The Butterfly Island

 

 

To be a traveler you must have a sense of adventure and international adventures are right in my wheelhouse. In fact I have a theory:  Make everything an adventure.  Otherwise it will suck.

For this particular adventure, we’re spending two weeks on the French island of Guadeloupe in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean (known as the Butterfly Island because of its shape – not because of any particular affiliation to Lepidoptera) visiting my brother-in-law and his family.  Guadeloupe is a picture postcard piece of perfect tropical paradise.  Beauty assaults every sense. Every inch of the island is covered in lush greenery.  Who knew there were so many shades of green and that they appear even more vibrant to my eyes since they are outlined by an incredible deep blue ocean that floats lazily beneath a sky that is a hue of blue I’ve never seen before or since?  There are simple farms lining the road that circumnavigates the entire island.  They are little clear cut sections of jungle with massive horned cows staked about 50 feet apart (it’s apparently easier to stake your cow than build a fence).  These cows lethargically mow down the native grasses and keep the trees trimmed up to a uniform height that gives the farms the appearance of having planted magical floating hedges.

The roads of Guadeloupe never fail to impress me with color, a view, or just witnessing the daily life of the Creole occupants.  Today’s journey on Basse Terre is however, ill-advised for anyone who gets motion sickness. As I ride shotgun in a Citroen the size of an Altoids box, we wind our way up and down a very curvy and surprisingly steep path that the locals take great liberty in calling a “highway”.  It’s the width of a generous sidewalk. The hired driver, hunched over the wheel, and yelling in Creole French at traffic behind us, in front of us, and coming straight for us, steers with his knees in horrifically jerking motions. This is because his left hand is busy chain-smoking and his right hand is working the stick shift in some heretofore unseen auto- erotic(a) trance induced by periodically received radio signals to which he sings along at the top of his Galois cigarette-drenched lungs.

I have the merest sense that the scenery we’re passing at 110 kilometers per hour is stunning. I would stick my camera out the window to try to capture what I’m missing with a photo, but what with the jungle vegetation regularly flogging the paint off my door, I fear I risk not only my camera, but an all-too-probable trip to the nearest chicken-infested infirmary to try to reattach any number of fingers.  Beyond this fairly well placed fear keeping me from my photo journalistic duties is the fact that the driver keeps stabbing at me with his elbow and demanding (I think) that I look at something he feels is vital to my education of the island flora and fauna and ultimately the enjoyment of the trip. I would like to tell him in my best hostage-negotiator voice that I’ll be here for two weeks and there’s no real urgency in my seeing the upcoming attractions at a speed that the Millennium Falcon would envy. I’m also worried that one of two things will happen if I open my mouth to protest.  Either I’ll swallow some exotic Caribbean bug that sends me to the aforementioned infirmary and have a new tropical disease named for my unique malady, or…. I’ll puke all over the driver. Neither of these scenarios appeals to me much so I keep my mouth shut and my face in a neutral expression that I hope relays appreciation of my driver’s tour guide skills.

Before you get the wrong idea of exactly how adventurous I am on this trip, I’m not traveling these ancient jungle-vine-covered volcanic crevasses alone.  I’m seeing these islands with a native Frenchman, Ludovic. But as I chance a quick glance behind me to throw a pleading look into the back seat for help (nice guy that he is, he insisted that I ride in front to get the premium view) I realize that I am in fact quite alone in this. He is sound asleep after a massive breakfast of pallet-shredding crusted baguettes covered in massive chunks of green cheese that smells like sweaty sneakers dipped in ammonia. This combination of ‘gourmet’ bread and cheese, lubricated with lukewarm café au lait, seems to be some sort of magical sleeping concoction for him whereas my lactose intolerant American stomach is busy doing cartwheels and making some very verbal threats to the upholstery upon which I sit.
Are we there yet?

 

To be continued …….

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Rallye About

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I’m pretty sure that nobody on the planet can actually convert Celsius to Fahrenheit in their head. This kind of high math requires some kind of witchcraft, voodoo, or sorcery. Here’s what I know about Celsius  … When the awkwardly coiffed French weather person is done shooting a dirty look at the recently interviewed ex-mistress of some unknown-to-me French politician and brings up the computer generated weather map of the EU and I see the number 22 hovering over Normandie I know that tomorrow it’s going to be damn nice outside. Uncommonly nice in fact. So uncommon that last night I actually laid in bed daydreaming about what Ludo and I might do with such magnificent good luck on a Sunday. I laid there so long that this morning at 7, after a mere 9 hours of sleep, I was super groggy and trying to figure out WHAT THE HELL IS THAT NOISE?!?!

Thunder doesn’t roll through on precise 60 second intervals does it?  Oh yeah, it’s supposed to be nice today so thunder is out of the question. There’s a circus in town. Maybe the handlers are getting the animals warmed up by having them do some timed trials in the street?  Nah. And as I’m trying to develop a third (and actually viable answer), I’ll be damned, there it is again!

WHAT THE HELL IS THAT NOISE?!?!

Ok. Now I’m up. This needs my immediate attention.

I quickly shower, do my hair, put on my make up, get dressed, decide that I don’t like what I’m wearing and change my outfit (twice), sit down with a pan au chocolate and cup of espresso and then dash outside to investigate.  Well what is this I see?  There’s a whole bunch of Itty bitty brightly painted cars zooming past our house.  I gotta tell Ludovic about this!  He’s going to love it!  Where is that guy?

