Archive for May, 2011

The “F Word” In France and What It Means !

| May 27, 2011 | Comments (2)


On a recent business-class overnight flight to Paris – I was cashing in hard-earned traveler’s miles – the dinner hour arrived several hours over the Atlantic.

My traveling companion in the commodious leather seat next to me was a youngish frenchman, impeccable in appearance and manner. He was what the French in current parlance would call  “BCBG” – bon chic, bon genre; totally top-drawer. Lodged in the window seat, I barely noticed his arrival as he slid into the aisle chair and murmured  “Bonjour” to me. We spoke for  a while and he imparted to me that he had lived in Princeton, New Jersey for 12 years and was going to Paris for a technical conference.

The more he spoke, the more I admired that “raffinement” that only the French seem to possess. The Brits can be very posh and certain Americans are ever so patrician, but the French  – some French – possess a classy elegance that  also manages to be  unpretentious and intimate. It is expressed by the beauty of their speech as well as  a certain body language and a “je ne sais pas quoi” manner that defies description. 

In any case we spoke pleasantly over cocktails and it was nice to get into a french “zone” even before arriving in the City of Light. Then the meal arrived. I remember that we had both ordered filet mignon – what the Hell ! Why eat healthy on a trans-Atlantic flight I always say… could be my last meal!

As soon as dinner arrived on our tray tables, I felt a Jekyll-Hyde change come over my BCBG Frenchman. As I sipped my Bordeaux and shot him a sideward glance, I noticed his nostrils flare in a distended, distinctly savage manner as he contemplated the repast before him. He  stabbed the bloody steak and his upper lip curled; I fancied  I heard him emit a  snarl, the kind of growl a pack of hyenas produce when  ripping apart a little wildebeest on the African veldt. Then I remembered: this is a Frenchman at table. I had seen it before when I lived in France – tiny, ancient ladies tittering away,  suddenly becoming atavistic carnivores attacking their rillettes (blood sausages) as though they were lions in the Coliseum dining on tender Christians. In France conversation all but ceases when the entree is being consumed. The French know what is important and what to concentrate on.

By now you have deduced  that the “F Word” in France is food. And I am glad to report that despite inroads made by MacDonald’s and Disney and a host of other trans-Atlantic, globalized impostors, French food is as wonderful as it has always been. I am also happy to tell you that that horrid tryst with “nouvelle cuisine” that seized France some years ago, seems dead and gone and we are now back to traditional basics with no sacrifice in quality.

But I am deeply puzzled by one thing. The French love to eat and do it often and very well, but they are not fat. As I dug into a variety of food and wine during my ten-day sojourn in France, I pondered this puzzle, determined to find an answer.

There were several explanations – the French eat smaller portions (definitely NOT true from my on-site “research” in many Parisian bistros, cafes and restaurants); the French do not indulge in junk food binges to the extent Americans do (this seems to be sort of true although our stop at a gas station in the Loire Valley made me aware that Kentucky Fried Chicken was a most popular indulgence); French food is purer, better, more organic and less hormone-infested (there is no question that French fruits, vegetables and meats taste better than what we find in  the US  even in upscale places).

Back in New York City, filled with these ideas, I approached my quack last week when I went for my annual physical exam. I asked him point blank why, despite their dedication to eating (in their conversations the French seem to talk mostly about what they HAVE eaten, what they ARE eating or what they WILL eat) the French are so relatively svelte when compared with their counterparts across the Atlantic.

As he jabbed me with various needles, my doctor nodded thoughtfully and uttered one word : wine. He seemed to think that the ingestion of wine with food created some sort of chemical, digestive breakdown that chased calories into a non-fattening mode. Who knows? Who am I to question one of New York City’s top doctors (there’s a plaque on his consultation room wall that says he is a top doctor). I do know that the French drink less wine than they used to, so what does that say about the wine argument? We didn’t get into other areas of speculation like smoking (the French still seem to love their cigarettes…aaah those Jeanne Moreau-esque creatures in cafes enveloped in clouds of Gaulois and Thierry Mugler…..) so the  “F Word” question remains basically unanswered.

I will say that in my ten days in France, I did not have a bad meal. There were some unusual dining experiences for sure, but none bad.  One night with our hostess in the Loire Valley we drove to a farm that served only a duck menu. As night fell, we took our aperitifs –  extraordinary, tiny concoctions of wine and local fruit liqueurs – in  vast barnyard surrounded by 500 year-old buildings while peacocks and hunting dogs roamed the verdant lawn. We then proceeded indoors to a dimly-lit eating area that reeked of the Middle Ages. I became impressed at this point with how serious French dining can be. Throughout the meal an almost religious aura pervaded the place, so much so that I felt I was engaged in a four-course holy communion. Conversation was minimal, rather hushed and reverential.  Although duck has never been my favorite dish, I could say after that evening on the ancient farm, that I would opt for their duck pate as one of my last meal requests if I ever get sent up to Death Row.

Even the slightly unusual dinner  on our final night in Lutece, offered by my dear friend Jack, a longtime expat resident of Paris, at his local bistro, turned out to be a great eating experience despite a rather brusque server and our sitting at a table in the street  between arriving and departing  cars that spewed out exhaust fumes.

I think my quack was right about the wine. Every meal we had in France was accompanied by lots of really good red and white wine. No plonk for us! How can you go  to the Loire Valley and not over-indulge in a little bit of Pouilly …. and damn the expense? And I did return from France two pounds lighter despite non-stop eating.

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Why I Love France

| May 17, 2011 | Comments (3)

Why do I love France? The simple answer: because it is so French.

