Saturday, February 26, 2011

These incroyables (incredible) French waiters

"French waiters. If you're nice, they treat you like sh#@*
Treat them like sh#@*, they love you!

Kate (Meg Ryan). American tourist stranded in France.
French Kiss, 1995.

After traveling back and forth between France and the United States for over 30 years; after reading countless cross-cultural studies, books and articles on the two nations; after listening to friends and students' stories about their adventures in my homeland; I have concluded that dealing with French waiters may very well be one of the most challenging, aggravating, entertaining, and ultimately genuine experiences a foreign visitor may encounter in France. To that effect, I have recently researched (or "binged") these two apparently harmless words "F.r.e.n.c.h. w.a.i.t.e.r." online. I can't believe how many articles popped up on my screen. It seems French waiters have been -and continue to be - a huge source of inspiration for writers, all the more so if said writers are Americans who at some point, led the expat life in Paris.

Le French waiter
To save you some time, I will try and summarize what most writers seem to agree on:
  • First impressions are hard to change. Unfortunately, many visitors' first impressions are that French waiters are very different from their American counterparts, and not in a good way. They do not greet their customers with a big smile. They are not particularly friendly. They are not patient. Some can be plain rude. There is an air of seriousness about them: French waiters always wear the traditional waiter "uniform" (black pants, black vest, white shirt, bow tie, impeccable shoes).

  • Fortunately, foreign visitors (noticeably the people who have lived in France for extended periods of time) also report on more positive traits: French waiters are professional and knowledgeable. They are good at multi-tasking and very efficient. They may or may not write down an order but hardly make mistakes.  They are discreet and never rush their customers. They love offering recommendations and talking about the day's specials. Many comment that the language barrier is as frustrating to the waiter as it is to the foreign visitor. All too often, the waiter's wonderful sense of humor gets lost in translation. C'est dommage!
  • Perceptions aside, some interesting facts about French waiters include: They are highly trained. In France, you go to school to become a waiter. A good waiter knows how to work behind the counter (mixing drinks or pouring wine). He or she also knows how to serve food elegantly and efficiently, carrying heavy loads on the ubiquitous round tray. Waiters are proud of their profession and they have high standards (serving café au lait with lunch absolutely h.o.r.r.i.f.i.e.s. them and they might let you know!). Waiters respect their customer's privacy. They will not interrupt a conversation; won't hassle you to try and sell you another drink; won't rush you by bringing the check too early (a huge faux-pas in France). Since a 15% service charge is automatically added to your bill, the waiter does not work for a tip. Whether you decide to round off the bill and leave a few coins behind, don't expect him to grovel for a tip. He won't.

Since there is already so much information (and controversy) out there about French waiters, I wondered if I could still provide some valuable advice on how to deal with the French buggers. The answer is "Mais oui!". After all, theory is good, but how do you survive on a daily basis in France where you have to eat out at least once or twice a day? The most important thing you need to know when stepping into a French café or restaurant is how to catch your waiter's attention. After all, these guys are often best described as "professionally distant". They will not rush to you, greet you warmly, fuss over you when you arrive. Period. They may not even look at you as you are trying to decide if you should sit yourself or wait. Now what?

First things first.

You have to learn and use the magical word that opens many doors in France. That word is: "Bonjour" (listen to the pronunciation here). It is a lovely little word, France's finest greeting ("Good day")
 and you want to throw it out there in a lively, happy voice. If that is the only French word you ever learn, make sure to say it well, and say it often. Every time you enter a public place (une boulangerie, une boutique and of course un café); every time you approach a French native because you need help, you should always, always start with "Bonjour!" Consider yourself warned. I - and the other unfortunate souls - who have occasionally forgotten to say "Bonjour" before asking a question have learned the lesson the hard way. It does not matter if nobody answers, or if you did not make eye contact. You did the right thing. You greeted the natives. 