Oh yeah, I left him sitting at the kitchen table while I played Sherlock Holmes to “the noise”.   He’s got a set of blueprints out and is doing some kind of math – probably trying to figure out that Celsius to Fahrenheit thing. Good luck buddy.  Anyway, I pull him away from the table and out to the street just as another neon Renault goes whooshing by.  “What’s this?” I say.  “The annual Mezidon-Canon Rallye”, he answers easily and goes back inside.

I’ve never seen a Mezidon-Canon Rallye and you might haven’t either so here’s what you need to know.

First, you’d have to figure out what date it’s going to be held so that you wouldn’t miss the starting pistol (or whatever they did to get things going this morning). This is a toughie because most major village events (like the opening of the new dog wash station) are announced in poster form at the two local bakeries.  Trust me, no poster was posted about any rally. And thanks to my brilliant dad giving me a love for cars and car races, I’m sure I would have noticed a notice about a race.

A rally (or rallye in French) is a truly French invention in the automotive world and is new to me.  According to Wikipedia “the term “rally”, as a branch of motorsport, probably dates from the first Monte Carlo Rally of January 1911. Until the late 1920s, few if any other events used the term. Rallying itself can be traced back to the 1894 Paris–Rouen Horseless Carriage Competition (Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux), sponsored by a Paris newspaper, Le Petit Journal. Wikipedia defines a rally as: Rallying, also known as rally racing, is a form of auto racing that takes place on public or private roads with modified production or specially built road-legal cars. This motorsport is distinguished by running not on a circuit, but instead in a point-to-point format in which participants and their co-drivers drive between set control points (special stages), leaving at regular intervals from one or more start points. Rallies may be won by pure speed within the stages or alternatively by driving to a predetermined ideal journey time within the stages.”

Next, and obviously, you need a spectator game plan because you do not want to miss this! And by “this” I mean …. 130 Matchbox-car-sized Peugeots, Renaults, Citroen and 11 non-French automotive pieces of engineering (quel blaspheme) racing through not only our village of Mezidon-Canon but about a half dozen hamlets along the circuit through the Norman countryside.  Since most roads will be closed to you, the average driver, so that the race cars have unfettered access to go flying down the sidewalk-sized rural roadways, you really need to strategize your viewing spot.  If you can make it out of the village, which is tough, you might be able to find a grassy knoll upon which to sit and view the cars going whizzing by you (we tried this but the action is so fast that it’s really difficult to see what’s happening).

We (Ludo) decide that a better vantage point would be our house. Plus we have recliner chairs and a supply of coffee and pan au chocolate that could make this whole rallye thing more fun to watch. I concur and we wind our way back to town. As we drive through we see some friends who actually have a dog in this fight. I start asking them about how to become a driver. With an apologetic look shot to our friends for my classic American mistake, Ludo informs me that in fact, the drivers are actually called “pilots”.  Once Ludo tells me this – I’m more sold than ever on the idea that we HAVE to get close to this race.  Once home, he tells me that if I just sit on our stoop I can see every car entered in this rallye drive right by me.  Cool!  I brew a fresh espresso, grab my sun glasses, and head for the stoop. What I see is fabulously French!

Itty bitty car after itty bitty car is released at 60 second intervals from the La Loco (our unfortunately-named community center) around the corner from our house.  Now, since only the rural roads are closed to non-race traffic and the village’s streets remain open to all normal vehicle and pedestrian traffic, the itty bitty cars have to obey all village speed laws, stop signs, rights-of-way, etc. (pffft!  These drivers are firstly FRENCH and secondly they’re in a race … rules schmules!).  I quickly realize that this is going to be better than day-time TV.

Our normally quiet berg has been inundated with overly caffeinated pilots who have been given patent permission – nay, enthusiastically encouraged, to drive more Frenchie than usual.  I’m riveted.  The French regularly confuse pedestrian right-of-way with immortality on non-race days, but today it appears as though the walking crowd is intentionally crossing even more slowly than usual and the racers are responding with even louder and more vulgar threats of promised bodily harm and a complete symphony of horn blowing. The combination is riveting.  The best part (for me) was when village folks were trying to turn left across traffic into the grocery store parking lot and were holding up at least three rallye cars and their now apoplectic pilots. Just as the local folks get a break in traffic and could begin their left turn, a mother pushing a baby stroller and walking a little dog step out and the car loses its gap.  Now the pilots are actually hanging out of their windows, pounding wildly on their horns, and are yelling so loudly that their faces have gone from angry red to dark purple. It’s at this moment that I’m truly most grateful that guns are illegal here.

This whole rallye thing continues for the majority of the day. I ask Ludo how far they go and learn that each rallye is different but this one is 300 kilometers. Damn. There’s that metric thing again. That sounds like a lot.  But is it really?  I have no idea.  Off the stoop and back into the carriage house.  I need to research who threw the US under the bus by keeping English standard alive and find a conversion chart before the airing of tonight’s weather cast.

The French Mouth Fart

“Sometimes a well-placed sound effect can be more poignant than a boxing glove-sized punch line.
”
Jarod Kintz, This is the best book I’ve ever written, and it still sucks

Push your lips into a pout and gently (or for greater emphasis harshly) blow air out. This is the French mouth fart.

