Saturday, November 24, 2012

Yankee Doodle Dinde

     Two months into a new country and two weeks into a new apartment didn't seem to me the best time to plan a complicated dinner for friends unfamiliar with the American tradition of Thanksgiving. For one thing, finding a turkey, dinde in French, isn't just a simple matter of dropping by the nearest Carrefour and picking out a nice Butterball, or Boule de Beurre here, I guess. In fact, except for the potatoes, regular and sweet, all the ingredients were a challenge for Cynthia. But she was determined, obsessed might be more like it, to pull this off and took it as a challenge, a scavenger hunt. My attitude was a bit more laissez faire, so together we made one normal person.

     The internet is loaded with stories by expat Americans on their experiences and suggestions for doing Thanksgiving here - where to find this, what to substitute for that and if you positively have to have Karo syrup it's going to cost you. In fact it's all going to cost you. When you come right down to it, for all the average Frenchman knows, we could have told them the Pilgrims whipped up something remarkably like coq au vin to thank the Wampanoags for showing them how to grow lentille verte de Puy (I don't know what it is, either - just that it's something French people eat). But Joëlle and Alain, our friends here in Bordeaux, had been to our place in St. Pete last year and experienced the gorging first hand so, no, there had to be turkey and cranberries.

     Since Cynthia doesn't care for it, making the pumpkin pie had always been my job. However, here there is no pre-mixed canned pumpkin pie filling and about 6 different ready-made pie crusts so, after researching how to make it from scratch, I decided I could do without pumpkin pie this year.

     Discussions, or rather monologues since I didn't have much to contribute, on doing Thanksgiving started right after we hit town and about 2 weeks before the holiday, we started the food quest at the Marché des Capucins, a covered market in the heart of Bordeaux.  It sits on a one square block plaza and inside are butchers, bakers, fishmongers, vegetable and fruit vendors and a couple of little cafés, all run by entrepreneurs. The building is surrounded on the outside mainly by cheap clothing and household good vendors and a marché has existed on this spot, in one form or other, continuously since 1797. Places like this used to be common in the U.S but the last one I remember was the old North Side Market in Pittsburgh and it's been gone since 1965.
     Nobody eats turkey here except at Christmas but Cynthia had no problem finding a guy she liked who'd be happy to one sell us. one Buying anything here by weight always sounds you're making a drug deal so when Richard the turkey guy (I'm getting tired of having to look up what everything's called in French) suggested 5 kilos would be about right, it sounded like something we were going to have to pick up from a locker at the bus station.  This package, however, could be retrieved right here in broad daylight the day before Thanksgiving.

     There's an Ocean Spray commercial on TV here featuring a couple of Quebecois knee-deep in a cranberry bog so you'd think somebody wanting to order the real thing wouldn't raise any eyebrows. But nobody at Capucins had them and weren't sure they could get any. Cynthia finally ran down a guy who runs the neatest, cleanest produce store I've ever seen right down the street from us and was happy to get them but did ask, "What do you use these for?"

     Our guests for Thanksgiving were going to be Joëlle and Alain plus their friend Dominique and his wife Fabienne.  Dominique runs the local Aston Martin dealership so we were a little nervous, despite Joëlle's assurances that they were just regular people. At least I didn't have to worry about him trying to sell me a car. And the final menu ended up being turkey and stuffing, brussel sprouts and bacon, sweet potatoes, cranberries, a nice pear and raspberry salad, rice (mashed potatoes complicated things) and for desert, what Cynthia described as some apple-pecan-pie-muffin things. Oh, and we asked Alain to bring wine since I was afraid of picking and knew he wouldn't bring the French equivalent of MD 20/20.

     The evening turned out to be what we'd hoped for - everyone seemed to have a good time and none of our guests gagged or puked. And despite being the only non-French speaker in the room, I was occasionally able to drop in a well-placed bon mot when I actually had some vague idea of what was being said. In keeping with tradition we cooked enough to feed half of Bordeaux, however nobody accepted having leftovers foisted on them so Cynthia and I will have the chance to relive this feast for a while.  If you're in the neighborhood, stop by for dinde avec cranberry - there's plenty.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Armistice Day

My uncle Edward Kapteina, left  c. 1917 - we called him "Uncle Doc". Right, another Springdale doughboy whose name escapes me.

            Most Americans probably couldn't tell you why Veteran's Day is celebrated on November 11. Here in France it's Armistice Day and that's what we called it at home when I was a kid. At 11:00 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the shooting of the Great War stopped. In my hometown of Springdale, Pennsylvania, there was a small war memorial on Pittsburgh Street where the Post Office now is. I can remember going there with my mother and seeing old men who had been "doughboys" in World War I parading to the memorial along with our fathers, the GI's of WWII. The fireman's band always played "My Buddy" and somebody always read "In Flanders Field."