As soon as the waiter turns around, try and make eye contact. Wave at him if he is standing on the other side of the room. If he is closer, say: "Monsieur, s'il vous plaît" (muss-YUH see-voo-PLAY) but do not, under any circumstances, call out: "Garçon"-- that's if you expect a reaction. True, "garçon de café" is the traditional name of French waiters. True, it was used way back when to call a waiter's attention. Not anymore.

Once the waiter has acknowledged your presence, say "Bonjour", then start ordering or ask your question (more information about ordering food in a later post).

Often, you will get lucky and will be served by an excellent waiter, swift, attentive, courteous and professional. French waiters do professional like no other waiters in the world. Le Husband and I were reminded of this when we had lunch at the Ritz hotel last Christmas. You may remember that story.   But there are all kinds of waiters, and all kinds of people. Do not be turned off if your waiter does not smile, or seems brusque (abrupt) and impatient. Nothing personal. He acts the same way with everybody else around you. There are other customers waiting, and he is trying to serve them all. If you read last week's post, you already know how to order in a French café like a pro. Occasionally (ahem-- I am looking at you, Paris), you will bump into the rude or indifferent French waiter. When that happens to me, I do not try to set him straight, or teach him a lesson. He does not really need my tip, nor is he interested in becoming my friend.  I just leave and take my business somewhere else. Fortunately, there are cafés at every street corner in France.

Now that you have read all this, look at this picture. If you do not like the way this waiter is  looking at you, do not take things too personally. Remember, this is how he would look at everyone, including his French customers.

Why the frown? Maybe he is in a bad mood. Maybe the sun
 is in his eyes.  Does it matter?

A bientôt!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Une visite au café

Today, we pay a visit to a French institution: le café (coffee shop) and we learn how to order. I would like to dedicate this story to all my students who came back from France and asked me: "How on Earth do you order a café latte?!"  Apparently, ordering a café au lait did not always do the trick! This is an article for intermediate students. Try reading the article first, then look for the free translation at the end if you need help. Bonne lecture!

Quand vous séjournez en France, il y a quelques traditions à respecter. Quand on est à Rome, il faut faire comme les Romains, dit-on. Une de ces traditions est de passer du temps dans un café. Même si on peut déjeuner ou dîner dans un café français, le café, en Europe, est un endroit où on va souvent simplement pour boire un verre, ou pour rencontrer un ami, une relation de travail. Il n'est pas nécessaire de commander à manger.

Pour donner rendez-vous à un ami dans un café voisin, on peut dire: "Allons au café"; "Allons au troquet"; "Allons au bistro".

Rendez-vous au café
Que peut-on consommer au café? Des boissons chaudes (thé, café, chocolat chaud); des boissons froides (soda, sirop à l'eau, jus de fruits), et même des boissons alcoolisées (vin, bière, liqueurs, cocktails).

Les différents types de boissons à base de café étonnent souvent les visiteurs étrangers. Aux Etats-Unis, grâce à Starbucks, on est habitué à boire un Latte, un Macchiato, un Americano, ou encore un Cappuccino. En France, vous l'aviez deviné, les choses sont un peu différentes.

Un express

Voici les principales boissons chaudes que vous pouvez commander au café: 

- Un café/un express: similaire à l'espresso aux Etats-Unis, mais servi dans une petite tasse.
- Un double express: un double espresso.
- Un crème: espresso et lait chauffé au percolateur, servi dans une tasse à espresso.
- Un grand crème: même boisson que le crème, mais servie dans une grande tasse.
- un café au lait: beaucoup de lait chaud, un peu de café. Attention: c'est une boisson pour le petit-déjeuner!
- Une noisette: un espresso avec un peu de lait chaud, servi dans une petite tasse. Le lait donne au café la couleur d'une noisette!
- Un cappuccino: même boisson qu'aux Etats-Unis.
- Un café allongé: un espresso servi avec de l'eau chaude, qui ressemble à un Americano.
- Un déca (décafféiné): un espresso sans cafféine.
- Un chocolat chaud: du chocolat en poudre, ou, si vous avez de la chance, du chocolat noir fondu, mélangé avec du lait.
- un thé: thé noir, thé vert, thé au citron par exemple.
- une infusion, une tisane: un thé aux herbes, sans cafféine, souvent consommé après le dîner.

