Monday, March 23, 2015

Duck in Nice

Yeah, I know, I stopped writing again.  Blogging sucks, I hate having my writing habits public.  It's like posting your weight on Facebook every day.

We have been in the south of France for a week.  Carol had a meeting in Nice, so we took the train down from Paris.  Nice is a lovely city, one of those cities in the south that feels as Italian as it does French.  I don't think I'll write that much about the city itself, I want to get to a couple of good meals.  But it is one of those beach cities built around a bay, with a beach all around, and kind of a boardwalk and then behind that a circle of hotels.  Except like a lot of seaside cities, at some point someone had the idiotic idea to put the main through-street in between the hotels and the beach.  Probably it just happened slowly, but now to get to the water you have to risk your life getting across the main drag.  By now I don't know that there is anything that could be done about it.


We had a couple of very memorable meals there.  The first was at a place called La Route du Miam.  Miam is the French word for Yummy.  It was a bit of a walk back from where we were staying a few blocks from the water, back behind the train station, in a kind of scruffy part of the city.  One thing about southern French cities is that they still have blocks where you don't feel entirely comfortable.  Paris is pretty much like Manhattan these days, it is hard to find anyplace that isn't thoroughly gentrified, I never feel as though I am someplace I shouldn't be.

The restaurant itself is a completely plain storefront, inside it is tiny with a few tables and a tiny open kitchen behind an opening in the wall in back.  We went in and say down, the woman who ran the front of the house hustled over and seated us.  At first she was a little off-putting, with a loud voice and her hair all mussed up, she kept pulling it back out of her face as she talked.  She said, this is a specialized restaurant, we serve southwestern French food here, it is in a particular style, so just relax and I'll tell you what you are eating.  She explained that she wasn't from the southwest herself, but her husband, who worked the kitchen was from the Southwest, they had been married for thirty years, so she know how it worked.

There was little menu on a blackboard, but really it was all about duck.  In this style, she said, there was no first and second course, it all came on a single plate.  There were two kinds of duck available, a wild duck that is shot by hunters and only available certain times of year, and a domesticated duck that had been crossed with the wild one.  Most couples, she said, got one of each, so that was it.

It was kind of quiet when we got there, but it filled up quickly and before long Monsieur in the tiny little kitchen (I got a "tour" later.  Maybe 5 by 10, two burners and a little electric convection oven) was hustling around.  I'll describe the Chef in a minute.  It took a while because there were a couple of people ahead of us, but soon our food arrived.  One plate each, with a half a duck all in one piece, a huge mound of home fries cooked in duck fat, a big spoonful of bread stuffing from the duck, and a slab of foie gras on a piece of bread.  Absolutely no doubt the best duck I have ever had.  Crispy skin covered in a peppery glaze, still firm but falling off the bone.  It was hard to carve the bird without pushing the potatoes off the plate.  The stuffing was dark and salty.  But what the guy really took pride in was the foie gras.  I find that when I tell French people, especially men, that I like to cook, they often ask, how do I cook foie gras?  The answer is I don't, I just open a can.  I'm not sure I get the subtleties of cooking the stuff.  But when it is good it is like slightly meaty butter, creamy and melting on your tongue, with just enough liver taste to keep it from just being butter, without any innardy flavor at all.  My arteries are still reeling.



Once everybody in the place was served it was time for the Chef, Jean Michel I think, to relax.  He turned up the radio and cracked a Heineken, sidled out into the room to chat.  He has a big belly and was sweating like he had just unloaded a truck.  The radio, like it seems every radio in a French restaurant, was playing American oldies, and when "Mellow Yellow" came on he was dancing around the room singing "Quite rightly" in a bad English accent.

Eventually it was just us in the restaurant and we got to chatting with Jean Michel and his wife.  He had worked for many years for wealthy people on an estate in the Southwest where he grew up, and this one-plate style of duck eating was what they had done in that region.  We talked about the usual things, mostly what kind of French cuisine we liked the best. Got the tour of the kitchen, which involved standing in one spot and looking at it.  It seems completely impossible that he fed maybe fifteen people in two hours from that tiny space.

