Sunday, April 29, 2012

The French Connection

The Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero.
In the spirit of TAKS and STARR standardized testing this past week, I took some time off from teaching lessons.  Instead, Samantha and I took advantage of our free time by jumping on an airplane and flying to France to visit my youngest brother Joey.  This was our first time in France, and I do have to admit, I was readily anticipating encountering stereotype after stereotype.  I was pleasantly surprised - the French did not live up to my negative expectations.
As timid Americans, we emerged from our United flight weary and excited, unsure in how well our limited French skills would help but eager to try.  With the help of a very polite airport employee (speaking clear English), we were able to locate the trans-terminal train and find our way to the Gare Charles du Gaul (the train station at the airport).  After fighting with the electronic ticket machine for a little while (it helps to read ALL the directions), we had our tickets in hand and were ready for the four hour train ride to Nantes where we would meet my two brothers.
Waiting to catch our train connection in Le MAns.
Our train ride was our first experience with an unexpected French characteristic - silent trains.  Whether on a cross-country train, a regional commuter train, a local tram, or the Paris metro, French people are uncomfortably silent.  Conversations take place in hushed whispers, leaned in close to the ear.  I am a mumbler - I fit right in.  
We did encounter a stereotype in our train commutes, but not a French one.  The French regard Americans as loud and brash, unaware of their surroundings, who never attempt to meld into the local culture.  Unfortunately, we discovered the truth behind our own stereotype.  While we were not the typical Americans - neither of us are loud people - Americans on the trains might have well been draped in the Stars and Stripes.  They were loud, brash, and even made us uncomfortable with their volume.
Our time in Nantes was characterized by walking tours of the city, enjoying the local food and wine, and enjoying the French people.  Joey, my brother, is wrapping up a year of study in Nantes as a French Studies major.  He was a gracious host, welcoming us into his dorm and cooking for us, acting as translator everywhere we went, and leading us through the sights of Nantes and the surrounding area.
Another French stereotype proved wrong for us both in Nantes and in Paris - the French are polite.  In every encounter, whether in a restaurant or cafe, at a ticket window, on a train, or with the bathroom attendant, French people are pleasant.  Bonjour!  Sil vous plait!  Merci!  Bon soir!  Always ready with a please and thank you, the French welcomed us into their country with open arms.  Even when they knew we were Americans.
Gigantic crepes at The Puss in Boots cafe in Clisson.
French food was tasty.  We had crepes a plenty, galettes smothered in cheese, the traditional croque monsieur, croissants nearly every day.  Freshly baked bread accompanied every meal, and sometimes became the meal.  Cheese was delicious and abundant - we even saw hamburgers served with a thick slice of parmesan reggiano perched delicatly atop the bun.  The vegetables had to have been picked that day, perhaps from a garden just behind the cafe.
The best food we ate the entire trip was on the Rue Cler in Paris.  This little pedestrian street nestled between the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides Museum, where Napoleon’s tomb rests, transforms from a bustling market street during the afternoon into a row of sumptuous cafes after sunset.  The first night we ate at Cafe du Marche and enjoyed traditional french fare - I dined on Confit du Canard (duck fried in its own fat) accompanied with roasted pomme du terre (potatoes - literally apple of the earth), and a green salad.  We accompanied our dishes with a pichet of Burgandy.
The amazing Tomate Mozza
The next night we ate next door at a place owned by the same people.  Tribeca is a traditional French cafe serving Italian food.  We sat a few tables down from some loud Americans and feasted on Tomate Mozza salad, Lasagna Bolognase, and a Parma Ham pizza, accompanied by a pichet of Bousilly Grenache.  Wow!  This was the best food yet.  It was only outdone upon our return to Tribeca the next night.  We began with the same salad, but this time dined on the Penne and a Margherita Pizza.  The wine was so good from the night before we ordered another pichet. 
Just a funny little note - my breakfast of choice in Paris was Pain du Raisin from a boulangerie near our hotel.  The translation is grape bread.  The French don’t have a word differentiating between grape and raisin, so even though I ate raisin bread, it is called grape bread.  Oh, and it is delicious.
Now, we didn’t just ride trains and eat the whole time.  We saw the sites as well.  In Nantes we enjoyed the Chateau du Ducs Bretagne - the castle protecting the region of Britannia from the French Kings during the 1200s.  We saw the Cathedral du Nantes, and were even filmed by an amateur French filmmaker making a film about a spy.  Samantha and I played the role of anonymous spies, sitting in a pew to covertly receive a “package” from the main spy.  We traveled to the small town of Clisson to visit another chateau, this one part of a defensive ring of castles surrounding Nantes.  
In Paris, we climbed the stairs to the second level of the Eiffel Tower, said hello to Napoleon, learned about WWI and WWII, got dirty looks in Chanel on the Champs Elysee, climbed the Arch du Triomphe, wandered the gardens of Versailles in the cold wind and rain, saw where Marie Antoinette escaped from the Parisian mobs, negotiated the maze that is the Louvre, basked in the ethereal light cast by the stained glass windows in both Notre Dame and Saint Chapelle, and ate at the most profitable McDonald’s in the world.
All in all, our trip was fantastic.  Sure, the weather could have been more pleasant (low 40s, windy, rainy), but at least the lines were short everywhere we went and the French BO was kept to a minimum.  The people were beautiful, the food and wine was amazing, and the aura of France was magical.  Thanks France for showing us such a great time and for dispelling some stereotypes in the process.

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