Thursday, April 26, 2007

Métro Magic

You know, a funny thing happened to me on the métro last night...

I was on my way home after an unexpectedly longer-than-usual stop at the Monoprix at Péreire-Levallois, as I needed a few things in order to assemble a halfway decent meal for my boy and me. I had also just come from my regular weekly English lessons with the little French boy from hell, and although things pretty much seemed to be going wrong all around (including the mile-long lines at the caisses in the supermarket) I was still in a fairly decent mood. I refused to allow myself to be pulled down by any negativity -- something I've really been working on lately -- and I wanted to enjoy every positive moment of my evening, in spite of whatever life decided to throw my way.

After tumbling out the market door and down the street to the subway stop, salmon, white wine and mesclun green salad (along with some other random comestibles) in tow, I waited patiently on the quai for the train to arrive. For some bizarre reason, every time I stop for groceries after my English lesson, the wait at the station afterwards always seems interminably long. Once the train showed up, I squeezed onto the rush-hour-packed car and tried to keep my balance with both hands full. Normally I would have set one bag down and grabbed the bar in the middle, but I (mistakenly) assumed that this particular métro line wasn't as violent as some others, and that by some miracle I wouldn't collide into the person next to me. Ahem. Again, mistakenly. As the train screeched to one of those completely inexplicable halts, the conductor hitting the brakes as hard as possible, I careened forward, and out of the blue a petite gal with long, curly dark hair next to me held my arm and acted as a sort of pillar for me for the next station or two.

She smiled knowingly and said, "T'inquiète pas. Pleins de sacs, heure de pointe, beaucoup de monde -- je sais ce que c'est !" No worries -- you've got arms full of bags, it's rush hour and the train is super-crowded. I couldn't help but laugh and smile back, nodding in agreement, and from that point foward the mundane métro ride became enjoyable somehow. A bit further along, after shifting around the train carriage a bit to allow more passengers to climb on, she looked down and said, "En plus vous lisez de la super bonne littérature ! J'ai adoré ce roman... Je n'ai lu que deux de ses livres, mais c'est génial." She was admiring my choice of reading, which again was unexpected, because most people usually don't say a thing -- they just stare at your reading material, or read over your shoulder. I had one of my recent purchases with me, Nancy Huston's Dolce Agonia. I started to answer, wanting to add my agreement on how I was enjoying the novel so far, but suddenly I realized I had reached my stop.

Oh, this is me! Merde ! And I had to hop off the train, awkwardly, arms and hands fumbling with my bags. "Bonne soirée !" And that was it. Such a nice interlude, a great parentheses in the middle of an ordinary day.

And there you have it, folks: proof that Parisians really can be kind and lots of fun! I wanted to stay on that train and get to know her better... Shame I didn't have a few more stops...

Monday, April 23, 2007

I think I may, I think I might...

Well, what to say, what to say? Jenn over at NPLI has included me as a Thinking Blogger, and I honestly have to state right here and now: I'm not worthy! I may spend a lot of my time thinking (who doesn't?!), but perhaps never really and truly about the right things at the right times... Of course, I guess there's never exactly a right time for anything, but in any case, I am grateful for her shout-out and in fact it has been her recent posts about the French elections that have got ME thinking about where I stand politically in this current wasteland that we call France. I'm trying not to be too pessimistic, but I hope beyond hope that whoever is elected on the 6th of May will bring about some positive change for the future and will finally bring the much-needed reform that this country so desperately needs.

Plus, Jenn gets me thinking with her creative, spunky spirit all the time. Without her, I don't think I'd be here as a blogger today! So thanks again, Jenn: you really are my inspiration.

And in passing on this honor, it's extremely difficult for me to limit myself to five persons. Plus, I'm meant to list five who have not yet been named Thinking Bloggers, and I'm not absolutely certain that my choices have not already been so honored -- I would be surprised if they haven't, because they're just so talented and always getting me thinking, so be sure to let me know if I've committed any naughty faux-pas...

1. Lauren over at Maitresse -- Again, this fashionable gal has constantly got me thinking and she's always sharing the most culturally and socially diverse topics in an incredible way, so I can hardly believe she hasn't been named a Thinking Blogger a million times over!

