Thursday, July 29, 2010

Le Socialisme Francaise

M. and I actually had a long conversation about this sitting in a cafe the other day. We had visited a bakery in the morning, via a little outfit that arranges visits to traditional French businesses. This was a tiny traditional place in the 18th, on the back side of Sacre Coeur from Montmartre. It was owned by a thirty-something couple who had inherited it from her father. The visit itself was cool, everything happens down in the basement, with 100 year old brick ovens and mixing machines that look like they came out of a factory in 1905.

The wife was supposed to be doing most of the talking, but after a while the husband, who was supposed to be making croissants, warmed to the audience and got rolling. Like most French businessmen, like most businessmen anywhere, he complained. He busts his ass, works 14 hours a day six days a week, he and his wife barely see each other because he works all night and she runs the shop all day. And for what? It's impossible to make any money, because there are 112 bakeries in the 18th arrondissement alone. Multiply that by 20 arrondissements, some of them a lot bigger and more populous than the 18th, and that's maybe 2,500 bakeries in Paris. They all make essentially the same thing, and they are all required by law to charge exactly the same for it. A baguette here is one euro, and it is better, by far, than anything you can get in the US. Well, in Cville, there is exactly one bakery that makes bread on that level, and they get three bucks for a baguette. The guy was amazed that anyone could charge like that for bread.

It's the same question I always ask while I am in the Grenelle market. How can there possibly be three wonderful fish stands within 100 yards of each other in the same market? They all sell the same thing, and they all charge more or less the same, though I don't think there is a law about fish the way there is for bread. The answer is that the markets are all rigged here, the various shops aren't really competing with each other. So the whole system is just a step away from some kind of Soviet deal where there is a ministry of bakeries that produces everything that people eat. Presumably Soviet bread was terrible, like most American bread turned out by giant corporate free-enterprise conglomerates. Yet somehow it works here.... the bread is great, the fish is wonderful. But that hard-working baker can't get rich, he is stuck grinding it out for a (I would guess) very basic middle-class income.

I have a conservative Republican friend who I sit and argue with every week or so. He teases me about spending time in France because it is anathema to the Fox News crowd, the ultimate example of a place where big government has their jackboot on the neck of the average man (he doesn't really talk like that, but lots of people do). But he does seem to think that I am a little crazy to want to spend time in a place that is less than perfectly free, as though I had bought an apartment in North Korea. But it doesn't seem that way once you are here, moment to moment it seems just as free as the US. You can go where you want, say what you want read what you want, just like anywhere else.

But I guess you can't make money like you want, and that says something about why liberals are liberal and conservatives are conservative. Economic freedoms are mostly lost on me. I always feel a little guilty at tax time, because I don't really care about paying taxes. All that Republican outrage that it is OUR money just doesn't bother me. I work in an "industry" where there are thousands of professors turning out more or less the same product and getting paid more or less the same amount of money. I could never live anywhere that was on the one hand entrepreneurial but on the other politically repressed. Singapore, I guess, where you can be busted for chewing gum on the street but it's every man for himself in the marketplace.

Anyway, Western Europe puts the lie to all the nonsense in the US about socialism. It's not that I necessarily think that the US needs to transform itself into Sweden, but it is certainly the case that Western Europe has shown that something like democratic socialism is possible to one degree or another. That Fox News meme that national health insurance is just one step away from the Soviet Union circa 1973 is just wrong. In the US, sooner or later one of the bakeries in the 18th would do a better job than the others, sell decent bread for a little less, force most of the other bakeries out of business, open up a big bread factory somewhere and supply everyone with crappy bread while the lucky, or talented, or hardworking bakery owner got really wealthy. Is that better than having a state-supported system that manages to turn out first-rate bread for a buck and a quarter a loaf, at the price of denying bakers the opportunity to strike it rich?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Meals so Far

A nice thing about having a home here is that not all the meals so far have occurred in restaurants, though of course meals in Paris restaurants aren't exactly a hardship. But at my age I do find that eating out day in and day out here does eventually wear me out, it gets to be just too much rich food, never mind the wine, and so it is nice to be able to take a meal off from time to time and eat leftovers out of the frig like in real life. Plus it saves money, of course.

When we arrived on Saturday we wanted someplace quiet and in the neighborhood, because we knew we would be exhausted. We selected Marie Edith, which is just a metro stop down on the Rue Cambronne.