Like many cultures, the French have verbal but non-lingual sounds that highlight and accent their beautiful language. There are grunts, whistles, hums, and more. But my favorite is the French mouth fart. First it uses a powerful facial expression – the pout – created in the Dark Ages when there was plenty to pout about. Small French children used it first and realizing its life-altering results it spread to the rest of the population at a Darwinian light speed. The pout having been picked up by far more verbal adults soon morphed into a complicated form of expression. The French mouth fart.

The French mouth fart is not for novices. Non non. This little purge of air is a power-house of communication. Let’s say you’re at the local boulangerie trading about 80 centime for some heart-stopping pain au chocolate. The proprietress is giving you a rundown of her daughter’s most recent poor choices in men. When she pauses for air, this is your chance. Go ahead, go for it. This is the perfect moment for a French mouth fart. Ppfffttt

Now then, what exactly did you just communicate?  Ah hah!  That’s the cool thing about the French mouth fart!  It could mean so many things. It could mean that you too have daughter with a questionable decision-making paradigm and sympathize deeply with proprietress. It could mean that you agree entirely with proprietress that this boy should be escorted to the local butcher to be turned into tripe.  Or … that in fact you have the boy’s version of this tale and the daughter got what she deserved but in a small town with only two bakeries you carefully keep your opinion quiet lest you find yourself bread-less. Ergo, the French mouth fart. In that last case the sound indicates acknowledgement of having heard the story and essentially you ‘have no comment’ now please hand me my baguette.

The French mouth fart might also be used where most Americans would utter an ‘Oh my God’. When asked a question to which you don’t know the answer but are reluctant to admit this mortal side of self – yep, you guessed it – time to throw in a French mouth fart.  What if you’re involved in a political debate and want to end the conversation?  The French mouth fart combined with a shoulder shrug can be an instant cooling system. Want to goad someone? Push their buttons? Use the French mouth fart at the right time and like curry on chicken watch things heat up. Frustrated with the waiter?  Find the eye of the host and blow a fart his way.  He’ll find your server (who is probably in the alley smoking with the chef).  Need a little time to organize your thoughts or start translating between your interior monologue and your public voice – you bet, a long drawn out mouth fart can buy significant seconds.  Someone clearly makes a joke but you don’t yet understand French humor, just smile, wave your hand in the air and utilize your new all-purpose sound effect.

Pfffft – my favorite new word.

Homage to Fromage

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It’s important that you know I really do love living in France.  There’s an evangelical passion for cheese here and I do love cheese!  There are more than 500 official cheeses in France.  There can be many varieties within each type of cheese, leading some to claim closer to 1,500 different types of French cheese. Cheese is both revered and legally protected here.

Despite being a big fan of cheese, here’s the thing. I need a cheat sheet. Crib Notes if you will. Something akin to the Scoville scale for peppers (that famous scale that conveys to consumers the ‘hotness’ of each variety of pepper). As far as I can tell there’s no official ranking of ‘cheese stinkiness’ – and this is either an epic failure on the part of French bureaucracy or just a nasty inside joke that the French play on the rest of world.  Given France’s love for bureaucracy, one  would think that a ‘Puante’ (French for stinky) scale would not only have been developed, highly argued over, and strictly adhered to, but also exported to cheese shops worldwide and with the snobby expectation that it be globally accepted as the final word on all cheese.

I’m going to begin my own Puante movement. It is my humanitarian mission in life. Someone needs to save the ex-pat pallets of this world from erroneously buying and attempting to consume cheeses which smell and taste like they’ve grown their moldy rinds in guano-filled caves before being moved to a teenager’s sweaty footlocker that’s kept in the hold of a fishing boat for the final bit of fermentation.

My letters home will explain better why this is necessary.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Ludovic’s family, friends, and the lovely occupants of our village have been made aware of my love and curiosity about cheese . They seem to have their own mission now… Educate the American properly about all things cheese. I love the French. It’s really sweet that they’ve all decided to help me out. I’ll try to keep a journal about the cheeses I taste so that I can enjoy them again.

On Saturday our new neighbors stopped by to say hello. Under the husband’s arm is a beautiful loaf of bread (pan normal if you really like reading details).  Introductions and cheek kisses made, we make our way to the dining room (where all Norman entertaining is done). Our neighbor lady pulls a gorgeous wedge of Brie from her handbag and asks if I’m familiar with Brie. I don’t know how to say ‘Duh!’ In French, so I just answer, “Of course, it’s one of my favorite cheeses.  I can’t wait to taste what you’ve brought for us.  Who would like a glass a wine”? (This is a stupid question since the French are one of top consuming counties in the world with an annual per person consumption of 12 gallons while Americans consume 2.5 gallons per person per year).  So, glasses full, bread broken into chunks and lying in the middle of the table, I begin my formal education. I’ve eaten Brie for decades. I love it. I can hardly wait to taste the ‘real’ thing.

Madame very ceremoniously pulls back the cellophane wrapping and drops this buttery soft cheese on a plate and passes it my way with a warm and encouraging smile. She seems like such a nice a lady and I look forward to becoming friends. And then the smell hits me.  I trudge on and smear this gooey concoction on the crusty bread and try not to breathe in as I take a bite. The texture is smooth and creamy and the flavor is not as strong as the smell. This is going to be fine. I can totally do this.  I try to smile appreciatively but fear that it comes across as a grimace.  I swallow and attempt to cleanse my pallet with wine. The Brie residue in my mouth however, changes the taste of the wine to something more akin to furniture polish.  I try not to show my discomfort to our neighbors, but it’s clear now that we will not be friends. They cannot be trusted.

