Are the French aliens?

I have now sweated through my totally rad, hot pink sweat band; and droplets of moisture are starting to roll down my forehead.  I grab on with one hand and reach for my towel, mopping my face.  My god, how long have I been running?  I look down at the LCD screen on the treadmill – 8 minutes.  I have been running for eight minutes; and already I am drenched.

Maybe if there was air-conditioning…like a normal gym. 

But then again, there are no normal gyms in my town.  Gyms, in general, seem to be a rather new trend in France; not like in the U.S. or Australia where four-level monoliths are on every other city block.  So when I decided to join one, my choices were limited.  There was the one that had no treadmills or free-weights (how can this even exist?) or the one without air-conditioning (again, how can this even exist?).  Foolishly, I thought treadmills were more important.

So now, I sweat, heartily, every time I go for a workout.  The disturbing thing, however, is that I seem to be the only one.  While half my body weight is being absorbed by my gym towel, everyone else is dabbing at dry brows (and looking at me judgmentally).  Is this some other freakish French trait, akin to their ability to consume an extremely high-fat diet without becoming obese?

For the girls, there is an easy explanation.  Most of them waltz in wearing trendy clothes, full make-up, and their hair down, flowing around their shoulders.  They climb onto an elliptical or a stationary bike next to one of their friends; and sullenly push at the pedals for a while (yes, French girls can be sullen even while working out).  This type of girl exists at every gym though; we all know them, the girls who just come to look attractive in a tight outfit and try to scam on the guys who could be Jersey Shore rejects.

It was the men that gave me pause.  How can you possibly run for over half an hour at level 10 or 11 with no air-conditioning and not break a sweat?

Maybe the French are aliens.  Think about it, really, this would explain so much.

Until that conclusion is reached, however, I will have to continue to be the gross, sweaty girl at the gym (who runs while listening to trashy romance novels), existing in a world without air-conditioning and with a people without sweat glands.

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Cheeseburgers in Paradise

“Oh my god, it is so annoying!”  I say this to MB as we walk down the street.  “I mean, how does anything even stay in business?  It’s ridiculous!”

MB rolls his eyes.

“You complain about this every Sunday,” he says.

“Because it annoys me every Sunday!  I mean, look at this, what if we wanted to make cheeseburgers?  Not possible, no store to buy buns, or lettuce, or cheese…I mean, cheese for heaven’s sake!  We are in France, right?  I mean shouldn’t there be like a 24-hour cheese shop or something?”

MB tunes me out as I continue on my tirade.  It is one he has heard many times before.  Suddenly, he stops walking and clutches my arm.  I am still rambling.

“I mean, can you imagine?  Going to the 24-hour cheese shop at 3am after a night of drinking; that would be a great way to gain wei—what’s wrong?”

His grasp tightens.

“Are you okay?”  I follow his eyes; they are fixated on a building across the street.

“Those people are there, yes?”  He looks at my shocked face.  We lock eyes.

“They are there,” I say, stunned.

We turn back to look at the building and suddenly the clouds part and a beam of light comes shining down upon our neighborhood Casino Grocery Store.

That is open.

Past one pm.

On a Sunday.

We approach slowly, as you would a cool, pool of water in a desert; convinced that at any moment it might evaporate.  But no, it is real and in that moment, the world changes.

I remember whinging to my Mother about everything being closed on Sundays.

“It’s horrible!  It makes everything so crowded on Saturdays; when are you supposed to do your grocery shopping?”

My Mother had sighed, wistfully.  “It reminds me of when I was a little girl.  Nothing was ever open on Sundays.  It was kind of nice.”

I remember thinking she was crazy.  “Try it as an adult,” I had thought to myself.

But now, staring at the Casino Grocery, for the briefest of moments, I feel regret…as though something has been lost.

MB laughs, and it snaps me out of my reverie.

“HA!  Now what will you complain about?”  He looks at me with a smirk.

I give him a face but laugh anyway.

“Don’t you worry, buddy, I’ll find something!”

He puts his arm around me and kisses me on my forehead.

“I know you will, baby.”

“So, cheeseburgers?”  I ask, knowing there is ever only one answer to this question.

“OUAIS!”  MB responds before crossing the street.

For a moment I hang back and look at the grocery store.  “The end of an era,” I think.  And then, I cross the street.

The France Fifteen

Apologies for being a bit late with this one…

Fall has arrived in the Rhône- Alpes.  There is a chill in the air; the mountains are changing from lush green to oranges and yellows.  Coats and scarves are being brought out of closets; and heaters are being turned on for the first time.  Now is the time when dinner tables begin to be adorned with tartiflette, raclette, and fondue (MB did manage to eat fondue twice in July).  It is the time to revel in the rich, heavy, delicious cuisine of the Savoyard region.  It is the time for…

What the F?

That can’t possibly be right.

I look down at the scale again, willing the numbers to change.  Quickly I do the math from kilos to pounds…sweet jesus.

