Friday, October 14, 2011

Reverse Culture Shock

It's been over six weeks since I have returned from my year in Paris and I can honestly say that the re-adjustment to my American life is still sorting itself out in many ways both expected and unexpected.

For starters, I had to retrain myself not to greet my fellow Americans with a, "Bonjour," and not to leave them with a, "Merci, au revoir." This took about three days. Yet, even though I am no longer feeling the impulse to speak French, I cannot shake the urge to say an immediate, "Hello," upon entering a place of business. I admit, this does feel a bit strange when I enter Target because usually the security guard is busy looking at the floor with his hands in his pockets and I fear that I've startled him with my Frenchie politeness.

Within hours of landing at SFO, Soren and I shifted into high-gear in order to complete a few important pieces of business: buy Soren a car and eat Mexican food, Zachary's Pizza, and BBQ. We set out on these missions and found ourselves at a cookie cutter strip mall in the East Bay between test drives ordering BBQ and requesting salad dressing on the side without so much as a raised eyebrow from the counter clerk. All the while I was lamenting the fact that my American life is not set up to operate easily as a one-car (let alone no-car) family. Nevertheless, as we ate our ribs with knife and fork (French dining habits die hard), I still fantasized about walking all over Walnut Creek to complete my weekly errands. I do not kid myself that Bart can ever replace Paris' Metro in my fantasy.

My daydreaming was interrupted when Soren and I noticed something- a boob job. She walked by, tanned, bleached blonde, and porn-star perky when suddenly, the plasticity of it all brought forth giggles from us both. Her unnatural aesthetic was a shock to my system simply because my eyes had not seen (obvious) cosmetic surgery on any French woman for an entire year. Heck, I can't go a whole day in my community without seeing an obvious mommy makeover or a female face frozen from one too many injectables.

Shocking still was the fact that at this moment a waitress approached our table to ask if everything was to our liking (what, the boob job or the BBQ ribs?) She also commented on the weather and asked if we needed a doggie-bag, a term we had forgotten even exists. We really appreciated this attentiveness at a restaurant; we had grown accustomed to going without so much as a water refill when dining out in France. Better yet, lunch cost us only $15. For the same price in Paris, only one of us could have enjoyed the BBQ.

After gorging on our ribs we began making our way to our parked car- which we purposefully parked far away from our intended restaurant so as to maximize our pedestrianism in my attempt to infuse walking into my suburban life as much as possible- when a driver in an approaching car actually slowed down and stopped to allow us to cross, even without the presence of a crosswalk! He had no clue as to why our thank-you for his kindness was so effusive. During the remainder of our long walk to our car, we began noting the barrage of culture shocks we had just encountered in this brief period of time. Little did I know that more were to come.

We finally found a car to buy and as we were completing the financial piece of the transaction, my bladder let me know that it could no longer hold the water and wine that I had consumed with my ribs  (wine with lunch; another Frenchie habit that I intend to keep) and it was so nice to have access to a readily available restroom in a retail establishment. I didn't even have to buy a cup of coffee to gain access- only a car!

As if all of these weren't enough to shock my system, I realized that after spending the day driving approximately 120 miles round trip from the East to the South Bay and back, we didn't pay a single toll. Had we driven this same distance in France, we would have been at least $25 poorer. Although the condition of our American roads reflect this difference in tollbooth norms, it felt nice to be able to exclaim, "Everything is so cheap in America!" This feeling has since worn off, darn it.

Not wanting to let go of our lunching out habit just yet, Soren and I ventured to downtown Walnut Creek one afternoon and parked in a metered space (begrudgingly, we drove, but only because Soren wanted to break in his new car). Approaching the meter, we discovered that Soren had no change on him and my wallet was still filled with mostly euro coins. After digging around in my wallet, I managed to scrounge enough American change to feed the meter which provided us with 48 minutes for parking. Soren and I turned to each other and remarked, "That's not enough time for a Parisian lunch, but it's plenty for an American one!" During our half-mile drive back home (my Parisian mind now realizes this is such a walkable distance!) I realized that we had failed to recalibrate ourselves to the requirements of American dining because we neglected to remember that, on this side of the Atlantic, leaving a tip is standard practice. Oops.

On one of my first days back home, while I was grocery shopping in order to re-stock our cupboards and fridge with food, I ran into a woman I know who was shopping with her husband who, she explained, had just returned from living in Mongolia for two years. When he learned that I had just returned from living in Paris he stated, "You were still living in the Western world, I was in Mongolia, now that's culture shock." While I admit that varying degrees of culture shock occur depending on one's geographical location (my two weeks spent traveling in India allow me to know this for a fact), little did her husband know that, for me, shopping at Trader Joe's where I could read every single word on the labels, ask a store clerk for something without having to first silently translate my request in my head- let alone dig for the courage to do so-, buy bottled salad dressing, tortilla chips, frozen waffles, organic peanut butter, choose from a selection of salsas that made my head spin, and stand at the checkout while somebody else bags my groceries, is, what I would call culture shock.

Last week I was lunching at a downtown eatery when I heard the voice of my longtime friend call out to me from another table. As I turned to greet her with a big hug (alas, not a double cheek kiss) I realized that she was wearing workout clothes and sitting at a large table with a group of similarly clad women in exercise pants, tennis shoes, baseball caps, and racer-back jogging tops. This very Californian scenario struck me in an amusing way because I never saw anyone dine in a Parisian restaurant in workout clothes nor did I ever see large groups of Parisian women enjoying a meal together.

It occurred to me then that since moving back home, I have yet to venture out into my community without a shower and "a look" (as Tim Gunn from 'Project Runway' would say). I quickly learned that the Parisian norm is to be presentable at all times, even for something as mundane as taking out the garbage. Shortly after arriving in Paris I sent my velour Juicy sweatsuit home with Soren when he departed for one of his business trips and I instructed him to return with more slacks, skirts, and dresses; my fancy overpriced suburban sweats were less than chic outside the U.S. border.  I instinctively retrained my brain for what passed as acceptable Parisienne errand-running and lunching attire.

