Picard: a dirty little secret of the French

So before we arrive in La France, we non-French perhaps imagine that all French people have an advanced knowledge of wines and cheeses, and while we don’t expect the full Julia Child/Jacques Pepin experience, we expect that most native French should be able to make a few classic French dishes from scratch, from maman‘s recipes or perhaps from grandmere.  This is not an unreasonable expectation.

What you don’t expect, what you can’t possibly believe, is that a store like Picard exists.

picardIt only sells frozen food.  To be warmed up in an oven or microwave.  No, this isn’t some monstrosity dreamed up by an American.  This. Is. In. France.  And it’s wildly popular.

“I, I just can’t believe Picard exists,” I sputter to my French friends.  A slow smile often creeps into their mien – but Stephen, it has good food, bio (organic), you know – I wave my hand dismissively.  “Do you realize your word for kitchen (cuisine) means, essentially, thoughtful or good food in my language?  And then I find out that you guys are warming up premade food?”

“Oh, but Stephen, you know, no time, metro, boulot, dodo, etc.”

“In the land of the 35-hour work week?” I ask plaintively.

Now, I’m being a bit unfair about that 35-hour work week as I’ll explain in a future article about the work lives of the French.  Suffice to say I have more than one French or expat friend who works until 20h00 on weeknights, so I fully understand and believe the, “I’m too tired to cook” response.  I know, because I’ve been there.  I’ve come home later than 22h00 many nights when I lived in America.

But when life becomes a succession of warming up food (or buying takeaway), what is the point of living here, or anywhere, for that matter?  One of the things I enjoy so much about France is the superabundance of fresh food and produce; butchers, fishmongers, cheesemongers, produce sellers, bakers: they are out at all hours, replicating what has been done for centuries, giving you the key ingredients to make food for yourself.

The thirty minutes you spend warming up some second-rate boxed lasagna, organic or not, could be spent making an omelette or a salad.  Or pasta.  Or grilling some veal, or rabbit, or lamb, while boiling some potatoes or steaming some veg for garnish.  In fact, 30 minutes would be long for “end of workday” versions of any of those suggestions.

I don’t expect all to take as much pleasure as I do in buying food, making my mise-en-place, and delighting in the cooking process, down to the colors of my food in correspondence and interplay with whatever season we find ourselves in.  But I do expect those who inhabit a country conscious enough of their own pride in everything to put a cock on the crest of the national sports teams to live up to the inheritance, the patrimony, they have been bequeathed, and has been bequeathed to the whole world.  The whole world looks to France as a (perhaps the) standard of cooking.

Which means Picard is simply not good enough.  Ever.  Generations who worked in the fields and offices long before Picard existed managed to cook and eat well.  You should too…whatever country or galaxy you live in.

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Postscript: I should note that it’s simply more expensive to eat processed food, both in terms of financial cost and health cost.  However, I tend to see these as “last ditch” arguments.  People should accept the premise that cooking their own food is a good to be desired in and of itself.

NYC: Parisians’ Delight

I’m always curious to know what fellow Parisians think of their visits to my beloved United States.  Often they have been to America, and usually, they have been to New York.  Now, when most people tell me they’ve visited New York, I tend to ask, “where” because I don’t assume they mean NYC.  And I certainly don’t mean what Parisians mean, which is Midtown Manhattan.

While Midtown has its own striking features, it’s hardly “New York” and worse, it’s hardly worthy of the answer to my follow up question of “Why do you like it?” which is “Because it’s the most European city in America.”

The one time I was eating when someone said this to me I almost choked.  That statement is so untrue on a number of levels, and I usually have to ask a number of follow-up questions to clarify why my acquaintance or friend has come to such a strange point-of-view.  Some commonalities:

1.  NYC is the only American city he/she has visited

2.  While there, he/she never visited Brooklyn, Queens, or the other boroughs.

3.  He/she was there for a week or less

These circumstances, combined with an ignorance about what other American cities have to offer, or worse, an ignorance about European cities, inevitably lead some of these Parisians to an idolization of NYC which is unwarranted.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the Cloisters.  And the High Line.  And Brooklyn.  The Park.  Washington Square.  The MET and all the things that make NYC great.  But it’s not our finest city.  That title firmly belongs in the hands of San Francisco (but that article is for another time).  For now I’ll confine my remarks to NYC.