Deux express, un café allongé et un crème

C'est compliqué, non? Alors, pour résumer, si vous voulez commander une boisson qui ressemble au café latte, demandez un grand crème. C'est meilleur que le café au lait et, paraît-il, plus facile à digérer. Si vous aimez dejeuner en buvant du café, ce sera difficile en France. Les restaurants ne préparent pas de "drip coffee" à l'américaine et le café est traditionnellement servi après le repas. Si le café vous est indispensable pour apprécier votre nourriture, vous pourriez peut-être commander un café allongé, qui vous rappellera certainement l'Americano. Ignorez alors l'air désapprobateur du serveur quand vous commandez votre café au début du repas ("Ah, ces Américains!") 

D'autres différences importantes entre la France et les Etats-Unis:

D'abord, vous ne pouvez pas choisir votre lait en France. En général, les boissons au café sont préparées avec du lait demi-écrémé.

Ensuite, votre café sera toujours servi dans une tasse en porcelaine (voir la photo ci-dessus). Si vous voulez commander votre café "à emporter", trouvez un Starbucks. C'est facile à Paris! En province, il faut patienter et consommer sur place, au café.

Le café dans la rue: Pas en France!

Enfin, dans tous les cafés français, les prix des boissons varie en fonction de l'endroit où vous consommez. 
Votre express sera plus cher si vous êtes assis en terrasse, un peu moins cher si vous choisissez une table dans la salle, et encore meilleur marché si vous le commandez au comptoir (appelé aussi "le zinc").

Les habitués se retrouvent au comptoir
Maintenant que vous savez tout, ou presque, sur les consommations proposées dans les cafés, il reste une autre étape: Comment approcher le célèbre serveur français?

--- A suivre...

Free translation:

While staying in France, one must follow a handful of traditions. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, as they say. One of these traditions is to spend some time in a French café. Even though you can have lunch and even dinner  there, a European coffee shop is a place where people go to enjoy a drink, or to meet a friend, possibly a business acquaintance. It is not necessary to order food there.
When making an appointment with a friend at a local café, you can say: "Let's go to the café" (troquet and bistro have the same meaning but are more conversational).

(Photo: Let's meet at the café)

What beverages can you enjoy at a French café? Hot drinks (tea, coffee, hot chocolate); cold drinks (soda, flavored syrups in mineral water, fruit juice); alcoholic drinks (wine, beer, spirits).
Different types of coffee-based drinks often surprise foreign visitors. In the United States, thanks to Starbucks, we are used to drinking lattes, Macchiatos, Americanos, or Cappuccinos. In France, as you might expect, things are a bit different.

(photo: French espresso in a standard espresso-size cup)

Here are the main beverages you can order in a French café (with pronunciation key):

- Un café/un express (uh nex-prehs): a shot of espresso served in an espresso-size cup.
Un double express: a double shot of espresso.
Un crème (uh krhem): espresso and steamed milk, served in an espresso-size cup.
Un grand crème (uh grah krehm): same beverage as Le crème, but served in a larger size cup.
un café au lait (uh kah-fay oh leh): a little bit of coffee and a whole lot of hot milk. Caution: in France café au lait is a breakfast beverage. 
Une noisette  (ewn nwah-zhet): a shot of espresso with a drop of steamed milk, served in a small size cup. The dash of milk gives coffee a beautiful hazelnut color, hence the name. 
Un cappuccino: roughly the same drink as in the United States.
Un café allongé (kah-fay ah-loh-zhay): a shot of espresso served with some hot water on the side. Similar to an Americano in the United States.
Un déca (uh day-kah): a decaf espresso shot.
Un chocolat chaud (uh shok-koh-lah sho): chocolate powder or, if you are lucky, melted dark chocolate, mixed with steamed milk. 
un thé (uh tay): black tea, green tea, lemon tea, for example. 
une infusion (ewn a-few-zyoh), une tisane (ewn tee-zahn): caffeine-free herbal tea, often enjoyed after dinner. 

