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How to Survive Paris in the Summer

I’ve been wondering lately why I live here.

Winter is freezing cold. You can barely go stay outside for more than a few minutes without the icy blasts (which sound good now) sending you back indoors, to get under the covers, snuggly with a steaming cup of hot chocolate.

Then we have spring.
Which this year lasted 4 days.

Then summer comes, and Paris melts down. You can see it on every face of everyone in the city. From people waiting for the bus, straining to stand in a tiny sliver of shade, to the women fanning themselves furiously on the buses and métro, everyone here is hotter than heck. Yesterday I went to the movies just to get cool, but unfortunately the film (The Squid & The Whale) was a measly 1 hour long. Who makes a 1 hour movie? I was tempted to stay and see it again just to bask in the coolness of the cinema but it was hard to stay awake the first time around.
Anything to escape my rooftop apartment, just under a zinc roof, which yesterday was104 degrees F. A few friends of mine have similar rooftop apartments, and I decided that no one’s allowed to complain to us how hot they are, since we’re invariably 10 degrees hotter than they are. So there.

But this time of year, visitors start coming to Paris in droves. I don’t know why so many people choose to come to Paris in the summer, but everyone’s surprised when I tell them that many of the shops are closed and it’s really hot. And I’m leaving.
But come, they do.

So if you are planning to come to Paris in the next month or so, here are some tips to keep in mind:

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1. Drink rosé.

For some reason, Americans are reluctant to drink rosé, which is inexpensive and delightfully served icy-cold. Rosé in France, for the most part, is dry and very drinkable. And it goes down very well in the summer, speaking from recent experience. Order it by the carafe since there’s little difference between that and what comes in the more expensive bottles.

You’ll be drinking it so fast that it doesn’t really matter.

2. Never order anything they call ‘iced coffee’ or ‘iced tea’.

It’s invariably very, very sweet. If you order iced coffee, no matter what you’re thinking it’s going to be, stop before you do. No matter how tempting it sounds to you, just stop.

If you order something called ‘iced coffee’, you’ll be served a very small amount of dark liquid (very sweet) in a large glass, with a straw, and it will be really sweet. And expensive.

Iced tea is inevitably from a can. And flavored.

And very sweet as well.

(Disclaimer: Yes, that was me you saw on the Boulevard St. Michel at, gasp, Starbucks drinking a Frappucino. It was so hot, we had no choice. But I have a question: Is there any coffee in those things? You’d think if they’re gonna charge 4.50€, about $5.50, they would at least taste the slightest bit like coffee. Would it kill them to toss in an extra espresso without charging extra for it?)

3. There is no ice.

You may get a cube or two in your drink, but French people don’t use lots of ice and few places have those jumbo ice machines like in America. When I worked in restaurants in the US, the worst thing that could happen was when the ice machine broke. People freaked. I mean, they really freaked. It was like they couldn’t deal with drinking room-temperature water. And now, some places in America are charging extra if you don’t want ice. It’s like there’s this vast conspiracy to get you to use lots of ice or something in America. Perhaps someone’s putting something in the ice?

(Because whenever I request “No ice” in the US, the waiter gives me this funny look, and I can see him thinking, “Oh great. Why do I get all the ass#%$les in my section?”)

Speaking of drinking: You’ll notice that it’s customary not to fill wine or water glasses to-the-brim full. In France, glasses are generally filled half-full. And in some places or in homes you’re expected to use the same glass for both wine and water, so if you fill it too full with wine, you gotta finish all of it before you get any water.

And vice versa.

4. Don’t expect air-conditioning.

Or I should say, very little is air-conditioned, especially like the icy-cold turbo-blasts experienced in the US. Electricity is very expensive in France. That, coupled with a general dislike of cool breezes (or open windows…or any kind of ventilation in general) but it can get uncomfortably and unbearably hot and people will sit in restaurants and apartments with the windows firmly closed.

That includes the métro, which can be downright intolerable in the summer. Especially when it’s jammed full and your face is directly in some dudes hairy armpit who forgot to take his weekly shower. but you can’t move. Most of the buses aren’t air-conditioned (except I got on the #63 recently, and it was un peu de paradis), nor is the RER from the airport, which is downright miserable in the summer and you should avoid it. Spring for a cab or a shuttle.

5. Spring for some decent sandals.

Parisians do wear sandals and flip-flips (les thongs, except you don’t pronounce the ‘h’) but in general they wear rather sporty ones. If you want to wear rubber flip flops, stop at Pay-Less and get pair that doesn’t look skanky.

