What are the absolute last words you want to hear when invited to someone’s home for a meal?
Well, how about…
“We had some fish that was about to go bad, so we’re having it for dinner.”
Welcome to my world. A world you thought was all baguettes and chocolate.
Well it now includes dubious fish too.
The rules for hygiene are a little different here than in America. I was pretty shocked to see on my trip to the US in June, little bottles of hand-sanitizer dangling from people’s belts and fanny packs, as well as available in supermarkets with towelettes to wipe down the handles on shopping carts. But I’m equally shocked that people think it’s okay to leave stock-based preparations on the counter for a day or so, then consume then. (They use stock in science labs to grow bacteria since it’s such an inviting medium. Just so you know.)
Although some think we might need those little bottles of sanitizer around here pretty soon for Vélib’ hands, after riding around town for a few weeks, I’m almost inclined to agree with her after riding around for the past few weeks.
Although I’ve been certified in food sanitation, sometimes I just need to suspend logic around here and just go with the flow. The fish, though, I pushed aside. I’m thrilled to be accepted by the locals, but let’s not take this “I’m so French” thing too far…
And in case you think I only question French logic and think they’ve got it all sewn up, I should add that I worked in a restaurant in the states where if ever I tossed out a slimy piece of fruit covered in fuzzy-green mold, one woman in particular would dive in the garbage can, fish it out, and chew all around the moldy parts, then chastise me for tossing out “perfectly-edible fruit.” Yuck.
Since I was spending a fair amount of time in the French countryside this summer, we’d often go visit the local farm store that sells their own dairy products; mostly yogurt and fresh raw cream, as well as meat. My French hosts were horrified, I mean, absolutely taken-aback that they stored the raw and cured meats in the same refrigerated case as the yogurt and cheese. (These are the people offering the dernier jour fish for lunch, fyi.)
For some reason that’s a Very Big No-No here and when I asked why, at first they said it was bad for microbial transmission. When I mentioned that it was highly unlikely that microbes were going to walk a few feet across the refrigerator shelf, which I demonstrated by marching my two fingers across the dining table, they looked perplexed but I finally got them to grudgingly agree it was indeed rather unlikely.
But then they came back with, “Well, you don’t want someone handling meat after handling dairy, do you?”
While that’s true, I don’t know how that’s any worse than at the charcuteries, which sells pork products as well as dry sausages and cooked slices of ham.
“Well, are you concerned at the charcuterie where they handle raw pork, then handle ham and pâté, and in between serving them, they just wipe their hands on a towel? Are you worried about eating the pâté when it’s covered with the same microbes as raw pork?”
Which everyone just kinda shrugged off.
I mean, that seems far more hazardous and likely to transmit germs than just sharing the same refrigerated space. But that’s just me.
And in a country where people, and me, have zero qualms about scarfing up steak tartare; raw beef mounded with a raw egg yolk, it’s odd they find it pas hygiénique to keep meat and cheese in the same vicinity. I wonder how they make those ham-and-cheese baguette sandwiches in all the bakeries? Scary, when you think about it. In fact, I’m laying off those frightening jambon gruyère sandwiches from now on.
Another suspension of logic is needed if you’ve ever taken a shower in Europe.
About 1 second after you’ve spun the shower knob you realize that all that good European design that you see in glossy magazines, whether it be a racy Italian sports car or a gorgeous piece of French bakeware, hasn’t made it to the bathrooms.
And what’s up with les serpillières?
What is a serpillière you ask?
If you’ve walked the streets of Paris, you’ve probably seen them lying in the road in a soggy wad or rolled up in a bâton to direct water. I know, I know. It seems odd and archaic that a country with the most magnificent high-speed train system on the planet, who developed supersonic air transport, pioneered cyber-sharing of information, and are the world leaders in medical research and practice, still use filthy, foul rags to control water.
And I refuse to touch one.
But the French seem to love those grey, water-soaked rags, and they drag and trail them around from room-to-room, as well as on the street, to contain errant water. Although it’s been quite a few years, a couple of hundred I think, where Paris was a muddy marsh, it’s not at all rare today to see one wadded up in someone’s kitchen or bathroom like a murky security blanket.
Although I’ve come to love ‘the hose’ that Europeans favor for taking a shower, I can’t fathom why many hotels in Europe don’t provide shower curtains? All it takes is a split-second of reaching for the soap to misdirect the spray, then you’ve soaked the toilet paper, your toiletries, and your dry, neatly-folded jammies. And since they rarely provide a holder for ‘the hose’, good luck in trying to put it down somewhere while soaping up.
Perhaps you’re supposed to turn it off while soaping up, then back on again to rinse, but in my apartment it takes five minutes for the hot water to reach the nozzle from the time I flip it on, so I ain’t standing there freezing my butt off while waiting for hot water to reappear.
I just can’t seem to master the switching of hands back-and-forth with the hose spraying water everywhere while trying to soap myself up. And if you foolishly lay it down in the bathtub, it invariably flips over and becomes a fountain and starts shooting water everywhere. Then you need to mop it up. If you’re at someone’s home, there’s bound be a nearby serpillière for that. But coming clean out of the shower, is there anything that you want to touch less than a water-soaked funky rag that’s been sitting on the floor that Lord-only-knows-who has stepped on too?
For example, take a look at the design of the bathroom and shower.
This bathroom is not a product of the Middle Ages.
Nor was it created even 10 years ago.
This was ‘remodeled’ in 2006— just last year. Now, if you were going to redo your bathroom, no matter how tight your budget, wouldn’t you at least build something to contain the water rather than having to drag around that skanky rag on the floor all the time? Why no shower curtain?
And what’s with the flat floor with the drain in the center? Don’t people realize that water flows pretty well towards the drain if you create just the slightest slope towards it?
I suppose this reinforces their fidélité to la serpillière.
And when my friends ask how we sop up water in America, I say “With a mop. Which has a handle to wring-out the dirty water, instead of using your hands.”
In a country like France where it’s interdit to wear anything but the skimpiest, hides-absolutely-nothing Speedo swimsuit in public pools, “Pour l’hygene, monsieur!”… if someone could explain why a slingshot-style Speedo swimsuit is so much more hygienic than a square-cut Speedo swimsuit, with 2 extra centimeters of fabric, I’m all ears. While I’m happy (more than happy…in fact…) to watch others parade around in scanty swimwear, I don’t feel I’m really any more sanitary than I would wearing something with slightly more coverage.
But those serpillières. They’re happy to drag them around on the floor, where people have stepped. And if you’ve seen a poopy Paris sidewalk, you perhaps understand my reluctance about touching anything that’s been on the ground.
So next time you’re in France, if you really want to pick up something that’s very French as a souvenir, skip the Ladurér macarons, the snow globes of the Eiffel Tower, or the Mona Lisa t-shirts on the rue Rivoli, and bring home une serpillière.
If you can touch that.