Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Paris, ensemble

Everybody thinks they have the best Mom.

Well, no, of course not. A lot of people have trauma around their upbringing, or were raised by a dad or two dads or grandparents, or were never lucky (or unlucky, I suppose) enough to know their mother. But everybody who's as lucky as me, to have been raised by my parents of birth in a loving and supportive household, thinks they have the best Mom and Dad. They're wrong, though, because I do.

When I was fifteen and 50/52nds, (got that?) my parents, younger brother and I moved away from Maine, from all four of my grandparents AND my older brother, who elected to stay behind with family and finish high school there. We left the house I grew up in that my great- great-grandfather built, the schools my parents had graduated from that I was attending with mostly the same kids I'd met in kindergarten. The four of us lived in Key Largo, Florida for two and a half years after that, ending (for me) when I left for college in fall of 2000 - and that was the last time I lived within driving distance of my parents for twelve years. From 2012 until this summer, we lived 30 minutes away, and it was an odd week if I didn't see them at least once. So I knew from my teenage years how hard it would be to move my kids away from their grandparents, and I knew from experience how hard it would be on me, no longer having their daily support after five years of relying on it. To say nothing of how cruel it was to take their oldest grandchildren away from Mom and Dad after so many years of filling their house with mischief and giggles!

And yet, because I have the best parents, they were 100% supportive of this adventure for our family, running errands and watching the kids while we prepared to move, storing precious things that we didn't trust with the moving company, and in my mom's case, talking me through more than one embarrassing emotional meltdown when it all got to be too much. They are saints. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when Mom found an impossibly good deal on flights to Paris before we had even arrived ourselves, and the excitement with which we all counted down to their arrival! Sunday, October 15 we loaded up the car and drove 5 hours to Paris, more or less copying the route I'd taken to Costco the weekend before.

A car ride that long with two small kids is always a challenge, and unfortunately Josh was still suffering form the allergies that had attacked just a couple days before. Still, it was an uneventful ride and we checked in to our superhero Airbnb in the first arrondissement before dinner, after an exciting moment trying to park in the garage - turns out our little Citroen C4 can't really reverse up a ramp, in case you were wondering. Then we had Thai food out - I know, it's not exactly classic Parisian fare, but big city = better foreign food! - and went to bed early.
Also, big city means the food might actually have some heat!

Cheers from the airport in Atlanta!
It's a good thing we went to bed early, too, because I set an alarm for 4:30 the next morning, so as to make sure to arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport in plenty of time to meet their 6:30 plane. I'd never seen such deserted streets! It was eerie, and beautiful.
 I was absurdly early for the flight, so I did some exploring and got directions on where to go to collect our dog, who was flying in by cargo 48 hours later. Finally Mom and Dad emerged from a looooong wait at customs, and I have never been happier.

Well, until this happened.
 We got back to the apartment and hugged forever, and by the time we were ready to set out on the metro its was mid-morning.
Mom and Dad had never been to Paris before, and the kids had only passed through. So, as you can see above, we headed straight for the Eiffel Tower but opted to skip the hours-long lines for the top. We enjoyed the view though, tossed leaves into the Seine as we walked over a bridge, then headed to a brasserie for lunch.
 Nana fit right in with the French culture - always have a glass of wine at lunch! I was happy to join in. It's vacation, after all.
 Pappy was a rebel, though. We thought they might kick us out when he ordered coffee BEFORE the meal! The waiter raised both eyebrows and reconfirmed that he actually wanted it. Twice. But jet lag is a doozy, and I think Mr. Meixell made up for his transgression by having the escargot.