(And while you’re at it, make sure your feet look decent. Like mine do.)

5a: Don’t ever wear dark socks with sandals.
5b: Don’t ever wear dark knee socks with sandals.
5c: Don’t wear socks with sandals, period.

And remember, you can only wear two of the following at the same time: sandals, shorts, or a tank top. Never all three (if you do, then it’s obligatory to add a fanny pack and carry a Rick Steve’s guidebook.)

6. Spring for some nice shorts.

Parisians do wear shorts, in spite of what you hear, but do not wear them if you’re planning to go into sophisticated places or nice shops.

Do not wear your ultra-short shorts, or anything that looks like something Mariah Carey would wear…unless you’re trolling for les clients on the rue St. Denis.

(And men: If you’re planning on doing any shoe shopping during les soldes, please remember to wear undershorts. A friend of mine was a shoe salesperson and was always amazed how few men didn’t wear undies and whenever she looked up to ask about the fit, she was greeted with an eyeful.)

7. Take time to relax.

I’ve seen too many people coming to Paris who want to take in six museums in one day, rush from place to place with a rigid schedule, and generally make themselves and their friends crazy. You’ll notice that Parisians sit in cafés for lo-o-o-ong periods of time, thinking, reading, or doing absolutely nothing. It’s a skill I’ve finally mastered.

Just sit around and watch the world go by. Remember that citron pressée that you paid 6€ for? It’s for the privilege of doing just that. And it’s hot, so just relax. Or go to the movies. Paris is a great movie city. And most cinemas are air-conditioned.

8. Get out of the Left Bank.

While there’s lots of interesting things to do in Paris; fabulous chocolate shops, great bakeries, and shopping galore, there’s other neighborhoods in Paris worth exploring besides the Boulevard St. Germain-des-Pres.

Have you been to Belleville and Boulangerie 140 at Place Jourdain?

What about the Canal St. Martin for a stroll in the evening?

9. Parisians eat much later in the summer.

The sun doesn’t go down until around 11pm, so things happen later. No one will be eating dinner at 7 or 7:30pm, and many restaurants won’t even be open before that.
So plan accordingly.

If you want a seat outside (en terrasse, make sure to specify that when you reserve, as they’re the first to go. Otherwise, if you want a seat near the window, those go second and it’s best to show up earlier in the evening rather than later.

And if you’re staying in a hotel in a popular neighborhood, and need to keep the windows open, bring ear plugs to block out noisy Brits getting pissed or the Aussies and their birds drinking cans of 1664 under your window.

10. Prepare for les vacances.

Realize that lots of places close for a month, mostly in August but starting in mid-July. It’s said that Americans “live to work” and Europeans “work to live”, which is rather true, and they are outta here.

The upside is that you’ll have Paris much to yourselves and it’s very pleasant and uncrowded. But expect many, many places to be closed.
Any other tips?

Vert d’Absinthe: Absinthe in Paris

Paris is always full of little surprises, like any major city. It’s always fun to poke around and find something new and unusual. And there’s plenty of the unusual in a big city like Paris, as I often report. I think of Paris as a big village, full of colorful characters with lots of stories to tell and unusual offerings. And getting the know the people in your neighborhood, especially the vendors selling fine foods and drink, can be especially rewarding since often if you stay for a while and talk to them, there’s always something fascinating to learn.And, of course, taste!

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Getting ready to prepare a glass of absinthe, French-style, of course.

I’ve been meaning to take you to visit one on my favorite shops in Paris for quite a while: Vert d’Absinthe. This little shop is located in the Marais, but a bit removed from the busy tourist streets, just off the Place St. Catherine. Owner Luc-Santiago Rodriguez tells me his shop was the first boutique anywhere dedicated just for the purpose of selling absinthe, that wickedly suspicious elixir that’s recently been getting a lot of attention lately.

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Luc-Santiago Rodriguez of Vert d’Absinthe in Paris.

Although the drink was originally produced as a cure-all medical tonic in 1792, Absinthe became a rather popular drink amongst Parisians in the late 1800’s, mainly with hedonists living in Montmarte who would sip it in cafés and clubs, like Le Moulin Rouge, before it was ultimately banned by the French government in 1915.

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Dishes with numbers were to let patrons know how much their glass of absinthe cost. Think of all the paper they saved!

Although experts are as unclear as a cloudy glass of absinthe on exactly why it was banned, the most colorful theory was that people went mad drinking absinthe due to the rotten wormwood used to make the drink. It was dubbed le f&eacute’e verte or ‘the green fairy’, since it was said to inspire hallucinations as well.