            As these old doughboys died off, Armistice Day began to lose its significance to Americans so now we call it Veteran's Day to honor everyone who's served their country. In France, they honor all their veterans, too, but the day hasn't lost it's significance and probably never will. I thought about those Springdale commemorations as I wandered down to the local memorial at about 10:30 this morning.              

           The monument "Aux Morts de la Guerre La Ville de Bordeaux 1914-1918"
stands, appropriately, across the street from the biggest cemetery in town. Carved into a huge stone wall are the names of every Bordelais killed in WWI and there must be over 1,000 entries. Beneath these have been added the dead from WWII, no small number itself. Almost every town and village in France has a monument like this and, no matter how small the place, the numbers are astonishing.  Every American who buys into the "cheese eating surrender monkey" bullshit would do well to consider that France lost 1.4 million men between 1914-1918, nearly 5 % of it's population. By the time the war was only a few weeks old 100,000 French soldiers had already been killed.

            Several of my great uncles, Gunia and Kapteina, fought in WW I and the name Durand, my grandmothers' name (and one of the most common in France) is etched 13 times into the Bordeaux monument so I felt I had at least a small stake in the local ceremony. Things got underway promptly at 11 and even though the uniforms look pretty much the same as ours, I felt a little out of place. We've only been here for about 2 months now, but the first few minutes of this ceremony made me realize that no matter how long we stay, I'm always going to be an outsider. It isn't the language barrier as I'd have felt the same standing in Trafalgar Square. The history, traditions, the protocols and even the music are all different and I'll never fully appreciate the significance of these things since I wasn't brought up here.            

            Something else occurred to me as I watched about a dozen local military and police officers have medals pinned to their chests. What passes for patriotism in America has become cheap and easy because it isn't backed up by anything meaningful. All you have to do is put a dollar store "Support our Troops" magnet on your car, wrap yourself in the flag (both of which were probably made in China), thank everybody for their service, chant "USA" at the Olympics and roundly denounce everyone who doesn't do the same. Then for good measure you can refuse to sacrifice one dime in taxes to help pay for 10 years of sending the same weary troops off again and again to some Middle East shithole. Enough preaching.

            Today for the first time, I got a little homesick. La Marseillaise could be the world's most stirring anthem but it's not The Star Spangled Banner. And the band played marches that were appropriately martial but nothing I recognized. So I went home, stuck my iPod in the Bose player and played  The Stars and Stripes Forever. 

Le Serrurier

            I was planning this post to be about a local jam session but that's going to have to wait. Last night I locked us out of our apartment and I've got to tell you this while it's still fresh in my mind.

            Before I get into the particulars, there are a couple of observations I want to pass on. Although we've been here less than two months, some things I now know for certain. First of all, that you're at a disadvantage in a country where you don't speak the language is self-evident, but it can't be over-stressed. I'm telling you right now that if your life-long dream is to retire to Dubrovnik, if you know what's good for you you'll start looking for a Serbo-Croatian Meetup group tomorrow. And secondly, no matter how much homework you do, no matter how many websites you consult and expat forums you join, some small detail that never even occurred to you could somehow bite you on the ass.

            The past few days Cynthia has been having sinus trouble and yesterday it got bad enough to see a doctor. She was able to wrangle an appointment with our friend's physician, amazingly at 6:30 in the evening. When we left I tried to lock the door behind us only to discover my key wouldn't turn and we were locked out. It's kind of complicated to explain how but part of the reason why crime here is so low could be that the entry door on an average French apartment is built for Fort Knox.  The locks are so elaborate even Houdini would have hard time trying to crack one and the mechanisms work inside and out with keys. I've tried a dozen times to describe how this lock works but every one is more confusing than the last. You'll have to take my word that European door locks have a quirk no American could ever know about and if you're ever over here, never leave your keys in the door.

            So while Cynthia saw the doctor, I surfed the web on my iphone trying to find a way to get back into our apartment that didn't involve calling a locksmith, which, by the way, here is a serrurier. Almost all the information on the web about Europe in English either comes from or refers to the UK and so is useless in France. The only thing I could find that was even remotely close came from a woman in Tunbridge Wells whose mother has Alzheimer's and is forever locking her out in much the same way as we were. And as with most online forums, the suggestions offered were from the usual people - eager to help but with no idea at all how to actually solve anything.