2. Amy, or La Petite Américaine at Une nouvelle vie de bohème -- Every single post she shares is stimulating, whether it's her take on French cuisine, a recent museum visit or a reaction to something going down here in Paris [even and especially her commentary on those strikingly unique French ad campaigns].

3. Aralena at Dents de lait -- I love her byline, and when you talk about thinking, her posts are some of the first that come to mind. And so beautifully written! I admire her talent...

4. Lee Ann at Odessa Street -- She was also one of the first bloggers I discovered here in the expat world, and I've been reading her for ages. I love her occasional book reviews and the fact that she always has a fresh take on things. And you talk about taking on a lot: this gal is always accomplishing a million things at once!

5. Last but not least, Sam over at Sam de Bretagne -- Blogging on a regular basis and really keeping us up-to-date on what's happening all over France in general, I always feel the need to chime in and share my own thoughts -- because she keeps me thinking on my toes, even with the day-to-day stuff! Note: her recent post on the French elections...

Guess that about wraps it up... I had an uneventful weekend myself, but I have to say that this incredibly beautiful weather did make the time fly by; if only it would last! It motivated me to do some nice, light vegetable-based cuisine, and I was so pleased with my Saturday evening pasta salad with cherry tomatos, zucchini and fresh basil, as well as with my Sunday zucchini crumble... An unexpected surprise!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Priceless, Un-Charmed Life

I wish I could say that I had a really exciting and educational issue to share with everyone here today, but -- well, heck, I guess that's not what my blog is all about anyway... No use putting any unneeded stress or pressure on myself, setting up my own expectations with regard to what I write here. Because I've never claimed to be a talented writer or even someone who could express herself particularly well, aside from having the capacity to be pretty self-deprecating and tongue-in-cheeck from time to time, when push comes to shove (and I think I owe that to my brother and his great sense of humor -- thanks, buddy!). Although that tends to come across better in person than in my writing -- maybe certain other blog-sistahs out there who have made my actual aquaintance could attest to this one for me... I can be a funny gal if you give me a chance! Really, I can! I just don't know how to convey that in writing.

I think I've been spending a lot of time reading so many other gifted bloggers out there, really admiring their ways with words and images, and their simple yet evocative expressions, their fonts of resourceful information, and this has sort of made me feel a little inadequate. Of course, to be honest, that's nothing new for me... Although I know I'm not completely inept, I'm not particularly good at anything, aside from speaking some decent French. And how far does that really get one, huh? Across the ocean and into another country, yeah; loving the people and the culture there, sure -- but I need to join that skill with something else worthwhile, otherwise it's not gonna get me much anywhere... And I've definitely got to stop comparing myself and pretty much setting up my own roadblocks to personal progress.

Anyhoo, I just felt the need -- or more appropriately the desire -- to share a few tidbits about my own little life here in France in recent days, if only to give a glimpse into the ordinariness of my own existence and to share how very closely it really resembles many others' around the world -- whether in North America, other parts of Western Europe, or even Asia... As much as I do love living in France -- and I can't even exactly express why that is; I just somehow feel at home here (I've often joked that it's because I lived here in a former lifetime, hung out with Chopin and his entourage of great artist/musician friends, but that's another story for another time) -- there is no real "romance" in my daily existence, and I'm far from living a charmed life. Then again, I wouldn't trade what I currently have in the way of friendships, interests, and love for anything at the moment -- there may be many aspects of my life that need some work, but one thing is for sure, and that is that my life is not lacking in "personal" richness, if ya see what I mean. Nor is it lacking in upside-down bumps in the road, for that matter. No, it's hardly boring.

Last night I joined my boyfriend, his father, his youngest sister and her little boy for dinner in an impossibly ordinary bistro/brasserie in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, supposedly specializing in seafood. Except their fixed-price menu only included one seafood selection, and the waiter appeared to be out of those little wipies you use to clean your fingers after eating oysters, shrimp, other crustaceans, etc... Ah, that's right, les rince-doigts. [How can a seafood restaurant run out of those things, pray tell?! And at the same time not refill the soap in their bathroom soap dispensers?!]

