later meeting, at which point we would surely be told we were lacking the correct documents, and we’d have to start all over.

But guess what:


We got a bank account! It turns out, French banking bureaucracy, although considerably denser than American banking bureaucracy, is no sweat when compared to French governmental bureaucracy.

They did, of course, ask us for an obscene number of documents and forms. But luckily, we had already assembled them all in our (still futile) attempts to get Brumaire his carte de séjour (work permit) — all we were lacking was an up to date electric bill. But the bank lady was so nice, she actually waived that requirement since we had two other utility bills. Can you believe that? They waived a requirement! Unheard of.

Despite the rain still beating against my windows, I can’t help feeling that this is truly a fine day for France. Who knows what may be next? The carte de séjour? A paycheck? Or perhaps even a day of sunshine!

Pizza à l’Américain, Part Ew

November 20, 2006 at 2:24 pm | Posted in food | 5 Comments

Anyone out there remember the pizza menu of horror? Well, that story just got a lot more horrific.

Brumaire, who has a far more adventurous palate than I, decided it wasn’t enough to simply laugh at the pizza descriptions. How parochial, how unscientific! What if these seemingly odd flavor combinations were, in fact, delightful? Wouldn’t I feel guilty for unfairly maligning them?

So the other day, he came home with not one, but both of the pizzas I had so presumptuously derided. And were they delicious?

New York, closer

Yeah. About as delicious as a kick in the nuts.
Bleurgh… I feel ill all over again just looking at this pic, in all its barbeque saucy, hamburgery, pickly glory.

Indiana pizza

That’s the Indiana: tomato, cheese, chicken, potato, and curry. Halfway through the experiment, Brumaire asked me which pizza I preferred. I just stared at him, mind boggling with the options: barbeque and pickles? tomato-cheese-curry? Even when I rephrased the question to: Which of these combinations makes me least want to hurl? I still couldn’t answer.

It was awful. Quite probably the worst pizza I have ever eaten (and I have eaten pizza in England). Or, as Brumaire so eloquently put it, “this pizza was rape.”


November 10, 2006 at 12:41 pm | Posted in backstory, food | 13 Comments

On Monday night, I joined Robyn of The Girl Who Ate Everything for a long-anticipated tartare. Knowing how superior her photographic skills (not to mention her camera) are to mine, I decided to leave the digcam at home and let her worry over angle, lighting, and focus, while I contented myself with simply scarfing my food.

So, if you’re the kind of person who enjoys luscious photographs of steak tartare, canard aux pruneaux, mounds of french fries, oeuf a la neige, and a lovely poire belle helene, I heartily suggest you look here.

As for me… Well, it turns out that I am not 20 years old anymore, and my stomach lining is no longer made of steel. I enjoyed the meal very much, but it’s pretty rare that I eat dessert these days, much less two desserts (we shared). The upshot is, my body staged a full-on revolt, and I spent the next couple of days in bed, avoiding all rich and/or elaborate foodstuffs.

Which begs the question: what does a foodie eat when she is off her food?

At 3am on Tuesday morning, I vowed before God and man that I would never eat anything ever again. That resolution was short-lived, however, and by the following evening I had decided I could maybe manage a little cereal.

I’ve mentioned before that, due to the sour milk, the French are not too big on breakfast cereal. It does exist, however, and believe it or not, it actually tends more toward the sugary end of the spectrum than even American cereals.

As I lay in bed, trying to imagine what food my ravaged body might possibly be able to accept, I remembered something from childhood. Chocapic!


This was the only cereal we were ever offered when I was in summer camp, and it was considered a special treat. Normally, we received a veritable feast of coffee and hot chocolate, crusty baguettes, creamy-sweet butter, honey, jam, apple sauce, and assorted other delicacies. But I still remember the pandemonium on the day the chef de cuisine came out with a box of Chocapic: squeals of delight filled the air, and fifty chairs were pushed back as one as children scrambled to be the first to fill their bowls.

All this for some cereal? It was a mystery to me, but it wasn’t long before I, too, discovered the rich, chocolaty glory of the Chocapic. And this week, as my body rejected all the subtle, complex flavors this country has on offer, it turned out that Chocapic was the only thing that would do.

