My dinner with Ghislane

We were invited for a rare event amongst the French- dinner chez eux, at their place.  I  thought you’d like to know what that was like.

We went into the cold clear night to take the short bus ride to Ghislane’s, a bit over a mile so a nice walk in the daylight or on a warmer night.  It was a bit after 8 pm when we got on the bus.  We were trying to get there around 8:15.  You never show up on time in France, so your hostess has a little extra time to get ready, 15 minutes being the minimum but not too much more than that.  The bus dropped us off right in front of the modern complex and then we faced the first obstacle.  The French, it is clear, take home security very seriously, so when you get instructions to someone’s house you also get their door code as well as their phone number.  That way you can call them so after you’ve screwed up and left the building code on the dining table, or, more commonly in my case, under your wife’s clothes on the bed because the wife loves to put things on top of things you’ve put on the bed so you forget to take them with you so she can blame you for forgetting them later, which is a perfect system when you think about it.

Since we had no building code with us, we worried about how to get in without the phone number that was on the bed but someone was leaving so we got into the courtyard when he opened the 10 foot high gate.   Our next task was easy as well, as all you had to do was find the building and push the button next to her name.  Fortunately we somehow remembered her last name, which is not the last name she uses in the rest of her life and which we learned only when we got the invitation. How often does she forget to tell people or do people forget the instructions on the bed?   Perhaps she had to use an alias to get into this place but figures no one in management will find out even if everyone else uses her real name.  Or is that the alias?

So as is typical here, you don’t get started until after 8 and dinner is later, often much later, but once inside they usually put out appetizers.  Ghilane’s daughter and I munched on guacamole (not spicy, the French do not do spicy) and chips (crisps if you are British), and there were radishes which I think were meant to go along with a blue cheese tasting sauce which, I was told, had no blue cheese in it but creme freche instead.  I really do not understand creme fraiche, but let’s say it’s a high fat yogurt.  The French don’t mind fat here and in fact prefer it.  Most of their cheeses are in the 50% range.  Not creme fraiche though.  That’s because it is, well, fraiche as in not old or more simply, fresh.  Why don’t they just say that then?  But it is not all that fresh.  It’s a tiny bit sour.  I guess fraiche is a relative term.

After a good blather about living in Boston – where Alex is moving on the 8th just one day before nephew Travis shows up and will she arrange for him to meet some friends, of course, and Ghislane says she loves her friends they are funny and Alex, who has a job as a chemist although she just graduated and is being sent by the company still lives with her mom and they get along so well, so seemingly unlike our American kids and their parents- and a bottle of champagne- oh it is a good one, where did you get it and its not so brut you can’t stand it but not yucky sweet well it’s hard to find let me know I’ll get a few bottles for you- then finally it’s on to the dinner table.  It’s after 9:00 and we are having fun now!

But before dinner arrives you have to have the real entree.  Now let me ‘splain.  “Entree” means appetizer not fucking main course like it does in US restaurants (but not thankfully at home), where we took a French word and started using it in restaurants so we would appear sophisticated but then got it all wrong.

The entree is some terrine.   I had to ask Peggy how to spell that one, or you would be reading ‘terrain’ because it sort of sounds like that when pronounced by the French in that poochy lip kind of way they talk so they can pronounce things in a way no foreigner can imitate- I usually retaliate with a phrasal verb together with a seldom used colloquial expression that I say quickly with a soft voice while speaking into the closet, which I have learned to do by living with Peg.

The entree in this case is actually two pieces of land, one made from the head of a slightly dodgy pig and the other from some sort of reindeer who got separated from the herd.  They added a few other body parts to the pig land, which was good actually with the baguette and white wine, but the other, which I translated roughly as ‘Bambi in headlights,’ was better.  It had some mushrooms in it that no one had ever heard of.  I let Peg go first.

It was 930 at least when dinner came out, but that might have been AM.  Of course I was not starving any more.  It was a quiche, home made right there in that lovely little kitchen.  This is a modern place.  Often in old flats in Paris and elsewhere the kitchens are tiny and last renovated in 1950 but the flat is still worth half a mil thereabouts, or so the signs on the real estate windows say.  Perhaps that’s why grown children live with their parents and everyone gets along so well.  Out came also some zucchini with some cheese melted on top.  More bread.  This was accompanied by Ghislane’s description of how she came up with the name for the English conversation group which she has never been a part of, she brought back English books from her time in the US, I think it was, and wanted to share them, so she went to the Federation of Associations (I am not joking), which is run by the City,  they have their own buildings for the various activities,  Ghislane set up a program so people could borrow her books, hardly anyone ever came but someone started a conversation group so the French could practice English, it is still called Anglais Plasir, English Pleasure, right,  phrasal verbs, doesn’t just the sound of it make you smile?  I am not using periods because the French don’t when they write and want to sound erudite.

