Manifesting Paris in Spite of Les Manifestations

After a week in the warmth of Faro we headed to Paris planning to spend a couple days there before catching our train to Flers on Monday. There were moments of trepidation as we anticipated being in Paris. The unrest in France over the legislation to change the retirement age from 62 to 64 is still strong, and the accompanying les manifestations are happening every day or so, some turning violent. Paris being the largest city and the capital experiences the most frequent of them. When we were in Paris 11 days ago there were huge piles of uncollected garbage on the sidewalks, since the sanitation workers are still on strike we knew they would only have grown. So the thought of just flying to CDG and pretty much heading to the train station instead of spending the weekend was discussed a few times.

We decided to wait until we arrived in Paris and had a chance to assess the situation firsthand before determining our next move. We arrived in Paris and the next morning we went to Le Musée Rodin just as planned – aside from the garbage piles Paris was pretty much normal. Tricia took this beautiful photo.

The years I spent traveling for work taught me that most travel situations are worse on the news than in real life. I have had my share of delayed and cancelled flights, hotels that lost my reservation, etc. but as far as actual nightmares I don’t really have any stories to tell. My practice was always to take as many precautions as I could, like always getting to the airport at least two hours early, and think of alternative plans should there be a problem, more often than not everything would go according to plan, or with just a change in flight time or something.

Years ago I traveled to Jakarta to do a seminar, during a time of major political upheaval in the country. Some acquaintances insinuated I was nuts to go there; I went any way. I landed, took a taxi to the hotel, checked in, then took a taxi to Planet Hollywood. BTW the bar there was so cool, it was built around a volcano that erupted and shook the place every 30 minutes. Not a rioter in sight, but I did get cool t-shirts for my nieces.

In the morning, before we left for Le Musée, I did what I always do on a Paris morning, I went to le cafê for un café and a sketch. Le Maine Café on Avenu du Maine was just a couple of blocks away. This morning I had company from the friendly café kitty. Other than the garbage merrily flying up the street thanks to the brisk wind, it was normal Paris. (Please though do read my note at the end of the blog)

Walking back from the Rodin we were on the alert for lunch, a passion that we share wholeheartedly with the French. We rarely search the internet as the adventure of exploration is part of the pleasure and internet comments are usually written by tourists, we like looking for where the locals go. We came upon Le Standard Rive Gauche, and what a find. At the moment it is our new favorite in Paris.

Another photo by Tricia

My entree, Le Tigre Qui Pleure – I have no idea why it is called “the crying tiger” – was one of the best beef preparations I have ever had, the sharp knife they provided was not at all needed. The sauce was amazing with just a whisper of soy and spice. Chef Paul Bocuse would be proud, though I am sure it was not found in his strictly traditional cookbook.

I actually took this photo

So the moral of the story is that people and the news tend to focus on the negatives and exaggerate them – something I fear I do as well, but must strive to avoid. So my advice as theTravelsketcher is to plan well, but not over plan, allow plenty of time, and above all be flexible – more often than not the worst case will never happen, and if it does, well embrace it as part of the adventure.

Travel as much and as far as you can, even if the longest trip you can take is just around the block, don’t let the fear win.

Note: I do understand the issues that the protesters are upset about, we try to see it through French eyes not our American eyes. So my thoughts on being able to travel to Paris without the strikes affecting us are not meant at all to trivialize the importance of the issues, nor the inconveniences they are causing, it is as Dickens said “The best of times, the worst of times” and I hope suitable resolutions are reached soon. Today as I write this it is another planned general strike day, and already there have been disruptions to the plans many folks, many will not be able to see the Louvre as planned, I do hope they will explore and make the best of the day, Paris on its worst day is still an amazing place.

Best Memories Our First Year in France I

Just a year ago today we were in Cynthia’s (Tricia’s sister) basement putting the finishing touches on packing for our move to France, our friend Dave was set to pick us up on the 14th to take the three of us, Tricia, Neville, and me, to the airport. This was an endeavor that began in earnest at the end of 2021 – already two years behind schedule thanks to COVID.

Moving to a different country is always a challenge so we had a lot to do just to satisfy the French thirst for documents. Dave, who has himself worked and lived abroad in the Middle East and South Africa reminded me that the large companies he worked for took care of most of the details. We hired a consultant for advice but the dossier gathering was on us. And of course after arriving we have had plenty of situations to try our patience, but as they say here, C’est France!

Now lest anyone think that the French bureaucracy or the French culture (i.e. frequent strikes that cancel trains, etc.) has dampened our affection for this country I felt I needed to relate some of the highlights of living here. My plan was to do a blog titled “The Five Best Memories From Our First Year.” But… I came up with a list that I could not pare down to five so will just pass on some good memories now and then.