*Puante Scale: There must be some kind of treaty between the US and France that prohibits Americans from ingesting this particular form of torture. On the Puante Scale this little ‘delight’ ranks an easy 8 out of 10. Keep out of reach of children.

Dear Mom and Dad,

It’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote to you about my cheese journey.  On Sunday the family scheduled an outing to visit a famous farm that produces Pont L’Eveque cheese.

Living in Normandie means that the Pont L’Eveque cheese farm is just 20 minutes away from our cottage. This French delicacy is one of the oldest-known types of cheese, dating back to the 13th century. I’ve been told it’s an experience not to be missed. Our convoy of miniature cars makes its way to an idyllic farm. It’s absolutely beautiful. Green pastures with wild flowers, a little pond with water lilies, and centuries-old stone barns. Ahhhh… Normandie. It’s picture postcard perfect. The proprietor offers tours when he’s not milking or overseeing the cheese production. He is a caricature of a French farmer complete with little hat, neck scarf, and cane. He goes into quite a bit of detail about the love and care that his family have put into this farm and its animals since the before the French Revolution.  Happy cows create the best milk and therefore the best cheese. I like this guy. He’s clearly very proud of his heritage and product. After walking through the farm and successfully avoiding the steamy piles of cow poo, we make our way to the cheese rooms. My French is passable but I truly have no idea what’s being said about the complicated process of cheese making. I hear blah blah blah cow milk, blah blah blah wait in the dark, blah blah blah and bingo. No kidding. He actually says, ‘and bingo’ while pointing to the finished squares of cheese.  It’s been fascinating but now comes the good part and what we’ve all been waiting for – the tasting room.

Except it’s not a room – there’s a huge harvest table on the lawn laden with fresh flowers, loaves of bread, bottles of wine and lovely little white squares of Pont L’Eveque cheese.  I do a happy dance inside my head and find a chair. This is the France I’ve always dreamed about.  Engrossed in the dream, I ignored the quiet warning bell of alarm when the farmer began pulling apart the bread with his farm-filthy bare hands. He was telling us that Pont L’Eveque cheese is best served on the non-moule bread baked just down the road by a woman named Clotilde but I have a hard time paying any further attention because the site of him pulling his pocket knife from his apron (the same knife we just saw him use to do some sort of repair work on a piece of equipment) is being wiped off on his trouser leg before it carves the squares of cheese onto a plate for us.  I’ve been so preoccupied by this whole knife thing that I’ve quit listening to what he’s said about the wine pairing and the right ratio of cheese to bread for optimum enjoyment. I try to catch up with the conversation but have learned that it’s easier to watch my hosts and try to copy their actions when my turn comes. Ludovic passes me a chuck of dark and heavily crusted bread and by example and prompting me with his eyes, I tear my bread into apricot-sized pieces.

I am faintly aware of an ammonia smell emanating from the far end of the table. My American brain associates this smell with cleanliness and I am mollified for a moment until I realize that the ammonia stench is actually coming from the cheese plate. The rest of the family are chatting and laughing and happily shoveling Pont L’Eveque into their mouths. It’s now my turn and everyone’s watching and waiting for me to take a taste and then obviously fall into a nirvana-like state. As I grab my knife to spread the cheese on my bread the farmer goes into a full running seizure and pulls my knife from my hand. He says that one should never ‘spread’ a Pont L’Eveque. It bruises the cheese.  Just delicately place the already expertly cut pieces onto my bread and shove the whole thing into my mouth.  Righty oh. He’s the master after all.  He’s perturbed at having to show me how to do this after he so clearly explained this to us earlier (my brain must have skipped during the knife cleaning event). I would have loved to give him my full attention just then since he was keen on replaying his whole speech just for my benefit, but the close proximity of the ammonia-heavy cheese plate has begun to make my eyes water.  I am trying my best not to embarrass the family any further in their own neighborhood, but as the cheese rises the 12 short inches from the plate to my mouth my eyes go from merely watering to absolute blindness. This can’t get any worse can it?

Wrong. The stinky cheese has infiltrated the open wounds in my mouth that were created by the heavily crusted bread. I am now totally blind from both the pain and ammonia poisoning quickly traveling from my sinuses directly to my brain. Call the EPA. There’s a uranium spill in my mouth.  I pray for this to be the final exam in my cheese education. I can’t handle any more. Where’s the cheddar?

*Puante Scale for this one – 10. Avoid at all cost!

Hello Folks,

It’s May in France and today was just one of the many national holidays this month. We’re looking forward to dinner with Yann and Celine, dear friends of Ludo’s, they are funny, kind, intelligent, and generous humans.