(Absinthe was banned in the US in 1912, and so far, it’s still technically illegal to import into the US.)

But nowadays, most people, including Luc-Santiago, agree that the powerful French wine industry at the time was upset that people, especially the artsy bohemians who lived in the north of Paris, were drinking cheap, hi-test absinthe (at 70% alcohol) instead of pricey wine (around 12% alcohol), in an attempt to get a better buzz for their buck. Since the French wine industry had suffered a severe set-back from the phylloxera infestation which killed most of the grapevines in France, the price of wine had gone up enormously. So it’s thought that the wine industry pressured the French government to put the kabosh on absinthe production.
And that was that.

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It’s my one-stop shop for all things absinthe!

In 1988 absinthe made a comeback and the French government once again made it legal to sell and drink the anise-scented exilir, absinthe attaining a bit of a cult status in the process. With all the ceremony of pouring something previously forbidden in a fancy glass, pouring water over a sugar cube to make it cloudy (called louching), then slowly sipping it while staring into space in a deserted café…how could anyone not be entranced by the romance of absinthe?

If you come to France and want to try or purchase absinthe, be aware that not all drinks that look and sound like absinthe are indeed absinthe. You’ll come across ‘absente’ (missing the ‘h’), which has a bleary picture of Van Gogh on the packaging (it was said he went mad drinking absinthe and cut off his ear because of it, which to me is a rather iffy marketing move), but these impostors use a wormwood that’s different than the variety of wormwood (artemisia absinthium) used in true absinthe.

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The true herbs of absinthe.

The wormwood used to make true absinthe contains thujone, the most important compound in real absinthe.

Anyone interested in absinthe should make the trip to visit Luc-Santiago’s little shop Vert d’Absinthe, where 25 different kinds of absinthe are stocked. All are French except for one, which is made in Switzerland, and most of the French absinthe varieties are made near the Swiss border. Monsieur Rodriguez stocks all the proper paraphernalia for properly preparing and drinking a glass of absinthe, from vintage to contemporary; spoons, glasses, fontaines, and, of course, the bottles themselves.

And perhaps you’ll get a demonstration and a taste-test. Although drinking absinthe French-style means louching the drink by pouring water over a sugar cube through the special spoon before it clouds up the absinthe, the more flamboyant Czech-style method involves lighting the cube of sugar dramatically on fire, which I’ve yet to see him do.

Vert d’Absinthe
11 rue d’Ormesson
Paris
Tél: 01 42 71 69 73
Open daily, from 11am to 8pm (closed Monday)



Related Links

Absinthe Cake Recipe

Chubby Hubby: The Green Fairy

In Absinthia

The Wormwood Society

La Fée Verte



A few unusual places for absinthe in, or near, Paris:

Hotel Royal Fromentin (11 rue Fromentin, Paris, tel. 01 42 81 02 33) serves absinthe at their historic bar, a former cabaret at the foot of Montmartre.

Musée de l’Absinthe (44 rue Alphonse Calle, 95430 Auvers-sur-Oise, tel. 01 30 36 83 26, about fifteen minutes outside Paris) is open on the weekends and holidays and sports all sorts of memorabilia and paraphernalia from absinthe’s heyday. Take the train from the Gare du Nord.

Cantada is a heavy metal bar, and one of the few bars in Paris to serve a wide selection of absinthe.

-La Fée Verte (108, rue de la Roquette), is a neighborhood café with absinthe on offer.


Happy Bastille Day!

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This is definately becoming a problem…

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The Sales

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There are two periods during the year when stores are allowed to have Les Soldes, or The Sales. They occur once in the winter, beginning shortly after New Years Day, while the summer soldes start in late June. Although Americans think its odd, the government’s official explanation is that les soldes give stores a chance to blow-out all last seasons merchandise quickly by creating a little frenzy. But I think another reason is to give the little stores a break, since as we’ve seen in America, often the smaller merchants get squeezed out by the big guys offering lower prices on things by holding sales all the time.

So onward to the BHV. What is the BHV, you ask? Imagine someone scouring the every corner of the world, looking for the least-helpful people on the planet. Then they hire them and put them in one enormous department store that’s impossible to navigate but full of everything imaginable and necessary for daily life in Paris, so you really have no choice but to shop there.

And those are the people in charge of helping you.

And now, you get the idea of the BHV.