This is a photo of one of my favorite moments since arriving here, it was on 14 April, 2022 – the first time Neville went outside since we kept him inside for the first month. Tricia’s comment was that he must be thinking, “Is this heaven?” There is quite a backstory to this moment.

Photo by Tricia – Travels Through My Lens

Neville was an outdoor cat before we moved into our Martha’s Vineyard condo in Mukilteo where he became an indoor cat with only his catio for going outside, and it was quite small. So if cats have emotions I would think all this space to roam felt great, like “heaven.”

Just getting Neville to France was quite an effort. The EU is quite demanding on their pet requirements, and of course France adds more just because C’est France. Between vet visits, Fedex payments to the USDA in Olympia, and some stressful moments because of narrow time requirements, we had a complete dossier on Neville and had spent over $800, not counting the extra that Delta would be charging us to take him in the cabin with us. We were doing all this while we were packing to move and shipping household items to France, I am sure Neville had no idea what these boxes represented in his life.

Adding to our stress was the vet’s diagnosis in January that Neville had a serious kidney failure in progress, he talked about needing regular IV’s of fluids etc., just to survive, quite serious. I doubted that he would actually live to make the trip to France. Well make it to Normandie he did, after 21 hours in a carrier – checking in at the airport, waiting for the flight, ten hours under the seat at my feet, then a four hour car ride to where we live in Normandie. Neville did quite well. Oh! And never an IV.

It was spring and warm, Neville loved his rural yard. The old picnic table is good for sharpening claws, sleeping in the sun, and helping me sketch.

We did have some cool days that made a fire necessary, our main source of heat. Neville exchanged the gas fireplace at the condo for a place in front of the wood stove.

It did not take him long to make our 230 year old cottage his own, settling into his bedroom, where he allows us to join him at night.

So here we are one year later and Neville is as healthy as can be expected for a 13+ year old. He doesn’t go out as often nor for as long, so he is slowing down a bit, but that is what all us senior folks do.

Thankfully he has not lost his touch when it comes to hunting, he is our mighty hunter. I am pretty sure of the count, though Tricia might come with a different number, but I think this is close: 1 in the house while we were gone, the neighbor found it when she came to feed him. 1 or 2 outside, 3 more inside. He always brings them to us for approval, looking quite proud don’t you think? We do live in a rural farm setting so there are mice, but with Neville on the job we sleep well – except of course when he catches one in the night and brings it upstairs while we are sleeping.

Neville has his own Instagram @Nevilleofnormandie and he would love it if you followed him there. He is often featured on Tricia’s blog, Travels Through My Lens and her photos are far better than mine.

One of my fondest memories is that Neville is getting to spend his senior years in this wonderful place that he loves. As I write this he is sleeping in the sun in a basket we found at one of the many brocantes in the area. It warms my heart.

French Eating – Apéro Time

Apéro or Apéritif. In France apéro is just short for apéritif. In the USA an apéritif is an alcoholic beverage enjoyed before a meal, in France it is an event and one of the most enjoyable components of the meal, at home or out.

The closest concept in the USA to the French apéro would be a happy hour. In the USA happy hour translates to reduced prices on snacks and beverages, along with a gathering of friends. In France apéro is a time to relax with friends before a meal, or as in the USA, gather with friends for a chat. You do not see “apéro” signs in front of restaurants here, though you do see “Happy Hour” signs in a few places that cater to tourists. Why would you advertise something that is just considered the norm?

You order a beverage, the food is a surprise. Whole blogs have been more knowledgeably written by others on common apéritifs in France. Beer, wine, and Champagne are frequent, though our personal favorite is a kirkir pétillant is sparking wine flavored with something like cassis or peach, kir normand is cider similarly flavored, both are quite enjoyable. A kir with Champagne is quite good, but the price goes up a lot.

When they bring the beverages they also bring a snack of some kind, also called an apéro. This could be as simple as a few nuts or pretzels, or as elaborate as this apéro that we had last week at Auberge de la Source, one of our favorite places just 20 minutes away in the tiny village of Saint-Cyr-du-Bailleul.

You are not charged extra for the tasty treat, it is expected. This had a mini-quiche Lorrain, a savory mousse that must have had a bit of smoked paprika, and a small puff pastry with a light coating of cheese. The chef here is international, and one of the best.

The apéro tradition is quite as prevalent at home. La supermarché has whole sections, both fresh and frozen, of small bites suitable for apéro. For us this is so perfect. Our main meal of the day is lunch, which in itself is quite French, I have written before regarding how lunch is a sacred time here. We rarely have a traditional evening meal, it is just too much food. So we have an apéro at home: store bought, made ourselves, or a bit of cheese and baguette.