I don’t understand all the holidays but am fascinated by the scheduling of the holidays and their ultimate extension so that folks can finagle a three or four day weekend out of each one. Interestingly this means that things pretty much shut down for the month of May. When I mention this to our friends (who are on one of those four day weekends) they tell me “non” people still work a few days in May and things proceed as normal.  The real vacation time comes late in summer when people take four weeks off in June, July, or August for much needed rest and relaxation from their grueling 35 hour work weeks (which after the ritual kissing, coffee consumption, and cigarette smoking each morning and afternoon, plus gorgeous long lunches during which they turn cell phones off, means they actually work many fewer hours per week). I can just imagine that you’re turning green with envy at this fabulous lifestyle. You should also know that although the French work fewer hours than Americans do, they have the highest hourly productivity of any country. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh and judgmental to the American system of living to work as opposed to the lovely French system of working to live.  I apologize. That’s not like me at all.  It could be the brain damage I suffered after my last cheesy adventure or it’s a side effect of having my intestines in a straight pipe that is completely blocked with powerful daily intake of French cheeses.

We get through the required small talk and jump quickly to the topic of my new and certain love for elegant French fromages. Since I’m a guest in this country and know that in my own small way I am an ambassador for my own country, I use my diplomatic skills and keep the retelling of my education and experience light and positive. I think I’m fairly successful with only a few concerned looks being shot my direction when the decibel level of my grumbling innards is so loud that it wakes their sleeping toddler. They giggle a bit and show some much appreciated sympathy while telling me about the beautifully gentle cheeses they’ve brought for dinner.  I give them a look of suspicion but they assure me that I’m in no danger. My blood pressure is alarming high.  This can’t be good for me.   I’ve consumed so much cheese now that my cholesterol level is must be  high enough for me to be diagnosed as a solid.

Celine and I make our way into the kitchen to put together a fantastically simple dinner of roasted chicken and vegetables. She tells me that Yann put quite a lot of thought into which cheeses to bring. They’ve travelled all over the world and understand the culture shock that can occur with food.  They’ve spent entire holidays in other countries feeding their young boys nothing but Nutella and bread. They get it.  Whew!

I hear the back door open and close and watch as Ludo and Yann shadow box at each other on their way to Yann’s car to fetch luggage.  Why is it that when men play the game is so often ‘war’?

I’m trying to be positive but the cheese hasn’t even made it into the house and I already know that I’m going to need to revise my Puante Scale to reflect a measure from 1 to 10 for all cheeses except French. French cheeses will need to be measured by adding the sign for ‘plus’. What’s coming my way isn’t just stinky cheese – it’s putrid.  It has its own evil life force. I’m expecting to see the Darth Vader of cheeses creep across my threshold at any moment and threaten my existence unless I pledge allegiance to its dark master.

Our so-called friends have “lovingly” brought two very different cheeses for tonight’s dinner. The first is Roquefort. The second is Camembert. We have both of these in America. No problem right? WHATEVER!!  Apparently we get the dumbed down version. I’ve never smelled anything like this.

Yann tells me, but I find it hard to believe, that Roquefort is one of the most sought-after cheeses on the planet.  It’s produced out of raw sheep’s milk and matured in caves around the small village of Roquefort, Southern France. He says that if it’s not grown in those specific caves, it’s illegal to call it a Roquefort cheese.  All those American versions are just shams.  Roquefort is known as the ‘King of Cheeses’, but Yann says that many people (Americans in particular) are too chicken to try it due to its smell and blue mold.  How do you say “No shit?!?!” in French?  But I’m no chicken and I have to prove that Americans can not only eat this ‘King’ but enjoy it. Serve it up French boy!

Open mouth and insert Roquefort.  I’d call out for help but my lungs won’t cooperate. I can only imagine that this is what drowning feels like – me scratching for air and there’s nothing but sulfur gasses available in this atmosphere. All the clean and breathable air has been sucked out by Vader’s Dark Side. The Force doesn’t exist. Certainly not as it applies to fromage of the French sort.

I excuse myself from the table under the ruse of needing to check the chicken.  Oh how I wish I were that chicken just roasting slowly in my own skin. What a welcome relief that would be from the excruciating experience in my mouth.  It feels like I’ve just used Drano as a mouthwash.  If this is what my mouth feels like, what in the world is happening to my innards and oh dear god, what’s going happen when my body tries to void this delicacy ?!?  Please let ‘Death by Constipation’ be covered by our socialized health-care system.  I try to quietly search our small cabinet of medicines for something that will dull the pain enough so that I can stand upright once again and make my way back to our guests.

The next ‘cheese’ is Camembert de Normandy.  Some would argue that Camembert de Normandy smells like the secret project of a chemical company. I would argue that’s giving the stink too much credit. Despite its stench, Camembert is loved the world over for its soft, runny texture. Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and left to mature for three weeks, it’s normally eaten with a spoon. It’s now a subject of a war between the small traditional producers and the country’s industrial dairies who want to use pasteurized milk instead of raw milk.  Cheese with a spoon huh?  Sounds like mustard gas in yogurt form.

Apparently my friendship knows no bounds.  I not only eat what could easily be classified a Weapon of Mass Destruction by the UN, but I do so with a smile on my face.  Madeleine Albright could take diplomacy lessons from me.  Camembert needs to be on the list of no-no’s for prisoner interrogation at Gitmo.

*Puante Scale: forget the plus sign. How do you say “Call 911” in French?

Dear Family,

Our friends have just left and we’re quickly rotating linens since we’re expecting Ludo’s family from Paris to spent some time with us country mice.