After lunch we walked to Les Invalides to see the beautiful gold dome and walk off some of our lunch. On the way we passed two WWII memorials, one with dried flowers hanging beneath.
This is my own translation - forgive me if it's clunky or inaccurate.
"December 12, 1941
The German military police, assisted by the French police, arrested 743 Jewish professionals, mostly veterans and liberal professionals, and regrouped them at the "Commandant Bossus" carousel at the military college.
The 743 were interned in the German camp at Royallieu a Compiegne, where some died of hunger and cold.
March 27 1942, most of the 743 were deported in the first convoy leaving France for Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
Do not forget these victims of racial hatred.
-The sons and daughters of Jews deported from France
Josette et Jean-Jacques FRAENKEL in memory of their Father"


This one breaks my heart - it's so personal.
"In memory of Pierre LASSALLA, Corporal of the LECLERC division
Fell August 25, 1944 for the liberation of Paris, at the age of 21."
These memorials are everywhere in France, and it really drives home the horrible personal losses WWII delivered to Europe. Our American experience of the war was of sending our sons and daughters overseas, not knowing if they were dead or alive, believing in the cause. Imagine what it was like seeing your homes and churches and schools occupied by the enemy, not knowing who around you was in the resistance or reporting back to the enemy. People being enslaved or disappeared every day, food is scarce, peril is everywhere - and still your sons and daughters are gone and fighting. The rise of white nationalism in the U.S. and worldwide right now is especially frightening to me as I'm reminded of the horrors wrought by Nazism in Europe. One thing they do very well here - they never let you forget.

But we were on vacation, so I tried not to dwell on it! The kids got tired of the Paris walking fairly fast, but luckily Josh and Pappy were willing pack mules. Even for the nearly-70 pound six year old!
After Les Invalides we headed back to the tiny Airbnb for a rest and some French cartoons. Josh walked to L'As du Falafel, our favorite hole in the wall restaurant in Paris for a takeout dinner, where he was mistaken for an ASM champion rugby player, haha! Dad and I ran down to the little Italian place on the corner for some supplementary charcuterie, cheese, and salad, and we all feasted with a couple more bottles of wine. It was an awesome first day in France for Mom and Dad, and such a welcome relief for the four of us. Nothing comforts like family!

Friday, November 10, 2017

It's just lunch, lady.

The week after Costco is a tough one to write about. And difficult to explain, unless I first describe the culture of school lunches in France. I wrote a little about this before, but I want to share a bit more detail.

You probably know already that school lunches in the U.S. are notoriously bad. Brown, frozen food reheated and served with ketchup, canned vegetables (if any!), and sugary milk. By comparison, the food in French schools is wonderful! There are chefs in each school district, the food is balanced and prepared fresh and served in courses. This takes place at the school, but "la cantine" is staffed by city employees whose contracts are separate from teachers or administrators. Here's a sample menu:

A little translation: Entrees are appetizers, Plats are main dishes, Garnitures are veg/garnish, Laitage is a milk product, and Dessert is self-explanatory. So here's the week of October 2-6 at Massillon:

Monday: Beets with vinaigrette, roasted chicken with zucchini, Camembert cheese and pears.
Tuesday: Tomato salad, pork stuffed with herbs, ratatouille (roasted summer veg), St. Paulin cheese, and praline dessert pudding.
Wednesday: No cantine because students have no school, or just a couple of hours in the morning.
Thursday: Boiled egg with mayonnaise, beef ravioli, semolina (not sure what kind of garnish that is!), local bleu cheese, and strawberry mousse.
Friday: Pearl salad (which I assume means salad with Israeli couscous or something), breaded fish fillets, pureed vegetables, cantal cheese and local yogurt with fruit. 

Sounds pretty appealing, right? There's always water, milk, and juice to drink, plus fresh French bread. This was one of the parts of French culture that I was most excited about; the kids having such a complete and balanced meal and encountering new foods at school. Naturally, it wasn't at all what I expected. 

For the first month of school I decided to keep both kids out of cantine altogether. Well, I had planned to introduce Lincoln to it the third week, but that was when the school asked us to move him up to second grade, so I figured skipping a year was enough excitement for one week. So finally in week five he stayed for lunch on a Tuesday. Well, that was the day I got a call at 2:00 p.m. saying that he'd been pushed down by another child on the "playground," which is a nice way of saying "the concrete courtyard lovingly nicknamed "Shawshank." Remember

Still, the following Thursday he decided to go again, with assurances from the school that the kid who'd pushed him had been given a talking-to. That night, he informed me that he'd forgotten to throw away a piece of cheese from his plate before carrying the plate up to the dishes counter. The lunch lady, rather than asking him to throw it away, grabbed him by the wrist, dragged him across the room to the trash cans, and made him throw it away. By Friday he seemed fine, and we chalked it up to another annoying difference between French and American cultures. 