(photo: Deux express, un café allongé et un crème)

It's complicated, isn't it? So, to recap, if you wish to order a beverage similar to a café latte, then ask for "un grand crème". It is tastier than café au lait and allegedly easier to digest. If you enjoy drinking coffee during lunch, this is going to be difficult to do in France. Most restaurants do not make the American style drip coffee and coffee is traditionally served after the meal. If you must have coffee with your food, then you could order "un café allongé" that will certainly remind you of an Americano. Ignore the disapproving waiter's face when you order said coffee at the beginning of the meal! ("Ah, ze Americans!")

Other important differences between France and the United States: 

First, you can't choose your milk in France. In general, coffee-based beverages are prepared with 2% milk.

Second, your coffee will always be served in a china cup (see the picture above). If you want to order your coffee "to go", find a Starbucks. It is easy to do in Paris. In the rest of the country, you will have to be patient  and enjoy your drink at the café. 

(photo: Drinking coffee in the street: Not in France!)

Finally, in all French cafés beverage prices vary with your choice of location. Your espresso will be more expensive if you are sitting on the patio; a little cheaper if you sit inside and an even better deal if you order and stand at the counter, also known as le zinc.

 (photo: Patrons meet at the counter)

Now that you know everything there is to know about the beverages served in cafés, there is one more step: how to approach the infamous French waiters?

-- To be continued. 


Sunday, February 13, 2011

French... or not?

"I am a snail", he admits... but quickly realizes his mistake!
Ever since I started visiting the United States, many years ago, a few expressions have puzzled me. They are the ones starting with "French": French poodle. French toast. French fries. French manucure, and so forth. I quickly realized some of these expressions were as French as... baseball and Corvettes. Why not investigate further?, I thought.  This could be fun. Fun it was. And interesting too. Voilà some of my findings. First of all, repeat after me: do not trust everything you hear! Case in point:

Oui, l'escargot is French, but there is no such thing
 as a snail jockey!
A favorite topic of this French girl's: Food. References abound. French toast. French fries. French dressing. French vanilla. French, all? Mais non!

Let's look at French toast. Everyone's favorite... brunch? Not so in France, where French toast has traditionally been enjoyed as a dessert and is called Pain Perdu, or lost bread, because it is made with stale bread ("Let's not waste food!", my grandma used to say, before whipping up a batch). Pain Perdu is therefore unpretentious fare, simply served with sugar or jam. After my parents' first cross-atlantic flight to Seattle, we embarked on a two-day road trip around the Olympic Peninsula. We spent our first night in a quaint little town named Forks. There were no vampires to be found in Forks at the time, just pick up trucks (some with shotguns in the back), a couple of tiny restaurants, and deep in the woods, our Bed and Breakfast. In the morning, when we all met at the communal breakfast table, our hostess proudly served her elaborate French toast (Challah bread layered with vanilla cream, fresh strawberries, all generously doused in maple syrup). My mom's eyes almost popped out of her head: "This is Pain Perdu?!", she exclaimed. Welcome to the Seattle area in the "fancy" mid-1990's, maman!
Le French Toast, or, as the French say: "Le Pain Perdu"
Another favorite: French fries. Even though the French enjoy les frites like the rest of the Western world; even though Thomas Jefferson offered "potatoes served in the French manner" at a White House dinner in 1802, it is commonly believed that the first fries were found in Belgium as early as the 17th century. In fact, a Wikipedia article spins a good tale:  The term "French" was likely introduced when American soldiers arrived in Belgium during World War I, and consequently tasted Belgian fries. Why "French fries"? The Belgian soldiers spoke French, of course, alors voilà, the G.I.s instantly gave credit to France for what was likely a Belgian invention. Ah, les Freedom fries! Quelle histoire!