The cityscape itself

NYC is part of an elite group of skyscraper cities, which includes Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, and the like.  There is nothing European about streetscapes and cityscapes of massively tall buildings that create wind tunnels.  Indeed, in Paris all such buildings are clustered outside the city limits, at La Defense, as if to say – build these if you must, but please don’t invade our living space.

I’m not arguing that skylines need to look like Florence’s, where the majestic Duomo and the competing Medici Tower dominate and all other buildings rise to about the same level, significantly below both those buildings.  But NYC’s cityscape matches none in Europe.

The melting pot

On this point it’s important to note that London and Paris, like NYC, fall into the category of “international cities.”  Surely you will learn about England and France, respectively, upon visiting those cities, but if you want to really know Britain, you need to go out into the shires.  Or to neighboring countries within the United Kingdom, like Wales.  If you would know France you should visit Bordeaux.  Or Bayeux.  Or Grenoble.  Or Strasbourg.  Those are all “European cities.”  But they are not multi-cultural melting pots.

London and Paris are playgrounds for those of us who love to learn about other cultures, but as “European cities” they are outliers.  Most European cities have a dominant language, ethnic majority, cuisine, and culture.  And at least, at the end of the day, London and Paris can claim their own culture too.  But what is NYC, but the cathedral of change and the bastion of commercialism and the consumer culture?  NYC is in its own way, a celebration of no identity and no heritage and no culture because of the mistaken belief that since all cultures are “equal” (whatever that means) that a melange of all is a culture in and of itself.  It’s not, and the banal and ubiquitous “I love NY” shirts is perhaps representative of what NYC can be at times: tourist hype.

The cost of living

One of the magical things about Wimbledon is that it’s still one of the major sporting events that you can buy tickets for the day of, at face value.  You’ve got to queue, but that’s really a minor inconvenience. 🙂  It allows the groundlings to mix with the elite who never needed to queue to have an assured place.

A European city still has a place for the least affluent in our society (and I’m not talking about the homeless here: they manage to find spots all over the world).  Paris is on the margins of affordability, but NYC is in another solar system by comparison.

This is all to say that my fellow Parisians might look for some treasures off the beaten path the next time they decide to visit the US.  This HuffPo list might be the place to start.

NYC: hardly the most European city in America.  It’s not even the most American city in America. 🙂

The Three Changes

This particular move features three major changes for me: a different country, a different language, and a different environment.  I’ll start with the last one first.

The City

I was born into one of the densest cities in the modern world: Singapore.  This tiny nation-state has 5.4 million people packed into 276 square miles (Americans might consider that 8.5 million people inhabit the 5 boroughs that comprise NYC, which sits on 303 square miles).  Singapore taught me at an early age that a city can be a safe place for a kid.  As a six-year-old I excitedly rode the MRT (subway system) by myself on Mondays when I had altarboy duties at our parish across town.  I heard different languages (Malay, Chinese, Tagalog) swirl around me.  I saw every color of person imaginable.  And the food.  Well, let’s just say that in 2009, my first visit back to the island since I was 11, I gained 10 pounds in 3 weeks.  I firmly believe Singapore has the best food in the world, and still do, despite living in the country that literally gave the world the word cuisine.  However, for all my love of cities, most of my life has been spent in suburban settings.

Because America west of the Mississippi was imagined and built around the car, my stints in Texas (Dallas), California (Los Angeles, Orange County), Kansas (Overland Park), and Missouri (St. Louis) all accepted as prima facie access to a vehicle.  The access to this vehicle not only defined your everyday schedule, but by and large, your entire lifestyle.  This lifestyle, the suburban lifestyle, while comfortable, safe, and warm, is a novelty in human affairs, and is premised upon the lie of ongoing, infinite access to cheap and easy oil.

The rural life has some splendid isolation and the city is a collective of the culture of a society but the lukewarm suburbs are no real part of either.  James Howard Kuntsler, in a myriad of jeremiads against the “noplace” that is suburbia, has made this case numerous times far more eloquently than I can.  Take a read through his Home from Nowhere if you want to be confronted with the (un)reality of the modern suburb.

This is all to say that city living is radically different from suburban living, in so many ways.  We can start with one of the costs of living: housing.  It’s almost always more expensive to live in a city.  A 10×10 room in Paris (I’m talking feet, not meters), as in NYC, will cost you at least $1,000USD per month, and that is with no promise of either a shower or toilet ensuite.  Unless you share a home or apartment, you will also be lugging your laundry to a laundromat.