Finally when it was time to leave there was a lot of talk about how we had to come back, etc etc.  We kissed Madame on both cheeks in the French style, and Carol did the same with Jean Michel.  I stuck out my hand, as I do with French men, and Jean Michel rolled his eyes and laughed.  No, that will not do, Monsieur, he said, and I finally did it, two big sweaty scruffy kisses on each cheek.  A funny thing about French people is that they kiss like crazy-- you often kiss people the very first time you meet them-- but they are completely freaked out by American style hugging.  Anyway I think that was my first experience of cheek to cheek man-kissing, with some sweaty French chef I'll never see again.

Really fun.  I find myself wondering how much of it is a performance for the tourist clients, and I actually don't think it is.  Obviously we weren't the first Americans to have a great time there, hang out and get a kiss goodnight, but I think the pleasure they took in making food for people who enjoyed it was completely sincere.  More than anything it reminds me to enjoy what I do.  Write my boring psychology with a little joy and enthusiasm, leave people feeling like I gave them something special.

Looks like only one meal is going to make it into this post.  I think we are going to have some rainy time coming up, so I'll try to write about the (delicious but less scenic) other one tomorrow.




Friday, February 27, 2015

French Lessons

I frankly have no idea if my French is improving while I am here. Carol assures me that it is, and I guess it's probably true, although I always suspect her of keeping my morale up. It just happens too slowly to tell, and I am forever mired in the endless mistakes I make. My confidence, or obliviousness or whatever it is, is certainly improving, and I think I can tell that my "ear", my ability to grab language as it zooms by, is improving as well. But damn it's hard to express myself! I keep having this funny feeling when I am speaking to someone in French. I think of something to say-- still basically in English-- and I think, hmm, am I going to be able to say that? Nowadays I force myself go try, but even as I start I don't know if I am going to be able to get to the end of the sentence. Sometimes I surprise myself and do just fine, but other times I head down a dead-end and slowly grind to a halt. The other day I was homesick for the first time since I have been here. I miss my kids, dog and friends (not necessarily in that order) all the time, but really homesick. Do you know the feeling? Out of rhythm, away from small familiar things. I felt like watching the TV news, or listening to NPR in my car, or eating at El Puerto, or making small talk in the men's room at work, cursing without worrying if I was getting it right.

And I was tired of speaking French. Tired of not being able to be quite myself because I couldn't think how to say things. In a cool way, being here and trying to speak French is a way of being a different person that I am at home, but unfortunately that person has an IQ of about 70. Not really me, not really anyone. A made-up person in a language textbook having boring conversations about nothing. J'ai perdu ma plume dans le jardin de ma tante.

 Anyway, one nice thing is that despite stereotypes French people have been very nice about inviting us to their homes. For one thing it is fun to be thought of as a little exotic. Carol was invited over (with me) by an older single woman she met at the hospital, an occupational therapist. Actually I think this happened on my homesick day, and at the end of a long day getting my grant out I really didn't feel like it. But she seems nice, I was assured, so why not. Like many activities here, the reason was: it's a good venue for speaking French. Madame was indeed nice, so excited to have us over for a little "dinertoire" which turns out to mean a mini-dinner, a bit to to eat. She lives out in a nice suburb, still within range of the metro, which like all Paris suburbs was still a little institutional looking. We settled in, and the first sign of trouble came when Carol asked if she knew her neighbors. Well yes, she explained, but she doesn't get along with them, and launched into a long story of the fight she had with the man next door about a parking space. Never mind, but they are no longer speaking. Dinner was cocktail nibbles around the big table, and she had a bottle of champagne which she asked me to open. I poured a round and she knocked hers right back, turning to me while she jingled the bottom of her wineglass on the table. Ah, mon cher petit ami Eric, encore un verre! I filled her up. As the evening went on she got drunker and drunker, and the angry stories got stranger and stranger. She turns out to be one of seven siblings. Oh, that's interesting, where do they live? Well, she explained, she doesn't like any of them, and starting with the oldest she explained why, one by one. Encore un verre mon petit ami Eric! I'm not sure how her relationship status came up, I guess by now I figured she was divorced, but it turned out to be better than that. She explained calmly that she had been a bonne femme, a mistress, to a married man for the last twenty-five years. (Actually none of our French friends know the term bonne femme, but that is definitely how she described it.) She went into great detail about she and her lover headed off to Qatar, of all places, for a couple of trysts, how they still get together a couple of days a month, how much she hates his wife. Oy. By the end of the evening we weren't sure how much of all this was that she turned out to be a pretty strange lady, and drunk, as opposed to the French being less embarrassed about this kind of thing, which I think is true as well. At least we practiced our French.