Or well, almost Chocapic. The real thing is, like most cereal, ridiculously overpriced, so I went with the off-brand:

Wheat Choco

Wheat-choco? Only in France would anyone consider the word “wheat” appropriate for marketing a chocolaty children’s cereal. I guess that’s why the generic brand is cheaper — they cut corners on their “appropriating American words in an effort to sound hip and appealing” class.

No matter — the substance was just as I remembered it.

chocolate petals!

Take note: this is no light and airy chocolate puff, a la choco-kripies or coco-puffs. This is the real deal — thick, heavy shards of chocolate, designed to maximize the density of chocolate in the bowl.

with milk

Add milk.


Stirring is necessary, or else the chocolate shards remain unpleasantly hard and unforgiving.


And when you’re done: chocolate milk!

Of course, I should note that real French kids don’t eat this cereal with cold milk — they dump it into their hot chocolate. Talk about decadence!

Haussmann-free Paris

November 8, 2006 at 3:23 pm | Posted in vie quotidienne | 2 Comments

In the mid-nineteenth century, Napoleon III commissioned Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to rebuild Paris for the modern era. Up until this point, Paris had been much like other European cities: dirty, dark, disorderly, and in grave danger of fire or plague. But Haussmann changed all that — he swept away most of the teetering medieval houses and stinking alley-ways, and replaced them with broad, sunlit boulevards and solid stone buildings with matching façades.

Nowadays, as you walk around the city, you see a lot of this:


And it’s beautiful. All those blue slate roofs, the wrought iron railings, the pierre de taille… For a lot of people, that Haussmann look is the very definition of Paris.


It gets a little dull. After a couple of months of living here, all those grand vistas terminating in perfectly manicured parks and brilliantly illuminated fountains start to seem a little blah. And maybe it’s just an onslaught of the winter greys, but lately I find myself yearning for winding back streets and ramshackle, idiosyncratic structures.

Luckily, there are little pockets of “old Paris” hiding here and there throughout the city, if you know where to look. Here are a few of my favorite spots from the streets around my apartment:

rue Rataud

This is one of my favorite little streets — twisty and a bit creepy looking, especially at night.

Here, wood-beamed passageways hint at a medieval past:


And lead you unexpectedly into narrow, flower-filled back streets:

Square Vermen

Paris has about a million water fountains, and most of them look something like this:


But occasionally you turn a corner and come across something a bit more humble (and a lot more practical):


Do you have any favorite, Haussmann free corners of Paris? If so, please share a few — I’d love to have some new neighborhoods to explore.


November 3, 2006 at 2:04 pm | Posted in backstory, books, writing | 8 Comments

As some of you may know, I am currently slogging my way through Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Last night I came upon this gem in the notes et variantes section, from a letter written by Flaubert on the 18th of April, 1854:

Next September, I will have been working on this book for three years. That’s a long time, three years spent on the same idea, writing in the same style (particularly a style which has about as much to do with my personality as with the emperor of China’s), living always with the same characters, in the same setting, constantly beating oneself up over the same illusion.*

As of November 1st, I have been at work on my novel, more or less consistently, for exactly three years. It seems a bit wrong to celebrate it as a birthday, since I don’t think the book’s been properly “born” yet — let’s just call it the third anniversary of its conception.

And I have to agree with Flaubert: it is an awfully long time to be living with these characters, these ideas, this stylistic voice which, although it may have more in common with my voice than with the erstwhile emperor of China’s, is nonetheless a sometimes awkward and imperfect fit. But it is nice to know that this titan of literature once experienced the same exhaustion and ennui that I am now encountering.

I haven’t done it much on this blog, but longtime readers of my livejournal know that I love to, well… bitch about my writing. I tear my hair out over an inelegant turn of phrase, I despair over the occasional cliché, and a minor plot hole can send me spiraling off into deepest depression. And don’t get me started on the irrational rage inspired by certain friends and acquaintances who innocently note how easy it all is for them.

In light of this character defect of mine, I’m sometimes asked why I bother: “If writing makes you so unhappy, why do you do it? Why waste your life on something that brings you no pleasure?”