A classic dish in Belgium, Mussels and Fries
You are starting to get the picture. What about French dressing? Apparently, this was originally the English (as in "British English") name for the popular vinaigrette dressing used in many French salads. It seems the original formula morphed into a very different product when la vinaigrette crossed the Atlantic Ocean. This morning, I picked up a bottle of French dressing at my local supermarket and gave it a closer look. What struck me first was the reddish-orange color. I did not see olive oil or herbs listed in the ingredients, but I found paprika and tomato purée (or was it ketchup?)... Hmmmm... 

This is getting un peu depressing. Are we to believe that when Americans refer to "French-this" or "French-that", then said this or that was not created in France? 
Wait, I know. What about the French poodle? Surely, this one is French. Guess again. It seems this curly little guy originated in Germany (Pudel, meaning "splash in the water"), but later became standardized in France where it is the national dog ("le caniche"). Oh non. French poodle seems to be (yet another) misnomer!

All right. One last try. This is Seattle. We know our coffee. What about the infamous French Press? Mesdames et messieurs, we have a winner... It seems the French press, or cafetière à piston, was invented in France at the end of the 19th century, even though it was patented much later by an Italian designer. Phewww! 

I can't wrap up this little story without mentioning a favorite American expression of mine: "Pardon my French!" Once again, I did some research (or, as we say chez les Savoye, "I Binged it"), and found interesting tidbits... As you know, "Pardon my French!" is commonly used in English-speaking countries in an attempt to disguise profanity as a foreign language. You may remember that funny scene in "Ferry Bueller's Day off" when Cameron calls Mr Rooney and says, "Pardon my French, but you're an a--!" Interesting, but where did the expression come from? It seems that in the 19th century, when English people used French words, they always apologized for them (in case other people did not understand French). This is a quote from an English magazine, in the 1830s': "Bless me, how fat you are grown! - absolutely as round as a ball!: - You will soon be as enbon-point* (excuse my French), as your poor dear father the major!"

And so, I ask you... Do French people use similar expressions? Mais oui! While in France, you may hear people refer to le café américain (American coffee), une cuisine américaine (an American kitchen), or une belle Américaine (referring to... an old-fashioned American car) This may be the topic of another post. In the meantime, let us end this story with a (good) question:

What do you think?
A bientôt!

* Embonpoint
in French refers to stoutness, or plumpness.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

La vie dans une commune française

An article in French for my favorite students. Level is intermediate. As always, look up challenging words at the end of the story ("lexique"). 

Quand vous arrivez dans une commune française, village ou ville, il y a plusieurs édifices que vous allez systématiquement rencontrer. Ces bâtiments, ces commerces, forment "les piliers" de la vie française. Attention, cet article n'est pas basé sur de la recherche scientifique. Ce sont simplement les observations d'une Française, qui a longtemps habité et voyagé en France avant d'émigrer aux Etats-Unis il y a quinze ans! 
Il était une fois... un village français. Approchons-nous! On aperçoit d'abord l'église et son clocher.
L'église et son clocher
La France est historiquement un pays catholique. C'est pourquoi on trouve au moins une église dans chaque ville ou chaque village français. Le problème, c'est qu'on dit souvent : "La France est le pays des Catholiques... non pratiquants". En effet, si 80 % des Catholiques pratiquants déclaraient aller à l'église tous les dimanche au début du 20ème siècle, depuis les choses ont bien changé. Au 21è. siècle, 
4.5 % des Catholiques français seulement vont à l'église une fois par semaine, et 15% y vont régulièrement, c'est-à-dire une fois par mois.