Well, all that weekend Lincoln complained of chest pain. He couldn't sleep. He was o.k. when distracted, but as soon as the game of Uno ended, or the T.V. went off, or the karate class was over, his hand went to his chest again and he winced and gasped. 

My six year old was having anxiety attacks. 

Six. 

Because a woman employed to care for children can't keep her hands to herself, or use her words. 

That week he missed school for several days, saw his pediatrician, and went to the emergency room for an EKG to rule out a heart problem (which, thankfully was ruled out). Each of the three pediatricians we saw said the same thing: Cantine is a problem all over France, especially for foreign children. DO NOT make him go back. 

Fortunately, the reassurance that he didn't have to return to cantine and the knowledge that vacation was coming were enough to alleviate the worst of his symptoms, and he was able to finish the last day or two of the week. We are reevaluating the kids' schooling and thinking of moving them to a public school nearer to our apartment, so that they can avoid cantine and I can avoid spending four hours per day walking and busing to school. 

SO. That brings us to Saturday, October 14, when we were preparing to pack up the car and drive to Paris to meet my parents, hooray! And pick up our dog as well. During the week of Lincoln's anxiety attacks, I also learned that everything the airline had told me about a dog flying unaccompanied was wrong, and at several points it looked like he wouldn't make it at all. But thanks to the incredible generosity of my friends Kim and Angel, who'd fostered him all summer, the paperwork was signed off and he was good to go. Josh had meetings in Paris from Wednesday to Friday the 13th, so I got us mostly packed up and ready. 

Well, something in the hotel in Paris disagreed with Josh, and my never-allergic husband broke out in hives. We spent Saturday traveling to Urgent Care, realizing that they require an appointment, traveling home and then back there again, only to receive steroids and antihistamines that were completely unequal to the task. Saturday night was the expats' Halloween party, so Josh stayed home while I took a Ghostbuster (Sylvia) and a karate master (Lincoln) to an apartment downtown for pumpkin carving and a potluck feast. 

I brought deviled eggs, but not the cute and spooky ones!

It was such a great evening. I don't know how our hosts managed to pull it off - that many pumpkins, that may families, and yet it was almost totally relaxed and fun! 

The first half of October was a whirlwind for our family - but then, every week here has been a whirlwind in some fashion. After the Halloween party we came home for quick showers before bed, ready to drive all day Sunday and finally hug our Mom and Dad/Nana and Pappy again! And that's the real reason I barely blogged in October: I was having too much fun with my parents to write about it.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Costco

So. A month ago I went to Costco. 
It's in the middle of a pasture. Apparently most Paris suburbs didn't want the big American megastore around,
so they looked elsewhere.
 (Throughout the post, click to enlarge any picture).
Tires, tires everywhere!

Joining was worth every moment of the wait!

Ahh, familiarity. Even in the john.
 Going to Costco wouldn't be worthy of a mention, much less a blog post, except that there is exactly one Costco in all of France - in all of mainland Europe, as far as I know. Josh turned me on to everyone's favorite big box store in the early 2000s in Massachusetts, and I've been a huge fan ever since.
They have the hot dogs! And the first decent pepperonis I've ever seen in France!

Also fries at the food court AND espresso. Both of which are sorely lacking at U.S. locations.
Costco France launched the same month that we did, July 2017, a fact we both attribute to the Universe being a just and loving place. We shopped at the Greenville location almost weekly during our time there - the produce is fresh and often half the price of other grocery stores, the meat is good quality and affordable, and we used Kirkland brand diapers, wipes, and often clothes for the kids. Josh's mother worked for Costco in Sequim, Washington for much of his childhood and young adult years, including when I met her for the first time. She baked bread, packaged those enormous muffins, frosted cakes - it's a big part of our lives. Knowing that they pay well and generally treat their employees like human beings is a huge reason for my loyalty. That, and the quality is great.