It was 1030.  By now stuffed to the gills, I barely touched the cheeses.  One was a Camembert, but skinny and round versus fatter and round and very good.  There were two goat cheeses.  Bread.  More wine.  I think we were back on how to stay warm until your car warms up for the ride to your office since Americans have few trains so you have to buy a car, and before you can even get in the States with a work permit you have to fill in (or is that fill out?  ha! more revenge) applications asking for the phone numbers of people not related to you and pay thousands of dollars in fees and if they do not accept your application at the US consulate in Paris you have to wait another month, and how do you get stinky French cheeses into your luggage, forget about Epoisse, you will still smell any French cheese no matter what you do just wave a hand under your armpits and mumble, “Need a bath.”

It was nearly 11.  Out came the apple pear pie I’d baked and carried here in a string bag accompanied by warnings every three minutes – don’t let it tilt-   I must get rid of that egg timer that allows you to record a message which goes off on the bus and on the sidewalk along the way.  By 1130 I’d extracted that stubborn first piece and lo and behold it stayed together.  I must carry it tilted more often.  Oh and it goes well with chocolate mousse that Alex made.  No thanks, I can not drink coffee at night.  Alex will miss the cheese course.  How did we get back on cheese?

It’s midnight.  We are in Ghislane’s car.  Thank goodness!  It’s dark and below freezing, goblins are howling, creeps are crawling and the bus driver’s probably been drugged.  Apartment, sweet apartment, to rest and perchance to forget to dream.

Us in Brittany (a short video)

We spent four days in Brittany walking around Dinan, Lohan, Saint Malo and Dinard in July, 2011. Most of the images are from Dinan.  The weather was sunny but chilly, better than rainy and cold.  Dinan is a friendly feeling place, not entirely a tourist town, and we lodged here.  The Tudor architecture is a major attraction, although far from exclusive to the town or region.  Crepes (sweet) and galettes (also thin pancakes but whole wheat and savory) are a mainstay, as are moules frites (mussels with fries).  Our favorite restaurant was Licorne (means Unicorn), recommended by Rick Steves and you’ll see photos of our meal there.  They drink much more cider than wine.  We stayed in the center of the old town, surprisingly comfortable for an old place despite the steep, windy stairs, and quite enough except on the night before Bastille day.  Fireworks kept us awake a bit!

The countryside in the area is lushly green.  The river Rance runs through it and along we walked to Lohan.  You can see the abbey in the video slide show, made with “Imagination”.

Us in Dinan, Brittany, Celtic country in France

To Sancerre and Dijon

June 2011

We had to vacate our temporary apartment in the 6th, which we renovated several years ago and which is owned by two of our friends.  They had some paying guests coming and then their daughters were to stay for a weekend.  We took a week to visit friends in the south.  Sally lives near Sancerre. Peter and Caroline have a 13 meter canal cruising boat.  We are to meet them in Dijon for a week on the canals.

on the canal

Sally was married to Paul when we met her.  After we sold our boat in France in 2002 they bought a house in a very small town, just five houses.  After a while he left her for Rosalind, the  French woman next door.  This woman in turn left her husband and moved in with Paul in a house that is about ten minutes away. Somehow Rosalind’s now ex-husband (I assume they were married and are now divorced) blames Sally for what happened but won’t talk to Sally so Sally has no clue as to why.  When all this happened Sally’s daughter from a previous marriage told her that Paul had molested her.  It took Sally quite a while to get over all that, I imagine, (I am not sure that I am!) but but she has dealt successfully with all that stress.  Paul received a suspended sentence as a result of a plea bargain.  In general these are difficult cases to prove, so the fact that there is a conviction is significant.

While with Sally we went out with her to La Recreation Gourmande, the restaurant she used to work in, to celebrate Peg’s birthday.   The restaurant is quite good, and received a listing in the Guide Routard, our favorite restaurant guide which lists high quality places that offer good value for money.   Peg’s dinner included a rabbit aspic, which she quite enjoyed, although for me it is Thumper in Jello.  The cheese course was fabulous as was the dessert.  We both had a pork chop for a main dish, which was very good but not outstanding (and made for too much food, so we took our pork chops home)

After lunch we met the chef and his wife.  He works nearly 100 hours a week, she splits time between the restaurant and the children. She lamented the temporary loss of a worker due to depression, I think it was.  She said under French law she had to wait a month to replace her, which made life difficult for them in the meantime.

The next night we had dinner with Bruno and Babette, who were Sally’s neighbors until 18 months ago.  I once called her Brunette, but she didn’t think it was very funny.  They bought an old farmhouse to renovate but still can not get the permits!  So they bought a mobile home and use a bucket since they are not connected to a sewer.  He grilled large amounts of meat, way too much, and we drank rose wine.