Un village n'est pas français s'il n'a pas de café. Le café, second "pilier" de la vie française. C'est l'endroit où les Français se détendent, rencontrent leurs amis, leurs collègues, ou même des relations d'affaires. Le café est une institution en France, depuis son apparition au 17ème siècle. Les premiers cafés sont nés au Moyen-Orient, avant d'arriver en Europe. Les premiers cafés français sont apparus à Marseille, puis à Lyon. Aujourd'hui, on n'imagine pas une ville comme Paris sans café. Au 18ème siècle, les grands intellectuels et philosophes ont révolutionné le monde, confortablement installés dans les grands cafés parisiens comme le Procope, ou plus tard, le Café de Flore et les Deux Magots. Saviez-vous que Benjamin Franklin et Thomas Jefferson, "héros" de la Révolution américaine, étaient des clients fidèles du Café Procope?

Le Procope. Benjamin Franklin était "un habitué"
Le Café de Flore, boulevard St Germain... Hier... 
... et aujourd'hui...
L'église, le café. Un troisième "pilier" de la vie française est la boulangerie. Un proverbe ancien dit: "Repas sans pain, repas de rien". C'est clair, non? En France, il n'y a pas de vrai repas sans pain! Bref, le pain est indispensable. Si vous avez déjà savouré une baguette au petit-déjeuner ou avec votre repas pendant votre dernier séjour en France, vous êtes certainement d'accord!

Une ancienne boulangerie de village

Une institution parisienne: la boulangerie Poilâne
Un autre "pilier" de la vie française: la pharmacie. Les Français adorent leur pharmacie, et leur pharmacien, un professionnel hautement qualifié, qui donne toujours d'excellents conseils. En fait, les Français s'intéressent beaucoup à leur santé! Dans de nombreux foyers, on trouve une armoire à pharmacie très bien fournie, en général dans la salle-de-bain. 

L'armoire à pharmacie: on y range les médicaments de la famille
Le système social est généreux en France. Pendant longtemps, les médicaments prescrits par le médecin étaient entièrement remboursés par la Sécurité Sociale. Les Français étaient habitués à consommer une quantité importante de médicaments. Pour un simple rhume, il n'était pas rare de quitter le bureau du médecin avec une ordonnance longue comme le bras! Le patient allait ensuite à la pharmacie de quartier et rentrait chez lui avec du sirop, des cachets pour la gorge, de l'aspirine, des gouttes pour le nez, etc. Hélas, les temps changent. Il y a eu beaucoup d'abus et aujourd'hui, la Sécurité Sociale est  déficitaire. Les médicaments coûtent cher et ne sont pas toujours bien remboursés. Les Français vont-ils réduire leur consommation? Peut-être que oui, peut-être que non!

Apprenez à reconnaître les pharmacies françaises. Elles sont situées à tous les coins de rue. Une pharmacie est facile à trouver: Cherchez la grande croix verte. Si la pharmacie est fermée quand vous arrivez, ne paniquez pas! La pharmacie de garde la plus proche sera mentionnée sur la porte. Si vous êtes vraiment malade, le pharmacien vous aidera même à trouver un médecin. 

Cherchez la grande croix verte!
Pour résumer, selon moi, les quatre "piliers" de la vie française sont: l'église, le café, la boulangerie et la pharmacie. Je vous défie de trouver un village français, même très petit, sans ces quatre édifices. Si vous en trouvez un, faites-moi signe!


une commune (municipality, village, town, city, headed by a mayor)
un édifice (a building)
les piliers de la vie française (the cornerstones of French life)
il était une fois (once upon a time)
approchons-nous! (let's get closer)
on aperçoit (one can see, or notice)
des Catholiques pratiquants (church-goers)
des Catholiques non-pratiquants (Catholics who do not go to church)
une fois par semaine, une fois par mois (once a week, once a month)
l'endroit où (the place where)
se détendre (to relax, to kick back)
une relation d'affaires (a business acquaintance)
le Moyen-Orient (the Middle East)
sont apparus (appeared, arrived)
un client fidèle, un habitué (a patron)
un proverbe ancien (an old saying)
"repas sans pain, repas sans rien" (litterally, "a meal without bread is a meal with nothing", a worthless meal)
savourer (to enjoy, to savor)
un professionnel hautement qualifié (a highly trained professional)
une armoire à pharmacie (a medecine chest)
très bien fournie (well stocked)
des médicaments prescrits (prescribed medication; requiring a prescription)
remboursés (paid back, refunded)
il n'était pas rare de... (it was common to...)
une ordonnance longue comme le bras (a prescription as long as your arm)
rentrait chez lui (went home)
du sirop (cough syrup) 
des cachets pour la gorge (cough drops)
des gouttes pour le nez (nose drops)
des abus (excesses)
déficitaire (in the red)
réduire leur consommation (to consume less medication, to cut back)
situées à tous les coins de rue (located on each street corner)
la grande croix verte (the big green cross)
la pharmacie de garde (the pharmacy on call)
même (even)
faites-moi signe! (let me know!)