But after you’ve exhaled, realize the disappearance, or the decrease, at least, of another cost of living: transportation.  I save roughly $120USD (accounting for exchange rates) by not owning a car in Paris.  I owned my last car free and clear so I didn’t have a monthly car payment, but I still paid $125/month in car insurance and at least $75/month in gas.  This is to say nothing of car washes, oil changes, tire changes, routine maintenance, and of course, annual registration.  I am now in possession of a monthly Metro pass which allows me to go anywhere that matters in Paris by train, tram, or bus.  For an additional 29 euros per year, I’m also allowed to use the bikes all over the city for the first 30 minutes of my journey for free (the locations can easily be found on Velib, a smartphone app).  I have never waited more than 6 minutes for a metro anywhere in the city, and because Paris is such an old city, it is eminently walkable (for an intact example of a medieval city, visit Assisi in Italy or Toledo in Spain, both of which can be traversed from one end to another in 20 minutes).  Because of its layout you often won’t realize that you’re covering 3-4 miles per day on foot (though, if you’re not used to those distances, don’t worry: your body will inform you very shortly!).

This foot-driven travel forces you to meet your fellow city-dwellers.  Americans prefer the quiet isolation of their cars.  They have their own agendas and itineraries that are subject to no one else.  City living doesn’t allow you that choice (well not without the hassle of traffic and not-free parking).  You have to deal with the homeless, the musicians, the weirdos, the deviants, the children, the elderly, and all the fascinating tapestry of humanity that comprises any big city.

What makes Paris, and some big cities, special, is the architecture and history all around you.  Architecture inspires and uplifts.  It’s difficult to walk by things like the Arc de Triomphe or Notre Dame, or inside any number of the hundreds of churches in Paris, and not feel inspired (well, unless you’re already dead inside – but even then these can provide powerful return-from-death shots).  The magnificence and beauty in those structures reminds the ordered mind that building things that are worthwhile in this passing world is perhaps the most relevant harbinger of the eternity that is ahead for all of us.

The last opportunity I had to live in a city environment was during the year I finished my MBA in Saint Louis.  I was in the Lou Monday-Friday and in Kansas City on the weekends (I drove the dreadful I-70 stretch twice a week.  I know.  Ugh.).  In Saint Louis I lived in Lafayette Square, near the oldest park west of the Mississippi, in the largest collection of Victorian homes in the country.  I loved it, and have always dreamed of a return to St. Louis since my 2011 departure (on a separate note, while beautiful churches on the mind, I believe that the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is the most beautiful church in the United States.  Check it out sometime).

It is perhaps the parks that are omnipresent in any well-planned city that are the greatest consolation for nature lovers.  There are no shortage of places of quiet contemplation amidst the city that accepts 27 million visitors per year.  Perhaps the reason this change has not been so drastic for me is because I’ve always despised suburban life, despite having existed in it most of my life.  Humans have a remarkable capability to thrive even in the most spiritually impoverished environments.

The Language

The #1 stated reason for my move to France is and always has been to acquire an extremely high level of fluency in the language.  I never thought this could be done outside of an immersive environment.  I took a short holiday in London about 10 days after my move to France and I remember sharing with some friends that my French had advanced more during my 10 days immersed in Paris than in my 4 previous trips to Paris and my 5 previous visits to Montreal (all of which were fewer than 4 days in duration).  French, particularly for English speakers, has the double challenge of masculine/feminine words and unusual sounds.  Too often those of us trying to speak the language fall into the trap of simply trying to mimic a sound we hear instead of accepting that sound on its own terms (my classic example is the word “un,” which means “one” in French.  I don’t hesitate with the pronunciation now but I always did in the past.).

Perhaps even more fun than the disorientation of transitioning from being a native speaker of a language to being the primary school etudiant in another, is the cultural exchange that happens as you explain idioms to new friends.  These expressions don’t just define a way of thinking, but also can, in some ways, define a people.  Speaking another language also helps you realize how grateful you are for the fun you can have as a native speaker with wordplay, puns, and literary illusions.