It seems counterintuitive, actually, when I break it down. I had built-in anonymity in Paris where it was virtually impossible for me to be 'caught' looking less than pulled together by anyone that I know. Why should I care what strangers think of me anyway (here or in Paris)? After all, I was forced to grow a thick skin and learn how to ignore the cool stares of Parisian Metro passengers as I commuted with my girls to their school in my workout clothes. But I never dared run errands, enter a restaurant, or take out the garbage without first showering and donning acceptable duds. I guess it was my 'When in Rome' mentality, but something about the mindset has stuck with me upon returning home to my casual California community. I admit, my neighbors have since seen me taking out the garbage in my sweats (even my grubby, non-Juicy ones), but I continue to wear my best duds for the security guard at Target.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dear Paris, With Love

Dear Paris,

By the time you read this, I will already be on an airplane. I hate to leave this way, but I have no other choice. I can't stay with you any longer. I am sad- this is for certain- but, I have learned so much from you during our year-long relationship. You have taught me so much about food, culture, history, and romance. I am not the same person that I was before I met you. You are beautiful, Paris. It's not because I am not attracted to you. I just don't think my needs can be fully met in the ways that I desire. I like to feel competent and knowledgeable and, with you, I experience a frequent feeling of inadequacy. Frankly, you and I don't seem to speak the same language. It's not you, Paris. It's me. And, it's just that, well, there's somebody else. Somebody from my past. Actually, from my childhood, and I believe that is where I belong, and, where I must return to. Please know that you have touched my life in ways that I will always appreciate and never forget. You're wonderful, Paris. I know that you will make someone else very happy. Au revoir.

With love and gratitude,

Mama, Wife, and Student of Life

Monday, July 18, 2011

To Live Untouched

I have a new habit that I acquired during my days and weeks living in Paris. I like to watch the TED talks. A lot. I sometimes laugh and usually cry. They move me. One talk in particular recently reached out and grabbed me. Philanthropist Jacqueline Novogratz's speech, Inspiring a Life of Immersion, delivers a core message about living a life of purpose. She highlights stories about people that she has met through her work- people who have immersed themselves in a cause or a community of some kind. Although we have not been living a life of philanthropy in Paris, I was able to relate her message to my family's own immersion in both a cause and a community this past year. Novogratz's talk is rich with nuggets of wisdom that spoke to me particularly because each little quotable gem represents the very things that my family and I have been lucky enough to struggle with, dabble in, chew on, and embrace for an entire year. 

"Nothing important happens in life without a cost."

Soren and I found ourselves in the unique position of being able to pick up and move our family overseas for one year. Lucky? Yes. Brave? Definitely. Financially sound? Not really. It depends on one's values I suppose. Would we have more money in the bank had we stayed put?  Lots. Could we have invested it, purchased Soren's mid-life crisis car, and continued playing the game of Keeping Up With The Jones'? You bet. Was this a foolish expenditure? Not even. I would trade any and all stock purchases, returns on investments, and even Soren's Porsche that sum of cash could have brought our way for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this past year abroad represents.

We are somewhat more cash-poor, but infinitely rich with cultural relativities and sensitivities, a new language, a deeper appreciation for food and wine, an increased zest for life experiences of all kinds, lifelong connections with previously unknown relatives and new friends, and a reaffirmation that we love all that is good about where we come from. As the MasterCard commercials state, "The cost of all this? Priceless."

"What is the cost of not daring, what is the cost of not trying?"

Looking back to the time, almost three years ago, when Soren first mentioned the idea of living abroad, quicker than I could reply, "No way," I had already created my mental list of the reasons why not: Too disruptive to our daughters' education, we can't afford it, I don't want to leave my friends and family, Raelyn’s interest in soccer and Nola’s love of guitar are too important to stop now. Plus, what about our cat, our house, and who will make sure our plants don't die? But where is the fun in this kind of thinking? And, after all, this was Paris we were talking about, not Omaha or Duluth.

Gradually, I began to listen to the brave part of myself, the daring part. The part of myself that, although rarely, can and does function without making mental lists that compare pros and cons, lists that- for all practical purposes- are my attempt to control the world around me and make it appear more predictable than it is. I instead decided to embrace the part of myself that can tolerate the unknown. I listened to the part of me that endured my three hour tattoo session. I tapped into the part of me that learned to swim so that I could complete two triathlons despite my dislike of swimming and my fear of the open water (which shifted to fear of swimming amidst duck poop). I called upon the part of me that rides up and down mountain trails on my bike despite my fears that I will topple head first into a ditch. And I trusted the part of me that gave birth to two children despite what my obstetrician calls my incompetent cervix (as a woman, I think I already had enough complexes about my body, thank you very much doctor).

For me, not daring, not trying, not pushing myself outside of my comfort zone costs me my spirit. My true spirit (when I don't ignore it or invalidate it) yearns to stretch beyond complacency, the status quo, and even the simple satisfactions that contribute to my American life. Now that I recognize this about myself- more clearly than ever before- the exciting question is, "What's next?" For me, this question is like the 'free, with purchase' hook that marketers use and, in this case, actually is better than advertised.

"Your job in life is not to be perfect. Your job is to be human."
I pretty much suck at speaking French and my daughters- Raelyn especially- do not hesitate to let me know when they are embarrassed by my accent, mispronunciation, or my incorrect use of the masculine and feminine definite article. I have been known to smile my way through this year with strangers, thinking- rather naively- that showing some teeth during situations where the language barrier is getting in the way will help my cause. This flawed assumption is cultural in nature. We Americans tend to smile a lot in an attempt to establish an immediate feeling of friendliness; the French do not. So instead of communicating with my smile, “I come in peace and isn’t my butchering of your language cute and endearing?” I am instead letting them know that I am a foreigner ready to take our connection, however brief and superficial, to the next and, as far as they are concerned, unwelcomed level. I have learned two things about this: Not to take their stone cold stares personally and that their reactions are no less human than my goofy smiles.