Ludovic’s aunt and uncle visit from Paris from time and time and I always love seeing them.  There’s always great conversation and tons of laughter when they’re here.  After they arrived this time they go on and on very dramatically about the 2 hour drive and the substantial price of being forced to drive their car for some reason. But whatever. I’m too busy helping Ludo’s mother get her house ready and the table set for the visiting family to really listen to the travails of their travel. Plus, I have to make special effort to set the table appropriately.  Since my last cheese ‘incident’ I have only regained sight in my left eye making the symmetrical placement of flat wear much more difficult than one might think.  On the upside, my tongue shows promise of recovery in the coming days.  All I can think about is the fact that I’ve dined with Jean-Fancois and Colette before and I know for a fact that today’s menu will be far gentler on my delicate American palette. They like me and have said as much to my face. Things are looking up.

Monique, Ludo’s mom and a truly lovely woman, has spent all morning roasting ducks and marinating various animals’ livers for today’s lunch. I’m sincerely hoping (in vain I know) that today’s lunch will be cheese free. It’s not an entirely selfish hope. I farted earlier and the family dog collapsed in the cloud of sulfur that my recent ‘cheese education’ left in my wake. I don’t think I can take much more and I feel badly that the dog might have to be euthanized.

The lunch table is full of animated talk about EU government policies. I have no idea what they’re debating and concentrate my efforts on cutting the chunks of liver into teeny tiny pieces and pushing it around on my plate in hopes of convincing Ludo’s mother that I’ve eaten her house specialty with great gusto. But she’s a mom and wise to my tricks. So with enthusiasm, she comments that I must still be hungry and asks her brother-in-law if he was able to bring my ‘special gift’ from Paris. With obvious pride and a smile as big as the Siene, Jean-Francois says that yes indeed he has something very unique for me. Dear god, please let it be a scarf.

He goes on to say that he had to go to three different shops to find what he was looking for. Once found, the Epoisses cheese that was allegedly Napolean’s favorite, had to be specially driven to me. When I thanked him and his wife for the special care that they’d taken in delivering this delicacy, I learned that it wasn’t any need for special care, but a nationwide law prohibiting this particular cheese from all forms of public transportation.  Ah, there’s the light bulb moment I was looking for earlier.  I now understand why they drove instead of taking the train like they usually do.  Ludo’s uncle speaks slowly and carefully making sure that I understand this ‘special’ cheese, Epoisses, is made from raw cow’s milk and its rind is washed with pomace brandy. If it starts to smell too strongly of ammonia (or like someone who hasn’t showered in a week), you should throw it (or them) away.  He’s a funny guy.

While he’s explaining this my internal voice is screaming, “WHAT?!?  There’s a cheese so foul that you can’t carry in it on the train!?!  And now you want me to eat it?!?”

My only hope now is that I’ll choke on a piece of liver and that no one at the table is at all efficient with the Heimlich Maneuver.   Dinner plates are cleared, cheese plates set, wine carafe refilled, bread replenished and the Epoisses retrieved from the car. I am keenly aware that the car doors have been left open to ‘air out’ the car before their return trip in a few days. With each baby step toward the unavoidable ‘educational’ portion of our lunch I feel my heart rate increasing.  It turns out that my heart is right to be afraid of this cheese. What in god’s name is this?

By now dear parents I’m sure that you know the routine.  The wine, the bread, the cheese are set before me – yadda yadda yadda. I’d like to say that I was able to soldier through and finish the portion that was served to me. But it came down to basic self-preservation. I’m deathly afraid that I’ll explode in a gaseous cloud that will take the entire Motin Family with me like my guts were a finely timed atomic bomb. But as I lift the Epoisses to my mouth and place the absolutely and terrifyingly stinky cheese in my mouth, my only thought was that the headline of the next day’s paper would *read. “Brave American Dead in Suspicious Fromage Scandal”

All I’m certain of before I pass out is that my obituary will be understood by anyone who has survived this particularly French offense. I seriously think that the US needs to reconsider its status of Ally with these black-hearted people.

*Puante Scale: Screw the French

After all of this … my French family and friends said laughingly that they didn’t understand what the big deal was.  It’s not like they brought the illegal and highly coveted maggot cheese from Corsica. My outside voice says, “God bless you my good friends”. My inside voice is screaming, “What the hell!?!?!?  A cheese made by maggots!?!? You’ve got to be kidding me!!! Take Corsica off my places to visit”.

 

 

 

 

I Shit Thee Not

We’ve nearly completed the renovation of our French 17th century home which quite frankly was more of a ruin than a residence.  I’ve convinced Ludo to add a third story by converting the cramped attic into a sleeping loft.  That addition has increased our living space to a whopping 725 square feet.  I love our little house. After living in the USA in houses with several thousands of square feet to maintain and clean, our little homestead is just perfect for two people (who are only home a handful of weeks per year).  I like the idea of living small. We don’t need much space for lots of reasons. The first reason is that it’s just us. Two average-sized humans with limited cooking skills and simple dreams.  The second reason is far more pragmatic – we don’t own anything. When we left the US we gave away every single item that we owned that didn’t fit into our three suitcases. Yep EVERYTHING. Gone. Starting from scratch. I had more stuff to move as a seventeen year-old going off to university. But there’s another reason for a small house, we embrace the idea of limiting our impact on our planet.  We bought an old house and recycled and reused materials from our site as well as some recovered materials from other sites. We’ll buy new linens and a new mattress but everything else we’ll find in antique stores so that we support the economy but don’t contribute to consumerism of newly made goods.

