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.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


(Unless, of course, you are French)

This blog post has been percolating for some time. As is usually the case with my posts, the subject is decided upon and then the material basically writes itself because my mind and energy become attuned to the topic and- much like when I plan to buy a new car- I begin to notice it all around town. However, not much conscious attuning is necessary when it comes to sexuality in Paris – to not take notice would be like taking a trip to the zoo and not noticing any animals there.

Sexuality is just about everywhere I look in Paris. The main difference is, there is a more balanced display of sexuality, nudity, and objectification across genders than there is in America. In Paris, I see advertisements of naked men almost as often as ones of naked women. One second I'm strolling along the boulevard and the next second- BAM!- there’s a life-size poster of a naked man right in front of us at the newsstand. There is a wide variety of nudity on these nearly life-size ads and it's quite a novel sight to see such a lack of censorship out on the streets. The Americanized parent in me had a knee-jerk reaction during our first few weeks in Paris. I eventually allowed myself to let go of my tendency to distract my daughters from these bold and prominent displays by calling attention to, "That something over there". I'm fairly certain that French parents don’t censor what their children see while walking down the street, so why should I?  Besides, it was becoming difficult for me to multitask; holding Raelyn's and Nola's attention via distraction while at the same time snapping photos of these sexy ads. So I gave up on distraction techniques altogether and instead invited my girls to gaze and gawk together with me; comparing, contrasting, and remarking, “We’d never see anything like these back home!” (I didn’t tell them they’re behind the counter and brown wrapper at our local 7-11).

Back in the U.S., I find my mommy self highly sensitized to potentially harmful, negative, and demeaning marketing, media, and role models for my daughters. America’s early sexualization of young girls is, in my opinion, becoming more omnipotent and our rigid cultural norms are ready to attach labels to those on either side of its fence. Take, for example, Miley Cyrus. She seems intent on distancing herself from her teeny-bopper Hanna Montana character and reestablishing herself as an over-sexualized wannabe adult. Taylor Swift?  With her sweetness and modesty, she represents the other end of America’s spectrum for women and girls. While Miley’s public persona is characterized as “The Slut”, Taylor’s is, “The Pure Girl”. My guess is, like for all of us females out there, much more is to be found underneath the labels ascribed to us by society.

More recently, Reese Witherspoon, during her acceptance speech for MTV’s Generation Award, stated that, “It’s possible to be a good girl and I’m going to try to make it cool,” after slamming her peers who have become more famous for their sex tapes and naked photos than for possessing any actual talent. While I applaud Reese for daring to challenge the new norm in show business, I can’t help but notice that she is doing so by clinging to the only other viable option for American women; by glamorizing the Good Girl. I detest that a ‘Virgin-Whore’ model of sexuality is the only one that is presented by American popular culture and I resent that it is the only perceived choice given to my daughters.

Living in the midst of Parisian sexuality allows me to examine the polarized sexual norms, behaviors, and double-standards that I grew up with in America. It is liberating, as a woman who is raising two future women, to recognize our time in Paris as an opportunity to expose my young daughters to different and more expansive possibilities rather than these limiting and stereotypical dichotomies that I grew up with:

He’s a charmer and a flirt if he’s sexually forward or suggestive; she’s a tease for the same behavior.
He’s a Casanova and a stud for having many sexual partners; she’s a slut for the same behavior.
He’s to be sexually experienced; she’s to be virginal.
He’s to be sexually aggressive, she’s to be sexually submissive.
He’s always interested in sex. She never is.

America tends to cling stubbornly to black and white where the French approach sexuality, in many ways, more honestly by allowing for shades of grey. The French have fewer sexual inhibitions and a more open attitude towards sex. The sexual double-standard between genders, while I lament that it will probably always exist to some extent in any culture, is at least less definitive here in France than it is in America.

For one thing, my observations show me that French culture allows young girls to be just that- girls. The early sexualization of young girls is not ubiquitous here like it is in the states. The majority of clothing that is available to young French girls is less adult and more youthful. Advertisements for sparkly cosmetics are not aimed their way. I see fifth-grade Parisian girls wearing Hello Kitty and other kid-oriented character backpacks that many of their U.S. counterparts have, by that age, deemed too babyish.

French public middle schools lack dress codes unlike the one back home that Raelyn will attend next year as an incoming sixth grader. She complains that she will not be allowed to wear the spaghetti strap tank tops that she finds so comfortable to wear on warm days. Raelyn wonders why her future school has such a rule. I wonder why the French don't. My guess is that without the early and unnatural sexualization of its girls, French boys can concentrate on their studies, French girls can concentrate on theirs, and walking down the halls in between classes is not fraught with hormones potentially going awry at the sight of some tween girl's nearly bare shoulder. In France, bare skin does not equal slut, which does not equal sex, which does not equal depravity. But in America, school administrators tend to clamp down on this cultural force of early sexualization and all the potential labels attached to it by oppressing girls even further with, in my opinion, silly dress code rules.