In any case, the whole evening was pretty much unplanned and fairly improvised, mainly due to the fact that his sister's visit coincided with his father's stop through town, and it just made sense that we all get together and spend a nice evening out. Ergo, the randomly chosen restaurant. Which, again, was beside the point, because we were just there to spend time together. So I'm not going to critique the exquisitely boring cuisine, because again, it's of no particular interest... The best parts of the evening basically came in the form of my boyfriend's 3-year-old nephew, who God bless him, was exhausted, along with his mother, from a long train ride in to the capital from Besançon, a town four hours or so southeast of Paris. He looked around him saucer-eyed at all the people and things he was not used to seeing, freshly picked from the countryside. (My boy said that in the métro on his way to the restaurant he said hello to everyone in the hallways...) He made it patiently through an interminably long meal, munching away at all sorts of things the whole time. He's not one of those picky types; here's a three-year-old who likes to pretty much try anything, and who his grandfather fondly refers to (to his mother's chagrin) as Bennie-bouffe-tout, which quite literally means "the boy who'll gobble up anything."

Before our orders were even taken, little Bennie had nibbled on some bread with some strangely bitter olive spread (not exactly tapenade) on it that I couldn't even get my tastebuds around. And after making his way through his own plate of grilled salmon (no steak haché for this little 'un!), his fork crept onto my plate of steak tartare, curiously fumbling around for a mouthful of potatoes. He did say that the tartare meat was a bit spicy ("ça pique!"), but only after I commented to his mother that he didn't seem to mind the stinging aftertaste. We shared some potatoes together at that point, as I cut him some manageable slices and slid them onto his plate... I actually had to stop sharing food with him, because he would have willingly eaten pretty much everything in sight! Needless to say, when dessert time rolled around, he called out to the waiter, "Messeur, du gateau sh'il-vous-plaît,"* and he gratefully munched on several bites before finally calling it quits. He could have eaten me under the table -- and that's saying something! Thank goodness he helped me with my potatoes...

But the highlight of the evening, for me anyway, was when I tried to teach Bennie what "elegant" meant -- how he should try to be polite and dignified in a restaurant setting, and not call out or make too much noise while waiting for his food... (and there was a lot of waiting going on). He turned to me and tried to repeat "elegant" (which is exactly the same word in French as in English, just pronounced differently) with his little nose all scrunched up, and then he looked up at his mom and said, "Maman, chuis un petit garçon éléphant."**

* = "Sir, some cake please!"

** = "Mommy, I'm a little boy elephant."

P.S. ~ Whenever Bennie comes to visit, upon arriving he immediately insists on my singing his "favorite" song -- which he discovered last summer when we were on holiday together -- "Old MacDonald had a farm..." And he nods up and down, fascinated, while I go through the whole rendition, including authentic pig and cow sounds. And right as I finish the final verse, it's "encore!" and I have to start all over again. One of these days I'm gonna have to teach him some REAL English... I even had to sing him this song while waiting for dessert last night. (Try to picture that one!)

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Upside Down

I have a lot of really complicated things going on in my life right now that I don't yet feel comfortable enough talking about here, because to be honest I don't even know where to begin to explain them or how to put words to my feelings, or to my current state of being for that matter. Some days I feel like I'm walking through some sort of fuzzy, unreal space, or as if someone has pushed the pause button on my life and I'm observing it through a strange, surreal looking-glass. So many other things seem so petty and insignificant to me right now, and yet at the same time I'm having a hard time forgetting about stupid little "details" like this g-damn nagging cold/sinus infection/allergies/bronchitis that I've had going on for nearly 3 weeks. I feel like it's (whatever it is, which is totally unclear) been going on forever, and that it will never stop, and no medicine appears to be helping. I'm seriously ready to pull my hair out, to scream, to break something...

And of course, whatever it is I'm suffering from is truly the least of my worries and I know that it, too, shall pass, as it must at some point or another. But I'm one hell of an impatient woman, and I would give anything just to feel normal again. Then again, from what I've been told by those who know me best, apparently I'm never quite "just right"or normal, no matter how much of a facade I use -- there always seems to be something wrong in one way or another. I've never been capable of disguising my feelings -- I'm an open book. So when something really does go wrong, when something really tough happens, I feel ridiculously stupid and égoïste to have spent so much time focusing on my tiny, insignificant preoccupations.