"Sometimes, the most important things we do, that we spend our time on, are those things that we cannot measure."
I can count the number of countries we have visited this year. I know what my new favorite food and wines are. I can name each of the French friends and relatives whom we have met. I know how much one euro really costs me in U.S. dollars. I know I have three minutes to make it down to the station to catch the next Metro train after I hear the previous one pass under our apartment building. I am familiar enough with Paris to help a lost tourist (a French one, no less) navigate their way. I can give a percentage to the amount of French that Raelyn and Nola now speak, read, and write. All of these new experiences and changes are measurable and we certainly spent a lot of our time focused on them. But are they the most important?

Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20. Yet, I am still too close to my Paris experience to truly understand the essence of what has been most important for us individually and collectively. Sure, I can recognize surface level transformations that have occurred this year – for instance, my daughters speak French now and have accumulated a European wardrobe - but what shifts lay beneath the surface? To what extent will living abroad shape my girls’ future attitudes, my desires, our assumptions, or Soren’s motivations in life?

When I moved to Paris, I had a decent sense of knowing what I didn’t know and therefore proceeded to ask the right people and/or learn by trial and error. But, even more profound for me is the recognition of another truth that was unknowingly present upon our arrival: I don’t know what I don’t know.

For example, I didn’t know that I didn’t know about bathroom etiquette as a guest in a French person’s home nor that my smiles will rarely win me any friendliness from French strangers. And, I didn’t know that I didn’t know my Paris life will now cause me to yearn for city living and prompt Soren and I to seriously consider buying an apartment in San Francisco. I didn’t know that I didn’t know the amazingly wonderful French friends and relatives that I now can’t imagine a life without. Can I quantify this new knowledge and qualify it as important? Indeed I can.

"Focus on honoring what is most beautiful about our past and building into the promise of our future."
Soren has a robust and complicated family tree. Delving into the French side of it this year has been an engaging focus for us. Exploring the former Paris and Antibes stomping grounds of Soren’s grandmother and great grandmother has tickled our sense of wonder about France in the early twentieth century. We feel lucky to be embraced and welcomed by the staff at Puiforcat, the namesake store of Soren’s great grandfather just off the Champs Elysees that continues to sell his exclusive art deco silver designs. We experienced shock and awe from learning more than we ever knew before about the French Resistance for whom Soren’s Jewish grandfather fought during WWII. These are significant pieces of my daughters’ ancestral past and how fortunate they are to have both the oral stories and now the actual sights to accompany them.

We have had the pleasure of meeting many of Soren’s French relatives this year; no less than thirty of them, in fact. They have been warm and gracious, helpful and curious. And nice enough to speak English- sometimes- for my benefit. Our French elders have added context and details to stories we already knew and also told us ones we did not know about the Kaplan and Puiforcat relatives that came before us. Raelyn and Nola have come to know their French cousins by playing Elastique, going to Euro Disney, and picnicking in Parisian parks. These new personal connections help to provide meaning and purpose to our lives by bridging the past with the future. For this we are forever grateful.

"It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion than to live untouched... yet how will you sustain?"
One question that keeps coming up for us is, “How will Raelyn and Nola continue learning and speaking French after our return home?”  I love the idea of my girls sustaining and building upon their acquired language skills. But is this a realistic goal? Again, I think it boils down to personal values. I’d love to be able to say that I will be hiring a thrice weekly private tutor or driving them to and from the Alliance Française in Berkeley for classes. But, my guess is, upon returning home, their interests in music, dance, sports, and friends will leave little time for much else outside of school.

Part of my family’s immersion this year was all about experiencing work/life balance. We have enjoyed our leisure time consisting of travel, visiting with family, sleeping in on weekends, and not running errands on Sundays. Therefore, I am reluctant to commit ourselves to yet another obligation for fear of returning to our harried and overscheduled American lives. Is it possible to sustain both their language skills and a more balanced life in America? Je ne sais pas. I am most likely inclined to allow for a more relaxed pace of life and let the French language build upon itself when Raelyn and Nola enter French class in 7th grade and blow their teacher away with their perfect accents. Learning French, although an important piece of my girls’ experiential puzzle this year, is only one of several dimensions that have helped to create the depth and breadth of their life of immersion in Paris.

Upon returning to our American life, how do I sustain an atmosphere for my daughters- one that continues to broaden their horizons, create additional pathways for compassion and empathy, generate a thirst for knowledge, and inspire a life of purpose? For starters, keeping the spirit of exploration alive by behaving like tourists in our own state and country shouldn’t be too difficult (as long as I manage that darned life balance thing; I am a Libra after all). Additionally, volunteering, donating, and continuing to be good neighbors, friends, and family members will maintain the connectedness that we, as humans, crave. Finally, honoring our true selves by acting upon our innermost desires rather than what others- or even ourselves- think we should be doing. Had I not regarded my true spirit with the honor it deserves when Soren proposed a move abroad, this blog would be non-existent for Paris would have remained untouched by us and we would be untouched by Paris.

We have completed our mission that we set out upon one year ago. The cause was basic: To expose ourselves and our children to another way of living. Our selected community of Paris and our French relatives was a no-brainer. Our new French friends are icing on the cake.

Above all else, my daughters have hopefully been touched, not so much by the differences between French and American cultures, but by the similarities. For when we peel back the layers of cultural norms, we’re all simply human, needing connection to something larger than ourselves that provides meaning and purpose to our lives. I don’t know if Raelyn and Nola will sustain their French. At least I know that I don’t know this. What lies before me as I enter my final handful of days in my Paris life is the knowledge that I still don’t know what I don’t know. But I have been deeply touched. And that is enough glorious knowledge for now. To what degree will reverse culture shock affect each of us upon returning to our American life?  Only time will tell. And I bet that, when and if I do know, it will feel profoundly important.