 In 2011 with globalization swirling about us, I thought I would no longer be able to say that. But it is still very true. From the way French women drape their scarves – yards of  diaphanous textile  wrapped, hanging, flowing about their shoulders, arranged  to expose napes of neck and strands of hair that leave one raging with desire – to uniquely french concepts that dictate how the country is governed – “amenagement du territoire”  is untranslatable but sort of means “regional equalization” so that rich and poor pockets are brought more into balance, France remains a civilized island in an otherwise crude world.

But before I dive into Paris, let me back track to “Perfume-mania” where my trip really started.

Before my recent visit to France, a dear friend who also happens to be a great beauty and a long-time resident of Paris, asked me to bring her an American perfume  called CHARLIE that is no longer found in  shops. Since New York City has everything, I was not deterred by the rarity of the item I was commissioned to deliver and I eventually found tucked into  a side street in midtown Manhattan a shop called Perfume-mania, a kind of perfume museum that carried, out-dated scents no longer produced or even heard of.

There, I found to my amazement, bottles with slightly peeling labels called TABU, TABAC and WHITE SHOULDERS. And there were tester bottles from which  sprays could be sampled ! I soon found myself in clouds of cologne that brought back memories.

I spritzed a bit of TABU on my wrist and thought of my Mother. It was a perfume she favored when she went out in the evening back in the 1940s. Kind of  heavy, a definitely seductive odor, TABU had that “come and get me” scent that went perfectly with my Mother who wore arm-length evening gloves decorated with big-jewel rings on several fingers. Once from a distance at a party I saw – and smelled – her in a TABU moment holding  a martini glass in her gloved hand. Before  she took a sip of her cocktail, she looked at the bevy of men surrounding her and said something outrageous like “Bottoms up ! ” or “Here’s mud in your eye ! ” How could I have known at that very moment, how unhappy and sad she was, being beautiful and outrageous in a desperate attempt to get my Father’s wandering attention. Even the power of a cloud of come-hither cologne proved  futile in her attempt to draw from a diminished bag of  once  mesmerizing tricks.

When I saw the bottle of TABAC on the shelf my heart stopped. It was the same white flask I had been given 45 years ago in Saigon, Vietnam by the woman who was to become my fiance but never my wife. Lots of water under the bridge since then. Somehow the odor was less pungent, less intense, but 45 years is a long time and my olfactory senses are not what they were when I was 26 ! Like my love for Sophie, TABAC was sweet but faded.

Sitting like a saucey minx on the shelf next  to TABAC was WHITE SHOULDERS. It was worn by a 15 year-old redhead named Jackie who was my big crush when I was a high school sophomore. The smell of WHITE SHOULDERS  was soft, pale, yielding flesh. In the days when premarital sex was seldom consumated, it was the  fragrance that  led teenaged boys to frequent self-abuse.

My perfumed journey came to an end when I encountered CHARLIE at the end of the ” has been” shelf. The clerk behind the counter helpfully extended an open bottle of coffee beans in my direction saying a sniff would clear my nose and allow it new life to breath another series of “eau – de – whatever.” She added that after exposure to four different perfumes, overload set in dis-allowing the human snout from distinguishing what was being smelled. Sort of like mixing many colors on a palette and getting a tone that resembled khaki mud.

I took a deep whiff of the coffee beans before approaching CHARLIE.  The caffeine clearance was indeed effective. It allowed me to experience a scent I had never liked even when I first smelled it on my beautiful friend 40 years earlier. That renewed revulsion gave me the perverse pleasure of feeling young again. I bought it, raced home, packed my bag and flew off to Paris.

My first days in the City of Light were given over to nostalgia. I walked the quais of Ile Saint Louis and Ile de la Cite, I roamed the Latin Quarter and ended up, as always, at Shakespeare and Company, that idiosyncratic bookshop started by Sylvia Beach in the 1920s, the home-away-from- home of Hemingway, Joyce and other members of the Lost Generation. Climbing the rickety stairs to the store’s top floor, I found a young Chinese at the ancient upright piano, almost buried in piles of dusty, old  books, banging out a Mozart sonata.  Notre Dame loomed through the woozy glass of the  old garret  window, a  purple blur at twilight.

Later I wandered back to my favorite restaurant, La Brasserie de l’Ile near the passerelle where Saint Louis meets Ile de la Cite. I remembered  Bastille Day,14 July 1964, in the tiny park crowded with chestnut trees where I danced till dawn with a band of french friends who put me, staggering, on a plane to New York. What would my life have been like  if I had stayed in France and not gone back to the States? The road not taken always beckons and leaves one breathless and wondering.

Inside the Brasserie which was almost deserted,   I ordered my usual choucroute plate and sipped a reisling, remembering wintry evenings when it was cozy and warm and the windows were frosted and the air was thick with Gaulois smoke and James Jones was sitting in the far corner of the restaurant, un-noticed, scribbling away in his notebook.

Alas, the choucroute was greasy and the “facilities” were……I no longer had the leg muscles needed to use a traditional french squat toilette, so leaving my plate half-eaten, I waddled, uncomfortably full and un-relieved, out of  what had once been my favorite restaurant. Things change…or do WE change?

My gift of Charlie was not well-received by my old friend. She said something about the weather or her skin, I can’t remember exactly what, but that the perfume  no longer smelled the same to her and didn’t suit her, and that I shouldn’t have bothered bringing it.

Not believing her, I opened the bottle and sprayed some of the scent on my wrist. I sniffed and smelled nothing. I sprayed again and still could hardly experience any odor.

Was the Charlie old or was it me who had aged?

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