Now is the time to go on a ridiculous Hollywood-style cleanse?

This first year in France reminds me of the first year in college when girls are destined to gain the dreaded “freshman fifteen”.  Everyone tells you it is going to happen and you nod along; but secretly you think, “not to me.”  Then the next thing you know you are zipping your jeans up with pliers and scared to squat because they might rip open.  Just like this, the “French fifteen” is a very real thing.  And now, just when things are getting cold and all I want to do is munch on fat-laden food, I find a scale.

For months now I have been skating by…knowing that I have gained weight but pretending that it is not as bad as I think it is in my head.  At first it was funny; I would stare down in the shower and think, “wow, that belly was not there before; it’s kind of cute!”  But the days of laughing at cheese babies have long gone and I have realized that it is time to get serious.

But how does one engage in un régime (diet) in the Rhône-Alpes in winter ?

I can see it now.  MB will come home to find me licking the wallpaper.

“What are you doing?” He will say.

“It’s delicious; you should have some!”   I will say this with a slur, as my tongue will not leave the wallpaper completely.

“Baby?”

I will turn back to look at him wild-eyed.  “The fondue!  It’s melting down the walls; don’t waste it!”

And then I would have to spend the rest of my life in an insane asylum (although I’m guessing that, in France, even in insane asylums they have good food).

In the meantime (pre-cheese hallucinations), I’m going to have to buckle down.  The tartiflette will have to wait; and raclette will be something I enjoy in the new year while I desperately attempt to shed some of my “France fifteen”.  So if you happen to be wandering through our region in the next couple of months and see a girl crying outside a fromagerie, you can safely assume that it is me.

BAM! Frenchman Impressed!

By many, it is considered impossible to impress the French; I have, however, found a loophole.

During my most recent trip to le boucherie with MB, the butcher started chatting to me about being American.  Apparently, he had been a butcher in San Francisco for a stint (I’d love to know what that visa was).  After discussing the prerequisite things: where are you from, what are you doing here, etc.; he moved on to every Frenchman’s favorite topic…

“In America, you eat this?”  He said as he held up the groin of a pig.

As if he didn’t know.

“Not so much,” I responded.  “We are a bit precious about what we are willing to eat.”

He looked at me sadly.  “Oui.”

I think there is nothing that depresses a French person so much as someone who doesn’t enjoy good food.

Quickly, MB stepped in, “She eats everything though; she is very good.”

I looked at him with an amused expression.  Apparently, this was a point of honor for him.

“Ah, mais c’est bon!”  The butcher says, smiling at me.  “Pour vous, mademoiselle…”  He says as he cuts a healthy slice of a gelatinous, multi-colored terrine.  “I want to present this to you.”

“Merci beaucoup,”   I say without flinching.

“You know what this is?”  There is a devilish smile on his face.

“Oui,” I return, pleased that I could get this one right.  “ Fromage de tete!  I have already tried it before and I like it.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_cheese)

The butcher grins from ear to ear; a look of happy approval spread across his face.

BAM!  Frenchman impressed!

Upon my arrival in Paris, I ordered not one but two steak tartares on the first day.  At the restaurant of the second steak tartare, the waiter tried to get me to order something different.

“Does she know what it is?”  He asked MB.

“Of course, it is her favorite!”  He told the waiter.  “She already had one for lunch!”

I smiled up at the smug waiter sweetly…waiting for it.  Slowly his smug look was replaced with one of surprised appreciation.

BAM!  Frenchman impressed!

Everyone knows that the French love their food but not everyone knows quite how excited they get about it.  MB still tells people about the first time we met and how I told him that cassoulet was one of my favorite dishes; this is what piqued his interest in me…an American girl who loved food (BAM! Frenchman impressed).  I remember him looking at me dreamily from across the table as I described how good a hot bowl of cassoulet is on a cold, wintery evening.  To this day, I don’t know whether it was me or the thought of cassoulet that put stars in his eyes.

On my first weekend to meet and visit his parents I know they must have been worried; what would this American girl be like?  Would she turn her nose up at stinky cheese?  What if she is a vegetarian?! * At the first dinner, I could feel the tremor of apprehension in the air as food was set on the table…will she eat it?  Foie gras, homemade pate, pickles from the garden…

I almost passed out from excitement.

I pleased them immensely by devouring, fully, everything that was set before me and having no problem accepting the ‘seconds’ that were offered.  They were ecstatic.  (BAM!  Frenchmen impressed!)

The French connection with food is spiritual, in the truest sense of the word.  It is an integral part of every man, woman, and child; it is an integral part of being French.  Now, you might be thinking that all over the world people get excited about, and love to share, their food.  And to that, I say, the French are just like the rest of the world, only more so.**

Therefore, it is possible to impress the French; not just possible but utterly satisfying…on a variety of levels.    So, go for it!  Don’t order the hamburger or the steak frites; try the fromage de tete, order the tartare.  You might discover something that you love that you never knew existed and hey, even if you can’t stand it at least you have the satisfaction of surprising a society that has perfected the art of being blasé.