TED Talk

Jean Emile Puiforcat

Lise and Taha (Puiforcat family)

Sarah, our American babysitter.

Marion, our French babysitter.

Bachelier Family (Kaplan family)

Friends Bejamin and Annette.

Annie and Claude with grandson Mathias. (Puiforcat Family)

Picnicking with David, Nathalie, and Mathias (Puiforcat family).

Cousin Florence (Kaplan family).

Friend Lucas, son of friends Sara and Laurent.

Soren after private sale at Puiforcat.

Sylvia and Gerard with grandchildren (Kaplan family).

School friends Katie, Wafaa, and Lucy.

Cousins Franck, Kathrine, Marion, Pauline, and Laura (Puiforcat family).

Friends Juan Carlos and Mariel.

Olivier and Valentine (Kaplan family).

Friends Fabienne and Patrique

Thursday, June 30, 2011


The Kaplans are now proud owners of one tadpole turned frog and one tadpole soon-to-be frog. The frog was unsuspectingly snatched up from the waters of the Seine river in Gye-sur-Seine, a small village in France's champagne region where the Seine begins as a small stream winding its way through similar quaint villages and towns before reaching Paris. Our second little tadpole guy (or gal?)- who is morphing as I type- was plucked from a pond on the lush grounds of a chateau near France's Fontainbleu. The first tadpole was brought home for curiosity's sake, the second tadpole for the sake of guilt because we never expected the first one to live let alone morph into a frog. That's why Soren made the girls put back the other 38 tadpoles they had collected that day from the Seine, figuring taking the life of one was bad enough, we didn't want 39 dead tadpoles weighing on our conscience. Shortly thereafter, we feared that our frog felt lonely, hence the decision to kidnap his friend from the chateau pond. Bearing witness to amphibian metamorphosis over the past month has helped me to reflect upon the many changes that have occurred individually and collectively for our family as we near the end of our year living in Paris.

Introducing "Sparky".

Meet "Cheesecake".

One of the more mild, yet pleasing changes (at least in my opinion) is that my husband dresses a little better now. I always call Soren my "cartoon character", an endearing term to describe how, since I first met him, he repeatedly wears the same beloved outfit when we venture out in public (thankfully, not the same ensemble as when we started dating twenty years ago). I think very few people know that my husband actually does own a closet full of clothes. It's just that he ignores most of them in favor of his go-to outfit. A shopper he is not. Soren lives in Banana Republic men's crew neck t-shirts and he stocks up on them once a year during sales. The guy never wears v-necks, never veers away from plain styling, and besides preferring a tight crew neck, he likes the rest of the t-shirt to fit loose and comfortable.  Unexpectedly, Soren actually ventured out this week without his fashion consultant (a.k.a., Me) to take advantage of the bi-annual Paris sales. True to form, Soren went hunting for specific items, t-shirt and shorts, in preparation for our upcoming road trip to the south of France.  It will be quite hot there and he can more easily get away with the Parisian male fashion no-no of wearing shorts. Soren proudly modeled his four new t-shirts and one pair of shorts. He did good! His t-shirts were undeniably more stylish than usual; tighter, with a slight v-neck, and a little button detail along the shirt's placket. In other words, euro-male, which in my book equals sexy. He even wears a winter scarf now (I'm working on the spring one, haven't sold that idea just yet). My husband came to Paris a cutie and is leaving Paris a hottie. C'est très chic!

With hip Parisian friends, the bar is set high. Soren covers up one of his Banana Republic tees with a euro shirt, one that is a slimmer cut, a tad shiner, and more stylish than what he typically purchases. Bravo Soren!

 As for Raelyn, well, she has developed into quite the young Francophile. She woke up one morning, six months into our Parisian experience and declared, "I am not the same person I was when I came to Paris."  Like Soren's, Raelyn's fashion sense has also developed in a European way. She pairs boots with shorts, dares to wear only one knee sock with skirts or shorts, accessorizes with hats and goofy black-framed 3D glasses with the lens popped out, and begs me weekly to be allowed to wear bright red lipstick so as to emulate the young French women (Um, she's eleven, so that is not happening). She has contracted designer fever in that whenever we find ourselves on the high-end shopping streets of Paris, Madrid, or Florence, she likes to go into Chanel, Prada, Fendi, and Gucci and have a look around. I tease here that she'd better start thinking about how she's going to support her high-end tastes. She tells me that she is going to become a fashion designer herself someday and that, when she does, she'll buy me a house. I told her that's great, as long she buys me one in Paris.

That's a shoelace turned bracelet and self-designed doodles on her formerly 3D glasses.

When shopping with Raelyn in France she is very handy to have at my side because her knowledge of French has flourished. I can rely on her to ask the store clerk things like, "Ma mère veut savoir si vous avez des soutien-gorge invisible." (My mother wants to know if you have some invisible bras."). Flushed with embarrassment, Raelyn exclaimed afterwards, "Mom, that is the most embarrassing thing ever!" I need my south of France summer clothing items too ya know. Raelyn also gets embarrassed when Soren or I speak French. Last week, when Soren was speaking French to the pharmasist, Raelyn turned to me while simultaneously crossing her arms, rolling her eyes, and exclaiming through clenched teeth, "Dad is such an American!", because little Miss Frenchie here has adopted the French attitude of linguistic superiority to perfection. Our American accents drive her nuts and she does not hesitate to show us just how much.

As for me, I understand much more French now than when I arrived. The problem with this, however, is that when the French person speaking to me learns that I have just understood what they have said, they simply continue speaking French to me. So, once a French person and I get past the usual and customary utterances during my daily outings and activities, communication can go downhill quickly. If the French words are unfamiliar and/or spoken too fast and contextual clues go over my head, which, sometimes they do, then I become lost in a linguistic fog and the French person becomes confused too because they had me pegged for a Parisian at first (I certainly do try to look like one). When they learn that I am an imposter, my cover is blown, but I do feel secretly pleased when they think I am British rather than American.