With this in mind, there are frequent and unexpected turns and u-turns into antiques shops called brocantes.  These shops are scattered across the Norman countryside and vary widely in merchandise just like in the US. By contrast, what Americans consider an antique, the French think of as used furniture. Ludo explained it to me like this, “Mon Ange, if you want pieces of history, you go to where the history comes from”.  Fair enough.

But there aren’t just French antiques here. As the nobles and aristocratic families in our region traveled abroad, like most of us, they bought souvenirs. I suppose the glaring difference is that when I was in Asia I bought a silk scarf – not a 20 foot Buddha like the one available in a brocante near the village of Radon.  When Ludo was in Marrakech he bought a hat, some post cards, and had his photo taken with a cobra around his neck. He didn’t bring home a mummy like the one that a brocante in Paris has for sale.  Scouring these shops for the treasures that will fit through our front door (18″ X 5’6″) and that we both deem a ‘treasure’ isn’t exactly easy. In order to break the inevitable ho-humming that one of us is likely to utter when asked the fateful question, “I love it! Don’t you just love it?!?”, we made a pact that our usual 50/50 partnership would be suspended as it applies to our house. To expedite things we redistributed the power.  Ludo has a 51% vote on the construction (unless it’s something I really want, in which case I get my way) and I have a 51% vote on the interior design (especially when he tries to convince me to buy a fire engine red Flokati rug. Sorry dude.).

And so, with the search on, I was ecstatic when walking past the window of the brocante in our own village. There it was!  The piece that would be our centerpiece – our coffee table. I had no idea what it was.  It wasn’t a table, but it was about to be reborn as one. It was perfect and for only 300€, it was about to be mine!  I went skipping down the street to get Ludo.  Bursting through the front door I hollered, “I found it!  I found the thing that I can turn into our coffee table!”

“You mean it isn’t a coffee table now?  What is it”? He asked

“I don’t know what it is but I love it! It’s the perfect size!  It’s something made of steel of some sort and with lots of rivets and it’s shiny.  It’s perfect!  Come see it and help me carry it home”!

He tries to hide his rolling eyes as he drops his tool bags to the floor and follows me one block deeper into town. We get to the shop and I point excitedly through the window like a kid at a candy store.  Ludo looks through the glass and with his hand on his forehead and in clear distress he says, “Mon Ange, you can’t buy this”.

“What!?!  Why?  I love it!”

I can see him struggling to find the right words. It’s not an uncommon face in our bi-lingual household.  But it’s obvious that Rosetta Stone has dropped the ball somewhere.  So he gently describes his way around the missing word. Putting his hand supportively on my shoulder he says, “Mon coeur, you know when you pull the chain on the toilet and the water and EVERYTHING ELSE goes down ….?  This is where it goes”.

I’m stumped. Why are we talking about my beautiful new coffee table and toilets?  I look at him clearly confused. “Huh?”

“My love, you can’t have this in our house. It’s a shit box (which sounds like sheet box when he says it).

“A shit box?” I reply (because I speak ‘Ludo’ more fluently than I speak French)

Mon Dieu!  Does he mean it’s a septic tank? Is it possible that if I hadn’t brought Ludo to help me carry the thing, that I would have purchased and placed a septic tank in our living room?  Holy crap! You can’t serve fancy French appetizers off of a septic tank!  And since Ludo knew what the thing is, I assume that everyone else would have known too and the laughter would have coursed through our village with such speed that a sonic boom would have been generated. I’m mortified. A shit box in my living room. Just the thought makes me want to wash my hands.

He lovingly wraps his arm around my shoulders and trying to contain his case of the church giggles, guides me back home. I can feel my 51% slowly slide away from me (like a wet turd sliding down a hot rock) as I ask once again, “Really?  It’s a shit box? But it’s so pretty…”

Note to self: write the Rosetta Stone folks to request the inclusion of the words ‘septic tank’ in their vocabulary lists.

 

Hotel Podmoskovie and True Love

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The saving grace of the Hotel Podmoskovie is that it really appeals to those of us with cleanliness issues. There are six floors with 50 sleeping rooms and a lounge area per floor. Each floor has a permanent staff of two cleaning ladies and their supervisor. The rooms are sparse but absolutely immaculate. Ludo warned me that if the “do not disturb” sign isn’t out the housekeepers just open the door and get to work. In fact he’d been caught once sleeping in and another time sitting at his desk in his boxers. Warning headed, the first day here I put the sign on the door so that I could sleep in. The very moment I left the room an apron-clad cleaning lady approached me questioning whether or not I needed anything. I know that’s what she asked, not because I speak Russian, but because she held up trash bags, then soap, then towels, each time with a question mark in her eyes. I told her net and spasibo and gave her a thank you smile. In response she shot me a look that clearly communicated that I am idiot child deserving of a stern talking to about the cleanliness of my personal space. It was obvious that I was wrong to deny her her duties. I didn’t budge on my position and she walked away shaking her head.

When I came back to my room after breakfast I discovered that I had been overruled. Although I had straightened my bed, it was now made to military perfection and towels that I had used and hung up were now at perfectly spaced distance from each other and at ninety degree angles from the bar. She didn’t stop there. My shoes had been placed in the closet and my slippers were next to the bed. My books were organized by descending height and my empty suitcase stowed above the cupboard.

