Monthly Archives: October 2011

Le taxidermiste: A spooky story

Have you ever noticed that creepy things seem to happen more frequently around Halloween?  Maybe it’s because we’re so conditioned to the secondary nature of All Hallows’ Eve. (Back in the 16th century there was nothing frightening about “All Hallows’ Evening.” It was simply the night before All Hallows’ Day, a celebration of the saints.)  Or maybe it’s the changing season, the wind whistling in the progressively more naked trees, the orange skies and eerie quiet, night falling more quickly and chilly air banishing the warmth of summer.

Or maybe it’s just me.

At any rate, there’s a taxidermist down the street and, call me crazy, but it creeps me out.  When I come in from a run, my cool-down walk sometimes leads me in the direction of this dead-things store, but I always stay on the other side of the street.  At the beginning of this week dusk was setting in as I passed the shop, which was dark except for a dim light in the back room.  Don’t ask me why I was curious but I squinted from across the street, trying to see what the after-hours stuffer was doing. Continue reading

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Homemade Apple Sauce

Sunday tradition insists that Nicolas and I leave his parents’ house with “les courses” (groceries) for the week.  Depending on the season we might load the trunk with strawberries or raspberries, fresh basil and tomatoes, potatoes, leeks, onions, or grapes.  In autumn, one of my favorite farm treats is Françoise’s apple compote.  Warm or cold, with sugar or yogurt, for breakfast or dessert, it is perfect.

Between two and four in the afternoon the subject of market-day requests arises.  As long as there are ample reserves, apple compote always tops my list.

This week Françoise decided it was time I learned the secret of compote myself.  She gave me apples instead of the usual jar of smooth, simmered fruit.

“But I don’t know how to make compote,” I said, knowing full well that I could if I tried.

Françoise clicked her tongue.  “Mais c’est très simple!” she said in a tone that implied, “if you teach a man to fish…”

And, as I would come to find out, that’s the secret.

Not really a secret, just a fact.  Compote is really, really simple to make.

Françoise explained (in all of twenty seconds), first you peel the apples; then you core the apples; next you dice the apples.  Throw them in a big pot, warm them over medium-low heat, stir, and add a little sugar at the end. (You’ll know when it’s “the end” because, whatdayaknow, it looks just like applesauce!) Voila.

Of course, there are tons of different variations you can try.  I put a couple sticks of vanilla in there while they were “compoting.”  Yum.  You can also add dried fruit for texture or alcohol for taste.  I’ve read that green tea can add a “smoky” flavor.

It’s apple season all over the world, so go pick some or pick some up and make your own compote.  Bon appletit!

{P.S. It’s also creepy-crawly season.}

For Marie-Amelie’s translation, Continue reading

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Life in Images: When you know something good is just around the corner

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No taking naps. No making appointments. This is France.

I speak, you speak, he speaks.

We learn, you learn, they learn.

He speaks French. I learn French.

I. am. still. learning. French.

In France no one takes naps.  It’s not because people don’t get tired, or that we’re not in Spain, but people just don’t take naps here.  Nor do they make appointments.  It is absolutely impossible to make an appointment in France, and if you try to do so, you will immediately be pegged as a foreigner.  No taking naps and no making appointments.

In France if you are tired  you must make a nap.  You must hammer together dreams and mold clouds of z’s out of clay.  Very tiring work, to be sure.

In France if you need to meet with someone, you must take an appointment.  Take it, right away!  Snatch it from his schedule and glue it into an empty spot on your own agenda. Of course you must consult with him, make him aware of your completely acceptable intention of stealing some of his sweet time.  There is no more civil way to go about it.  It is culturally acceptable and in fact completely unavoidable if you should ever hope to be considered “one of us.”

Believe me, I struggle with this every day.  Whether I’m confronting my unwillingness to labor over nap-making or undermining my courteous hesitancy to take something so precious as time, I often have to console myself with a phrase that doubles as a mnemonic device: “It’s exactly the opposite of what it would be in English.”

Take a nap = prendre faire la sieste

and

Make an appointment = faire prendre rendez-vous.

I speak French.

I laugh. You laugh. We laugh.

For Mélie’s translation into French… Continue reading

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Red, White, and Yellow? On Wine from the Jura

“The trick is to try it with Comté,” says Aurelien, lifting a glass of bright yellow wine to his lips.

“I feel like I’m tasting it just by breathing the air in this room,” I respond, squinting a little.

It smells of sherry: sweet and nutty, but piquant even from afar.  A hint of eastern spices. Walnuts.  Autumn.

I’m not so sure.  I’ve heard about this wine’s reputation.   I know that even the French call it particulier.  (In English, that’s “interesting,” pronounced with a grimace meant to look like a smile.)

So I shrug.  I’ll think about it.

Aurelien lifts the glass to his lips.

Conversation turns to birthdays and sports cars and  business as usual, and the spicy nuttiness hangs in the air like fluttering fall leaves.

I am not off the hook.