So today is the first day of les soldes and I would say to anyone who has fantasies that Parisians are polite, classy, and sophisticated, hasn’t been elbowed out of the way in front of the bins at the BHV department store, strong-arming anyone who might get between them and something they want.
Or don’t want.

It doesn’t really matter.

And Parisians tend to go a little wild here, since in general, things like clothing and housewares are pretty expensive. I happened to be heading to the BHV this morning, since last night I switched on my desk lamp and blew out some fuses in my apartment. Although I was determined not to get involved in the hubbub, once inside I got caught up in the madness and thought, “Well, I guess I could use a new pair of jeans.” Last week I discovered a bare spot forming in a place where not a lot of people get a close look at, thinking their days are numbered.

To make a long story short, I never made it to the hardware department, but instead got taken in by the stacks and stacks of jeans that were all 30% off. Since you can’t get away with wearing American-style baggy-assed jeans in Paris, you need to wear pants that are well-fitted, snug-tight up against your rear end (no matter what you weigh.)

Our unless you’re under the age of 21. Then you wear jeans hanging halfway down your butt, but only as long as you’re wearing boxer shorts underneath rather than those Euro-sling undies and swimsuits that some men in my age (well above the age of 22) like to wear here.

Not finding what I liked, I left empty-handed. But with my adrenalin (or was it my morning cáfe au lait?) pumping, I raced to the Levi Store in the Bastille. Not quite busy yet (aha!, I beat those young folks wasting their lives away in school), the young salesmen were instantly drawn to me, amazed at the Levis that I was wearing, which were made with a special cut and fabric that I bought in San Francisco. So there I find myself, surrounded by handsome, unshaven, young French men, all oohing and aahing while staring at my butt and crotch, reaching over feeling the fabric, and closing in all around me. I don’t know if it was me, or the summer heat has finally arrived once and for all, but it was surely getting much warmer in there. And naturally, I decided right away that I needed a new pair of Levis, and this was the place I must get them.

Helping me find a style I liked, one of the friendly young men, wearing a well-fitted t-shirt (was it Levis? If so, I want one too.) He kept calling me jeaune homme (young man), while asking me what I thought about the style that he was wearing by running his hands up and down his thighs to emphasize and make sure I understood how good they fit (yes, I did.) So he hands me a few pairs of the same jeans to try on, and transfixed, I head to the dressing room.

Since we’re in France, there’s no need to be shy and he pops right in soon afterwards and starts surveying the fit by yanking and patting and making sure all button-fly’s buttons were laying properly, exclaiming how well they fit. Yes, they’re supposed to be that tight, he told me. And for additional emphasis, in case I didn’t quite get it (yes, I did) he makes doubly-sure with his hands that I know there’s little room in there for anything besides maybe a Euro-sling, and perhaps a few centimes or fuses (…fuses? What fuses?…) But certainly not much else.

Soon all the other boys, er, I mean jeaunes homes, came by and made sure I’m getting properly fitted, admiring my choice in jeans. When I questioned whether I might need a larger size, one turned to show me how his fit him, sliding precariously down his backside, and he asked me if I wanted to same. (Yes, I did.)

But instead I went home with the jeans I had on, at 20% off, back to my darker apartment, thinking I’ll go back first thing tomorrow and get fuses.

But perhaps if the BHV took a cue from Levis and hired a few of these helpful young men as salespeople, customers like me might leave their store happily with something more than just a fuse in their pocket.

Levis
47, Faubourg St. Antoine
Tél: 01 44 87 03 06

Paris is Degrading

According to LoI n° 2006-11 du 5 janvier 2006 d’orientation agricole, article 47

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…as of January 1, 2010, all plastic bags in France will be compostable and biodegradable. The new sacks are being introduced this week as part of a campaign to promote people shopping at the outdoor markets. What a great initiative. Go France!

What They Say vs. What They Mean

When they say,“Non”, they mean, “Convince me.”

When they say,“We do not take returns”, they mean,“Convince me.”

When they say,“It’s not broken“, they mean,“Convince me.”

When they say, “You need a prescription for that”, they mean,“Convince me.”

When they say,“The restaurant is completely full”, they mean,“Please come up with a better story.”

When they say,“The restaurant is completely full”, they mean,“We already have enough Americans in here.”

When they say,“Do you mind if I smoke?”, they mean,
“Don’t answer ‘yes’, or we’re going to pout and scowl while you try to enjoy your dinner.”

When they say,“It does not exist”, they mean, “It does exists…just not for you.”