SO. We had planned to go together as a family on the Sunday before my parents arrived in Paris, since we were heading up there to collect them anyway. But, this being France, Costco is closed on Sundays, so instead I decided to drive up and back in a single day, covering 500 miles and about eight hours of driving, not to mention almost 80 Euros in tolls.

I know, I've lost my mind.

But one thing about living overseas is that you miss familiarity. I'm always telling people that everything in France is just a liiiiiittle bit different than back in the States. Not a lot different - in Japan it was a lot different, and I think I learned faster as a result. Here it's a little bit different, so slightly that I pretty regularly find myself holding up a half dozen shoppers at the market because I've forgotten to weigh and sticker my produce. Or, like last week, I pay four Euros so that the car wash can thoroughly scrub NOTHING, the AIR, because I didn't realize that here you pull in first, then get out and pay and reenter your car after the automatic wash is done. Everything is a little bit different.

That's true for Costco too, and I knew it wouldn't be exactly the same. But the prospect of visiting one of my favorite shops, picking up some familiar products and discovering new ones, and eating a perfect hot dog for once, was enough to make me do it. That, and eight hours in the car listening to whatever I damn well please with no one asking for snacks or potty breaks! Josh kept the kids at home.
I've never seen a raclette skillet at a Costco in the U.S., but it wouldn't surprise me.


 So I headed out a little too late, around 9:00 a.m., and had the most beautiful drive through rolling hills. The toll highways are expensive here, but they make life so easy! You pick up a ticket at an entry gate, and pay one large toll at the exit nearest your destination. No coins, no constant stopping, no worries. There are large and relatively clean rest stops every 20 minutes or so, many with bathrooms and restaurants and gas stations. I listened to a podcast about the new Star Trek series, one about making phone calls in French, and much of the Hamilton cast album. It was delightful. Soon I'd arrived, starving, and waited a few minutes to join and get my card. I had a hot dog and fries at the food court and headed in to my happy place. Well, one of them.

Almonds and pistachios that don't cost $35/lb! 

Candy. So much candy.
 It wasn't long before I started seeing American goods! My search for Goldfish crackers was a bust, but I grabbed Pop Tarts and microwave popcorn for some expat buddies. I'm also thrilled to report that Costco France has samples throughout the store, and I tried quite a few goodies. Watching French customers, who are generally unaccustomed to samples, very casually circle the tables, waiting to see how it works, was pretty amusing.

They have the diapers and wipes! Fortunately, the Sullins family is past needing those.
 If you know me, you know I bought a bag of Reese's miniature peanut butter cups for $20. I'm proud to say that over a month later, we haven't quite managed to eat all 3.5 pounds of them.

Hippie baking products

Coffee capsules - but I'm not willing to buy that many without first trying one.

My kitchen is well-stocked already, and yet I'm always tempted by pretty new stainless bowls,
strainers, and pans. I resisted.

Batteries for a good price - expats take note!

They had pet food, but not the kind Charlie eats. Ah well! 
 The seasonal items were particularly enticing. I didn't pick up any Halloween costumes for the kids, but boy did I want to. Christmas was in full swing as well, with candies and decorations and the gorgeous gift tags and wrapping paper I always used back home. October is too early for Christmas, even for me, but I grabbed a pack of the paper anyway. Ho ho ho!

These were adorable. I bought some and brought them to a Halloween party in Clermont - where Lincoln told everyone that I'd made them myself! I set them straight...mostly.

 Next was the bakery! Since I love to bake at home, I haven't ever gotten hooked on the muffins, breads, or desserts here, and I'm definitely not buying Costco pastries in France. Still, seeing them made me smile and think of my mother-in-law, Judy.

 Nor did I pick up any "Real American Super Buns."

Hey hey, sheet cakes! Now I'll know where to go before the next major protest!
 The butcher shop was beautiful, with tons of cuts of beef, pork, and lamb. Unfortunately for me, our refrigerator and freezer are the size of postage stamps, so I couldn't indulge much. Fortunately though, my husband has a smoker and knows how to use it - so those pork ribs did make the journey back to Auvergne and into our bellies!


