Archive for November 2007

I Try and I Try and I Try, Try, Try

November 29, 2007

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Remember the last time you started a new project full of enthusiasm and energy, only to see it going downhill fast while you faced defeat at every turn?  Remember how crushed and confused you felt as you saw success slipping away, until all you wanted to do was sit in the corner and suck your thumb?

Thanks to a recent experience trying to tutor kids “learning” English, I can report that there’s a good reason that so few French people speak English with any great amount of skill or joy.  The French system of teaching English totally sucks.  And when I say it sucks, I’m hoping you’ll visualize sucking something really dreadful and practically impossible to swallow.

I’m normally not one to give up easily, but after spending only four hours with seven French kids between ten and seventeen years old, I quit my volunteer job almost before it began.  It’s hopeless.  I can’t help them.

Sure, I speak perfect English, even if I do say “suck” from time to time.  And I have a lot of education under my belt along with those extra pounds, having spent about 22 years of my life as a student.  You’d think, as I thought, that I’d easily be able to teach English to anyone willing to learn.

But here’s the truth.  A kid who’d studied English for SEVEN years, for at least one hour a week and maybe more,  couldn’t get out a single intelligible English sentence on his own, couldn’t even read a phrase in English with anything resembling the correct pronunciation, and had no idea what he’d just read.  A normal kid, a nice kid.  As you can imagine, the kids who had studied for only three or four years were even worse off.  And why?

Because they are forced to study English in French.  The book’s in French, with English examples.  They don’t speak English in class.  They copy phrases by rote, are tested on memorized passages, and are expected to understand grammar, as opposed to meaning.  For example, the oldest kid had this sentence to complete:

“This is the Irish man ___ pierced my nose with an unsterilized needle.”  He was supposed to fill in the blank with either who, which, that, or whose.  He wasn’t supposed to laugh out loud, as I did, until he cautioned me that “c’est sérieux.”  It was serious for him, because he had to be able to fill in more stuff about “teens ___ are considering piercing must find a piercer ___ uses disposable needles”  and “the man ___ daughter died of AIDS is suing the piercer ___ tattooed her.”  But he couldn’t understand the text, let alone the grammar, so it had to be explained in French. 

Of course one can’t fault the message of his text.  If he’d understood it, it might have saved him a lot of trouble in life.  But until I explained it to him, in French, he didn’t get the message at all.  The message he got, and that all the kids get, is that English is “too hard.” 

That’s how it goes, you have to speak French to the kids so they can “understand” English.  If you explain the English in English they shrug hopelessly.  You know I’m not making this up, because how could I?

And so, because my language skills aren’t good enough to explain the fine points of English grammar in French, and because I think it’s the totally wrong approach, and because I could see that I’d never succeed no matter how hard I tried, I gave up.  But there was one kid, about twelve years old, whose first language is Arabic, and whose second language is French, and who really wants to learn English, and who’s doing pretty well.  A kid who might someday master the differences between whose, who, and who’s.  A normal kid, a nice kid, a kid who somehow is making the system work for him.    I’m letting him down by being a quitter, I know. 

Marwan, I’m sorry that I won’t be there to see it, but against all the odds, I really hope this can be you:

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Is Paris Burning?

November 27, 2007

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We’ve been in Paris the past couple of days for a medical appointment.  When we arrived home we learned that during our visit a part of Paris had been in flames, riot-stricken.  So separate are the various lives of Paris that we’d had no idea anything was amiss.  The strike was over, the trains were running, and that’s all we knew.  We heard a lot of sirens, but then, one hears a lot of sirens in Paris.

The Paris of everyone’s dreams is not quite the Paris we experience each time we go there.  Sure, some of the women are chic, and most of them wear scarves and high-heeled boots, but if you take the Metro, as we do, almost everyone is in jeans and a black coat.  In a dark teal-colored fleece jacket I’m often the brightest person in view. 

The haunting, heartbreaking Paris skyline is still there.  The streets are cleaned religiously each morning.  The smell of croissants can still surprise you by blowing down the stairs and into the Metro, where a virtuoso accordion player plays for hours.  Into the Metro where there’s the occasional crazy person, the occasional blind person negotiating the flights of steep stairs, and the exhausting reality of thousands upon thousands of people packed underground on their way to work and school and home again.