In music videos, young French female pop stars look their age, they wear clothing that is not revealing, and there is an absence of footage that glamorizes sex.

Iselym is a 16 year old French singer who is not Britney-fied in any way in her video.

However, by the time they reach their mid-late teens, many French girls are both sexually assertive and sexually active. While the same has increasingly been the case in America for the past couple of decades (thanks Madonna), the French teen girl does not have to worry about incurring a negative reputation for such behavior. I recently learned of a nineteen year old French girl who had sex with a guy and then had sex with their mutual male friend that same month. Having heard about this directly from one of the guys she slept with, I was surprisingly shocked to hear him say, "She's a friend of mine, and my buddy is a friend of hers too. It's no big deal that she had sex with both of us. She knows what she wants, she's a friend to us both, and it's cool. She's still our friend."

Conversely, I know a guy who, back when we were in high school, learned that a girl with whom he had been sexual had gotten together with another guy. So this guy and his buddies hiked up into the nearby hills where they proceeded to write on a hillside in huge chalky white letters, "(FEMALE'S FIRST AND LAST NAME) IS A SLUT". This shaming message was prominently displayed for days on the hillside for all motorists driving on the highway below to see. Now, this example is nearly twenty-five years old, so it makes me wonder if today's American teens' sexual attitudes have changed since then? I'd be surprised if they have.

French children grow up in a culture that embraces sex and sexuality as a natural expression of human beings. They are exposed to sensual PDAs, sexy adult models posing partially and sometimes fully naked in both print and television ads, and films that would be restricted to adult viewers in the U.S. with an R rating are viewed much more leniently in France. Yet, despite this exposure, France's youth fare far better, statistically, as sexually active teens than their American peers. America's teen pregnancy rate is almost three times that of France's. America's teen birth rate is over five times higher than France's. And, not surprisingly, researchers found that French youth were significantly more likely to have used contraception during their most recent sexual encounter than were their U.S. peers.  I can't help but wonder about the correlation between cultural norms and attitudes and these statistics.

A few months ago, I visited the home of French friends who have male and female teenage children. Upon saying our au revoirs, I reached for my coat that I had hung on their coat rack, noticing that it had fallen to the floor. While bending down to retrieve my coat, I saw, on the floor underneath the family's coats, a condom in its wrapper, presumably one that had fallen out of one of their coat's pockets. Though I'll never know who the owner of the fallen condom is, I'm guessing it belonged to one of the teens.

By now, I am beginning to see more clearly how these puzzle pieces of French sexual culture fit nicely together. There is a protective piece that allows French youth to naturally embrace their sexual latency and an interlocking piece which is exposure to and an embracing of, the natural teen emergence of, and eventual full-blown adult sexuality. Somehow, their culture manages to fit these two pieces nicely together to create a more balanced whole rather than the incomplete and limiting portrait of sexuality in America.

This helps me to relax a bit and embrace the sexual images that my daughters see on a regular basis. We are a music loving family and one of the things we have enjoyed is familiarizing ourselves with French pop by watching NRG, one of France's music television stations. Below is one of their promotional ads by Lady Gaga which is not at all shocking, unless, of course, you are American:

I think NRG should change their tagline to "Tit Music Only!".

Here's another sight for our eyes at, of all places, a kid-friendly carnival:

They don't call this the Fun House for nothin'!

A visit to a neighborhood restaurant would be incomplete without at least a little something more than good food to peak our interest:

"I'll have the breast of chicken or duck, whatever, just give me some breast!"

I now realize that there is a reason the chorus in the song Moulin Rouge is, "Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" ("Will you sleep with me tonight?") French women are sexually assertive and asking somebody if they will sleep with her tonight is not considered to be trampy. French women, beginning in their teens, are free to claim their own sexuality, be in touch with their desires, and remain unencumbered by, and unafraid of being slapped with a negative, hypocritical label for doing so. What a novel concept! The label, 'slut', based on my inquiries, does not gain the same traction in France as it does in the U.S. How could it, when, in France, sexuality is embraced for what it is: a natural drive and expression of the human brain and body, regardless of gender.