Yay... the photo tool seems to work on this (fairly crummy, actually) blog app. Anyway, we had a wonderful meal. Running down everything that everyone had would take a while and might get a little boring. Let's see, I started with a terrine of oxtail, served room temperature, basically a pate to be spread on bread and eaten with little cornichons. Then I had duck confit, a simple bistro standard here. Confit is duck, in this case a leg, which is cooked slowly in duck fat, after which it can be stored in the fat inside a crock for a long time. Then to prepare it, they just put it under a broiler to crisp up the skin. Nothing fancy, and it wasn't the best confit I have ever had, but it was good, and it came with wonderful roast potatoes, which may have been why I ordered it. I was tired and wanted comfort food. All three girls had the salad de chevre chaud first, it's a family favorite. Little round pieces of chevre (crottins) put under the broiler to brown and soften them, then placed on a salad with vinaigrette. This one came covered with little slightly sour red berries that we thought were pomegranate seeds but weren't, and the waiter couldn't come up with an English word for them
L. just informed me that she actually had ravioli first, homemade and basically just in butter. M. had joue de boeuf, beef cheek, which is a cut of beef slow-stewed until it is very soft, served in a wine and meat reduction. I don't think it is literally the cheek... maybe the butt cheek? Not sure, but it was very good, tender to the point of falling apart. Classic french desserts: oeuf a la neige (egg in snow.... I don't have my dessert expert here at the moment, but a concoction of meringue and cream), creme brulee, dark chocolate cake. All in all not great but delicious, and basically what we were looking for on our first night. Comforting.

Sunday we had our friends Sandy and Philippe over for our first homemade dinner. Sunday is market day on the Rue de Grenelle, so in the morning I set out to find things for dinner. I thought I would buy fish at one of the two or three amazing, and virtually identical, fish stands in the market. I think I have said before that if any one of these were in the US, it would be the best fish market within 100 miles. Dozens of varieties of fresh fish, and an old-fashioned fish-guy who asks you how you want it prepared, filleted, skin removed, etc. I decided on salmon, and for the second time in two tries got a little snookered by the fish guy (it was the butcher last time). I asked for a kilo and a half of salmon, the guy grabs a piece, throws it on the scale and says, in very rapid French, It's 1.9, is that OK? I am already really nervous about conducting this business in French, there is a line behind me, so I figure keep it simple and say, sure, and wind up with 50% more salmon than I really need, since I was estimating high to start with. And they don't give it away, it isn't a whole lot more expensive than a nice piece of salmon at a good market in the US, but it isn't a lot cheaper, either, even with the dollar a little stronger than it has been recently.

So I wind up with too much salmon, added some little potatoes and beautiful French green beans (which I realized later were exactly the vegetables I bought when Sandy and Philippe came over to our rented place on Easter, under these new circumstances I guess I go with what feels safe.) This time I boiled the potatoes instead of roasting them, served them in butter and parsley. The butter here, even in the supermarket, is noticeably better than back home, and the bother you get from the little cheese stands in the market, made at some farm somewhere, is just out of this world. Oh, that's what butter is supposed to taste like, you think. Sandy and Philippe brought wine and cheese, including a Brebis from Basque that was wonderful, we crowded ourselves around the little four person table and various couches and chairs, the windows open so the breeze could blow though, and had a wonderful time. A fruit tart from the market for dessert.

Well, CAM and E. aren't back yet, so I'll keep going. Monday night we ate at La Regalade, a place that CAM and I visited a couple of years ago, and is now open in a new location.

The general trend here is that each meal has been a little better than the one before. L Regalade is a step up from Marie Edith fanciness-wise, slightly more expensive, and a little less traditional. It is possible to get bored with traditional French bistro food if you eat too much of it. There is so much UPDATED bistro food here, though, that it doesn't really matter.

Anyway, I had a modified gazpacho first, a cold tomato broth pureed with peppers, surprisingly spicy for France, with roasted shrimp and fennel greens sprinkled on top. Then, for a main course, I had poitrine de porc, which was just amazing. Poitrine means chest, but this is pork belly, a rectangle three inches long and an inch high, layered with fat and meat, slow roasted until the fat is running, the meat brown, and everything falling apart like pulled pork, sitting in its juice and little tiny French lentils. M. had a deconstructed lasagna first, big wide noodles baked with cheese and basil. He then had pork belly with me. The girls all had foie gras first, mi-suit (half cooked) in little slices lined up on a plate with slices of baguette. CAM rarely passes up a foie gras opportunity. Then the girls had risotto for the main course, topped with a chicken breast stuffed with the liver, which I got to eat in both cases. CAM had a saute of veal.

It was a truly wonderful meal, with wonderful service, but I am going to lodge a small complaint. I notice on the menus lately that they advertise, say a menu for 30 euros, entree main course and dessert. Then, half of the choices on the menu are labeled with "supplement." So the lamb chop is supplement 6 euros etc. They can charge whatever they want, but at some point all the supplements kills the original point of the fixed-price menu, which is to relieve you from worrying too much about money while you order your meal. I don't like having to worry about whether it is worth it to order one of the expensive items, or whether it is OK if one of the kids orders it.