The Country

It would take too long to talk about all the misconceptions the French have about Americans and vice versa.  That’s something I hope to cover in a future article.  For now, I’ll leave you with two important facts: 1) the first treaty ever signed by the US government was with the France of Louis XVI, without whose naval and military assistance the United States would quite possibly have never come into existence; 2) in the 1990s, Ambassador Walter Curley, perhaps on behalf of all Americans who have taken the time to study history, laid a wreath on the tomb of King Louis XVI in tribute of all he did for America.

While it is true that I love France – it is perhaps more true to say that I love the France of old.  As a monarchist I am drawn to the history of the kings in France while being simultaneously repulsed by the unmitigated horror show that was (and is) the French Revolution, with its disgusting tri-color flag, its monuments to murder, and its national anthem celebrating revolution and all the blood that flowed from it.  Even though France is now on its 5th Republic (apparently the kings weren’t entirely clueless) the French remain a people and a country unable to fully accept the Revolution in all its implications.  Over a million marched here in Paris just last year in protest against homosexual “marriage,” and a law just passed that outlawed “free shipping” of books in France.

Both of these events can help instruct those who are not familiar with the concepts of the two Frances: the two countries created within the minds of the French when Louis XVI’s head was separated from his body on that mournful day in 1793.  There is the notion of the “real” France, which is Catholic and royalist, and the “legal” France, which is anticlerical and republican (this distinction does not exist in Anglo countries, due to Henry VIII’s dramatic unification of the church and state within his person – and the subsequent irrelevancy of the former during the ascendancy of the latter: by the time it came to the founding of America the masonic dream had been realized.  America was a country founded on the absurd notion that God and His laws were a matter of taste, not fact).  While since the 1960s the “legal” country has gained a decisive upper hand, the “real” France still manifests itself in conscious and subconscious ways.  The march on behalf of traditional marriage is an obvious example of a conscious manifestation.  As for the free shipping thing, we have to go further back in history, and we’ll also have to cut through the lies you were told about guilds and protectionism.

“Protectionism” as it might be understood broadly, accepts the fundamental premise that those who are close to you – whether they are family or simply your fellow citizens – are more important than foreigners or strangers.  The subsequent principle that also follows is that money – the most important value in the modern world, can never trump that sensibility.  Guilds were a medieval expression of those principles within the marketplace.  Guilds helped to control prices in a particular trade or craft so that no one newcomer could come and destabilize the entire industry through disruption.  Innovations were shared so that the entire industry moved forward together (we see this in contemporary Japanese patent practice – all patents are published 6 months before the patent is put in place, which means all the competitors can adapt.  The patent filing is hence more an object of pride that makes the entire industry move up together rather than the ossifying force it can be in US markets).  People could come and apprentice in an industry (think internships, except you got paid and actually did work).  They would, after a period of time, produce a “master-piece” (yes, that’s where the word comes from) which, if judged worthy, would launch their own independent career separate from the Master who apprenticed them.  This also provided exit strategies for Masters to retire (there was a stream of capable people you had personal knowledge of who could buy your business or help you expand it).  It also provided protection for those within the guild.  If you became sick, injured, or God forbid, died in an untimely fashion, the guild would take care of your wife and children monetarily.  After hundreds of years of this kind of thinking you can well imagine that the French, despite being a host country of the European Union, find it difficult to shake off the protectionist streak within themselves.  Indeed, that is why Pandora, Netflix, and now Amazon’s free shipping, are outlawed.

France is trying to protect its market from foreign innovations.  But coupled with a largely socialist mentality of the past decades one arrives at a swamp of indifference and inertia.  The EU, a worldwide leader in free trade and open borders, is continuously pushing universalization “in diversity.”  The French fancy themselves part of this as well, but their protectionist practices in the environment of hold-your-hand socialism provides an environment in which the young French are happy to enjoy every American innovation while not having any hunger to start their own copycats, even.  The “anti-amazon law,” as the French newspapers call it, is coming into existence to protect Frances’ many (and lovely) independent bookstores, bookstores which are considered part of the country’s “cultural heritage.”  Free shipping from Amazon, coupled with the legally-mandated 5% maximum discount on book prices, gave Amazon an unfair competitive advantage.  And this was unacceptable (although don’t doubt for a second that there wasn’t some political payback involved).  But the reality of being unable to escape the French subconscious (sustainable and protectionist) traps the French in a self-satisfied dream of the past.