Paris is gritty in a way I hadn’t imagined before we began to make regular trips.  And when I say gritty, I’m not talking about the really and truly gritty suburbs where kids burn schools and police stations.  I’m just talking about your everyday heart-of-Paris life.  I’m sure the glitter is there somewhere, besides in shop windows, but we’re not crossing its path.  I’m imagining that the average Parisian leads a fairly glitter-free life as well.

And Paris is expensive in a way I hadn’t imagined.  We spend a fortune on food when we’re there, and believe me when I tell you we’re generally eating quite badly.  A truly mediocre dinner in Paris can cost $100 for two.  Truly, a mediocre dinner at best.  A really nice French dinner, not that we’ve had one, would be much closer to $300.  For that reason we find ourselves eating Asian food in Paris, not that we mind that exactly, it’s just not what I expected.

Partly it’s because we’re always there on Sunday and Monday.  Paris is also closed up tight in a way I hadn’t imagined.  Dinner on a Sunday or Monday can be next to impossible to find.  If you live there, I expect those are “family dinner at home” nights.  But for a traveler, it’s a shock to find oneself in Paris struggling to find a decent meal. 

And I can’t help but notice that a lot of faces are closed to us, too.  In the Metro, which I’m coming to think of as the “real” Paris, the ethnic mix looks as diverse as in any large American city.  I hear many languages I can’t name, and generally their speakers look right through me.  France’s colonial history is on display in the Metro, as I believe it is in the deep suburbs where the police and the residents face off in the streets.    I say that I believe this because of course I haven’t gone to see for myself.  I don’t have it in me yet to see any more dreams of Paris dispelled.

Let There Be Plenty

November 24, 2007

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Thanks to Monsieur Amarante, the fabulous florist on our street, the house looked exactly like Thanksgiving. 

Sage and cinnamon filled the air, just as they should.  The stuffing was one we could all agree on, and if you find yourself in need of a great stuffing recipe, try this Sage Stuffing.  Alice’s vegetables were just as delicious as they look.

Little Basque appetizers

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made with the ham and paté we brought back from the Pays Basque along with some spicy cheese and piment d’Espelette biscuits, started off the evening with a hint of heat and nostalgia for the great time we had on that trip.  The “cranberry sauce” which was concocted from quinces, apples, little berries called airelles, and actual cranberry juice, ended up tasting almost exactly like the real thing.  The carrot cake was a true taste of home, while the tart of reinettes de Vigan apples with an almond custard reminded us that we’re in France, as if we could possibly forget.

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And the turkey?  Let’s just say dinner for 7.  Leftover plates for 3. Two lunches for 4.  Dinner for 2.  And soup for 10.  That’s how our turkey is serving us, and I’m not mentioning various nibblings and pickings.  Roasted on a heap of shallots and celery root, blanketed with poitrine fumé, which is closer to American bacon than you’d imagine, it was absolutely good.  Not earth-shattering, but far more normal than its uncooked appearance would lead you to believe.

As for the company, for four of us it was our first Thanksgiving in France, for three of us, the first Thanksgiving ever.  Two spoke only English, one only French, and the remaining four of us spoke varying degrees of both languages.  As you can imagine, it was a lively muddle of discovery, with a lot more discussion of politics and a lot more French wine than you’d find at an American table.

We tried to explain what Thanksgiving’s about.  Is it about the Pilgrims?  Famine and salvation?  A simple celebration of the harvest?  It’s the only uniquely American holiday, and there’s a lot one can say about its meaning.  But for me it really came down to this: I’m so thankful to be here now, doing all this.

Turkey Talk

November 20, 2007

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Now that’s a turkey!  Or is it?  It’s une dinde, a French turkey, all 7 kilos of it, which is about 16 lbs.  Big.  It doesn’t look like any turkey I’ve ever cooked.  It’s dark and wild looking, although the few remaining feathers are white, so it must be farmed.  The skin is stuck tight to the breast, making me rethink my plan to rub the breast under the skin with herb butter.  I won’t be brining it, who even knows if French turkeys need brining?  Besides, I don’t have anything big enough to brine it in, the fridge couldn’t handle it, and it’s not cold enough outside to make an outdoor fridge.

And notre dinde is too big for any pan in the house, so I bought a pan big enough for the bird, but that’s too big for the oven.  All of this is the reason I got the turkey today, to have an extra day to scurry around trying to make things work out right.