I can only answer that pleasure is sometimes found via a circuitous path.

This may sound a bit weird (and irredeemably geeky), but I think it best compares to the pleasure of completing a jigsaw puzzle. Now, jigsaw puzzles aren’t for everyone — lots of people think they are dull and frustrating and completely pointless. Why would I put so much effort into building a picture that I could just buy as a poster, and probably cheaper?

Puzzle nerds, of course, can’t help but smile at this question. Yes, jigsaw puzzles are frustrating. There’s a moment, just after you’ve spilled all those tiny pieces all over your table or floor, when you can’t help but think, Jesus, why am I doing this? And there’s another point, about two-thirds through, when you’ve finished all the easy parts, and all that’s left is about a hundred indistinguishable grey pieces, and you think, That’s it, this puzzle is a dud. They gave me way more pieces than I need, and none of them fit together! Obviously there’s been a mistake at the factory.

And if you are a normal human being, you walk away and watch tv or something. But if you are a puzzle geek, you will persevere, because you know that just behind this despair, a quiet sense of triumph is waiting for you when you find that perfect piece that suddenly brings the whole picture into view.

For me, that’s what writing is like: a series of seemingly impossible puzzles that only make sense once I, through perseverance and dumb luck, stumble happily on their solutions. That plot hole can be fixed by changing the season from late spring to early fall! That ugly turn of phrase will work if only I replace those two clunky words with this lovely one! And look here: a fabulously original way to restate that sloppy old cliché!

And suddenly the whole thing starts to fit together quite beautifully, and you allow yourself to feel just a little bit proud of all the hard work you did to get there.

Right now, the puzzle I’m attacking is, How do I take a character who is meant to be campy and over-the-top, and make her accessible and sympathetic? And all without resorting to cliché? At the moment, this problem seems insurmountable. I lay in bed last night thinking, “That’s it, it’s just not possible. I’m going to have to throw the whole book away.”

But today, the sun is shining, my calendar is clear, and the ghost of Flaubert is looking over my shoulder. So, who knows? Maybe today is the day that it all falls into place.


* “Il y aura en septembre prochain trois ans que je suis sur ce livre. Cela est long, trois ans passés sur la même idée, à écrire du même style (de ce style-là surtout, où ma personalité est aussi absente que celle de l’empereur de Chine), à vivre toujours avec les mêmes personnages, dans le même milieu, à se battre les flancs toujours pour la même illusion.” The translation is mine, please forgive any errors or stylistic oddities.

Halloween Horrors!

November 2, 2006 at 1:22 am | Posted in food | 5 Comments

Look! A hand bloodied from gouging out the eyes of a homicidal maniac!

bloody hand

Or, actually, my hand after distributing raspberries for dessert.

raspberries and cream

All around Paris, street vendors are practically giving away raspberries a E1.50 a box. I don’t think of this as berry season, but who am I to argue with their luscious, finger-staining bounty? I don’t argue, I just pile them on top of sliced quatre quarts cake and crème fraîche, then sprinkle on a bit of sugar.

But wait! The horrors continue… Putrid moldy zombie guts!

zombie guts

Or, in fact, an odd photo of the tartiflette I made last night.


The chilly weather we’ve been seeing has made me yearn for hearty, cheese-laden dishes like this one: potatoes, lardons, onions, and crème fraîche, all baked under big slices of reblochon cheese until the whole thing is a lovely, gooey mess.

But just when you thought it was safe to eat cheese… It’s a hideous, gnarled, disembodied goblin finger, beckoning you to your death!

goblin finger

Alternatively, it’s a weird looking potato.

abundance of raclette

Because we are gluttons for punishment (or, more accurately, just gluttons), we weren’t satisfied with last night’s tartiflette, and decided to go out this afternoon for more cheese. We found a cozy little place nearby offering a raclette à volonté. All you can eat melted cheese? Yes, please.

As you can see from the photo, the restaurant took this quite seriously, insisting on bringing out new plates of hot cheese far faster than we could consume them. And so, for quite possibly the first time in my life, I left unfinished cheese on the table.

Talk about a Halloween Horror.

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