Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Things French people buy at Christmas

It's that time of year again, when the French grocery store is overtaken by rich foods that will be gobbled up during the holidays.  This is a country known for its food so no wonder the foodiest of holidays is  a major eating fest.  And while a typical American holiday meal will consist of ham or turkey and an assortment of sides, the French tend to go with seafood or totally rich foie gras.  Check out what I found in my aisles last Saturday.

What better to serve your foie gras on than these cute little toasts!  Frankly the duck paté is too rich for me.  Only in small quantities, please!

Smoked salmon is often served as a starter.  This is not actually cooked in the true sense of the word but literally smoked beforehand and then eaten cold.  Finally a dish I can get behind.

Special aluminum dishes for cooking your snails.  Covered in garlicky butter sauce, of course.  Not really my favorite.

Dessert is a subject I'm more interested in.  The famous "bûche de Noël" is a cake shaped like a log and usually made by rolling up a sheet cake with a filling inside.  Often covered with a butter frosting;

The "galette des Rois", or Kings' cake is filled with applesauce or an almond paste.  The person who gets the little ceramic figurine in his piece is the "king" and gets to wear the crown.

Look who I found in my shopping cart!  Perched on the cat litter boxes!  

Happy eating!PS: I'll be eating in the US this Christmas, by the way, and couldn't be happier!

Saturday, November 30, 2013


I spent my eleventh Thanksgiving (twelfth if you count the time I was in Holland) away from home.  As usual, I did a mini Thanskgiving meal with turkey breasts and a bit of sauce.  This year though I'm very lucky to have been invited to a Friends-giving by my US expat friend.  I'm making cornbread dressing for the first time in my life.  This was one of my grandma's favorite things to make if my memory serves well.  Also making a pumpkin pie and contributing some cranberry sauce that I had in my cupboard.  The hostess searched high and low for fried onions to make green bean casserole.  These are now available in France.  The brand is called Kuhn and she found it in the "foreign" section of the store next to the Mexican and Chinese food!

So like so many other Americans at this time of year I'm trying to remember what I have in my life and what I am thankful for.

Friends and family!  I'm glad to have a support group of friends in France that make the distance from my US family a bit more bearable.  My little girl, of course!  My hubby (despite my gripes...) who does have his good side.  My family in the US who has listened to all my sufferings with such patience and been there for me through it all.

My cutie pie doing her poser smile!

Fall colors that never fail to move me.  I may get a bit down in the fall but the changing colors are still magical to me no matter how many times I see them.  

Can't help it, such gorgeous colors on cobblestones (and cigarette butts).

I could snap a million pictures like this and it would never be enough. 

Things I'm looking forward to like...going home for Christmas!  I think that's been part of the secret of not being too down this fall- the prospect of my upcoming US trip.  It sure helps beat the blues a bit.

Great colleagues and a job that keeps me in contact with people.  I may not be totally doing what I set out to (that is, lab stuff).  And maybe I'll get more in gear for looking for those type of jobs when I get back from my trip.  But in the meantime I'm thankful to have a better workload (thus better pay) and, as always, the best coworkers in the WORLD!  Sure makes getting up in the morning easier. 

So I'll end with a quote I should remember more often: "Stop your complaining/leave me defenseless/gonna love this life!"   (Virtual points to the first who finds the author...

Friday, November 8, 2013

Part Two of Dichotomy of a Good Girl

Continuation of Dichotomy of a Good Girl

Months after I would think about that little evening in the student house fondly.  How Remi had timidly touched my arm to ask if I had freckles like another redhead he knew.  It was innocent enough, but I wondered if he was the slightest bit interested in me.  In my most hopeful moments I flattered myself that maybe he was. 

Back in the US after my internship I pined away, not just for him, but the fun times I'd had in Holland.  I had felt freer in Holland in some ways, free to explore another side of myself, perhaps to escape from what others expected of me.  I was definitely still a good girl, but one who could let loose, too.

The French boy and I started exchanging emails and chatting online and one day when I kept telling myself, you've got to be kidding yourself that there could be anything more than a penpal here, I wrote something  that would change my destiny.  I figured this thing had run its course and as a way of saying "goodbye" I said, well, if you're ever in the US, I'll be happy to be your guide.  And I thought that would be the end of it. 