 Next we come to the truly European products, which again were gorgeous. Mortadella, parmesan, and pasta from Italy. French and Spanish hams. And, oh Nelly, the cheeses.

Tomme is mild and soft and wonderful.

Up top there are mini Camembert rounds, in a container and ready to be melted in the oven and swooned over.

And it wouldn't be a French supermarket without a metric ton of shredded Emmental.
 In the prepared foods section, some greatest hits appeared, like the Caesar salad, mac and cheese, and rotisserie chickens. And there were some new favorites too - quiches, cold lentil salad, and more.


Who wants to store that many Ziploc bags or big red cups in their French apartment?
Well, I do, a little bit. But I didn't get them.


 Again, thanks to the tiny fridge in our apartment, I couldn't really explore the fruits and vegetables section with much purpose. I did see huge boxes of shallots and leeks, beautiful eggplants and zucchini, and pretty decent-looking fruit. It's hard to get excited about those, though, when I have a gorgeous farmer's market one block from my house, three days per week. Not to mention the grocery stores and indoor markets that dot the region.

Bubbles! We're hooked, but I prefer not to fill my whole garage with bottles.

A few more Kirland brand favorites in the laundry section.
 One difference between U.S. and French Costco is the booze. Many of the American stores sell it, but in a separate building or section of the store. In France it's right in next to the vegetables, top shelf liquors alongside more pedestrian ones.
 I was hoping for some good American craft beer, but Budweiser was about all they could offer.

 Oh, but the wine section. It's a damn shame that I'm so ignorant about French wine still - a fact that is slightly less true now, after my parents' visit and my first trip to a wine tasting festival. But I didn't pick anything up at Costco despite the rows and rows of bottles. Next time I'll be better prepared.

 On to frozen and shelf-stable foods! Bag o'snails, anyone?

Anyone?

Beuller*?

I do not know what Lady Chips are, and I didn't buy them to find out. But if you're in need, you can find them at Costco.

Hey look, American food! Probably made with Emmental though.

So great to see this Kirkland version of Nutella! It's made without palm oil, which is terrible for the environment, and it tastes a lot like the original. I made breakfast buns using this as the filling. VISIT ME.

That Kirkland super premium vanilla ice cream would take up my entire freezer. But French versions of vanilla just taste weird to me - if it hadn't have been for the 4 hour drive home, I might have bought it anyway.


 Another big hope was that I'd find Kirkland peanut butter. It's not hard to find natural peanut butter in France, but the taste is sometimes a little odd, and it's about three times as expensive as you'd expect in the U.S. Alas, I found almond butter and Skippy but not the one I wanted. It was great to be able to grab Skippy for some buds in Clermont who miss it, though.
 Cereal! Again, no regular Cheerios - evidently we Americans are the only ones who like our cereal as plain as all that. The Rice Krispies I picked up were not a hit with my munchkins either. I suspect the Unicorn Froot Loops would have been, but I'm the worst so I left those on the shelf.


Hellman's mayonnaise, and not for 9€ a jar! 



 One more aisle had some familiar heroes - Kirkland brand nut snacks.

 My hunt for crackers yielded exactly one result: these three seed sweet potato abominations. Not a Triscuit, Goldfish, or Wheat Thin to be found, alas. The French do not enjoy a cracker.

I bet they'd enjoy this carrot cake, though. As I very nearly did.
Worth it.
 Costco France is a long-ass drive, too expensive to be smart. But the feeling of familiarity, and a trunk packed with peanut butter pretzels, nut bars that aren't 80% sugar, peanuts, ribs, a take and bake pepperoni pizza (which I baked that night because it won't fit in the fridge) (it BARELY fit in the oven), and treats for our friends was absolutely a good use of my Saturday. We're scheming now to take orders and maybe drive someone else's bigger vehicle to stock up for the Clermont Americans, maybe next month or the month after. In the meantime, I'm trying to purchase one new French product per week or try a new dinner recipe. Balancing the familiar and the new - that's the closest I've found to a good plan since we arrived.


*Yes I know the Ferris Beuller reference is almost as old as I am. I'll see myself out.