It was in this spirit of embracing what is natural that Soren and I decided to take Raelyn and Nola to a Parisian cultural institution. The back story is that a French relative invited us to join him and his eleven year old daughter at a vintage brocante (flea market) and variety show. He told us that he had seen an advertisement in one of the freebie Metro newspapers. He scanned this ad and e-mailed it to me so that I would have the location information. Upon receiving his e-mail, I copied and pasted the ad's text into Google Translate and read this:

An event Sunday in paris with:
- a beautiful vintage antique
- an open stage for striptease burlesque pinups
- A review with the New Burlesque Cabaret Daughters of Joy
- a live band rock-n-roll 60's
- a contest of dance (s)
- a dance rock until midnight

A good fifteen of world-class artists
singers and strippers, good humor, and rock-n-roll

Flea: 9h-19h / 2 Euros
Review and Bal: 17h - midnight / 4 euros / free for children

Yes, I was thinking what you are thinking, "A strip show! Free for children?!" I promptly contacted our friend who had extended the invitation as well as our French babysitter to get a reality check. I just had to gain a better understanding of what, exactly, our family was going to be exposing ourselves to. Both sources had the same reply, "Oh it's really quite tame, no full nudity, perhaps hot pants and pasties. Burlesque is really fun to see." The casual and blase nature of their responses made me check my assumption that as a parent, I would be exposing my children to lewd and indecent behavior. After some thought, I came to the following conclusions: 1) Attaching the words 'lewd' and 'indecent' to non-predatory sexual behavior and expression is a social construction of reality, 2) Burlesque as a cultural experience in Paris is to France what a rodeo in Wyoming is to America and, 3) We currently reside outside of the jurisdiction of U.S. Child Protective Services

It was with this new perspective that our family went to our first burlesque show. I can attest to the fact that it felt odd to sit in a 2-drink minimum cabaret environment while the sun was still shining and while surrounded by many other families with young children. Then the show started and instead of feeling odd, I felt rather exhilarated by what I saw. But not for the reasons you'll think. 

Several burlesque performers took to the stage. All dancers followed the same format, beginning with a tease, like this:

 And ending their routines by stripping, like this:

And for the grande finale, audience participation, like this:

What was exhilarating for me, an American female, was the fact that all sizes and shapes of the female form were displayed- all natural too, I might add- and there was a male burlesque performer as well, masquerading as a matador. As interested as I was in the show itself, I was even more keen in observing my daughters reactions to the live action onstage. They loved it! Nola even wondered when and if we were going to be able to see another one. I am pleased that my daughters were able to witness the actual art and gift of the 'tease' free and clear of it being labeled negatively.

I got to thinking about this after the show: Much female power is in the tease- keep em' guessing, keep em' interested, keep em' from seeking out the cave woman next door. For if man has an innate drive to procreate with as many females as possible thereby increasing his chances for viable offspring, then woman, I argue, has an innate drive to tease her sexual partner so as to keep him intrigued and coming back for more. The better teasing skills a woman has, the more likely that she'll be experienced as more alluring than her cave woman neighbor and thus secure ongoing food, shelter, and sustenance for her offspring. So, I say, if teasing is natural and biologically necessary for the continuation of the species, why does America have such a problematic relationship with it and the women who do it? (I am not about to get into the topic of religion here...)

Speaking of problematic, we know all too well the dicey relationship America has with its politicians and their private lives. The French expect their politicians to have a sex life; they even believe that their politicians can  have extra-marital affairs, and- get this- still do their jobs effectively. In other words, cheating on one's spouse does not equal cheating on one's country. In fact, Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, was quoted in a French magazine article, "I am a tamer [of men], a cat, an Italian- monogamy bores me terribly. I am faithful, to myself! I am monogamous from time to time, but I prefer polygamy and polyandry [its female equivalent]."

Can you imagine if Michele Obama revealed the same attitude towards sex and relationships? As soon as the story broke, the First Lady's lovers would sell their exclusive stories and photos to tabloid magazines and television shows, the religious right would have a field day, no doubt a sex tape would surface, and Obama would begin to openly chain smoke causing his country to wonder if he was still fit to lead as a cuckolded president.

As illustrated, in France there is a more equal playing field upon which both men and women can express their sexual needs, desires, and behaviors. In fact, this equality came up in a recent conversation with a French friend regarding the act of kissing. In France, one does not give a kiss. To say, "I'll give you a kiss," is to be presumptuous simply because, from the French perspective, a kiss is not given, it is made, as the language demonstrates. Faire un bisou literally, to make a kiss. One that is ours to share, not yours to give. 

In light of the recent and shocking headlines concerning France's DSK (Dominique Strauss-Kahn), I can't help but wonder if, had he remembered this cultural norm, he wouldn't find himself on house arrest, unemployed, no longer a presidental hopeful, and in a whole heap of trouble. Perhaps, had he visited Paris's Musée de l'Erotisme like I recently did with Soren, he would have been further reminded of the natural order of things as was I, by reading this:

Shared Pleasure
In love the two sexes are equal and pleasure should be shared equally. If the partners do not feel the same satisfaction once the act is accomplished it is not fair to pretend that they have made love. Love should be a shared reward and neither an egotistic satisfaction nor a duty.
Ovid- The Art of Love, penned around 2 CE

If my daughters can begin to internalize this valuable message during their time spent living in Paris, I will be one satisfied American mama.