I have to admit, it’s been a bit difficult to blog while I’ve been on the road. Much of it is that I have a little MacBook Air computer that I got specifically for travel, whose lightness has saved my back, but the tiny screen makes it hard to write on since I can only see a few sentences/thoughts at a time. In addition to that, pictures get reduced to a much smaller size so I’ve been peering at my screen, hunched over to see the photos that are about the size of a post-it note. No wonder the eye doctor I saw a few weeks ago dialed up my prescription big-time. I fear that the time is rapidly approaching that I’ll resemble Mr. Magoo.
I’ve been so busy that I arrived home from my trip to Charlottesville to a Final Disconnection Notice from the electric and gas company since I’ve been remiss in paying them, I guess. So if I disappear completely, at least you’ll know why.
So, naturally, when I was invited by the Department of French at the University of Virginia to come and speak, I didn’t hesitate for a minute to say yes. Because free time is overrated, isn’t it? (Please say yes….)
Being surrounded by French scholars who surely knew more than I do about French language and culture seemed like it would be a little daunting, but I have to say, I was blown away by the people I met at the university. Rather than being a bunch of stern academics who sit around and memorize French verbs (…help!), I found myself amongst a mixed group of students and professors from France, the United States, and North Africa, who weren’t sitting around discussing the meaning of Descartes or Alexis de Toqueville’s observations on democracy in America.
Instead, conversations ranged from French cinema and the language, to racism, colonialism, and anti-Americanism, as well as French gastronomy and, of course, the French language. Being a dolt, it was terrific to speak with students and teachers who were a lot more intensely involved with aspects of French culture than I. About half of them were French, and all classes are taught in French. But it was fun to be in a group of people fluent in both languages, so we could glide easily in and out of whatever seemed the most appropriate, as some words work better in French (especially culinary terms) than others.
It was a dynamic example of how people, from what are often portrayed as two opposing cultures, can come together and learn from, and understand each other, without the ambivalence or accusations that you sometimes hear when differences between the two cultures are discussed. Why can’t politicians be as astute as these students and teachers? As everyone knows, all cultures have their pluses and their minuses. And it was great to be able to talk fluently with people who were so dedicated to continuing such quality discussion and continuing the successful relationship between the two countries
The University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, whose original architectural design is still there in the form of a generous, grassy square, presided over by the famous Rotunda, currently undergoing structural renovations.
Being a Francophile, Jefferson wanted to make sure that there was a dedicated space at the school for French studies, a tradition which continues to this day. Upperclassmen can apply to live in one of the tiny dorms around the square. In the winter, wood is brought to their doors so they can light fires in the chimneys, which sounds quaint, doesn’t it? Equally quaint, but perhaps less-so, are the bathrooms, which are located way on the other side of the buildings, so you have to go outside and go down a set of stairs, if you need to use ‘em.
And if I recall from my days in college, with all those keg parties, our bathrooms got a pretty heavy workout. And I wouldn’t have wanted to have to navigate a set of stairs in the dark of night. But these students are the crème de la crème of academics, and have much brighter futures than those who squandered their college education away on taking courses like bowling, guitar, and a sociology course where we all talked about what we did in the sack, as did our professor, who had us write it all down for our final exam. FYI: I think I got a B- in that one, but barely passed Fancy Diving because the high diving board scared the you-know-what out of me. Have you been up on one and looked down? If so, you know how terrifying it is.
Now that I’m all grown up, I stood in front of students myself, and the teachers, and took on a question and answer period where we got to discuss issues, ranging from the direction of French gastronomy, to what is my favorite thing to eat. I think in answer to the last question they were expecting something French (in which case, I’d choose cassoulet or Kouign amann), but I said: “Fried chicken.”
It evoked a hearty laugh from the group, but I gotta to say, it’s the thing I love more than anything else in the whole wide world. Fortunately I don’t have access to it frequently, but the people in Charlottesville do, at Wayside. And when I spoke with a lovely Frenchwoman from Paris at the reception afterward, she said to me, “Oh, that’s my favorite food too. I love fried chicken.” See? The French and Americans share a lot more in common than we give ourselves credit for.
After she said that, her eyes rolled back in her head, as she was dreaming of that salty, crispy skin with the hot moist meat underneath, that let’s go a burst of steam when you pull back the first, exquisitely crackly piece of fried skin and pop it in your mouth. Even though a few of us in the Franco-American mix had laughed amongst us that there were words in both languages that didn’t quite translate, ranging from “obnoxious” and ludique, to laïcité and “date,” we made a “date” to get ourselves some of that chicken before I left.
Usually there are the “shouldas,” who, no matter where you go, say that you shoulda gone somewhere else for reasons that I’m not exactly clear about since you’ve already been to the place and it can only make you feel like you failed – similar to standing on the top of a 3 meter diving board and merely jumped in the pool, even though you shoulda dove in. Sometimes, that’s all you can do. In the case of fried chicken, it was a win as everybody in town said Wayside was the place to go. And boy, was it…I’m not going to say that if you go to Charlottesville you should go there, but let’s just say that you’re advised to put it on your list.
Charlottesville is one of those perfect little American cities; clean, with free shuttle buses, lots of trees, and people who say “Thank you, sir.” It feels more like a town than a city. The university is a dominant presence, and many visitors undoubtedly come to visit Monticello. Perhaps lesser known are the great restaurants and food shops in Charlottesville with local breweries, vineyards not far from the city, butchers offering sustainable meat, excellent coffee shops, and artisan bakeries.