 A much nicer experience was going to see Anna Christie at la Theatre de l'Atelier, on a beautiful little square in Montmartre.
I'm having some trouble getting the size of that image right... there you go.  The good thing about Anna Christie is that I could download it and read it in English before I went, so I had the general idea pretty firmly in my head before we went.  I'd say I batted around.750.  And actually in some ways it was an improvement, because the original is written in pretty dated English, with a lot of it in old Swedish-American working class dialect which sounds dated and a little racist nowadays.  (Remember Greta Garbo in the 1930 movie, saying, get me a visky, ginger ale on ze side, and dun't be skeempy, fella.")  I have often thought that non-English speakers would have an advantage watching Shakespeare, because they wouldn't have to feel bad about translating it into comprehensible modern language.

One more.  Michele (from the Pyrenees) is here with her daughter Rachel, who stayed with us in Cville eight years ago when she was 15.  We had dinner with some friends of theirs, they chose a restaurant called Le Crabe Marteau, a Breton place specializing in crabs.  The name means crab hammer.

It was actually a lot like an American crab place.  Newspaper on the table.  One difference is that the crabs are bigger than blue crabs, so you just get one of them, or half of one and six oysters.  They are more like snow crabs, with think shells you really have to smash.  They come and put bibs on you just like home.  It comes with a couple of kinds of flavored mayonnaise and a big wooden bucket of steamed potatoes.  Kind of New England clambake, a concept I thought about trying to explain but gave up on.  (How do you say seaweed?  How do you explain about burying it in the fire on the beach? Skip it.)  

I am starting real French lessons at L'Alliance Francaise next week.....

