Le Marché

   I know that this is the third time so far that I will be addressing French food, but honestly, I just cannot help myself!  It is not that I necessarily view French food as superior to its American counterpart - in fact, America is a significantly more vegan-friendly place.  What 
draws me in to French cuisine, I think, is the complete integration of its old standing traditions into modern culture and the fact that gourmands, like me, can be found in any social status.
    While I have no scientific data to support my assumptions, I would venture to say that the French must spend a significantly higher proportion of their income on food.  From my experience it is obvious that preserving deeply-rooted culinary traditions is not only important to the wealthy but also to the population at large.  During my travels in l’Hexagone I rarely ate a meal that was not prepared from scratch, something that most Americans consider a luxury.  In all honesty, I think the only pre-packaged food I ate on a regular basis while staying with the Tremblais-Vignalou house was pâté brisée used to make some yummy tarts!
    I think the general French population not only appreciates the results of a laboriously prepared meal, but also has a keen sense regarding the quality of ingredients.  In America, we value the convenience of being able to shop in one all-encompassing supermarket where we have the ability to purchase produce, meat, dairy, eggs, bread, etc.  While I do not consider this in and of itself a problem, per se, the fact is that this mélange of our dietary needs in a single location has a seriously detrimental impact on the cognitive and social processes involved with food preparation.

   Some of my fondest memories of my sojourn in France are of my frequent trips to the market with Odile, my host mother.  Around nine on a Saturday morning, Odile and I would walk a few streets away from our house in Bois Colombes to the petit les halles - she would carry a good-sized wicker basket and I would be in charge of the rolling cart.  When we arrived at the market, Odile had a highly systematic way of navigating the crowded stalls and streets.  First, we would see her favorite produce vendors, which if memory serves me right, were a trio of French-Algerian brothers who had fair prices and bright smiles.  Whenever I tagged along and asked about some fruit or vegetable I didn’t recognize, the nice men would inevitably throw it into our order free of charge.  Consequently, Odile and I were able to afford and taste a great variety of fruits that were typically off limits, like fresh figs, lychees, and passion fruits.  After procuring our produce, we would shuffle through the marché aux puces-style kitsch to see if there was any jewelry worth taking home to Odile’s fabulously enviable collection.  With our fruits, vegetables, and possibly some sparkle in tow, we would weave our way into the grand hall.  Inside this bustling microcosm of Paris, Odile and the hundreds of other patrons would inspect, taste-test, and haggle while the bouchers, fromagères, fleuristes, and confiseurs chopped, weighed, and wrapped their customers’ orders.  With all of the specialty shops in one place, you can imagine the noise level inside the tile-floored hall and it would never be long before we wanted to escape outside for our last few stops.

Around the back of the market hall, Odile and I would often visit a cart full of linens and fabrics.  Being a pair of DIY women, we never failed to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over the textiles and imagine reupholstering the chair in Odile’s bedroom or the ottoman on the first floor.  More often than not the salesmen would pull out dozens of bolts of fabric and we would leave empty handed, but Odile and I always relished the opportunity to handle such beautiful textiles.
    The last stop before heading back to Rue Heynen was the boulangerie.  Unsurprisingly, fresh bread became a staple of my diet while I was abroad.  This may have contributed to the embarrassing amount of weight I gained in five months, but regardless, having fresh bread every day is essential to the function of a French household.  Like any mother would, Odile always bought my favorite kind of baguette (aux cinq céréales or muesli) and often a viennoiserie for my host brother, Benji.  While there are breads available in the supermarket, both fresh-baked and shelf-stable, sliced varieties like the ones that fill our supermarket bakeries, I rarely ate bread like that.  In fact, I would have rather toasted my stale tartine into oblivion before topping it with a smattering of beurre doux and confiture de Bonne Maman than eat the stuff from the supermarket!  Luckily, Odile was vigilant and there was never a shortage of tasty bread on the breakfast table in the kitchen.
Now that I have moved to California, I have reconnected with the market, since I live within walking distance of a once-weekly farmers’ market.  Every Friday, I walk downtown carrying my basket and rolling my cart.  I may not have Algerian brothers to haggle with, but I have made a lovely acquaintance with Farmer Steve and I always come home with a basket full of the freshest fruits and vegetable around.  Whenever I share the dishes and baked goods I have concocted using said produce, my friends graciously lavish me with praise, and I cannot help but think that I am making Odile proud.  So while I may physically visit the market in downtown La Mesa all alone, I know that Odile is right there with me in spirit, like a little ange gourmand

*Please excuse both my month-long hiatus and the issues I am currently having with formatting - grad school has taken over, but I promise to get on top of regular posting and I am having issues with getting photos in the right spot - I'll figure it out soon!
*Unfortunately,  I cannot take credit for any of these photos, hopefully they are hyperlinked back to the flickr accounts of their fabulous photographers!