And darned if he didn't write back that he'd checked out prices on flights to Alabama.  In the end it was New York (far more touristic than my city) where we met for a week in December 2001 and where two relatively shy people realized there was maybe more to our friendship than we'd dared to hope. 

We vowed to make it work, to find a way for me to come to France.  It was very unlike me, straight-laced, homesick me who'd chosen a university just two hours away from home instead of more prestigious ones which were eight hours away.  It was perhaps in part the fact that this was so out of character for me that it attracted me to the idea.

Eleven years later, the initial haze of infatuation and discovering a new culture and country have of course faded.  I've settled into the routine and am likely to roll my eyes at my hubby (for he is now my husband) for requesting a sauce with his meat or grumbling that we don't buy wine often enough.  The good girl is still there but has a tougher skin and is starting to speak up more when things bother her, at work or at home or at the in-laws.  But I still have moments where my good girl complex makes me bite my tongue and when I wish I could lash out, sing out, tell people to "talk to the hand"! 

Some people would call me quiet, but I'd say they don't know me well enough. I certainly feel there is a lot of chatter in my head!  I sometimes feel like surprising people.  It's not that I want to be a "bad girl" or even a Bond girl (or just for one night ;p) but just free to be whoever I want. 

So to all my fellow "good girls" out there, pamper yourself, dance on your coffee table and make yourself happy!  Good girls shouldn't finish last.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dichotomy of a good girl (Part One)

I've never really taken the time to totally listen to all the words to that infectious but kinda naughty Blurred Lines song.  For the longest time I thought it was called Good Girl since he says that line often.  Most people would consider me a good girl.  A tame girl.  Quiet even.  In school I was the quiet one, the one who made good grades.  I distinctly remember being a first grader though and chatting and joking with my friends and the sting of the teacher telling me/us to be quiet!  From then on I guess I was more conscious of staying calm in school.

I went on to make good grades and be that sort of "nerdy" girl all through high school.  I was lucky enough to go to a very small magnet school with other "nerdy" folks who accepted me though.  I had my group of friends with whom I could be myself and joke and play.  But part of me always wanted to shout out to the world that I wasn't really that quiet.  In my high school we could choose our own yearbook pose.  I chose one of me holding up a picture of a cute guy from a magazine next to my face.  I was trying to show my classmates I wasn't as shy as they thought.  But then again I was.

In high school and college I would often fall for boys who were not at all good for me.  I never went out with them (or anyone, for that matter), but boy, did I crush on them.  Looking back I can see they were all wrong for me.  But at the time, I was blind.

I went to grad school and my travelling bug made me apply for an international internship.  And for three months I lived in Holland, working in a greenhouse by day, sharing meals and conversations in broken English with other foreign students by night.  Suddenly I was surrounded by a motley crew of Russians, Ukranians, Swiss, French and Japanese people.  I was still probably the tamest of the bunch, not staying up too late or partying in any "coffee shops" (no siree, Bob, I didn't touch any space brownies!).  But I felt a bit of a thrill riding my bike back from the little dance club on a Saturday night with some of these new buddies.  And eating strange cucumber and potato salads with Eastern European students who seemed only to eat so they could continue to drink vodka (I only had a few sips, mom!). 

Meanwhile, love was blooming for some of my housemates, including a Swiss girl and a Latvian guy.  I was still the good girl though.  But the arrival of the French boy who I'd met at the foreign student weekend did make me a little giddy, though I probably wouldn't have admitted it at the time.  One evening I rode my bike over the rickety bridge that led to the other student house to pay a little visit to the new arrivals.  The French boys (for there were two) were settling in, and the one named Remi went upstairs with me to see his other housemate, a sweet Russian girl, to ask her how the Moby concert had been the night before.  I remember us going in her room where she was trying to sleep and sitting on her floor speaking in hushed tones to her...

Coming soon, Part Two...