At Albemarie Baking Company, I had an oatmeal cookie that didn’t completely win me over, although the bread looked so good that I ran back before I left to grab a multigrain loaf to bring back with me. Thinking back, I probably should have gotten a loaf on Day #1 as the breakfast buffet at my hotel confirmed everyone’s worst ideas of food in America, which is a shame when you’re surrounded by such beautiful breads, and excellent coffee isn’t all that far away.
Also nearby is Gearhart’s Chocolate, which Ari brought me to. He heads the French Department at the university and was my local guide for the few days that I was there. I also think before I came that we set a record for the world’s longest email thread. I picked up some pistachio toffee dipped in chocolate, although it was a lovely gesture when one of the attendees at my talk later that night brought me a Charlottesville care package, which included a whole box of Gearheart’s chocolates, local granola, cannelés from MarieBette bakery, and a split of Virginia sparkling wine, which is definitely going back to Paris with me to surprise some Parisian friends. Thanks, Susan! : )
People in Charlottesville are oh-so-polite; on the free tram that circles the city, when the riders get off out the back door, each one hollers to the driver, “THANK YOU, Sir!” in their earnest, booming American voices. Being used to the fear of getting scolded for taking an interdit photo, I was hesitant to snap photos in the places that I went. But when I did, people could not have been more accommodating and were happy to let me highlight what they were doing everywhere I went. Most offered to move something around or let me in behind the counter to get a better look.
Like the food, American coffee is no longer a joke, except for the horrible cup I had near Penn Station in Manhattan – and that was a very, very bad joke. The excellent macchiato I had the next day at Mudhouse Coffee Roasters, then the following day at Milli Joe, who gets their coffee from Counter Culture in North Carolina, made up for the dreadful cup that I had in New York.
Speaking of mouthfuls, I hadn’t realized the allegiance to waffles in Charlottesville, and had a honey drizzled number with my coffee one bleary morning at Milli Joe, which was a nice repose from the overly sweet offerings at my hotel breakfast bar, which included several 2-quart pump bottles of flavored coffee creamers that were getting a heavy workout, especially with the old folks who were particularly giddy with excitement over them. If you’re going to put something in your coffee, besides milk or sugar, why not make it something really good? So I left a note in the suggestion box when I checked out of the hotel that they should replace with coffee creamers with distributeurs of whiskey and Kahluà. So if you’re ever at a hotel in Charlottesville and they have pump bottles of booze at the breakfast bar, you can thank you-know-who.
Paris isn’t the only place that’s become très Brooklyn. The local J.M. Stock Provisions resembles Brooklyn (and now, parts of Paris) with exposed brick walls, wood counters, a butcher case that features humanely raised meat, and other products that boldly state their provenance.
I initially went inside because the chalkboard on the sidewalk promised the best ham biscuits in town. But since I had stuffed myself that morning on….well, never mind…I ended up getting a coffee and a few bags of cornmeal and polenta from a local mill, to bring home. If I do go back, I should have the biscuit because someone was eating one and it looked mighty good. But I’ve learned from traveling that you can’t eat and do everything. (Which I said when I left Turkey about 35 years ago, after traveling around the country for a month, vowing to go back, which I haven’t done.)
On my very first day in C-Ville, as it’s called, after a lengthy train ride, it seemed like burger day. So Ari from the French department took me to Citizen Burger Bar on the pedestrian mall, which discourages chain stores (there was only one – a pharmacy) and had couple of good used bookstores that I got to poke through later. We both went with the generously tall burgers with cheese, blackened onions, and — being Francophiles, aïoli, lively garlic mayonnaise.
He went with the rather un-French sweet potato fries and I went with the regular frites. Since coming up was fried chicken day (or night), he decided we should keep it “light” the next day and suggested pizza for lunch at Lampo pizzeria, which specializes in Neapolitan pies.
I kept it “light” and started with a green salad made of gem lettuce with anchovy dressing, and crisp bits of Parmesan frico, little fried pieces of cheese. Then ate a whole pizza by myself.
I don’t know many places outside of Italy that take such care with their pizzas that they give them a D.O.C denomination, meaning they make them in the traditional way, using the traditional ingredients. (Personally, anyone who can make it through all these rules deserves whatever denomination they want.) But I passed on the D.O.C. margherita and marinara pizzas because I had to go with Diavola, with n’duja, which the server explained to me was spicy sausage, and ever since a French friend told me how much he loves “…le pepperoni in America that they put on pizza!” I try to always get some version of spicy sausage pizza when I’m in the states, in his honor.
For the last meal, fried chicken from Wayside it was. And what a feast!
We got a big family pack, as well as onion rings, macaroni and cheese, and hush puppies, fritters made with corn meal, which we washed down with a nice bottle of French wine — bien sûr.
After taking the plunge and going out for my morning coffee on the last day, I stopped into Feast! to get provisions for the train, since American train food is on par with French train food. Can’t we come to some bilateral international agreement to fix that? Amongst all the wonderful cheeses – local and imported, charcuterie, and homemade fresh vegetable salads, they made me a sandwich for the long ride with roast chicken, Vermont cheddar, fig jam, and arugula, along with a kale salad, which I planned to finish up with some salted butter caramels made with local cream from La Vache microcreamery.
It was nice to see French and American cultures coming together in Charlottesville, courtesy of Thomas Jefferson, whose tradition is still carried on by the teachers and students at the university. But also by the cooks, chefs, and bakers, practicing la cuisine du marché, using what’s fresh and local in their cooking, growing their own grapes and producing local wines, and baking breads and pastries, combining both French and American products and traditions. Am not sure we’ll see an upsurge of fried chicken places in Paris, or pepperoni coming to a pizzeria near you – if you live in Paris, that is – but I’ve got a few American samples that are coming back with me. (Although non-dairy coffee creamer isn’t going to be one of them.)