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Friday, October 13, 2017

My Life in France by Julia Child, with Alex Prud’homme

France may be the most astonishingly different culture in all of Europe.  Not denigrating any other country and we all have our favorites.  Lived in Spain for years and love the country.  Lived in Germany and would never utter a complaint.  Great Britain?  Hell yes!

So, you see, I’m not claiming that France is the best or even that I like it the best.  I’m only saying that for my money France’s culture is the most astonishingly different.  Depending on your outlook, that can be either bad or good.  In my case, extreme enchantment. 

I’ve heard a lot of travelers remark that Parisians are rude and follow that up with:  It’s expensive and we hated it!  As though Paris is all there is to France. That opinion isn’t limited to Americans.  Heard it a lot from Germans. To aid you on your voyage of discovery, I offer this advice:  The French way is not like America’s or Germany’s way.  Accept that and you’ll relax and enjoy this strangely fascinating country and its people and way of life.

Unlike many of my fellow countrymen, I have always had a fabulous time in France, Paris included.

Recently I blogged about adventures in Provence and that laudatory book by Peter Mayle, A Year In Provence.

Well, now I’ve got another book that will make you grab your bib and buy a First Class ticket on Air France:  My Life In France, by Julia Child, with Alex Prud’homme.

I’ll confess that I carried this book in my man-purse everywhere I went.  Couldn’t put it down and didn’t want to.  Those who know me will spew out slanderous accusations that Julia’s love of wine spurred me on, drove me to drink and drive.  You fools, that what a wife is for, so I can drink and ride and read!  I also took it to my favorite bakery cum coffee shop. Multi-tasking, reading in English, speaking to the irresistible women around me in German.  Yes, yes, men too.  But, always back to the book and my new friend, Julia.

Have both my loyal readers heard of Julia Child?  She’s the famous chef who almost singlehandedly brought French cuisine into America’s homes and kitchens, with her seminal work:  Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volumes I and II.

My Life In France, written by Julia and Alex Prud’homme, uses Julia’s multitudinous letters, reminiscences, and her husband’s letters and photographs to tell the often humorous and frequently intimate story of her love affair with the country and it’s cuisine. 

She started out as a normal American woman, with only a smattering of cooking knowledge. Her knowledge of France was a dark void.  As she wrote on Wednesday, November the third, 1948:  “As I gazed through the portal at the twinkling lights of le Harve I had no idea what I was looking at…In Pasadena, California, where I was raised, France did not have a good reputation.”

As she and her husband sat at a table in the Norman restaurant La Couronne, her husband translated what the waiter at the next table said to his patrons, explaining where the chicken they ordered was raised, how it will be cooked, which side dishes would go best with it and which wines would be suitable.

Her comment said it all about the difference between French and American culture.  “Wine?  With lunch?”

But, Julia was a woman of strong attitudes and stronger passions.  Once the tastes and flavors of the French kitchen enveloped her, her path opened and widened with the popping cork of each bottle, and the placement of each pot on the stove.

What I found so enticing about My Life In France is the intimacy of how it was written, as if a very famous chef offered a glass of wine, sat down at your kitchen table and told you her life’s story, amid lengthy struggles, staggering failures and heroic successes.  As some would say, My Life In France is a painting that includes warts and all.  Interesting? Fascinating?  Oh, hell YES!

Most of all, it’s a story of the development of a passion and following that passion like a lit fuse to a stick of dynamite, in spite of the nay-sayers and dream killers many of whom were family members.   The story is so unlikely and convoluted that it could only be replicated in the saccharine sweet pages of a romantic novel.

And speaking of romance, it’s also the tale of a lifetime love affair between Julia and her husband Paul, and the unlikely journey of togetherness, yet always keeping Julia’s passion in the forefront.

As she wrote so simply and eloquently:  “…the sole meuniere I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948…was an epiphany!”

Julia, wherever you are, I want you to know how much I enjoyed this little chat.  And, I dearly hope both my readers do, too. I hope they will all have their own epiphany and find the trail that leads them to follow even their most unlikely dreams.

And to that end, dear readers, I raise a glass….Á votre santé!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Bakery: A Cultural Classroom

I strolled to the local bakery Saturday morning.  The usual malingerers camped in silence over coffee and a book, or stared idly out the windows, or admired the particularly curvaceous backsides of customers at the counter. But, when the idlers noticed me, they looked up from their white porcelain cups, greeted me with soft smiles and a polite “Morgen.” Sometimes they murmur, ‘mosha,’ or ‘moiya.’
Zwielkuchen, onion cakes in front, a typical fall treat.
The wonderful faces of the bakery clerks immediately brightened as I checked in for my usual double espresso and a fresh roll.  O---, a cute older clerk, with a blond ponytail that jumps like a twitching teenager when she walks, came from around the counter, stepped close, shook my hand and stared into my eyes.  For a sec I thought she’d used super glue on her fingers and we’d be stuck together ‘til dead do us part.  Can’t complain about early skin on skin. As for the staring, you have to remember that staring is a part of the German culture.  As children, I’m sure the school’s morning rule is:  first one to stop staring gets flogged.

You drive through a neighborhood and pedestrians stop and stare with the gaping intensity of well-aimed cannon.  I always smile and wave to complete strangers, just to give them pause to think they might know me after all.  And if it’s a wife who’s walking with her spouse and staring, I wink and wave and lick my lips.

When Germans toast, they raise their glasses and shout Prost!  They MUST also stare into each other’s eyes, or risk a year of bad sex.  Now, I know you’re thinking…hey, at this point in my life, and with my current hands-on life style, even bad sex...