Of course, you never do think something serious will happen to you or your loved ones until it actually does, and then you're left with your mouth hanging to the floor, just completely dumbstruck and at a loss as to how to begin to put the pieces back together. You are struck unawares, blindsided, and somehow stunned back into reality.

As a result, I'm realizing that this has probably been one of the strangest, most difficult, most surreal times of my life, and in so many ways I don't even know which end is up, as my mother used to say so often when I was a little girl. But I am now trying to put some good advice from others around me into action and think more positively, to see what this tough experience will bring us, to my boy and me both, in a good way going forward. How we can take this painful time and transform it into a renaissance, a new beginning in so many ways, and maybe even a new life somehow. Because I need to believe that we are never given too much to bear -- that no matter how difficult things are, we are resilient enough to come through this and to see wonderful things on the other side. If I imagine us happy and even stronger as a result of this adversity, then I'm sure it will happen. It must. Because I really believe in us, no matter what.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Balmy Days, Sweet Sangria

I'm not quite sure what took me so long in getting my thoughts together enough in order to write this post about Spain and our Andalusian adventure last month. Maybe I just needed to reflect on it for a while, let some things simmer in my mind, before arriving at a time when I'm actually reminiscing about the whole experience.

But I finally realized that too much time has now gone by, and I want to be reminded once again of those warm, sun-filled days -- which I think we can't expect to have here in Paris, at least for the long term, for some time yet. Real spring days, not these fake, teasing, pull-the-wool-over-your-eyes days we've had recently, enough to get us all sick (well, me anyway).

So I'm now going to wander back down those winding Seville paths... Our sunny séjour started out with practically a whole afternoon spent in what could only be considered the ideal garden, in this case the Alcazar Gardens.

I think we probably could have spent our whole week there, and we both would have been pretty happy campers. We must have spent a good two or three hours there in any case...

Oh, and if I'm not mistaken, there's a Royal Palace on the premises (according to the Guide du Routard), but I don't have very many photos to prove it -- I seem to have spent all of my time outside. But can you blame me when you've got surroundings like these?

This is Mercury's Pool, or Fountain (I can't remember which exactly, and I can't be bothered to look it up in the guidebook again; sorry 'bout that)... There were fish swimming around in that water, and something about the whole setting was so peaceful, in spite of the tourists. I think we didn't have to fight too many crowds this time around anyway, as it was still the middle of the week in early March.

I made a little friend while we were in the garden...

He kept me company while my boy took a nap in the sunshine on one of the numerous benches. I couldn't resist taking the gratuitous duck shots! This is one of my favorites; love those sunning ducks! They've got the right idea...

I did manage to get a few courtyard photos, and some of the famed patios, of course. I was transfixed by the architecture all week as well, which should come as no surprise.

Oh, and looking back through the photos, I managed to find a few taken inside -- but oddly enough, not of the interior architecture. Seems there was a collection of all sorts of éventails in the royal palace, including French, Spanish and Japanese...

Of course, one of the best parts about Spain is the saveurs... Wouldn't you agree? Quite different from those in France, and a completely different approach to cuisine in general, at least from what I saw (and tasted!) in the short time I was there. I knew our trip was starting off on a nice culinary note when we enjoyed bull's tail, Spanish ham (jamon iberico) and a scrumptious dessert of lemon cheesecake with cinnamon dusted on top our first evening in Seville... I later learned (pretty much the night before we left, in ice cream form) that these are the flavors in what is better known as crème de Seville -- and I think I could get used to that flavor combination myself! [Sorry, I'm not very adept at the Spanish language, so unfortunately most of my references here will be either in English or French, as it would take me forever to figure things out in Spanish! That was one of my handicaps while there, of course -- and the little I did know, I couldn't seem to get out as I would freeze up anytime someone spoke to me in Spanish! I've pretty much decided to stick to French...]