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Bénévole

One of my goals for my time in France has been to volunteer, both to make some constructive use of my time and have a place to be on my own and speak French. When Carol is around it is too easy to rely on her. It isn't actually easy to find a volunteering gig in a foreign country. There are plenty of websites for volunteers in Paris, many of them connected to the city government, but they lead to long web forms with questions that don't really apply to me, and then I generally never got an email back anyway. But finally, last Saturday there was a table for a food back outside our local supermarket. I took a flier, which said they were from something called Le Relais Frémicourt, maybe a twenty minute walk from our house in the 15eme. It had an email address, and when I emailed I got a nice response from the President of the organization, saying he was out of town but asking me for a phone number. A few days later my phone rang. It is generally a moment of panic when my phone rings and it is someone not in my address book. Those of you who try to speak a foreign language know that talking on the phone is an especially difficult thing, and unknown incoming calls are the hardest. You don't know what to expect, what the context is going to be. I find I understand people much better when I can see their faces, and especially when I know the general context of the conversation. This is actually a lot like natural language problems in artificial intelligence-- it is relatively easy to get a computer to understand within a limited domain, like ordering in a restaurant. But getting a computer to understand when the topic could be anything at all is the great problem of AI, it has been since I first took a course in natural language programming thirty years ago. Anyway, I am going through all this to warm up to announcing that I did really well, I had a whole conversation and (as it turned out) successfully understood everything I was told. And the guy didn't just switch into English on me. I am unduly pleased with myself. So this morning, Saturday, was the appointed time. I headed out toward the Tour Montparnasse, with my two-wheeled grocery cart in tow. Got there fifteen minutes early, sat and watched while a group of Lubavitchers in as storefront got ready for services, talking to the cops who were guarding the entrance. It was sobering but good to see. Finally, Mr. L, the President, turned up, unlocked the door and let me in. The association is in the back of a church, in a big old red brick building that stands out from everything else around, there aren't many brick buildings in Paris. There was no one much else there-- a middle aged woman who I think turned out to be Mr. L's wife, and a couple of minutes later a young woman who was the only other volunteer there. Mr. L was very nice, and took a half-hour to explain that the Relais Fremicourt is basically a go-between between the big food banks in Paris and the actual clients who need the food. The word relais, which I only knew in the sense of meaning an inn, actually means relay, a place where things are passed along. During the day during the week, the place is open for people to come by and get boxes of food on their own; on Saturday mornings they deliver food to people who can't leave the house, which is what I was going to do. They have a couple of big rooms filled with canned food, pasta, but also milk and butter and some frozen stuff. He explained that most of their clients were Muslim, so they have to be careful that their products don't have pork or alcohol. This was, I think, the first time that they had delivered food to this particular client, and they didn't know exactly what he needed. Part of my job was to ask him when I got there. So, address in hand, I headed out. It was raining hard, cold and windy. The 15th is the biggest arrondissement in Paris, and I was headed out toward the perimeter. Paris, as you have probably heard lately, tends to have the working class or poor neighborhoods on the periphery. I was a little nervous but didn't have to go anywhere sketchy, as it turned out, just through slightly seedy working class neighborhoods, actually with a lot of old-fashioned French businesses, finally out to the ring road around the city. There were a bunch of housing project type complexes, again kind of run down but not terrible. Half the people seemed "French", ie white, the other half African or Arab. At first I couldn't figure out what building I was supposed to go to, but fortunately I found a mailman who pointed me in the right direction. I called the number I was given and nobody picked up. I thought I had been told that the buzzer into the building didn't work, but when I checked it did, and after a while I figured out what to do and pressed. The client answered and buzzed me in. He was an Algerian man, he looked about my age but is probably younger. We lugged the cart up the stairway to his apartment on the second floor and he let me in. It was bare and run down, but again didn't seem awful at all. We actually spoke more or less equivalent French, his translated from Arabic as mine is from English. We chatted and he was really nice about my being American, one of his daughters worked in Boston for a while. He explained that he is diabetic, sick in some other ways that I couldn't quite understand. He was laid off from a construction job in June and hasn't worked since, and is really unable to do construction work anymore. It was quite sad, he had tears in his eyes as he spoke, telling me how hard it was to be unable to feed his wife. He is a vegetarian, I'm not sure why, and he carefully inspected each item to make sure it didn't have any meat. He didn't want a couple of cans of soup and the actual meat I had brought, politely giving them back to me. He has a list of some other things he could use-- dairy stuff like cheese, eggs, lentils. I'll have to check if they have that back at the Relais. So after a little chit chat that was it. He thanked me over and over, I had to hold back tears myself. I am sorry to say I don't spend much time attending to the fact that I am surrounded by people without enough to eat-- here of all places-- and it was sobering to come face to face with it. So I headed out. This was my only job for the day, it had only taken a couple of hours, and I was taking the bus back home. I wasn't sure what to do with the meat and soup, I didn't really want it, so I gave it to a beggar by the side of the street, I hope that was the right thing to do. From the apartment continuing around the loop road I came to the Porte de Versailles, where there is a big convention center sort of place, caught the bus and headed home. All in all a success. I look forward to going again next week, though if I do the exact same thing I won't get to speak as much French as I would like. Well, that's not the point in the long run. Maybe it will turn out that there are other things I can do around the Relais.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Working in Paris, still eating

I know you'd never know it from my posts, but we are actually working here.  Lately, we are working hard.  I have a grant proposal due next week, and Carol has a great setup in an outpatient program for early-stage dementia patients here in the city.

It's funny that unmoored from our normal routine as we are, we basically fall right back into it.  I stay home every morning and write, leading a pretty solitary existence.  Carol puts on her work clothes and heads out, stays busy and works with people.  She got home a little later than she expected today, as she often does, by that time I had dinner on and a bottle of wine open.  It's a Honey I'm Home kind of thing, out usual daily drill.