Apéro is just one of the ways we have learned the wonderful custom of slowing down when it comes to food. In larger cities you do find crepes and sandwiches to take away and eat on the go, but slowing down to enjoy a meal is most desired, and we have adapted quite well. C’est la France!

An Expat’s Struggles With Ordering Food

The stereotype for many in the USA is that the French are not friendly, well after multiple trips to France, and living in France for a year I can say that is just not true. In general the French are so kind and helpful. When we butcher their beloved language they may correct a bit but most often they encourage our efforts. Sometimes they are too helpful, particularly when it comes to food.

Now before I continue a DISCLAIMER is in order. I enjoy my British friends and their quirky language, we all get to laugh over terms and pronunciations. However my eating preferences are not British and therein is the problem. In an attempt to cater to our tastes, as they (the French) perceive them, they often make adjustments to my order that don’t work for me.

In my last blog I alluded to one of those adjustments, ordering le café. In one hotel they actually brought me a mug of coffee from a 12 cup coffee maker common to most homes in the USA. Other times I say, “Je voudrais un café, SVP,” the server pauses for a minute then asks if I mean an espresso, a question they would never ask a French person. It comes from their experience of bringing an English speaking person a French le café and having the customer unhappy because they wanted a mug of drip or at least an americano – like I said the French are so helpful most of the time.

Second DISCLAIMER. When it comes to anything bureaucratic that help may be hard to come by – this post is all about food.

The French are carnivores, big time. Vegetarians often struggle, though we are seeing some changes making it easier. Meat preferences in France are often quite foreign to US or UK diners.

When it comes to le boeuf they like it rare, really rare. The go-to degree of doneness is bleu, which, just as it sounds, means blue. The piece of meat is seared for no more than 30 seconds on a side and served. For most UK and USA folks they see this and say it is raw, which of course it pretty much is. Here is a photo of one such steak I had when we were with our friends in L’Isle-sur-la- Sorgue.

The next degree of doneness is sanglant which literally means bloody, this would be extra rare in most restaurants in the USA, it is my normal way to order here. Yet what often happens is the server questions me, “medium?” Or the cook just cooks it so there is barely any pink at all. You see the Brits tend to like meat well done, which is considered unthinkable to the French, and to me as well, so like with the coffee they often adjust.

Here in Normandie andouillette, not to be confused with the spicy, smoked andouille from Cajun Louisiana, is on most menus. Here are photos of both.

French andouillette are made from pork large intestines, spices, grains, and onions. They are quite corse compared to the Cajun smoked sausage. Wikipedia says, Andouillettes are generally made from the large intestine and are 7–10 cm (2 3/4 – 4in) in diameter. True andouillettes are rarely seen outside France and have a strong, distinctive odour coming from the colon. Although sometimes repellent to the uninitiated, the scent is prized by its devotees.

The first time I ever ordered andouillette the owner of the open-fired grill restaurant tried to talk me out of it. He said that Americans don’t eat this. I assured him I did. With mustard sauce it is quite OK on occasion. On other occasions the server has asked if I know what andouillette is, or if I am sure. I know they are trying to be helpful, but I also know this expat is not like all the others.

A third challenge here is finding spicy food. With the exception of mustard, which is always Dijon, the French don’t eat much that is spicy. We wanted some salsa, they have Old El Paso, the same brand as we could get in US, but it only comes in mild and extra mild. I can’t imagine what extra mild would be, tomato sauce???

Soon after we moved here we discovered an Indian restaurant not too far away, craving a bit of spicy food we went. It took us a few visits for me to convince the very nice server, that we have come to know well, that when I asked for spicy I meant spicy. In fact last time he actually brought something out that was too spicy for me, that is rare. Yet he is so used to compensating for the French palette that he just naturally tones things down.

In all my years of travel I have attempted to eat like the locals do. I am not like Tony Bourdain was, nor Andrew Zimmern, there are some limits, but in general I say give it a go. Often I end up liking things that might put some folks off, that is one of the joys of travel, and this expat loves the journey of food.

I guess I do agree with Zimmern when he says, “If it looks good, eat it.”

Un Café – The Price of Admission

In France un Café is more than a beverage, it is the cornerstone of the café culture. In the USA coffee is something you do while you do something else, in France it is much more deliberate, for a traveler it is a perfect entry into the local culture.

I have never seen a drive-through Starbucks in France; the drive through food and beverage concept is as rare here as it is ubiquitous in the USA – as are insulated travel cups. In France you stop what you are doing to have un café. The Dunkin Donut idea of unlimited refills is just as strange, as would be a “grande” or “venti” size. These are uniquely American concepts where quantity often supersedes quality.