My fashion sense has shifted a little thanks to Parisian influences. I do wear scarves year-round now, and boots too. I love wearing therm with shorts. My makeup routine is fresh too; it had become minimal when I became a mother. It just wasn't something I felt like making time for in the morning. Besides, as any new mom knows, when it's a luxury to find time for a shower, there is little time left for any other kind of self-care or primping. For me, this lack of a beauty routine became a habit. My eye makeup routine rarely even consists of makeup. Just curled eyelashes because the beauty magazines tell me that this will help me to look more awake. Paris has helped me to redefine my signature look of curled eyelashes paired with my dark circles and puffy under-eye bags. Now, I have added the quintessentially French and simplistic dark liner on my upper lid paired with red lipstick and a slight hint of blush on my cheeks. With my red lips, who's going to notice my puffy bags and dark circles now? Wish I had known about this trick sooner.

Ever so gradually over the past six months, Nola has taken an interest in things of a feminine nature like never before. This, from a girl who, at age three, declared, "I hate pink and purple, dresses, and skirts. I want pants and shorts with lots of pockets for my rocks and shells." At age 7, Nola was sporting a mohawk and wearing football jerseys. She came into this world a nonconforming female whose path has kept us guessing and who has needed us to remain open-minded and ever so flexible. Our Nola mantra has been, "Who made up these stupid gender rules anyway?" While she is still not a fan of dresses and skirts, Nola is, for the first time ever, shopping in the girls' department. Her new interest in female clothing extends to her expressing desires for my clothing when she grows big enough to wear them. Raelyn is claiming dibs however, since she beat her little sister's request by about three years. Nola's hair has not been cut for one year. I keep thinking she is going to ask for a short cut again, but the other day she stated, "I like my hair long, I want to put it in a ponytail." I thought it was my imagination at first, then I saw her emerge from my bathroom with one of my ponytail holders. I assumed she needed a lesson on how to make a ponytail since her hands had never before attempted this task. But she brushed me off and had a completed ponytail within a couple of minutes. I had another mind-blowing moment yesterday when Nola asked to buy a purse. Well, she didn't use the word purse, my guess is that some things are still considered too girly for her. She actually used the word "bag" instead. Taking advantage of the Paris sales, she happily selected her first ever "bag",  girl shorts and girl t-shirt which even has a slight sparkle to it. Nola made sure to stipulate that pink and purple and anything flowery were off-limits. Like mother, like daughter. For the past three weeks, Nola has taken to polishing her nails. She especially likes that new Crack product which she purchased in black and layers on top of red or nude nails. The other day, we ladies enjoyed our first at-home mom/daughter mani-pedi session. Nola had always opted out before. I think that Nola is deserving of her own word given the mega evolution she has undergone this year. I refer to her process as "Nolamorphosis". She came to Paris looking like a boy, but she is preparing to leave looking like a girl. I can't help but wonder if this transformation would have occurred if we hadn't moved to Paris? Is Parisian fashion culture truly that powerful? Are hormones at work? Or is it the long-term separation from her male buddies back home? I'll never know. But that's okay, I like both Nolas and should she gravitate back towards boyish Nola, well then, we have our mantra for that.

Moving Day August 3, 2010. Short hair and football jersey.

Nola in transition. Boy clothes paired with Mama's boots.

June 30, 2011. Nola modeling her new girl clothes, purse, er- bag, and new hairstyle.

Kaplan gals version of the French manicure. Cut strips from French newspaper and apply to nude painted nails using rubbing alcohol. Voilà!
Trying out the French look of red lips.

Granted, I am skimming the surface, literally, of my family's changes this year by focusing on those that don't go past skin-deep. Or do they? More on that when you tune in next time. Suffice it to say, the Kaplans that arrived here last August the 3rd will not be the same Kaplans who return to Walnut Creek this upcoming July 28th. For one thing, we might be arriving home with two frogs. That is, if we can get them past airport security.

Friday, June 17, 2011

French Foodies

Twenty years ago, at the age of twenty-one, I traveled to Europe for six weeks of backpacking with my great friend Sarah. Our travel budget was bare bones and miniscule, we aimed to live on something close to $25 per day. This meant that our culinary experiences left a lot to be desired.  A French baguette, a jar of confiture, and a can of corn enjoyed while sitting on a bench at le Jardin des Tuileries helped us stick to our daily budget (and left more funds available for the booze and nightlife). And besides, we needed a reason to put our Swiss Army knife's can opener to good use.

My forty-one year old palate thankfully does not need to restrict itself to surviving on $25 per day. Given the weak dollar, that's only 17 euros as of today.  That amount won't go far in Paris, especially considering the inflated food prices at the Michelin-rated and tourist trap restaurants. Soren and I have succeeded in doing a pretty good job circumventing the pricey tourist traps and instead live like locals by seeking out Paris's lesser-known restaurant gems. Lunchtime is the best time to capitalize on Paris's great food at lower cost.  Formules du midi are our friend because they allow us to dine at a Michelin-rated restaurant for lunch and spend sometimes as little as 17-19 euros each on a prefix menu that consists of either a two or three course meal. This is a fraction of the cost we would incur if we were to dine at the same establishment for dinner.

Parisian cafes are hopping at lunchtime. Why? Well, France has this little obscure law that we recently learned about: Since 1903, it has been illegal for a French employee to eat lunch at his or her desk. Incredulous upon learning this fact, we told just about every one of our French friends and relatives what a splendid law we think this is for the sake of workday balance and for sustaining the restaurant economy which includes over 35,000 cafes and bistros scattered about Paris. Guess what? Nobody we spoke to knew about the existence of this law.  What they do know, as French citizens, is that dining out, especially at lunchtime, is just part of one's day. Amazing how laws can influence culture to the extent that the source of the resulting cultural norm becomes forgotten. However, not all Parisians can afford a daily lunchtime formule du midi that costs, on average,  around 13 euros. No worries, the French have this problem figured out. Their solution is called Ticket Restaurant and Chèque Déjeuner; incentive programs offered by employers that give employees meal vouchers that are each worth around 10 euros and that are accepted at participating restaurants who post a sticker on their window indicating that vouchers are accepted at their establishment. Ingenious!