Although I am pushing hard on my grant writing, I always find it is much more difficult than I expect to get a lot done when I am on leave.  In my normal life, with all my day to day distractions, I think that if I were only on leave I would get so much more accomplished.  But the truth is, my real struggle with distraction is internal, not external.  I bring my own worries and small tasks and other things to do, surround myself with them, as a way of keeping me from the bigger things.  And in fact, having real distractions to make my one or two hours of protected time more valuable sometimes helps me focus in the few hours I have.  Left to my own devices I can wander off.

I think tomorrow morning I am going to try working in a café.  That's everyone's picture of life in Paris, but in fact almost no one does it.  The cafés have unreliable internet or no internet at all, and I think the French have more of a natural distinction between working and hanging out.  They also drink coffee differently, in a more focused way.  You almost never see someone walking around with a big cup of coffee, people work, then they stop for a petit café, have their coffee and go back to work.  In the cafés you see people sitting and reading the paper, or outside smoking, but almost no one with a laptop open.  I will look like an American when I do it.

A little food.  Carol's hospital is out in the 14th, a bit on the outskirts.  After her second day she was done at 130 so I went out to meet her for lunch.  So this is nowhere, just a block near a hospital, and there is a little local place called l'Essentiel.


We got the daily special, as we usually do.  The whole thing came to under $20/person.  We had, for a first course, leek soup with butter and cream and lamb kidneys.  Lamb kidneys sound weird, but they don't taste that way.  They were slicked a half inch think, then seared in butter and shallots.  Not the least bit innard-like, tender and delicate.  Then for the main course, pork shank that was cooked to a bacon-y crisp, then slow cooked in a honey reduction, with a big bowl of mashed potatoes on the side.  Confit (meaning preserved... generally slow-cooked and tender) leg of duck.  For dessert, an incredibly rich caramel cream, not just a creme caramel, but a caramel au beurre salé, so intense you smacked your lips, and a house made apple strudel, little rolls of puff pastry wrapped around an apple filling.  No wine, but still not much work got done that particular afternoon.  It was actually funny when I said no wine, the waiter made a big fuss, saying, Monsieur, there is a lot of unemployment in this country, you have to do your duty and support the wineries!  It's a style of waiter in a casual French restaurant, one which I think is often misunderstood as rude by Americans.  They joke with you, poke a little fun at you, try and have a good time.  The expectation is that you are going to joke back, but of course that can be hard across the language barrier.  

More on cooking duck (I tried it at home) in next post.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Market dinner at home

The other night we were having four people over for dinner, two of them vegetarian.  It wasn't one of the market days at the Marché Grenelle on our block, so we headed over to the Marché Saxe Breteuil, a little bit farther away behind the Ecole Militaire.

I had made a pureed vegetable soup the last time the vegetarian friends came by, but it was another cold night and soup seemed like a good idea, followed by lasagna.  I have noticed that the French don't much go for big hearty Italian-American style pasta dishes, when you see pasta at all it tends to be spaghetti with a little bit of meat sauce, which is probably more authentically Italian, but when I cook for French people I like to try to come up with something different, something American-style that they might not be so familiar with.

My idea was to make some kind of white bean soup, which really wants a ham bone, but I thought maybe I could get away with spinach, which I had seen a lot of in the markets.  I picked the vegetable stand with the longest line, waited, and when I finally got to the front of the line bought spinach, celery (Which I had never bought in France before, they look like something out of a home garden, funny uneven stalks.  When I asked the guy for celery he rolled his eyes and said, which one, Monsieur? meaning that I needed to pick which bunch I wanted.  It's tricky because you are not supposed to pick up the vegetables yourself, you are supposed to ask for them one at a time). Onions, big carrots (Every stand has about five different kinds, including giant ones ostentatiously covered with the dirt they were grown in.  Per the following, I should have asked the guy which kind to get for a soup, but I just pointed).

Then heading down the market, we came to an Italian stall.  I had never stopped at one of these before.  They had boxes of dried pasta, and I needed lasagna noodles, so I got in line.  Fresh ravioli, lots of prepared sundried tomato sort of things, cheese.  I set the box of lasagna on the counter and asked for ricotta, house made.  Ah, the guy said, you are making lasagna!  You have to make it with a layer of spinach and gorgonzola.  That sounded good, so I got gorgonzola as well, and some of the sundried tomatoes in olive oil.