A few of our other food favorites on this trip included the wonderful, well-known tapas, in endless varieties. The ones that topped my list were the garlic-infused mushrooms, the spinach with pine nuts, the many types of ham (of course!), and basically anything with cheese. Although I have to admit that after 6 days of eating all that ham, I was no longer in a charcuterie mood, if you catch my drift!

We actually had this set of tapas in a great place right near the Mezquita in Cordoba. From top to bottom that's of course a slice of Spanish omelette, or tortilla, some creamed tomatoes, the wonderful garlicky mushrooms, some sort of meat dish (I'm blanking out on this one -- probably veal) with potato slices, and the spinach. I had an excellent glass of rioja with this meal, so good that we decided to bring a bottle back with us. It was reasonably priced, and if it weren't for those airline restrictions with regard to liquids on the plane, I probably would have brought back a few more bottles. But I couldn't see us trying to stash a half a dozen in our suitcases without all the bottles broken into bits on our arrival in Paris.

I think we must have had paella a few times as well, and I got to taste some gaspacho once. I wish I had had a few more bowls of this ice-cold tomato soup, because it's one of my favorites. But it just wasn't on that many of the menus. The one time it was on the menu in Grenada, the waiter told us it wasn't available that day. Oh well!

Of course, a discussion of Spanish cuisine wouldn't be complete without mentioning the beverages... Now, we didn't actually imbibe all that much on this trip, given my boy has a pretty low tolerance (I'm the one with the reputation of having a bonne descente around here), but we did manage to taste a few versions of sangria, of course, as well as the aforementioned rioja. But the one drink that became our constant companion on this trip was the fresh-squeezed orange juice -- and I guess it goes without saying that it was fabulous! I still regret not having just a few glasses more before leaving... Given that you've got orange trees on every street corner, and hundreds of them on the squares and in the patios, I guess it makes sense that it becomes the drink of choice!

We had a wonderful afternoon in Cordoba as well, although we split up at one point because I wanted to wander through the back streets and take shots of the Spanish patios hidden down back alleyways, further off the beaten path. Although granted many of them were closer to the cathedral itself...

I have so many shots of the interior of the Mezquita, but only a few of them turned out really well. The lighting inside was obviously not easy to capture, particularly for a photography novice like me, and then there were so many people it was tough to get a shot that wasn't overloaded with other tourists taking shots of their own. And one thing that frustrated me throughout the trip was my hesitancy to ask others to take our photo -- I don't know what my hang-up was, but I never wanted to bother people long enough to get a few photos of us together. And of course that's the least of my boy's concerns, so he's not going to push for it either. As a result, I have more shots of him on his own, and very few of the two of us. Oh well, we'll always have our memories...

We spent almost two days in Grenada, but I have to admit that aside from the Alhambra, I didn't enjoy the city as much as Seville. I guess in all honesty we didn't have enough time to soak up the ambiance there. The view from the hills above the Alhambra was breathtaking, of course, and it felt incredible just to be there, in that moment. I was really glad at that point to have bought my new digital camera.
And of course the Alhambra is the one place where I took the most pictures -- in spite of the fact that, disappointingly, the Cour des Lions was missing the main attraction: the lions! They had been removed for restoration, so no beautiful shots were taken in that courtyard. I did manage to capture some amazing lighting inside of the palace, as well as a few in the gardens. I'm quite pleased with these... And it's tough to choose only a few to include here.

I also ran into one of our animal friends inside the palace, and I thought it was adorable how they had little bowls with water in them throughout the site -- especially for the cats!

I love the fact that he's right in front of a gorgeous wall of Alhambra azulejos...

I'm so glad we got to the Alhambra early enough to take in the whole experience in less than a full day; we headed back to Seville afterwards for our final night, and wrapped up the end of our trip with one last great breakfast in a typical Spanish cafe, topped up with some of that fine fresh orange juice and some joint postcard-writing; my boy gave me a helping hand as we wrote out messages to our friends and families... It was funny how my notes were a bit typical, conventional and nothing out of the ordinary, but his were quirky, cute and a reflection of his good sense of humor.

All in all, a really nice trip. 'Nuff said. I'll leave you here with one last shot -- some of the ceramics through a Spanish window...