I think I’m in love.

Nailed It

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If you’re a fan of conscientious customer service, and I am, then Podolsk Russia is the place for you.  There’s a mall down the street from our hotel that could easily be picked up and dropped down into any US commercial center – except of course that all the signs are in Cyrillic.  There’s a food court with Sbarro Pizza, a Burger King, and Coffee & Sushi.  There are toy stores, luggage stores, boutiques of all varieties, and an arcade for the kiddies.  Most importantly … there’s a nail salon!  It’s as though the mother ship is calling me home.

The sign in the window reads, “маникюр 299p”.  My handy new translation app beeps with its response … “Manicure $7.79”.  Holy Hera!!  Sign.  Me.  Up.  After all I just spent twice that amount for a lousy plate of pasta in the food court.

I burst through the door of the salon and quickly ask for a manicure (I did this by using the international signal of maniacally waving my drab finger tips in the air near the advertisement on the window).  The beautiful woman behind the counter does not mirror my enthusiasm.  She coolly scans the five nail stations.  Three of these are occupied only by bored manicurists.  I’m feeling good about this! And then comes the wave of incomprehensible and very serious Russian.  Oh nuts. “English?” I ask. She waves me off and digging around in her little podium she pulls out a piece of paper, very deliberately points to the place on her wrist where a watch would be (she’s young and therefore like other millennials presumably uses her cell phone for a time piece), and writes down the number 7.  I’m a little confused because that’s more than 3 hours away and there’s obviously room for me now. But without really thinking I nod in agreement, utter the word “da” and try to figure out what do with the next three hours.

The arcade looks promising but the only game I’m remotely qualified to play is air hockey and sadly I’m shopping solo.  Also, I had an unfortunate air hockey incident in 1995 that has left a mark on my psyche.  The game was a long drawn out test of competitive wills and the sharply honed skills I acquired during my misspent childhood at an arcade in my hometown.  Now, as an adult I’d been challenged to a game that could actually make a difference – in the number of beers that I would have to pay for. This was big.  And after sweating my way through a game against someone who clearly studied the game as much as I had, my opponent had me up against the proverbial ropes in a tie game.  The next goal would determine the winner. This was it.  It all came down to this last puck.  It was at that point in the game that he looked across the table at me and asked with a glimmer in his eye, “Would you like to know a secret”?

“Yes”

“I’m not left-handed”, he said and shifting the paddle to his right hand deftly sent the puck flying toward my untended goal and beat me.  Oh lordy, the disgrace I felt as I walked away from the table and handed the bartender two more hard-lost dollars.

The memory of this profoundly humiliating moment is enough to make me want to skulk out of the mall and forego my much anticipated manicure.  Instead I skulk back to the salon, pull out my iPad, click onto the calendar app, and show the receptionist tomorrow’s date and point at my watch.  She gets it.  She doesn’t like it but she gets it.  She shakes her head, waggles her finger and gives me a look that tells me I’m being a pain in the ass.  Then she takes me purse off my shoulder and places it on an empty chair.  She indicates the chair next to it and invites me sit down.  A tiny dark-haired beauty sits down on the other side of the table and asks for my hands.

Now we’re getting somewhere!  Ah – this is going to be just the therapy I need.  I give a quick thank you – “spasibo” – and she rolls up my sleeves.  The receptionist comes back and offers me a cup of coffee or water.  Again, “Da, spasibo” and a happy nod.  As my drinks arrive the manicurist inspects the work before her and gives me conspiratorial look that says ‘don’t worry, I can fix this horrific disaster you call your finger tips’.  As she’s pulling a big bin containing all manner of tools out to determine the best way to attack the situation that is my hands, the receptionist reappears to show me something.  She holds out a little brown packet that in English characters reads, “Brazilian”.  Uh Oh.  What have I gotten myself into?  Did my previous “da” commit me to something more than a manicure?!?

I’m really not up for anyone manicuring my recreational area today.  I’m jetlagged in a foreign country and intent on keeping my legs crossed.  I glance longingly at my purse and wish that my hands weren’t knuckle deep in warm sudsy water but instead holding my handy iPad so that I could communicate through the robotic voice of my translation app. The receptionist sees that I clearly don’t understand what she’s offering.  And for the first time since arriving here a Russian smiled at me.  Or maybe she was laughing.  Yeah, probably laughing but I’m still not uncrossing my legs.

She opens the brown packet and shows me a pair of plastic gloves that seem filled with hand cream.  Ah.  Ok.  I can’t see any real threat to my girlie bits in those gloves so give another “da” and take a deep breath of relief.

Eventually the “Brazilian” gloves make their way onto my hands and the manicurist puts my hands under a miniature heater that’s something like a horizontal hair dryer.  Mmmmm lovely.  I like these little gloves. After that the manicure proceeds just like any other manicure I’ve received on every other continent.  Except ….. in a typical Russian way, the attention to detail, the attention to perfection, the militant attention to providing good service resulted in – no pun intended – hands down the best manicure I’ve ever received.  After an hour and a half I walked out of that salon feeling like a new woman and with my hands looking better than they ever have.  And all for half the price of a lousy tasting plate of pasta.

If you can spare some time in Podolsk and are in the market for a manicure stop in and wrangle your way into a chair in front Alina.  And maybe practice your air hockey skills.