Now my spinach for the soup was going into the lasagna so I needed something else.  The next stand down was a mushroom stand.  It was unbelievable, a dozen different kinds of fresh mushrooms, most of them I had never heard of before.  They even had black truffles.  I didn't know, so I asked the lady what kinds of mushrooms she would recommend for a soup and she was off, suggesting this and that, what kind of soup was I making, etc.  I got three different kinds.  That was my point back at the vegetable stand, when in France you should always ask people about food.  You can ask a waiter, what kind of pork is in the roti, and get a ten minute dissertation on where it comes from, how it is cut, how they prepare it.  The vegetable guy is happy to discuss carrots, potatoes, whatever.  In fact it makes them like you, they think it is strange if you just ask for potatoes.  Soup or a puree (mashed)?

So here is the menu:

Vegetarian white bean soup with mushrooms

Chop an onion, two stalks of celery with some leaves, a couple of cloves of garlic and a large carrot, fairly fine.  Saute in olive oil until starting to soften.  Add a pound or so of mixed mushrooms, chopped a little more coarsely, and continue to cook until they give up their water and it completely boils away.  This took a while, maybe 15 minutes.  Add two (15 oz?) cans of white beans, drained, and a can of medium brown beer.  You could use stock of some kind, but beer is good in soup.  Simmer slowly for a half-hour or so.  I then let it cool and eventually heated it up in the microwave because I am short on pots and counter space.  If it sits on the stove for a while top up with water occasionally to keep it at the right consistency.  I served it with a sun dried tomato floating on top of each bowl.

Vegetarian lasagna with spinach

I don't like to cook from recipes, but lasagna is tricky, it is hard to get the amount of pasta, sauce and cheese to come out evenly and fill whatever pan you are trying to fill.  This is one of those if I did it again I would do it a bit differently recipes, but something like this:

Tomato sauce.  Chop a medium onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, saute in olive oil until translucent.  Add a large can of Italian tomatoes, a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste (which I couldn't find here, so I used tomato puree), a cup or so of red wine.  Salt, basil and oregano, red pepper flakes, which so far I haven't found here.) Simmer slowly until it is medium thick, breaking up chunky tomatoes as it cooks.

Cheese filling.  Mix a cup and a half ricotta cheese, a cup of crumbled gorgonzola.  Add salt (not too much, the cheese is salty) pepper and an egg.  Stir to mix it all up.

Cook the lasagna noodles.  I lack a good big pot here and got water all over everything.  Plus, I always find cooking lasagna noodles is a pain, they want to stick.  Use plenty of oil in the cooking water and rinse them in cold water as soon as they are done.

Now everything is layered in the pan.  Coat with olive oil, then a thin layer of sauce.  A layer of noodles, with a lot of overlapping (I wound up with extra noodles).  A layer of cheese spread around as well as you can.  Then a layer of spinach.  (In the if I did it again department, I would cook the spinach before I put it in, saute it in some olive oil. Raw spinach fills up the pan too quickly, plus lasagna is like pizza, you are basically trying to get all the water out of things before you put it in, or it ends up swimming.  But I kind of packed the raw spinach in there and it came out OK.)  Then more sauce, noodles, cheese etc, winding up with a sauce layer, then grated parmesan cheese on top.  Bake at 350 for 40 minutes.  Let it cool a little before serving.

I thought the lasagna was pretty good, but the soup sort of upstaged it.  And a funny thing is that the lasagna was much better the next day for lunch.  It would be good to make ahead and reheat.

We finished with a cheese course (It is a sign I have been in France for a while that I am actually a little tired of cheese!) and then a homemade dessert by Carol, which is a rarity here but I think a wave of the future.  I'll let her tell you about it, but it was a chocolate praline fondant in individual souffle ramekins.  Yum.

Oh, and for an aperatif we had Pineau de Charentes that our friends had given us a while ago.  Good, sherry-like to my uneducated taste.  And a bottle of bordeaux we had bought from the market was declared perfect with the bean soup by one of our French guests, dumb luck on our part.  Try as I might I can't tell.