In France this is un café

In its most basic form it is a shot of espresso, always served in a cup and saucer, with a small spoon, sugar – never cream – and a petit biscuit. There are other drinks that are only coffee: un double which is two shots served the same way, un café allongé which is a single with more water forced through, and an americano which is espresso diluted with hot water to cater to the taste of Americans in WWII that found un café to strong – an americano is as close as you will get to a mug of coffee in France. One of my favorites is un café noisette which is an espresso with just a dollop of steamed milk.

One of my frustrations is that often when I order un café, with my best attempt at a French accent, they will either bring me an americano, or clarify that it is espresso I want, as they are so accustomed to folks from UK and USA not wanting a real un café.

In France coffee with milk is rarely consumed after early morning, having a latte in the afternoon clearly signals you are from Starbucks country. Un café is the norm after a meal, but of course without milk.

Un café is also your ticket into the café culture, you can sit for hours at a table, with no one implying that you need to give up your table, participating in the French pastime of people watching, or in my case sketching.

Le café and les cafés are one of the things I like the most about France. Whenever possible I go early and enjoy starting my day watching, sipping, and sketching.

Manifestations and Menu du Jour

Menu Blackboards, about A4 size (8.5×11.5 inches), for setting on a table, or 2×3 feet for leaning up on the floor next to a chair, or as an a-frame next to the entry of the restaurant are the ubiquitous icons of French dining, as is the Menu du Jour which is chalk-written on them each morning. With a reputation for the best food France is obsessed with normalcy.

Photos courtesy of Tricia and Travels Through My Lens

A Menu du Jour has three courses: entree, main, and dessert. There may be a choice in each course of two or three items, but the menu is pretty well fixed. Many restaurants will have other menu offerings, but if you observe the locals they tend to order the Menu du Jour, or the Plat du Jour which is simply one of the mains. Why? Because the French are obsessed with normalcy, deviation can result in manifestations – or protest. The stability must not be threatened.

French food is most always done well regardless of the price. We have had quite good meals at obscure, mundane establishments. However there is always predictability. Fridays will have fish, though the country is officially secular according to the constitution, the centuries of Catholicism still are considered normal, even for the majority who never enter a church. The menu will have mostly meat mains, except for Friday, as the French are carnivores, some think fish counts as a vegetarian meal. For dessert you can almost bet there will be chocolate mousse, even if other more creative offerings share the blackboard.

There is good, even great, food to be found and it is worth the search. One such place was Chez Dumonet, an old resturant in Paris where we ate in December – yet even they had a prix fix menu – because the three courses are expected – normalcy.

Lunch is sacred, it is a long and slow affair, even in rural areas with a clientele of farm or construction workers; no sandwich in the cab of a pick-up truck here. Normalcy. There is even a law, though relaxed during COVID, forbidding eating lunch at your desk. Lunch is sacred, normalcy, don’t rock the boat.

Yet even a cursory glance at the history of France makes it clear that it has never been a stable country. For much of its history France was really just Paris, the rest of the country was run by dukes and such who ignored the king and spent their time fighting with each other while taxing their subjects. The famous French Revolution was not some break from tyranny resulting in a government by the people; just a short time later Napoleon was a dictatorial emperor. It was not until the 1900’s that the France we see today began to emerge, and even that was disrupted with occupation by neighboring Germany.

Today the French cling to stability, protecting established practices and institutions. When these are threatened by new laws or programs manifestations are soon to follow. Street closures are even posted on days when a protest is expected, and the Parisian response is “C’est France.”

Tricia took this photo of a protest when we were in Paris in January – Healthcare workers.

As I write, protests are happening in major cities, for the second week in a row, with another “General Strike” planned for Saturday, because the government wants to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The railways and Metro are shut down, a million people marched along the Champs-Élysées, some turned violent resulting in teargas and broken shop windows. Don’t mess with the normalcy of the earliest retirement of any industrial country.

Yet you can be sure that the restaurants not on the parade route have their blackboards set up, even protesters need a sense of normalcy and where better to find it than over a predictable meal and a glass of wine, ok maybe two glasses, but it is also true that over drinking at lunch is not a French thing. Normalcy.

Though France can be quite tolerant, there is also an undercurrent of selfishness. Shutting down the transportation system does make a statement to the government, but it totally disrupts the lives of millions.

Twice we have had to make major travel changes due to the railway strikes. And with our daughter coming to visit us next week we are concerned about another strike since they are taking the train from Paris Montparnasse, which seems to be protest central, to Flers in Normandy. If the train is shut down we will have no stability and even the best blackboard menu will not make it normal.