Even at the carnival, food vendors accept the Ticket Restaurant.

I haven't gone all snobby during my stint in Paris and seeking out Michelin-rated restaurants, although fun and delicious, is not a prerequisite. In fact, I've enjoyed some of the better meals at restaurants off the beaten path in some of Paris's less swanky neighborhoods such as in the 14th and 20th arrondissments. Of course, there have been restaurants on our list that are well-known for one reason or another and our year abroad would feel incomplete without experiencing them. For example, Les Duex Magots, a famous cafe that, in its heyday, was patronized by the likes of Sartre, Camus, and Hemingway. Like many of these nostalgic cafes and bistros, they are overpriced (because they can get away with it) and their food, in my opinion, is not memorable. But, in keeping with history, we got into literary character, so to speak, and made a fun experience out of it with a heady brainstorm and a glass of rosé.

Notes dictated by Soren on his thoughts for an upcoming book.
Our growing collection of Paris restaurant calling cards.

Dining out has provided me with all kinds of cultural learning opportunities. French etiquette requires one to use a knife and fork for foods, such as hamburgers, that Americans eat with their hands. Salads are made with untorn lettuce leaves so that both a knife and fork are required to cut the big leaves into bite-size pieces. The way one orders a meal in France is different too.  In America, when I place my order I typically say, "I would like the," or, "I'll have the...". Therefore, American French instructors teach Americans to say, "Je voudrais..." ("I would like...") when ordering meals. It took us several weeks to realize that the French take a meal, beverage, or food item. Therefore, unless I order with the words, "Je prends le salade de chevre chaud si vous plait," ("I'll take the warm goat cheese salad please,") my waiter will be hard-pressed not to activate his  hard-wired French linguistic superiority.

Another issue for me is the fact that I drink a ton of water at mealtimes. This is very un-French. So I've had to learn how to say to my waiter, "Je prends une carafe d'eau si vous plait," ("I'll take a carafe of water please,"). If I simply order water, a costly bottle will arrive at my table. But, if I insert the word 'carafe', my server is obliged to bring me free water. The water may or may not be chilled, and, for my family of four, the amount of water may only be enough for two of us, but that just means that I get to practice more 'je prends' when I ask for 'un autre carafe' (another carafe), that is, if I can get my waiter's attention since he doesn't work for tips.

Paris is known for its rude waiters, but I haven't had any personal experiences with a server I would label as rude. Some are more aloof or abrupt than others, but so far, none have been as offensive as one waitress that we overheard admonishing other diners last weekend when we lunched at Chez Louisette; a restaurant known for its cheeky atmosphere and entertainment by singers belting out the Edith Piaf more so than for its food. Raelyn translated for us that our waitress was scolding two French women for not finishing their plate that, from where I was sitting, looked like it contained a variety of different meats. This waitress was speaking to her patrons with a volume and tone that I have used (on more occasions than I care to admit) when my children have pushed all of my buttons and then some. Had this incident occurred in an American restaurant, it would have likely resulted in the loss of the waitress' job. Given that the worst treatment any of us has received from a Parisian waiter was when one laughed in Soren's face for bungling the word 'moelleaux', we consider ourselves lucky.

I also consider ourselves lucky because we finally found a Mexican restaurant in Paris, and, better yet, it's in our neighborhood. Thankfully, an American friend read a NY Times review about this new taqueria and e-mailed the article to us. With only six weeks left before our return home, we are going to try to get our frequent fill of the amazing tostadas, tacos, and homemade quacamole at Candelaria. Just in time too since, last week, I ran out of my Trader Joes supply of chunky salsa, vegetarian chili, and organic tortilla chips (my mom brought an entire suitcase full of TJs items to Paris for me). The overpriced Pace salsa, the Dennison's meaty chili, and the bland tortilla chips sold at Thanksgiving, our local American food store, just won't cut it.

Parisian tacos? Sounds like an oxymoron to me.

French grocery stores devote only about 1/4 of an aisle to chips. And then, only to potato chips. No tortilla chips in sight.
Never fear, Thanksgiving is here! This American food store specializes in stocking all things processed. MSG and hydrogenated oil lovers will, however, be shocked by the sticker price for such luxuries.

Soren still has not let me live it down that I spent 17 U.S. dollars on a box of Cheerios.

The source for our organic peanut butter that costs a whopping 3.50 euros per jar and is actually labled, 'American Style Beurre de Cacahouete'. The French don't touch the stuff .

My favorite place to buy all natural food is at one of Paris's many open-air markets. Luckily, we have one nearby at Bastille that operates twice a week. I'll never forget my daughters' collective shock and awe the first time we went there last August. Their American eyes had never before seen things such as these:

These little piggies definitely went to market.

There's no hair on this hare!

The novelty of these creatures that the French call food has since worn off. We love visiting our local outdoor market because of the lively atmosphere, the better deals, and the freshest food. It's also fun to watch Soren request two grapefruit, in French, and get twelve of them instead. Lucky for us, we all love grapefruit.

To market, to market to buy a fresh...

While in Paris, I have attempted to shift my Californian health-conscious mindset to become more in line with the French way of thinking about and eating food. This shift has enabled me to try new things, required me toss out my assumptions that carbs and sugar are pure evil, and allowed me to relish in ingesting more animal fat and animal based protein in one year than I have over the past five. I have eaten foie gras (fattened duck or goose liver), ordered joues de couchon (pig cheeks), enjoyed cofit de canard (cured duck poached in its own fat), layered on the butter (the real stuff, not Earth Balance natural buttery spread), and I have even drank (gasp!) whole milk (fat free milk is non-existent in Paris, the best my California-bred self can do is buy half-fat milk known as demi-écrémé). Our special treat weekend breakfasts rotate between homemade crêpes spread with Nutella or, flaky, buttery croissants dabbed with raspberry confiture. My taste buds have loved every minute of what feels like a gluttonous lifestyle.