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Discipline Schmiscipline

I wish that things were easier when it comes to discipline.  I know I'm not alone when I say it's one of the toughest parts of raising a child.  My five-year old seems to come up with new challenges for me as if it's a game (and sometimes I think she's winning).  Now that she's in what they call "grande section" (the last class in pre-school, the equivalent to kindergarten), she thinks she herself is "grande" or big.  And therefore she can make all the decisions at home.  "C'est moi qui décide!" (It's me who decides) has become her new mantra. 

In situations like these I tell her she's not the boss yet and that she'll have to finish all her schooling (as in high school!) before she can really call the shots.  Sometimes this leads to a new crying fit because I dared to contradict her.  Then there was that mega tantrum last week getting her to take her bath.  She was lashing out at me physically through most of the bath and I even almost put her in the water fully-clothed. 

And as if these new kindergarten age challenges weren't enough, it's often compounded by the continual lack of concensus between my husband and me.  Five years into this parenting thing, we still don't seem to agree on the way to parent.  I know we've broken about all the rules like, Thou shalt not criticize thy spouse's parenting style in front of thy child.  But I do it, he does it, and I'm sure Juliette is getting quite the mixed signals. 

Take last Sunday.  Juliette was tapping her markers on the table and coyly saying it wasn't her.  We said, obviously it is you, and please stop.  But she continued and just as I was about to tap her on the shoulder and tell her to stop, Remi raised his voice louder than a drill sergeant telling off his new recruits.  Juliette started bawling and thus ensued an argument between the parents about just how far one should go in terms of shouting. 

It seems we can't find that magical compromise in terms of discipline.  Though young French parents are decidedly more open-minded than their parents' generation, I get the impression sometimes that the old "children should be seen, not heard" idea is still prevalent here. 

But after talking to some of my students who are also daddies, I've gotten some advice.  One told me about a book he and his wife use from the Super Nanny series.  This exists in Britain, too, and they have a website full of great articles.  I ordered the book in French in hopes that hubby will give it a glance.  Another says he and his wife try not to disagree with each other on discipline tactics in front of the children.  I don't know if I can keep to this one, but I'll try!

I know my little girl is good down deep and capapble of great sweetness.  Call her headstrong, call her stubborn, but I must stick with my gentle but firm approach and hope for the best.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

In the middle and in the pink

Middle because lately my 39 year-old status is starting to weigh on me  Rather the 40 that I will become next year.  It's typical, I know  It's just a number, I know.  But numerical or not, these kinds of landmarks do make you think.  It makes you take stock about what you've done and hope to do.  In France, 40 is just about too late to change careers.  Maybe in the US, too, but in my adopted country things are just so rigid.  Jobs are scarce.  Fifty is just about considered senior status.  And though I have newfound pleasure in teaching and the creative outlet it gives me (read: getting to be a ham), there's part of me whispering, but what about that year you spent slaving in school to get your lab certification refreshed?  Is it now or never?  Is that still a viable and attractive option?  Too many questions for an indecisive girl (oh, geez, at nearly 40, I suppose I should say "woman") like me.

And this middle thing isn't just about work.  Those forehead wrinkles aren't getting any plumper.  I inevitably compare myself to younger girls on TV or in real life and realize that I'm not getting any younger, as the saying goes.  Vanity is getting the better of me lately.  Getting older is harder on women, let's face it.  Wrinkles don't make us more distinguished, just old.

cancer du sein,photographies,rubans,rubans roses,soins,symbolesThe pink is from a pink soirée I attended last night that was a breast cancer benefit party.  You were supposed to wear pink as this is the color for breast cancer awareness.  A special shout-out to my aunt who bravely underwent a double mastectomy and reconstruction.  I just threw on a pale pink cardigan I had but was tickled to see how some of the other ladies were dressed.  Ice pink wigs and anything pink from their wardrobe or the dress-up store, including pink feather boas.  

The theme was pink pirates and the organizers, mostly British women from the local British/Anglican social group, did a great job coming up with fun activities.  You paid ten euros at the door and it was all for a good cause.  I liked seeing how these British ladies have adapted to life here.  Most were older, some considerably so than me, so it was a good chance to observe what other expats do/become as they stay in France.  I always enjoy seeing how dynamic most British women are at any age and it was inspiring.  These are women who are also far (though not quite as far as me) from home and they've become active and certainly have a happy outlook on life.