Previously, I gave you a few ‘good morning’ options.  Language is constantly changing and being abbreviated, a lesson high school language teachers, in their slave like devotion to complete sentences, apparently never learned, mainly because few are native speakers of the language they’re teaching, or because the French they learned in 1960 does not take into account ripped jeans, green hair, tattoos, and the mandatory ‘like’ now populating every casual remark.  So now I’m going to like give you a few like for-instances.

For example, no German uses the word Fraulein to describe a young woman anymore. Everything is Frau these days, which can mean woman or wife.  I know American women would wince if a husband introduced them as “my woman.’  You might also hear’ junge Frau’ for a young woman, as opposed to ‘Jungfrau’, meaning virgin.  Another word seldom used.

But, before you get your knickers twisted and go braless (which I heartily recommend, by the way), I hasten to add it’s the same for men.  My Mann can mean both my man and my husband.

Even the word, yes (ja), is seldom used.  Instead, you’ll hear (as I did this morning from a tall, slender, very beautiful woman) the vulgar sounding yaw!   This is not to say that I’m entirely put off by vulgar women, but I do have my standards, though often cloaked in the dark corners of my libido.

You might be interested to know, even in the heat of summer, which is to say only as warm as April in Georgia, German women do not go braless.  This is unfortunate.

And speaking of sartorial arrangements, what of the other sex, the hairy legged destroyers of virtue?  German men frequently go for three quarter length to half-length jeans.  Only place I’ve seen that on Y chromosomes in the states is on toddlers being hand towed by impatient mothers.

So, I sat and joined the other malingerers, sipping my coffee, reading my book and reflecting on all I’d learned on this bright morning.  Wait a sec….O is headed my way again….and she’s staring…

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Off to the German Bakery

Making my morning trek to the bakery, I often listen to French lessons on my iPhone.  Why French?  Lots of explaining to do, but to continue:

So, this very odd American strolls down the street casting out a string of very random phrases in French. Nobody seems to be with him and no one dares approach to ask.

I don’t understand what you mean.

You don’t understand what I mean?

Do you understand what I mean?

I am excited to understand what you mean.

I didn’t understand yesterday, but will try to understand what you mean today.

Understanding what you mean is very important to me.

Does this mean you understand me?

Can you understand me when I tell you what I mean?

Some people only stare and Germans are among the world’s best starers.  Others gather their children protectively.  Those walking their dogs cross the street and readjust the leashes.  I smile.  They clutch their children closer.

The German bakery (Bäckeri), just fifteen minutes away, is my German wakeup.  I chat with random people, know most of the staff, read a book, drink a couple of coffees, and munch a redolent roll just retrieved from an industrial oven that billows out steam and fresh bread aroma when a bakery clerk cracks open the door.

D--- is a beautiful woman, in her mid twenties and pregnant with their second child.  She works swing shifts, modified to allow one parent to take their son to the kindergarten.  Yes, Germans use the same word, which in German means Children’s Garden.  Oh, that it were so in every school everywhere.

D---’s husband is a metal worker and the money is good.  Her back aches some.  Her baby is doing fine, but she sometimes has morning sickness.  I pull a trashcan over and she smiles.

The apprentice program is still a bulwark of jobs in Germany.  Electricians, carpenters, bakery clerks, plumbers, as well as office workers all serve an apprenticeship of some length. For bakery clerks it’s a couple of months, long enough to impart sufficiency in every phrase of the operation. And it’s a big operation, with not only more than half a dozen satellite outlets, but also trucks leaving for deliveries to shops and restaurants and grocery stores in a steady flow of morning traffic.

Some of the ladies here have been here for years. Pleasing smiles and welcoming attitudes are ingrained.  Every customer is respected and the customers are varied. Some workers in well-worn work clothes come in for a coffee and roll to go (to take with, in German), others want a sandwich.  One woman, whom I believe works at a nearby kindergarten, strolls out with a huge sack of rolls every early morning.  If you get there at 0730, you’ll have missed her.

Interesting how the clerks ask the questions in a different way than we do in English.

Instead of “Who’s next?”  They say, “Who comes?”

Instead of “Anything else?” or  “Is that it?” the Germans say, “Another wish?”

M--- is a longtime counter clerk and she always asks about my family.  “How’s your wife?”

“My wife?  I’m not married.”  I pat the seat beside me.  M--- gives me a reluctant smile or grimace.  Hard to tell.  With a dismissive wave, she goes back to work.  But, she does come back later and steps much closer.

Mostly it’s the people that keep me coming back, but it’s also a very nice and comfortable spot to observe the changing of the seasons based solely on what customers are wearing.  They’re in scarves and jackets now and the parade of folks is as interesting as their sartorial styles.  Open toed sandals have given way to clunkier footwear. The young mothers push one well-wrapped babe in a stroller and eye a toddler making a mess of the glass on the display counters.  Retired men and women sit at one of the three tables and chat while they sip milk coffee and pack in enough sweet rolls to supply Mrs. Betty Buns’ obesity club.  The older wives come in, dressed to the nines, the way American women used to dress before our culture gave up the ghost.

But, German youth have spent enough time immersed in American TV culture that they also sport ripped jeans, untied sneakers, an array of tattoos and hair colors formerly reserved for rodeo clowns.

From my experience, German bakeries serve as the same kind of social leveler as pubs do in England.  Everyone is welcome and everyone comes by, even if a strange American comes through the door spouting unrelated sentences in French.