My enjoyment has been intermittently interrupted by some unpleasant culinary dabblings. While lunching with a French friend, she explained that she orders blood sausage at least once a week because it's a great source of iron. The word 'blood' should have tipped me off, but I naively responded, "Yes, please," when she offered me a bite of her darkly colored link when it arrived at our table. I thought it tasted disgusting. And that was before I came home and googled 'blood sausage'. Having learned my lesson, I declined to try a bite of andouillette when it was offered while visiting the town of Troyes. Soren, however, braved the experience. I watched Soren's face as he attempted to swallow his bite. His post-swallow review went something like, "It tasted just like the inside of a pig intestine would be expected to taste- like shit. Literally." I'm glad I passed. We generally love salmon and recently, when our dinner hostess informed us that was going to be our main dinner course, we responded with encouraging smiles. That was until we tasted it. She had taken what, we think, was a salmon fillet, placed it in a blender and pureed it with what we assume was salmon roe, then poured this mixture into a loaf-shaped mold to firm up, and then she served it, sliced like meatloaf, accompanied by white rice. It took me until my 30's to even try sushi (now I'm an addict) and I won't touch anything with a fishy aroma let alone put it in my mouth. This salmon loaf was the fishiest thing I have ever experienced. Thank god for the rice; it provided a hiding place for the bites my kids and I pretended to eat. Soren took one for the team and reluctantly gulped his entire serving down, all the while exclaiming, "C'est tres bon." To her credit though, our hostess is responsible for Raelyn's and Nola's expanded knowledge of French cheeses so I will forgive her for the salmon.

It has been a delight to witness my daughters' progression away from being kids who tended to- like most American kids- gravitate towards chicken nuggets, mac-n-cheese,  or hot dogs as safe bets in restaurants.  Their attitudes about food have really changed this year as their palates have been exposed to new dishes, tastes, and textures. While Raelyn and Nola still tend to gravitate towards the familiar poulet roti avec frites et haricot verts (roasted chicken, fries, green beans) while dining out, sometimes, they bravely venture outside of this safety net. They have tried many varieties of gourmet cheeses and are in agreement that Comté is one of their new favorites. Last weekend, we enjoyed a picnic with friends at Fontainbleu. In preparation, Soren ordered some Comté at the fromagerie. Upon tasting it, Raelyn declared, "Dad, this Comté is okay, but what you need to ask for next time is a Comté that is plus fort (more strong), plus jaune (more yellow), and plus vieux (more aged)." I can't wait to send her into Berkeley's Cheese Board after we move back home where she can order up some of their finest.  Nola is a fan of not only the Comté, but any goat or sheep cheese as well. If she had her way, she'd accompany her cheese selections with a perfectly paired wine or champagne as her exposure to these spirits has confirmed what we already suspected- this girl really appreciates her beverages. And, I could have never predicted that all four of us would come away with a newfound liking for radishes- criss cut on the top with a dab of pure butter inserted inside- simply delish. Dessert, needless to say, is never a problem in France. We just love getting our hands on tarte tatin, moelleaux au chocolat, and tarte au citron. Lucky for us, there is a pâtisserie on almost every corner.

Picnicing, French style.

One of our favorite neighborhood boulangerie/pâtisseries. Like most, figuring out their business hours is nearly impossible.

A popular French dish that I cannot wrap my American brain around is steak hache or steak tartare. This raw or sometimes nearly raw meat dish is ubiquitous in France. Not only did I stop eating red meat two decades ago (and before that, I never cared for it anyway), American news stories about E. coli and mad cow disease have forever brainwashed me into believing that if I am in the same room as raw beef, I may be stricken with bloody diarrhea and possibly die.  And if you've ever driven down California's Highway 5 and seen the conditions of those cattle ranches, or, watched the film Food, Inc., well then, can you blame me?

Raelyn and Nola ate steak hache at school before they realized what it was. Then, naturally, they became grossed out. Now they have a method of eating their yogurt, then placing their bites of steak hache in the emptied yogurt cup, turning it upside down before returning their lunch tray to the unsuspecting lunch ladies who demand the children eat everything on their plates.

The thing about the beef and other meat and animal products served and eaten in France is that folks can trust in their knowledge of not only where these foods come from, but also how they were raised. With this knowledge, the French can mindlessly enjoy their steak hache without fear of gastrointestinal revolt- or worse.

The French traditionally have a close relationship with their food. Unlike in the U.S., a larger measure of French food is still produced by small, local ranchers and growers using traditional (natural and/or organic) methods. The U.S. has expressed frustration with France's refusal to back EU approval to import genetically modified crops. France's refusal is tied to their demand that any food product containing or derived from genetically modified organisms be labeled and any GM ingredients in food be traceable. The American agricultural industry has argued for free trade and is strongly opposed to labeling, saying it gives the food a negative connotation by implying that there is something wrong with genetically modified food and that this could create a trade barrier. Furthermore, these officials believe that since the United States does not require labeling, Europe should not require labeling either. As a mother, one who is responsible for the meal planning, shopping, cooking, and general health and well-being of my household, I'd really like to know if that succulent tomato at my local grocer's produce section has had its molecules tinkered with.  Then, at least, I can choose to buy a real tomato instead, you know, the kind of tomato without the negative connotation that is derived from the fact that the U.S.'s FDA does not have the time, money, or resources to carry out health and safety studies before trying to sell me that imposter of a tomato.