So I might be in the middle (and not so pleased about it) but I'll try to stay in the pink.  If only because it's more flattering to the wrinkles!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

What's Cookin'!

Some wishes do come true.  Like my wish for an Indian summer in my last post.  Monday turned out to be brilliantly sunny and even hot.  Juliette and I had some fun playground time to celebrate!  The rest of the week was very pleasant, temperature-wise.  Somehow I couldn't help but savor it all the more knowing shorter, cooler days are around the corner.  Like eating the last garden-grown tomatoes, knowing less flavorful ones will be around for the next six months.

And speaking of tomatoes and food, I have finally gotten my kitchen into a more functional state, another long-time wish.  If you've every rented in France you'll know that bare kitchens are quite the norm.  You know the expression "everything but the kitchen sink"?  Here it's the opposite.  When we moved into our current place, which was brand-spanking new, there was nothing but the kitchen sink and a white melamine cabinet underneath it in the galley-style kitchen.

So we did what any self-respecting French renter would do and went to Ikea to kit ourselves out.  Gas burners are not really allowed in apartments here so we kept the electric stove top we'd had in our previous place.  And that was much to my dismay.

Ever since I've been living in apartments in France I've had to deal with electric stove tops.  The first time it was already integrated into the miniscule kitchen, as in my first studio apartment.  When some water splashed onto the unit it took one burner out and the landlord replaced it (but my insurance had to cover it).   There was amazingly one brief moment where I rented in a place that actually had gas burners.  Later we rented our first place as a married couple and the kitchen was pretty much bare except for some cabinets the previous renters had kindly left.  We bought our first electric stove top.

But the problem with these portable units is that they are also quite sensitive to moisture and a real pain to clean.  A little pasta water boils over and, things get ugly.  And I'm not really a slave to housework so my burners end up looking like this and dying on me after about two years.  I think I've gone through three units these past seven years.

So when this one died (as they all do), the last thing I wanted to do was buy another of the ugly things.  And after much online researching as to options, I actually found a portable three-burner induction unit at the discount grocery store.  Who'd have figured?  Lidl has some pretty cool stuff sometimes!

Of course, induction does require magnetic-based cookware.  I did the magnet test on our stuff and found that most of it did indeed attract your average fridge magnet, so all systems were go!  Just had to buy a new frying pan and we were in business!

The induction system heats up quickly and cools down relatively quickly too since the heating action is more in the bottom of the saucepan than the burner itself.  Don't ask me the physics of it!  So far so good and the best part is the glass top is easy to clean, just a damp sponge.  I must just be careful to not let water seep in  the edges, of course, or slam my pan down too forcefully on the glass top.

So here's hoping I can make some tasty meals with this baby (and that it will last)!  What would you like to change in your kitchen?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Wanted: Indian Summer

I'm sitting here looking at an anemic sky: some greyish clouds billowing around on white; there is sun sometimes but not much blue sky.  This September has been one of those partly sunny-partly cloudy deals.  Some days down-right chilly and rainy.  So I guess I must face facts, it IS autumn.  Tomorrow in fact.

So I've been a bit nostalgic about my summer and the good times we had.  Maybe because the weather was actually very summer-like (for once) and now the chillier air is quite a contrast. Allow me to indulge in some summer memories.

My new solar-powered lantern that comes on at night.
Strawberry wine and strawberries with sugar.

Enjoying a meal on the balcony.
And as you know, every year I go through some pre-Autumn depression. But this year I'm determined to make the best of things.  Setting goals and looking forward to things.  I'll let you know more later on just what (but I've got some ideas...).

Last Sunday we got out and did something to beat the blues- a little visit to the port city of Boulogne and its historic walled town center. 

We also ate at what had to be the worst restaurant in Boulogne in terms of service (s-l-ooooo-wwwww) and which boasted a very mediocre menu.  And one of the funniest menu translations I've ever seen!

Google translate at work, people.  Pavé is a piece of meat but they translated it as "paved", as there is also the verb paver (to pave).  Emincé should again be pieces of meat which are sliced thinly not simply "sliced thinly", and filet is the same word in English, but in French it can also mean a net, as in the net when you play tennis.  I should have seen it coming that this restaurant wasn't up to snuff by its menu alone! 