When they walk right into you on the street and say nothing, they mean,“I’m Parisian.”

When they say,“I don’t have change”, they mean,“I want a tip.”

When they say,“Do you want directions?” they mean, “I look forward to telling you what to do for the next five minutes.”

When they say, “I’d like the practice my English”, they mean,“For the next 20 minutes, you’ll feel like a complete idiot while I speak perfect English and demonstrate a far better understanding of world affairs than you do.”

When they say,“They’re up on the seventh floor”, they mean,
“They’re right around the corner from where you’re standing.”

When they say,“We don’t have any more”, they mean,“We have lots more, but they’re in the back.”

When they say,“It’s not my fault”, they mean,“It is my fault…but I’m not taking the blame.”

When they say, “That is not possible”, they mean,“Loser.”

When they say, “I am a Socialist”, they mean,“I’m not responsible for picking up my dog’s poop.”

When they say, “You package hasn’t arrived”, they mean, “I’m just about to go on break. Come back and wait in line for 30 minutes again tomorrow.”

When they say, “The fat’s the best part!” , they mean, “I’m under 40.”

When they say, “The cheeses in France are the best in the world”, they mean, “We are indeed a superior culture.”

When they say, “America is culturally-deprived”, they mean,“Please don’t show us Sharon Stone’s vagina again.”

Homemade Cottage Cheese Recipe

Where did I find the inspiration for this little bowl of white, creamy cheese? At the pharmacy in Paris, which are at the top of my list of favorite places to visit in the city. There’s everything you can imagine at la pharmacie, like thyme oil. And Rescue Remedy. And baking soda. And Bio-Gauze (the world’s best burn treatment). And pills that will make you thin and give you the most amazing abs like the male model shown in the window no matter how much cheese you eat or wine you drink.

Aside from their ability to spend an unusual amount of time with the person in front of you (especially when you’re in a hurry), French pharmacists are also trained to identify any mushrooms to determine which are poisonous, and which are okay for la bonne cuisine. If you go to a homeopathic pharmacy, you step up to the counter and stick out your tongue. Then they give you a few bags of pills and cures. And not all of them are administered orally. (Although thankfully, they don’t “dose” you there.)

What also impressive, though, is that I found out that you can order présure, or rennet, at the pharmacy, which is used for making cheese. And I missed the taste of cottage cheese, and I wanted to see if I could replicate it at home. Although Americans eat lots of cottage cheese, most of it’s bland and watery. It’s nothing like real cottage cheese.

So I made cottage cheese at home. It’s remarkably simple and tastes great. And you can make it too! You’ll need to get rennet, and I’ve listed a few sources below. Do give it a try. It’s so much better than the store-bought stuff, and pretty easy to make as well.

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Homemade Cottage Cheese

All utensils should be cleaned very well before beginning.

  • 1 quart (1l) whole milk
  • 4 drops liquid rennet
  • ½ teaspoon of salt, plus more to taste
  • 6 tablespoons heavy cream (or half-and-half), or a mixture of heavy cream and buttermilk
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Heat the milk very slowly in a medium-sized, non-reactive saucepan. Use the lowest heat possible and if you have a flame-tamer for underneath the saucepan, now’s a good excuse to use it.

Insert a thermometer into the milk (I use a chocolate thermometer, which is easy to read) and heat until the milk reaches 85º F.

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Turn off heat and stir in rennet. Stir gently for 2 minutes.

Cover the saucepan with a clean tea towel draped over the top and put the lid on. Let stand at room temperature for 4 hours.

After 4 hours, the mixture will be very softly set and marvelously jiggly. Take a sharp knife and cut the mixture diagonally 5 or 6 times, then do the same in the opposite direction.

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Sprinkle in the salt then set the pan over extremely low heat and cook, stirring gently, until the curds separate from the whey. It will take just a few minutes.

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Do not overcook it at this point or your cottage cheese curds will be tough.

Line a strainer with cheesecloth or étamine, and set it inside a large bowl. Pour the mixture into the cloth and stir it gently to drain off the copious amount of whey. (You can use it in bread making or in soups in place of water.)

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Fold the ends of the cheesecloth over the cheese and chill the strainer (keeping the bowl underneath) in the refrigerator. Let drain for about 1 hour, stirring once or twice.

Spoon the cottage cheese from the cloth into a bowl and stir in the cream, or cream and buttermilk. Taste, and add more salt if necessary.

Here are a few sources for liquid animal rennet in the United States, available here, here, and here.

For more information about liquid rennet, check out Rennet FAQ.