In other Thanksgiving news, if there’s a cranberry to be found in town, I’m not going to be the one to find it.  I did find some cranberry juice, however, so I’m planning to cook some quinces in cranberry juice and call it cranberry sauce.  I got some sweet potatoes from Israel, and I’ve made a sort of cornbread for the stuffing using fine polenta for the cornmeal and an Arab fermented milk product for the buttermilk.

I shouldn’t even be giving away all these secrets, since our French guests might be reading this, and I really want to give them an authentic Thanksgiving dinner.  But in truth scraping and scrounging and doing the best you can with what you have is authentic, when you come right down to it.  That must be what the Pilgrims did, and they sure didn’t have any Calvados to add to their apple tart.  Put like that,  I guess really have a lot to be thankful for.

In And Out The Window

November 19, 2007

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It’s an old maxim that “where you stand depends on where you sit.”  We see this, and maybe think “cute butt” or “oh to be young and flexible” or even “did he know she had that camera pointed at his posterior?”

But he’s seeing

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all that.  And maybe thinking “those 11th century dudes certainly knew about location, location, location.”  Or possibly even “who the heck terraced that entire hillside?”

While they see nothing at all, never did, never will.

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The more I see here the more I’m longing to see.  The more I learn the more I bow under the weight of how much there is to be learned.  I’m waiting for the magic window to open, and not bending over anywhere in camera range.

Les Legumes d’Alice

November 16, 2007

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At home in the U.S. my wonderful farmer is Rebecca, who has nourished my spirit and body with her jewel-like vegetables for the past five years.  And now at home in France I have, through the magic of friendship, found Alice, whose vegetables you see here.

When someone spends her life growing the foods that sustain my body and spirit, I can’t help but take it personally.  Of course she’s feeding many people, not just me, but every bite that finds its way from her dirt-covered hands to my plate feels like a gift meant only for me.  See that little Charlotte potato shaped exactly like a heart?  I don’t think that’s an accident!

And because it’s almost Thanksgiving, my first in France, this abundance of vegetables has gotten me thinking.  Should that beautiful pumpkin become a soup, a pie, or both?  What if I were to make a carrot cake with those incredible carrots, purple on the outside, orange within?  The perfect little lettuces and the heap of broccoli won’t last until next week, but  the baby fennel and the leeks will, and are destined for stuffing the turkey, or maybe a little vegetable marmalade.  The petite cauliflowers might make it until then, but more likely I won’t be able to resist roasting them on one of the frigid days we’re having right now. 

The truth is that it’s all almost too beautiful to eat, and Thanksgiving dinner can’t be entirely vegetables.  I’ll just have to give thanks to Alice for all the meals that will come from this week’s bounty, starting tonight with a dish of blettes, a chard as long as your arm and twice as sweet.

But Does She Ever Cook?

November 15, 2007

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I think it was Marion Cunningham who famously remarked, on being served a dessert by Alice Waters that consisted of  a perfect apple, as raw and naked as it came from the tree “but my dear, that’s not cooking, that’s shopping!”

It’s all my fault, but I’m afraid that you might be getting the idea that in France I never cook, only shop for and serve beautiful food from the hands of others.  Mais non, pas du tout!  I do cook, it’s just that shopping is so easy here, so tempting.

Right now I have this beautiful casserole in the oven, with delicious spirals of lamb shoulder stuffed with thyme, smothered in celery root and garlic and a good pour of a local rosé.  Ok, the butcher made the spirals, and a local potter made the gorgeous dish, but hey, I’m doing my best with what I have to work with.

Also on the menu tonight are these mousserons, which are translated as fairy ring mushrooms.

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They have a mysterious fruity fragrance as they cook, but the taste is pretty subtle in comparison to their startling beauty.  I think these little guys, each about the size of a dime, are much improved by a splash of Armagnac.  But then, what isn’t?  They’re all sautéed now, waiting to grace a side of pasta in a light bath of fresh cream.

I’m really only showing you the prep, not the finished dishes, as our young guest will soon be arriving from Oregon, worn out and famished, and I’ll want to put food on the table as soon as she arrives, unencumbered by a camera.  So I guess you’ll have to take my word for it that actual cooking is going on.

No, wait.  There was ham for lunch!

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In this case in a gratin of endive sautéed in goose fat, with a béchamel, a heavy dusting of Comté, and some pain de mie crumbs.  It was fabulously rich, bitter and sweet, just what we needed on a day when French girls roamed the streets in parkas and we kept the heat on all day long.

See, I do cook.