Since farming is one of France's most important industries, and the country is widely self-sufficient in food supplies, France has the freedom to, and rationale for, resisting America's ethnocentric trade demands. After all, French people take pride in seeking genuine regional products. French grocery stores, restaurants, street vendors, fromageries, and butcher shops take care in letting their customers know exactly what region of France their beef, pork, and cheese products originated from. Most Americans know only that our beef comes from the meat section of the grocery store. Many of us don't want to think about where that cow- or multiple parts from several cows- ground up and pre-wrapped in styrofoam and plastic, spent most of its predestined life; on an overcrowded, disease-ridden cattle ranch eating feed laced with antibiotics and growth hormones while wallowing in its own manure. France's former Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany once slammed the U.S.'s industrialized practice of treating its beef cattle with hormones. He also added, "(The United States) is the country that has the worst food in the world." While my exposure to France's cultural norms around food help me to understand Glavany's viewpoint, I wonder if it's not so much that the U.S. has the worst food, but rather, if we have the worst governmental oversight that is rife with conflict of interest issues when it comes to agricultural health and safety?

"All of our meats are of French origin."

Daily, after I drop the girls off at school, I see meat making its way from ranch to grocery store via delivery truck. I also regularly pass by the windows of my local boucherie and witness them plying their craft. Dining in restaurants means I come in close proximity with the meat that is prominently displayed before being sliced and distributed to diners. One thing is clear: it would be very difficult for me to live in Paris if I were still a vegetarian.

I wonder if this came from that shopping cart?

Can you picture Diablo Magazine endorsing a local butcher with this kind of ad? Well, that's exactly what this French magazine highlighting local merchants and events called "Bon Bon" does. I told you sex and blatant objectification is everywhere!

While the French are generally spared the worry about E. coli and salmonella, they somehow manage to ignore potential contamination from the common cold and viruses due to dirty and germy hands. In boulangeries, pâtisseries, and counter service restaurants, the person who prepares my food is also the same person who takes my money. When I order a baguette, it is handed to me nearly naked with only a small band of thin paper loosely wrapped around the center. At least the baguette can be protected from my dirty hands provided that I only hold it where the paper cover is. But try walking down a narrow and crowded sidewalk. Do you know how many arms and shoulders belonging to strangers brush up against my exposed baguette? The French have been operating in these ways for so long that they most likely have stronger immune systems because of it. Recently, I saw a toddler get the attention of her mother to indicate that her piece of bread had fallen into the gutter outside of my daughters' school. It took longer than the three second rule for the child to get her mother's attention, more like a minute as the mother was absorbed in a conversation. When her mother finally noticed, she picked up the fallen bread, handed it to her child, and told her to eat it. Maybe gutters are considered relatively clean since Parisian dogs seem to poop only on the sidewalks? The bread served in Parisian restaurant bread baskets is recycled. My guess is that this practice occurs in the states as well, but I think it's less blatant and obvious than it is here. We have witnessed the recycling of the bread and, one time, we even ate bread out of our basket before discovering this:

Diners, do you know where your bread has been?

I changed my eating habits prior to our move to Paris, adding a bit of white meat and the occasional pork ribs back into my diet. What I did not expect to change are my drinking habits. Pre-Paris, I was an occasional wine and champagne drinker, usually enjoying it socially and sometimes having a glass with dinner at home. Unlike many of our friends, I had remained uneducated about wine and could count on one hand the number of times I had gone wine tasting in the Napa Valley. Post-Paris, I will likely keep up my new habit of ordering a glass of wine or champagne when I dine out at lunchtime and also drink it much more frequently with dinner meals at home.  Touring wineries and champagne cellars in France has unleashed in me a greater knowledge of and appreciation for good wine and champagne and I look forward to taking advantage of the Napa Valley wineries right in my own backyard.

Post tour at Mumm's Champagne caves in Reims, France

One of our favorite wines comes from this small winery in the Chianti region in Italy- Casa Emma

Paris's annual Salon Vins Vignerons Independants, a 3-day expo featuring all of France's independent wine makers.

Another favorite- Château Belles-Graves. If only we had a dolly to transport it on the Metro, we would have purchased more than two cases.

Another change has affected my disinterest in coffee. It's not that I detest it, I've just always been a tea drinker. Back home, I don't make daily Peet's or Starbucks visits and if I happen to be in one I will occasionally order a non-fat chai tea latte if I'm feeling really crazy. So, while I can say that during my time living in Paris I have acquired new French food and beverage tastes and appreciation, I don't quite place myself in the category of French foodie snob or wine snob. I do declare, however, that I am now an official coffee snob. Thanks to Caféothèque, an in-house roasting, single source bean serving coffee house that treats coffee with the same respect and appreciation that a sommelier treats wine. Pre-Paris, I didn't even know how to operate the electric coffee pot we received as a wedding gift. Post-Paris, I will be creating space on my kitchen counter for a new top-of-the-line coffee maker and scouting out my sources for single-source beans. And as for Starbucks and Peet's? They'll still get my business when I'm looking to spice things up with a chai tea latte.

That's a whole milk flower and it's crazy good.

One of my take-aways for me as a newbie French foodie is summed up by this French proverb: A good meal ought to begin with hunger.  Such a simple concept that has eluded so many Americans. Of the many things that differentiate the way in which the French relate to their food, one of them is portion size. The French people we know who have eaten at a Cheesecake Factory are quick to point out how one main entree can easily feed a family of four. Doggie bags are non-existent in Paris. There is a reason for this: diners are served a reasonable amount of food that a reasonably hungry person can reasonably finish and feel reasonably satiated. For the French, food is so much more than about eating. Mealtimes are considered more sacred and they allow themselves to relax rather than rush through a meal. Mindless and frequent snacking is not a habit in France. Instead, the French enjoy their traditional afternoon snack or, le goûter, between 4-5 p.m. to tide themselves over until dinner. These habits are core to the French dietary lifestyle and my Parisian food experiences have taught me not only to appreciate French cuisine, but also the simple and commonsensical cultural norms that accompany it. Heck, my American refrigerator may just see its first carton of whole milk ever! Hormone-free, of course.