This weekend I'm just cleaning a bit (as Juliette's school friend and next-building neighbor has come to play) and tomorrow will be in-law visiting.  We're settling into our school and work routine and trying to go with the flow.

Here's wishing you a cozy and productive fall, y'all!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

In loving memory

It's what every expat fears the most.  The call. That's how my friends Caroline and Crystal both ominously refer to that call we don't want to get.  In my case it was an email that, just like Deidre said a while back, was titled simply with the person in question.  And I knew that probably meant things hadn't gone well over the night of Sunday to Monday for my grandma.

When a loved one passes away we feel helpless as expats.  We aren't there to help friends and family, and we feel guilty that we didn't see the person as much these past years because we've been away.   In this case my mom said to wait and come back at Christmas, which will also be a tough time this year.  And I agree and understand.  My being there now wouldn't make my grandma come back and she knows I loved her.  Of course I tell myself I could have called a bit more often, or emailed more.  We saw each other on Skype and spoke on holidays and she got to see her great-granddaughter Juliette three times in these last five years (check out this video from when they were together in 2009). 

So I've been calling daily to see how my family is holding up and somehow it makes things a little better.  But being far from the events makes it harder for me to truly realize she's gone.  I don't have the same closure as the others. 

Instead I lit a candle in the church near my apartment and Juliette and I sat in a little chapel where I quietly read her a book we'd found at the library about a girl who misses her grandma.  It's been hard for a five-year old to process all this and why her mom is weepy.  She goes from asking me where grandma is and then telling me she wants to go to heaven and see her or saying she never wants to die.  It's heavy stuff at that age and I try my best to explain without scaring her.  Her little arms around my neck are a comfort.

So today I'll think about what a spunky, cute little grandma she was.  And how I hugged her tight the last time I left the US, thinking a little too pragmatically that it might well be the last time.  Unfortunately that came true but I know we made some great memories together. 

With Juliette in the summer of 2009.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Train travel and (almost) touching the clouds

I always feel excited when I travel by train. Correction, when I travel by train for fun and not work. So I was feeling doubly happy when I took the train last Saturday with Juliette to go visit my friend Crystal. The trip was all I'd hoped for! Things were gray and rainy when we set out, but it didn't dampen my spirits.  It was truly strange to pull into the Charles de Gaulle airport station and not get off.  It's the place where my many trips to the US begin and end (sadly).

Even in the rain, the view out the window was still lush and different enough from my flatter part of France to keep my head dreaming.

We even got to sit in first class on one train since it was rather packed and the other passengers (including a French-Moroccan guy travelling with his American wife) said it was no big deal.  It is cozier!

And there at the Grenoble station my good friend Crystal and her husband Max were waiting for us.  And so began an extended weekend of fun and girlfriendly chats and visits in the mountain air.

It's silly to say, I told my hosts as we were driving around, but the clouds are closer here.  Being higher up I felt like I could touch the clouds and mist.  I really do find the landscapes there so inspiring and understand why my friend likes it so much!  Below you can see two different views from her apartment, one on a cloudy day, another on a clear day.

Crystal kindly showed us around an amazing museum and its gorgeous gardens on Sunday.  Great views inside and out!

Monday we headed into Grenoble for some city exploring and to take the cable cars up to La Bastille for some more breathtaking views.

I know my eyes are closed in that last one but it was a hoot anyway cause we got Juliette to take it for us and you can see I was really having a ball!

But we did have to head back home.  Crystal knows what a great time we had and how thankful I am to her and Max for letting us stay with them.  It's so important to chat with someone who knows where you're from and what you're going through in a foreign country.  I'm lucky to have friends like her and others I've met through work and in my town.

So we rode the rails again to get home and I tried to enjoy the train experience again.  This time we had to change in Paris in Gare du Nord.  And of course a Happy Meal at the McDonald's across from the station as we waited for our train connection was in order.