            Back at the apartment, anything I knew to do was futile so we broke down and called a serrurier we found in the Pages Jaunes, the Yellow Pages. It wasn't long before a twenty-something guy showed up and after he unloaded a pretty impressive looking bag of tools from the back of his van, I figured we'd be back inside in no time.  But we took it as a bad sign when the first thing this guy did was shake the door a bit then take out a huge set of channel locks and break the handle off the door. I didn't know what to make of this and remembered as kid watching the local volunteer firemen show up at a house that was supposed to be on fire and, before doing anything else, they started breaking out the windows.  It didn't really serve any purpose but at least they were doing something. Then he took out a big chisel and small sledge and started wailing away on the lock. This is where the language barrier really came into play, my "What the fuck is this?" provoking no response at all. Cynthia at least got out of him that this was a really secure lock but for the next hour or so, all I could do was mutter "Jesus Christ" as this guy flailed away at our door.

            At my request, Cynthia tried to ask Henri (I think) why someone would design a lock that required it's complete destruction as a consequence of absent mindedness (after all there must be plenty of native scatterbrains that do this all the time) but again, as well as Cynthia speaks French even she couldn't really understand much more than that this was a really good lock.

            Finally Henri, sliding what looked like a really stiff sheet of paper between the door and frame was able to trip the latch enough to open the door. Why he hadn't tried this in the first place was something we couldn't get out of him but at least we were in. Five minutes later we had a bill for over  €1,400 the majority of which was for the lock Henri had just wrecked but assured us our insurance would cover. He gathered up the pile of shrapnel that was our lock and told us to show it to the insurance company. I can hardly wait to hear what they say.

              On the bright side, Cynthia's doctor visit cost only 23 euros . That's right, you heard right, only  23 euros for a complete, all expenses included, visit to a physician. Try finding that deal anywhere in the good old U. S. of A.           

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Moving On Up

               Well, after nearly 2 months of depending on the kindness of others and living out of suitcases, Cynthia and I finally get to sleep in our own bed. We moved into our new home two days ago and at breakfast this morning I noticed among some other things, our 3/4 empty French phrase-a-day calendar. Leafing through some of the useful phrases, like "Pourriez-vous entrouvrir une fenêtre?" (Could you crack open a window?) and "Elle a installé la télévision à écran plat elle-même."(She installed the flat screen television herself) I realized that what would have been more helpful was something that included French holidays, especially those that fell on a Thursday. That way you can avoid scheduling your furniture delivery for a Friday when the average French worker is likely to be pissed off about having to work.
               In case you'd forgotten (I know I had), November 1st is All-Saints Day. In a country where you can't swing a cat without hitting a cathedral, you could have figured a day or two important only to Catholics might be national holidays. Toussaint is one of those and this year it fell on a Thursday so the whole country was looking forward to Friday as le pont, the bridge, and a four-day weekend. So anyone having to work that day here is about as happy as someone in the States who couldn't call in sick the day after Thanksgiving. But everything seemed okay when the van showed up as promised at 9 a.m. on November 2nd.
               Our contract provided for the people at both ends to pretty much do it all. The movers here were obligated to unpack and put everything together that needed it, then cart off all the empty boxes and paper. So we took it as a bad sign when there were only two people and when Cynthia asked to borrow a knife, neither had one. Then, when everything had come off the truck (with my help since a couple of the pieces were way too heavy for two) our guys waved goodbye and told us to have a nice life. Neither one spoke a word of English so I was useless as Cynthia did her best to tell them what our contract called for, which was news to them. I was at least able to call our agent in Marseilles, fortunately an expat American. She apparently read our guys' boss the French Riot Act and they were not happy but at least I understood when one said, "Le chef est nul" (which in this case could be translated as "Our boss sucks.") they weren't going to hold us responsible.

            From this point on there was a mad dash to get our shit out of the boxes and set up so they could salvage a piece of le pont. And since it was explained to us they would not be unpacking any clothes or books, Cynthia and I began frantically ripping through those boxes so we wouldn't have to figure out how to get rid of all the empty cartons and paper.

            No matter how congenial they might finally seem, guys in a hurry are not the ones you want putting your bed together. Today, Sunday, I finally finished reassembling everything Pepe and Doudou (I didn't catch their actual names) had borrowed my tools to set up. And we still have a lot of empty boxes and paper that, while it has to be recycled, nobody will come to get so we have to figure our how to take it to the recycling center. I've looking around the neighborhood for a construction site with a half-empty dumpster but so far no luck.

            In spite of everything, at least we're now settling in to our new place in France. For anybody whose stuck with us this far, I'll probably be able to quit bitching and start telling you about the city we still find it hard to believe is our home. And I'm also hoping that it won't be too long before I can tell you about my first gig.

Chez Nous