English translation:
When you arrive in a French village or town, there are a few buildings you are bound to see. These buildings and businesses are the "cornerstones" of French life. Beware, this article is not based on scientific research. These are simply observations made by a French native who lived and traveled in France for many years before she moved to the United States 15 years ago. 
Once upon a time... a French village. Let's get closer! One first sees the church and its bell tower.
(photo - French village)
France is historically a catholic country. That is why each French village or town usually has at least one church. The problem is that one often hears: "France is a country of Catholics... who do not go to Church". While 80% of church-goers declared that they attended mass once a week at the beginning of the 20th century, things have changed a lot since then. In the 21st century, only 4.5% of French Catholics go to church once a week, and 15% go "regularly", i.e. about once a month.

A village is not French if it does not have a café (coffee shop). The café is the second "cornerstone" of French life. That is the place where the French relax, meet their friends, their colleagues, or even business acquaintances. Le café has been an institution in France since it appeared in the 17th century. The first cafés were born in the Middle-East, before reaching Europe. In France, the first cafés opened in Marseille and then Lyon. Today, it is difficult to imagine a city like Paris without its cafés. In the 18th century, great intellectual minds and philosophers revolutionized the world, comfortably ensconced in famous Parisian cafés such as Le Procope, le Café de Flore, or les Deux Magots. Did you know that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, heroes of the American Revolution, were regulars at Le café Procope?
(photo: Le Procope. Benjamin Franklin was a patron)
(photo: Café de Flore, boulevard St Germain. Yesterday...)
(photo: Café de Flore... today)

Churches and cafés. A third "cornerstone" of French life is the bakery. According to an old French saying, "A meal without bread is a worthless meal". It's clear, isn't it? In short, bread is indispensable. If you have ever enjoyed a baguette for breakfast or with your lunch during your last visit in France, surely you must agree! 
(Photo: an old village bakery)
(photo: a Parisian landmark, Poilâne bakery)

Another "cornerstone" of French life: the pharmacy. The French love their pharmacies, and their pharmacists. A pharmacist is a highly trained professional who provides valuable medical advice. In fact, the French are very interested in their health. In many households, one can find a well stocked medicine cabinet, usually located in the bathroom. 
(photo: a medicine cabinet where the family's medications are stored)

The French enjoy a generous healthcare system. For a long time, prescription medication was entirely paid back by Social Security. The French would use medication indiscriminately. It was not unusual to leave the doctor's office with a prescription as long as your arm to treat a simple cold! The patient would go next to the local pharmacy and then went home with cough syrup, cough drops, aspirin, nose drops, etc. Times change. Many people abused the system and today, Social Security is in the red. Medication is costly and is not always covered the way it used to be. Are the French going to cut back? Maybe they will, maybe they won't. 

Learn to recognize French pharmacies. They are located on every street corner. A pharmacy is easy to find. Look for the big green cross. If the pharmacy is closed when you arrive, don't panic! The pharmacy on call will be listed on the door. If you are really sick, the pharmacist will even help you find a doctor. 
(photo: Look for the green cross!)

In summary, according to me, the four "cornerstones" of French life are: the Church, the cafe, the bakery and the pharmacy. I challenge you to find a French village, even a small one, who does not have those four buildings. If you find one, let me know!