Location:Square de La Motte Picquet,Paris,France

Monday, July 26, 2010

Finally at Home in Paris

So after all this time we are finally in Paris together staying in our apartment. It's Monday afternoon, we have been here since Saturday, and already we have done so much that I feel like it I can't write it all down. But anyway the apartment is beautiful, the renovations complete, and it has been completely furnished by ParisPerfect, or they have finished whatever part of the furnishing that we didn't get done when we were here in April. In fact the truth is they have done most of it. It's all quite nice, some of the various pictures and furnitures and chothckes aren't exactly what I or we would have picked, but it's here. We have to pay them for all of it if we are going to keep it.

For the moment, no pictures, other than what you can see online, at,

I am sitting at the table pictured here... can I insert a photo directly? I am working on my Ipad, not so good for advanced editing.

Today we had just the kind of day I wanted to make sure we had while we were here for two weeks. Not full of activities, just hanging around and doing whatever. M. and L. (17 and 14) are late sleepers, so E. CAM and I got out to run at 9:00 or so, ran three laps around the Champs de Mars, we were home by 10:00 or so and the other kids still weren't up. We brought back some pastries and made toast, which slowly got them going. It then took quite a while to get all the beds put back together and the place straightened up. It's tight in here for all five of us. CAM and I get the nice bedroom, L. gets the pull-out sofa in the second bedroom with the double doors to the living room, and E. and M. get the two twins that open up from the couch in the living room. They are very nice convertibles, but still, when they are all open there isn't a whole lot of room to move around.

We also got the dishwasher and washing machine going for the first time. You wouldn't think standard household appliances would be as different as they are in Europe. Washer/dryers in particular are completely incomprehensible. In the many apartments we have rented over the years I have never felt as though I actually figured one out. Because we are tight for space, we have a "combination" washer-dryer that is supposed to perform both functions, and fortunately ParisPerfect provides very good instructions about how we are supposed to use our own stuff. It took me about half an hour, but I got the washer going. One thing about European washers is they take forever. The timer settings are calibrated in hours. And the dryer function... the ParisPerfect instructions say that they are a different "style" than American dryers, which is to say they aren't the style that actually get the clothes dry. It took me a long while to understand why not: by and large European dryers aren't vented to the outside, so they keep spinning the clothes and collecting the water to drain it away. Since we are on the top floor I thought it might be possible to install a vented dryer, but when I suggested it everyone looked at me like I was crazy. Why would you want that? Plus the buildings are very strict about poking new holes to the outdoors, presumably. Anyway, when we got home hours later the clothes were clean, and damp. They have been out on a laundry rack since then.

Another one of the necessary appliances in ParisPerfect apartments is an Expresso machine. We don't have one at home. This one is a Nespresso, the kind that works off little pods of coffee that you insert, making one cup at a time. It's really good, so there is a lot of coffee getting drunk around here in the morning, including by me, though at home I have quit in favor of green tea. M. and I went to the Nespresso store today to get more pods. It's quite a production. You are greeted individually, then led to a counter where an agent hands you a menu and offers samples of the various varieties. After about three sample cups of Espresso I could have flown home, but it was fun and not as expensive as I thought. The pods run about 40 cents each, more than a homemade cup of coffee but a lot less than a cafe.

On our way out of the apartment today we stopped at the metro and bought Navigo cards, which work as passes for all the metro lines and busses in the city. We had read that is was a hassle, but it turned out to be relatively easy. CAM had brought passport sized headshots, and after some protestations the guy at the ticket booth took our money and gave us the cards. It's odd that you have to conduct this business at the regular window where people buy their regular tickets, because it took us fifteen minutes, while a long line of impatient commuters stacked up behind us. No one complained though, it seemed normal to them.

And it turned out that the Navigo cards unlocked another long-time Paris mystery, the Velib system. Velib is a citywide system of bicycles that are stationed everywhere around town, locked into little stands. You take one, ride it where you want to go, and return it to another stand. M. and I had tried to buy access at the little automated kiosk next to the bikes, but it had never worked. Something would always go wrong, or it wouldn't accept my credit card, and we would be rerouted back to the beginning with no explanation. But M. noticed that the kiosks mentioned Navigo cards, and before we knew it everything went through and we (M. and I) were on bikes. We escaped major head injury, dodging buses on the way down Boulevard St. Germain, wound our way around the Luxembourg Gardens and found our way home. It was really fun, and without CAM along (she and the girls were shopping) I actually had to navigate my way around the city, which is good for me.

After that we took our gloves and baseball and played some catch on the Champs de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower. It all felt out of place in a nice way. Stopped for tea and cokes in a nice little cafe on a side street in between the tower and home (The Cafe Presle, on Rue de Presle), came home and have been hanging out since. Girls still out, they will no doubt show up exhausted just in time to make it to dinner.

I am going to see if I can find a blogging app for ipad. That, and I have to convince the girls to mail be some pictures from their cameras so I can post them. More later.