Empty plates still warm from the poulet aux trompettes de la mort we’ve devoured, Aurelien points to the slab of cheese across the table. Then he sweeps his hand toward the vin jaune, indicating that now would be the time to give his recommendation a try.

I shrug again.  He pours me a mouthful.  Following his lead, I take a bite of the Comté.  We chew.  Aurelien and I lift our glasses to our lips.

Expecting the strong, bitter taste of ethanol, my taste buds rejoice — perhaps more quickly than my brain can register the sensations of warm nuts and cinnamon, vanilla, apples, and that something that is so typical of autumn air.  The wine’s overpowering aroma had been a cover.

If ever an argument can be made for food and wine pairing, I’d say that vin jaune from the Jura department of the Franche-Comté in eastern France should be eternally married — with children and no prenuptial agreement — to Comté cheese.

Made from late harvest Savignin grapes and oak-aged six years under a film of yeast — which partially protects it from oxidation —  vin jaune is a breed all its own.  After the extended aging process, only about 62% of the wine remains.  To commemorate the tradition, the wine is distributed into special squat bottles (clavelins) which hold only 62 cl, as opposed to the standard 75 cl for white and red wine.

This last distinction is probably the reason we Americans know so little about “yellow wine.”  Importing wine comes with a whole list of bureaucratic restrictions and regulations, and believe it or not, the unusual size of the clavelin creates customs complications that most importers prefer to steer clear of.

So, even if the aroma catches you off guard, while in France do try vin jaune…with a little slice of Comté, bien sûr.

Photo Credit: Chateau Chalon

For the TRADUCTION DE MELIE:

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Speedbumps and cigarettes: portrait of a generous soul

Every Friday morning she gets her hair done.  When she leaves the house, she pats the spot on the back of her head with a calloused hand. Her flattened hair will come back fluffy and voluminous: ready for whatever life throws her way this weekend.  When she returns, she drives her Peugeot minivan onto the sidewalk in front of her house, easing over the curb as if it were a simple speedbump.  She parks her car there on the sidewalk, two steps from her front door and only a few paces from the local gendarmerie.  She takes her chances.

There are always mouths to feed.  She has a rotating collection of keys and people come and go as they please.  Today she prepares a meal for five.  Cigarette teetering on the edges of her lips, she stirs her béchamel, listening with one ear to talk radio and the other to her sister, whose voice, repeating the ins-and-outs of her day, resonates from the countertop speaker phone.

She is tired.  Leaning against the laminate counter, she closes her eyes and closes her lips tightly around the cigarette, inhaling.  She is going over her list of things to do.  It’s a list she has memorized, and she rarely forgets.  She knows her brown-haired, brown-eyed granddaughters’ horseback riding, ballet, and violin schedules better than they do.  Sometimes she calls to remind them, and she is never, ever late.  Maybe she has to run a red light or cut someone off, but she gets those girls to their extracurriculars without fail.

And then she returns to her houseful of rotating keys.

I like to watch the evening news with her when I am there, sitting next to her in silence.  She asks rhetorical questions like, can you believe that? or did you hear what she just said? “C’est fou, ça!” she exclaims.  Crazy.  Crazy that prices at the supermarket are on the rise, crazy that the euro is under attack, crazy that the world is in economic stalemate.  The cat digs his claws into her knees when she gets worked up, but she doesn’t push him off.  She apologizes and quiets down momentarily.  She lights another cigarette.

When I call her I hear the familiar sounds of her routine in the background.  The radio. The oven. The door slamming. Tires screeching.  She knows how to multitask.  “How are you, ma grande?” she chirps, her raspy voice upbeat.  “Qu’est ce que tu peux me raconter de beau?”

What good things do I have to tell her? I smile.  Despite the million tasks she must accomplish in one day, my news — always “good” — is of abiding interest to her.

“Oh, nothing too exciting,” I respond.  “I have an interview next week…is it okay if I stay?”

“Do you have your key?” she asks in response.

I imagine the little silver key, attached to a string of faded blue plastic beads, in the outside pocket of my purse.

“Yes.”

“Well then, the door is open! Let yourself in and tell me if you’re staying for dinner.”

When I hang up the phone, I can’t help but giggle.  C’est fou, ça, I say to myself.

For Marie-Amelie’s translation into French… Continue reading

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Office party: Bring your best fungus

In America, these are the kinds of things we might think to bring into the office to share with co-workers.  Yummy, sugary, decorated, fattening, corn-syrupy deliciousness.

In France, you might expect to share wine…

Or cheese…

Or — if it’s that time of year — a grocery bag of mushrooms.

This week it’s that time of year.  Nicolas’ colleague brought in a “small portion” of the trompettes de la mort (trumpets of death) he had gathered last weekend.  We’re grateful, because apparently hunting for these mushrooms is like looking for black holes in the ground, but goodness gracious, Nicolas’ apartment smells like a fungus greenhouse!

So far we’ve had trompette omelette and trompette quiche…and with this stockpile, we’ll be at it for weeks!

{They require a dedicated cleaning/drying regimen}

Other Photo Credits: Pinterest (1, 2, 3)

For Marie-Amèlie’s translation,

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