Monday, February 7, 2011

France-less in Seattle: What's a French girl to do?

On a particularly wet and dreary Seattle winter day, our family decided to go on a field trip while most of our friends - and the rest of America it seems - stayed home to watch football.  Off we went, across the bridge, to the Emerald City. We had originally planned to drive North, catch a ferry, and drive around Whidbey Island. This has been a favorite adventure of ours for years. We got up late though, following a long day of skiing for Les Boys, and an even longer day of teaching for Moi. Change of plans. Seattle it would be. But wait, we needed a theme, a place to go. Would we go back to lovely Madison Park? The waterfront did not seem that appealing in the drizzle. How about lively Fremont? Mmmmm... Been there, done that a few too many times... Then lightning struck: On the day Americans celebrate football (and TV commercials, interestingly), this family would celebrate... France. Vive la différence!

We arrived late morning, and the rain stopped. We took this as a good sign. We parked by Pike Place Market, and made our first stop at a great French address, Paris Grocery. The place is not cheap, but it's always fun to browse the shelves loaded with authentic products, that include food, wine, books, dinnerware, stationery, and a variety of other items made in France. 

I miss those guys...  Northwest Banana slugs can't compare!
Salt that costs as much as caviar...

We left with a few treasures: two bottles of hard cider from Normandy (at just $9 a pop, I felf I was getting a good deal), herbes de provence, birthday cards, moutarde de Dijon, and a selection of French candy (including the caramel sucettes -lollipops- I loved as a child). There was so much more, but since we were planning to walk around Pike Place market for a while, I just could not pile too much inside my chi-chi Galeries Lafayette shopping bag. After looking at all that food, we decided we were famished. Pike Place Market offers several options to the French brunch lover. Would it be Maximilien ? Le Pichet? A simple jambon-beurre at Le Panier French bakery? Non... in  the damp and grey Northwest weather, only Café Campagne would do. 

Café Campagne is a popular place especially on Sundays, but thanks to the gods of football, a lot of people had decided to stay home and eat potato chips and dips. Très bien! Le Husband and I immediately ordered two mimosas for apéritif, followed by our favorite dish les oeufs en meurette. Junior settled for his beloved croque-monsieur.

We enjoyed our lovely table overlooking a busy side street, Post Alley, and then the feast began... I can still taste the rich red wine sauce coating a generous serving of the best French fries since... McDonald's! 

Our friendly waitress even took a picture of us, as a souvenir of our "French day in Seattle". 

A stroll was necessary after this feast. We walked down to the busy waterfront and visited a few boutiques. Unfortunately, most of our old favorite stores -what a great place Ye Olde Curiosity Shop used to be!- now cater to the cruise ship clientèle and have lost a great deal of character in the process (cheesy key rings and t-shirts anyone?)

We would not be defeated and decided there was time for one more French stop before Le Husband had to drive back and get ready for his late afternoon flight to California. How about some snacks that Junior and I could enjoy during our Sunday movie night? 

If you recall, our recent survey about the best French businesses in the area listed a West Seattle eatery, Bakery Nouveau, as a must-see! Off to West Seattle and across another bridge, we went.  

Bakery Nouveau did not disappoint. It was still packed after 3:00pm. People were lining up to buy sandwiches, award-winning baguettes and fresh pastries. I could not have possibly eaten another bite after our fantastic brunch at Café Campagne, but les Boys ordered two golden, flaky pains au chocolat to go. I was happy taking pictures... virtual eating if you will.

I will have to go back, preferably on a sunny day, when I can enjoy one or two of their delicious pastries before taking a long walk at nearby Alki beach! West Seattle has a charming downtown and we don't visit often. I spotted several promising boutiques and coffee shops, and managed to spend a few dollars at a well-stocked stationery store (have I already mentioned I am a sucker for fine paper and elegant pens?)

This was a successful day overall. It was good to be reminded that there are still treasures to be found -even after so many years, even for a lover of all things French- in the city of Seattle--- A bientôt...