As with all rich and colorful dreams, the memories linger.  Effects of the French domination of culture through its cuisine, language, art, and literature, still linger worldwide.  But as the French celebrate the remnants of their past successes the world moves inexorably forward, led – for better or worse – by the country that France helped birth: les Etats-Unis.

It is these three changes – the city of Paris itself, its language, and its history within France – that will linger with me long after I return to the New World.  For now they are the changes I most celebrate and subsume myself in, because to understand the future we have to know the past.

Why Paris?

Once people get past the shock of my moving to Paris, the usual next question is, “Why?”  Perfectly reasonable question.

When I first started answering this question, I responded with, “If you’ve been there, you know why, if you haven’t, when you come you will understand.”  But in a country populated by fellow Americans, that answer didn’t fly.  I had to remember that I couldn’t assume everyone had a good experience in the city of my dreams.  In fact, the default expectation, over time, came to be that they had not.

One of the things I’ve tried to do when I educate people about Paris is try to point out that some of the things they try to put on the French or Parisians are neither “French” nor “Parisian.”  They are simply “city” things.

Take for example, the sidewalk.  In a city like Paris, where walking is the norm and cars are the exception, there are certain lanes and flows.  There is a “fast-moving” lane in which people who know where they are going and are going there with a purpose and speed are walking.  There’s a medium lane where people know where they are going but aren’t in a hurry.  Then there’s the tourist lane.  Maps out, smartphones in hand, with the pace of a turtle.  Hey, we’ve all been there.  No harm in it.  Just don’t be upset when people bump into you because you stopped in the middle of a sidewalk.  It’s not your yard or a garden.  It’s a sidewalk.  And you would get bumped into in New York or Chicago just as easily as you would in Paris.

I’ve also been told about how many people are there.  No argument.  Almost 30 million people visit the City of Light every year, on top of the millions of French (plus one more American, soon!) who make that city their home.  But that’s part of city travel.  You’re not going to really understand how and why people live in the chaotic and yet ordered mess ANY city is unless you’re willing to lay aside some of your (unreasonable) prejudices and (reasonable) discomfort to simply move forward and embrace the experience.

Another is the language barrier.  Yes, sure there are French who genuinely don’t speak more than a few words of English.  But many French people do.  Americans often don’t understand what pride the French take in their culture, nation, and language.  But this is because France (for now) is both a nation and a people.  America is barely a nation and was never really a people.  From the beginning America has been a mix of Natives, French, Spanish, English, and later, Africans.  If you can understand that deep LOVE for a language (which English speakers, who rarely take pride in their language nor study its beautiful prose and poetry – which can go head-to-head with any other language in quality, in my opinion) then you can and should understand that the BEST way to encounter the French is always to ask, in French, if they speak English.  “S’il vous, plait, parlez-vous Anglais?”  Phonetically this renders as “see voo play, pahr-lay voo ahn-glay?.”  If they say no, try someone else.  If you just go up to them, speaking your language, assuming they too speak it, it’s not just rude, it’s disrespectful.  This is part of cultural exchange.  Americans are so used to everything being done in, around, and for them.  Going to other countries implicitly asks you to realize that they don’t necessarily go in for that (and why should they?).

But here I’ve been going on about answering objections to why people don’t want to go to Paris, and I’m missing the chance to tell you why I want to live there.  I’ll let some pictures tell that story.

Paris 2009 Day 1 045

The food, of course.  The French take eating, mealtimes, and food very seriously.  It’s impossible to fathom the idea of eating at your desk, in your car, or from a drive-thru.  I look forward to breaking myself of those habits.

Paris 2009 Day 1 075 (1)

Seeing things that are hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old, staring back at you, with the detail and symmetry of a human hand unguided by computers.  And seeing stuff like this almost everywhere you turn.

Paris and Versailles 165

And seeing it at night.

Paris 2009 Day 2 022 (1)

The Musee d’Orsay – a treat for any lover of Impressionism.  Set within an old railway station, it’s always there for you to stroll through.

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Or if you want to watch people do copies of Van Goghs.  Awesome.

Paris Day 4 061 (1)Did I mention the food here? 🙂

Paris 2009 Day 2 003 (1)Nights like this on cobblestone streets, chatting with new friends and thinking about your day.

Paris Day 3 017Days like this, when you have the joy of digging into a crepe with Nutella on the side.