Bruno wants to meet their electrical needs using a 12 volt system.  Having lived on a boat, I can tell you this can be difficult at times unless you get a gas-powered refrigerator and of course you can forget electric heat or even ordinary fans.  It is possible of course to stay off the grid, although given how hot the summers can be I’d like to have enough grid current to run a few fans at least.  In the meantime they are running an extension chord from the house next door to meet their modest needs, assuming a 48″ flat screen tv is modest.  It will take quite a few batteries to run that thing!.

Sally’s new neighbors – her house is semi-detached meaning one neighbor’s house is glued to hers- are quite picky about where she walks,  apparently.  She owns the land right out their back door, strangely enough, which is the only way she could conveniently reach the nearby pasture.  Apparently that was important to a previous owner.  The new neighbor wants to buy that patch, but Sally declined the offer.

R, who was married to G (both Brits, like Sally, as well as Peter and Caroline), is still single despite being rather attractive and still fairly young.  Another couple we met are selling the house they had just completed in 2002 when we met them.   A French women, in her 70’s, had a hip replacement and as she was standing for the first time after the surgery, her leg fractured.    She seems to be getting better although she misses her dog, who died recently.   These are all people Sally introduced us to on previous visits.

Afterward Sally took us to the train station.  We got off in Dijon.  Peter and Caroline were there to meet us.  We spent the next week on the Canal de Bourgoune with them.   This is their 19th boat.  They have stopped using it during the summer.  It is just too hot in the south of France.  They recently sold their house near Toulouse having bought a flat in the UK near Brighton.   This puts Caroline much nearer her friends and their three daughters and Peter decided that his model airplane hobby is best served in the UK, where they do a much better job of making it a safe activity.  Apparently the French don’t think about planes running into people from time to time, especially the young boys who come with their fathers who run around oblivious to the danger.

It was fun riding the boat through the canals, and very pretty.  However Peg and I both decided independtly we do not need to own another boat to do this.   It is not so much fun that we’d want to do it all the time.  And it is cheaper to rent one- do it with a group, it’s more fun, since you do not have to take care of it.

We are back in Paris staying with Anne and John.  Tomorrow we move back into the apartment in the 6th, and stay until July 11.  On the 11th our friends have paying guests again (the apartment rents just short term).  To make our travels less expensive we got senior passes- yes we are over 60!-  so we get 50% off rail travel.  Next we are going to Normandy, a little town called Dinan near the coast for just a few days.  I’ll eat lots of snails which like to grow there for some reason. And they are easy to catch.  In the meantime we’ll cruise around Paris on our trusty bikes, the ones John found and assembled from parts he found on bicycles people had abandoned on the street.

Paris Connections

Paris has become familiar.  The first time you come to any city there is so much to absorb and you are rather lost, your nose planted in the skimpy map in the guide book when your eyes are not taking in the sites.  But we’ve been here before and we’re back because it is a beautiful city, with a long history and a refined culture, a great place to be especially when you have time to absorb the vast offerings.

Paris is a city of art as much as it is a town that searches for the egalitarian ideal.  Of the former more in later posts, I am sure.  These days the latter is expressed in the services provided to the hungry- there are meals every day of the week- and lodging, in the tents that line the Seine downtown, a kind of nose- thumbing gesture, so I’ve heard, at the failure of government to provide enough low cost housing, and the velib, the bikes you can use free for 30 minutes with a monthly transit pass.

This time there are more beggars than last, sadly, with an unemployment rate about the same is in the US (around 9%) victims of the job loss that came from those phony investment schemes originating on Wall Street, a scheme to defraud investors disguised by a multiple layers of complexity.   But here they are now, sitting on sidewalks, not just Romas and drunkards but a few otherwise promising young people, men and women alike.  But this is a sadness I can not resolve.  Enough then.  And besides there are fewer here than in my own country.

We shall be living in the 6th for a bit.  We have friends developed from our travels here.  This came about from our time here in 2000.  We rented from Prisca, who had rented to Gaston and Gloria, whom we met through Paul and Vicky, whom in turn we met through a book he wrote in the mid 1980’s and her keeping up with correspondence: she responded to an email from Peg 12 years ago when we were living in Madrid.   From Paul and Vicky we somehow got to Anne and John, whom we got to know well, and then to their friends Chris and Rosemary, whose apartment we will now stay in for a month or two.  From Anne and John I got to know Emoke at the French/English/Spanish conversation exchange at the American Church, where I met Ketty, from whom we will rent for a year beginning in August, her husband having been transferred to Le Havre.   I suppose it all sounds rather complicated, and perhaps it is, but it did not seem so as all this unfolded.

As lovely as Paris is, and as rich is the art, we both think Valencia competes.  The latter has a long parade of “quehaceres,” like free concerts, exhibits, shows and festivals- hardly a day goes by without one.  You can strike up a conversation and become a friend in a moment.  This is a bit harder to accomplish here, but as you can see, not impossible, it’s just that the Spanish are much quicker to smile.  The people you see every day here in the stores are often a bit more dour, as if work were a very unpleasant burden.