The UVA game was coming on at 1:00 AM and everyone left just in time to watch. The VPN is working pretty well....


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Snowshoes, and a food post

Has anyone been snowshoeing recently?  As beautiful as it is here, there isn't a whole lot to do, so yesterday we rented snowshoes to take a hike around the lake.  The last time I checked in with snowshoes, they looked like tennis rackets and the Canadian Mounted Police wore them in cartoons when I was a kid.  In fact, in French they are still called raquettes, but nowadays they are big oval plastic things with something like a ski binding.

This is probably me just refusing to have fun like my kids always say, but I just didn't get it.  It is really hard to walk on those things, kind of like walking in deep snow with clown shoes on.  You can't ski downhill like with cross-country skis, but you have to schlep uphill exactly like cross country skis.  I experimented by stepping into the deep snow, and sank up to my thighs just as I would have if I didn't have them on.  So after a while I took them off and carried them.  My boots worked fine.  Carol and Michele fought the good fight and are better people for it.

We of done most of our eating at la Cuisine Michele, but today (after three hours of work!) we decided to go out to lunch.  I have been over this a million times... here we are in the middle of nowhere in a tiny little ski village, and the local plat du jour was Serrano ham on little pieces of toast topped with some kind of raspberry vinaigrette with chopped shallots, followed by sea bass, broiled with perfectly crispy skin on garlic mashed potatoes, and a homemade blueberry tarte for dessert.  The place is called Le Chanson du Coq.



There is also the local supermarket, a perfectly ordinary chain place they have everywhere in France, Carrefour.  You know what the food place is like in an American ski resort?  Overpriced and bad.  Here, in back, they had a butcher counter with an actual butcher.  There was a long line because every single customer had a long consultation about what exactly they were looking for, while Monsieur showed them the various cuts.  Michele was getting ground beef which he ground by hand while we waited.




Chains update, plus photos

So yesterday was spent (successfully) tracking down chains.  It's a strange story, one of those foreign experiences that I am never going to get straightened out.

The manager at our little condo complex has not been very nice to us since we arrived.  When we pulled in during the blinding snowstorm with one chain, we immediately asked her how we might get another pair, but she was unconcerned, with a distinct air of this-is-not-my-problem.  It's a French manner that I have written about before. There are assholes everywhere who are happy to run a power trip on you, of course, maybe it's just that, but you see a certain kind of interaction here all the time.  The woman in charge was particularly unpleasant to Michele, I thought, talking to her like she was an idiot-- Madame, il ne faut pas drive with only one chain, it's dangerous!  Shrugging when asked if there was a mechanic or a source for chains in town.  It's a way to establish a pecking order, I see the French doing it to each other-- one person says something dismissive or pushy, and the other person gets offended and pissed off, they snap at each other for a few minutes, and then everyone is fine.

But then, yesterday, we were in the supermarket asking if anyone had chains, and a couple walked up to us and said they recognized us from the condo.  They said the same lady at the condo had told them she was making a run into the next town to pick some up.  We should stop by and ask her to get us a pair.  Really?  Just the other night she had absolutely insisted that there was no way she could help us get chains.  We had a number for her, we called, and she said yes she was headed out, and "if she had time" she might stop and get us a pair.  No explanation.  We spent the day discussing whether she would do it.  I was skeptical, but then at 700 she returned, and she had them!  And by now she was perfectly pleasant, chatting about the snow etc.  It's that feeling I have all the time here that some subtlety of the interaction went completely over my head.

Of course we then had to put the chains on.  Here is a picture of the car as we started:


Remember that this was just the last third of the snowstorm.  After much shoveling we proceeded to the chains.  Snow chains are one of the most irritating inventions anywhere, and by definition are always installed with freezing fingers while lying on one's back in mud and slush.  We had them 80% on and they still seemed not quite right when-- finally-- what I had been waiting for all along finally happened.  Two nice men came up and asked if they could help.  Five minutes later it was done.  So far, the widely predicted additional snow hasn't arrived, so we will in all likelihood be taking them back off again tomorrow.

More later.  I had better get some work done today...