BAM!

*I’m not sure that the French government would allow foreign vegetarians into the country, as for the natural born vegetarians…they are tolerated.

**subtle Casablanca reference for those of you in the know

 

 

 

 

 

Congratulations! You’re having a cheese baby!

For most of my life I have basically fluctuated between the same ten pounds; I have either been at the low end or the high end since I was about 16.  In recent years, (years spent in outdoor adventure lands like Australia and New Zealand) I have stayed at the low-end.  However, after only 3 months in France I am 5 pounds up and creeping towards my highest weight.  I don’t often weigh myself; I think it is an overly-critical, typically inaccurate, and a cruel thing to do to oneself; rather, I judge weight by one pair of jeans.  If they fit perfectly then I am doing alright, if they are loose then I’m doing better than alright, and if they are tight then it is time to make the tough choices.

 For the last few weeks, I have been ignoring the ill-fit of my favorite pair of Sevens but when I arrived for my physical at the consulate a few days ago there was no hiding it; there were two extra kilos (4.4 lbs) that did not exist a few months back. 

“Don’t worry, you are normal, see,” said the nurse as she showed me a chart with my weight on it.  “Ca va?”  Not ‘ca va’.

Later, on the tram ride home, I grimaced as I re-adjusted my jeans to cover my newly acquired gut that I lovingly refer to as my cheese baby.   I know that I need to cut back and be more reasonable about what I am eating but I’m just not sure how to do it (I ponder this as I drop egg yolks into the blender to make homemade mayonnaise).  Is it really reasonable to ask any food-loving person to cut back on calories after arriving in France?  It would be like asking Keith Richards to hang out with a drug cartel for a year but stay clean.

When I arrived, I had no idea how much trouble I was going to be in.  I have felt like the awe-struck Julia Child in Julie&Julia when she arrives in Paris and after tasting an exquisite dish exclaims, “the French eat French food everyday!”   On my second day in town I was riding through city centre and I thought to myself, cool, there are so many good French restaurants!  Doh!  I have made myself so accustomed to looking for French restaurants in every town I’ve lived in that I literally didn’t think about the fact that I was in France (first red flag).  For the first few weeks, I regularly dined on lunches consisting of baguette, pate, and cheese (glorious cheese) followed by 3 course dinners out.  Hey, I was in Europe now, there’s no getting fat, right?  I’ve turned into a street dog, which is afraid at any moment; their food bowl will be taken away.  Eat it now, eat it all now!

Somehow, I am going to have to convince myself that France is not going to stop producing cheese and foie-gras, that they will continue to provide me with warm, crusty bread and cream laden sauces.  I need to remember that I actually live here and that this isn’t a vacation…I have over a year to try to eat France.

Le Fromage: Part 1, The Faith

(Part 1 because one can only assume that there will be further cheese posts as this is a blog about France)

This is how it goes: 

I’m having a nice, quiet evening at home, alone.  I have a glass of red wine and I’ve just finished a delightful and satisfying meal.  I’m not really hungry anymore; perhaps I just need a snack to top myself off.  I could just have a piece of chocolate…I could.  Instead, I reach for the baguette and rip off a hearty chunk. 

It begins. 

Lovingly, I design the plate; taking a slice of this and a wedge of that.  The smell that emanates is both menacing and enticing.  I look, expectantly, at the fat-laden ooze making its way, lethargically, across the plate.  Do I really need to have a cheese course when I am eating at home alone in front of the television?  No, but it is just so damn good.

Depending on what source you reference, the French have anywhere from 50-1000 different types of cheeses.   The official cheeses from the AOC (appellation d’origine controlee) run somewhere between 45-55.  When France decided to join the EU, one of the major concerns of the French people was that their cheese would suffer (this concern remains today).  So is it any wonder that I’ve fallen prey to the seduction of French cheese?  Le fromage is a religion in France and these are a devout people. 

I had thought that I knew cheese; I wasn’t a processed-cheese-eating, kraft-single American.  I went to the markets and Whole Foods and bought good, interesting cheeses.  I have now come to understand that I knew nothing.  It started back in Australia, when, on our second date, my boyfriend (from now on to be known as MB: ‘Monsieur Boyfriend’) offered me some of his cheese that had been shipped to him from France, the stench was over-whelming and wildly romantic.  We locked eyes and he waited with anticipation as I took my first bite.  The flavor was transcedental; something between passion and hatred.  The satiny, smooth, milky richness sat in my mouth for but a moment before transforming itself and pinching the sides of my tongue with tangy, bitterness.  My eyes rolled into the back of my head and when I came-to, I again found the gaze of MB; there was a new understanding between us, I had been brought into the fold.

So, I suppose now there is no going back; I have committed myself fully in my devotion to le fromage.  It is a relationship full of suprises and unexpected sensations but never, ever boring; and I suspect I will be a dedicated follower for life.