So, until next time in my neck of the woods, girlfriend, thanks again!!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Looking down, looking up

Looking down is practically a state of mind in France. I'm not making this up (as one of my favorite journalists Dave Barry used to say). Fellow blogger Crystal posted this on Facebook not long ago and it's unfortunately true.  The French seem to be naturally pessimistic.  What's worse, expats in France tend to be less satisfied with their lives than expats in other countries.  Collective SIGH.

But looking down, literally, is also a necesity in this country.  To avoid the ever-present dog poop.  Again, I'm not making this up.  A quick browse around some other expat blogs will easily confirm it.  And in the excellent book I just finished written by a British expat about his humourous and sometimes naughty experiences in France, A Year in the Merde, it's a recurrent topic.  And if you keep looking down and ahead of you as you walk, as he points out, you are less likely to step in poo. 

Looking down can have its upsides though.  Today as I was walking in the park with Juliette I saw a ten euro bill on the ground.  Folded up inside it was another bill. So that's twenty euros!  I glanced around to see how close other people were and if I should ask if they'd dropped money.  WWaFPD? I asked myself.  What would a French person do?  They would so keep it.  And so did I.

But looking up does seem to be the better way to go, mentally speaking.  And the other day I found some lovely views by directing my eyes skyward.

Like the ornate moulding on these houses.  Notice how the one on the left has been cleaned and so is brighter than its neighbor.

Lovely balconies.

 Romantically rusty gates.

Lush wisteria vine.

 Yet more ornate buildings and some famous guy.

And in addition to looking up, I can also now look forward to seeing my good friend Crystal!  Yes, I decided to ride the rails and see my Canadian friend whom I haven't seen since Christmas 2009.  It was time to get together again.  So I'll keep my head in the clouds and in the future even if the French are looking down.  Mind the poop.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Road rules, learned the hard way

Last weekend we took a road trip to the Bourgogne region of France.  It was a five-hour drive to the center of France that started out like any other road trip...with a fight about why the durn GPS was not detecting the satellite right away.  Typical.  That hurdle cleared I hoped the rest of the trip would be pleasant.  Can't say that's entirely true in our little family where patience is in short supply, but on the upside, it makes for good blog fodder!

So here are a few choice things I learned from our extended weekend.

1. Gum makes everything better.

We've recently discovered that Juju can get a little carsick.  Thanks to MameeLin's bright idea, a bit of mint gum keeps her occupied and steady.  And maybe the fear of her getting sick keeps her quiet.  We hardly heard a peep from the backseat.

2. Kids and culture don't mix.  Not yet, at least.  I tried to be smart about the limited sightseeing we did on this trip, limited being the key word.  I'd checked out some websites about Dijon beforehand and even some on kids' activites.  We just did some walking along shady or not so shady streets, checked out every fountain we saw and especially the one you can play in near the Palais des Ducs. And when in doubt about something, ask another mom for directions or advice.  I snagged one who was buying her kids ice cream to be sure we were on the right way to the fountain.

Rue de la Vannerie, Dijon.

3. Speaking of ice cream, buy plenty.  Hey, when it's blistering hot, go for it.  It makes everyone happy, cools off tempers and is part of being on vacation!

4. Do go off the beaten path.  Even though sometimes it annoys me at the time, my husband's tendency to explore (read: keep driving to find the perfect restaurant) can lead to some fun experiences.  We happened upon the Fête de l'Escargot (the snail festival) in Digoin last weekend.  There were an amazing number of people in line at the town hall for their plate of garlicky snails but we opted for a crêpe restaurant that was also serving snails (not in crêpes, mind you).  I got the rôti (roast pork), for the record. 

5. Rest stops are meant for resting.  To get to Bourgogne we took the toll roads.  The one good thing about this is that the rest stops are fairly abundant and clean.  And there's lots of tempting goodies in the mini-markets there.  Eiffel Tower magnets, anyone?

French junk food: waffles, pain au chocolat, brioche, and, oh yeah, some Oreos!

Watch out for the prices though.  We saw this one family of four getting a basketful of groceries: some speciality salads, cherry tomatoes, sandwiches, yogurts, and candy which amounted to a whopping 60 euros!  

 They're also pretty good about providing some play areas for kids to get those legs stretched out.

So I hope my roadweary experiences will help you out some too.  And don't forget to check your GPS before leaving and...bring along a map just in case.