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L'amour at the tender age of seventeen

     After meeting Pauline, or as she is affectionately referred to by all but her family, Popi, only three weeks before at the start of a Short-Term Rotary Exchange, I was able to form a still unbreakable bond with a complete stranger.  Maybe it was divine intervention or just a bit of serendipitous coincidence, but from the moment Popi stepped off the plane in JFK we fell hard for one another, in the platonic sense.  The three weeks spent visiting Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and the charming rural destinations in my own little New Jersey town, whizzed by with uncommon haste.  Before I had time to load all of our photos onto my computer we were boarding a plane together to Paris.  My childhood dream was finally coming to fruition and the crème anglaise to add to my already delectable crème caramel of an adventure was this formidable friendship.  Little did I know during those long hours spent flying over the ocean, that I would be lucky enough to live a fantasy that most teenagers can only see play out on film.
    Popi and I spent approximately two days wandering about Paris with her sister, Mathilde, and grandmother.  We had the fortune of staying in her Aunt and Uncle’s house in the 16eme while they vacationed in the south of France with their four children.  When our meanderings were over Mathilde, Popi, and I piled into the car with her parents and set out for Niort, a small city about an hour’s drive inland from La Rochelle.  The afternoon of our arrival we arranged our belongings in Popi’s house and almost were almost immediately greeted by BP (Benjamin), Popi’s wonderfully charming boyfriend who has lends more of a surfer-dude vibe than that of a Frenchman.  We promptly drove across town to chez Soulet, the cute suburban dwelling of one of Popi and BP’s dearest friends, Marmotte (also Benjamin, who I later was informed had a penchant for taking long naps, much like a little Marmotte or prairie dog, hence his nickname). 
    His house was lovely, utterly and perfectly French, in my opinion, with its clay tile roof and little Renault parked outside.   More than the house, I was struck by his intense, well, Frenchness.  Unlike BP, who for the record, is an extremely handsome, stylish, and sweet guy, Marmotte’s thick, wavy, black hair fell in ruffled tumbles over his forehead and provided the perfect frame for his impossible-to-ignore green eyes.  Of course he was on the thin, ok maybe he was really skinny, side and almost a vampire shade of pale, but he was the first boy my age that I had come into contact with that was a. not romantically attached (to my knowledge anyway) and b. just so French!  I spent the afternoon mostly silent, overwhelmed with an uncharacteristic bout of shyness and a desire to let Popi gush about her overseas odyssey.  The sun finally started to lower in the sky and Popi and I needed to return to her house downtown as not to miss the family dinner.  My language-fatigued brain soon registered that we would in fact be meeting up again in only a few hours, seeing as BP’s parents were away on vacation, leaving his beautiful, sizable house, up for the location as a welcome-home soirée.
    After dinner, Popi and I spent a good three-quarters of an hour primping and giving me a crash course on the social circle of her and BP’s closest friends.  While I tried to keep Kevin, Pierric, Nem and Cécile all straight in my head, which was proving to be difficult considering I had never seen any of them, I immediately concocted a romantic vision of what this party would be.  I imagined soft lights on a terrace as we sat around a big table while my capability of understanding French slowly waned and the wine continued to flow.  Being just a few weeks shy of my eighteenth birthday, I had barely touched a drop before I arrived in France, but somehow this failed to unsettle my naive American sensibilities.  Popi and I gathered our basic overnight belongings, since BP’s house was but a five-minute walk down the street and there were more than enough beds to share between the guests, and we set out down the sidewalk.
    What happened in the next few hours remains a rosy haze in my mind at this point.  I remember Popi getting thrown into BP’s pool, a welcoming gesture for sure, playing les caps (which remains my favorite drinking game of all time), tasting SoHo, a lychee flavored liquor, dancing in the backyard to The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and somehow striking up a conversation, if you could call it that, with Marmotte.  Let me make it clear that my French was barely conversational and Marmotte’s English practically non-existent.  But I suppose that the language of love somehow transcends the spoken languages to which we are so attuned.  The night that we met remains one of the best nights of my life.  As the moderately inebriated guests became tired and everyone was settling down, Marmotte was strumming his guitar for me and we eventually found ourselves innocently kissing and snuggling for the rest of the night in one of the spare guest rooms. (Mom, Dad, I promise that is actually what happened!)
    The next two weeks in Niort and L’Île d'Oléron were made all the much more dreamy and romantic because of my romance de vacances.  Marmotte was always the perfect gentleman, and while our spoken communication was ridiculously limited, we quickly grew intensely fond of one another.  Knowing that there was a clear expiration date on our flowering romance really didn’t seem to matter.  While I taught him English and he taught me French, we were both learning the coming-of-age lessons of the heart. 

    I was fortunate enough to spend the last bit of my trip in Popi’s vacation house in L’Île d'Oléron.  At the time, the house was not large enough to fit me, Popi, her family, and her friends, so her beloved BP, Marmotte, Kevin, Nem and Cecile booked a nearby campsite so that we could all enjoy the remainder of the summer together.  This arrangement led to many nights enjoying wine and serenading guitar on the beach, as we tried to keep the wind from blowing out our candles, and ate more than one meal of cold pasta.  Regardless, the whole experience was everything that a summer vacation should be: friends, no responsibilities, and plenty of memories.  (Note: Even though I wrote all about my French adventures in a journal, there are some details that I neglected to pen down that have since become fuzzy in the past several years.  The conclusion to my little tale is as I remember it, which may or may not be 100% accurate, but is hopefully satisfactory!)  Two days before Popi and I were set to leave, BP, Marmotte, and the crew went back to Niort.  Marmotte and I snapped a few photos and said our goodbyes in a local café, knowing that the time had finally come for our blissful few weeks together to end.  As you can imagine, we were both sad but we were simply forced to come to terms with the inevitable.
    The next afternoon that Popi and I decided to take a stroll to the beach after spending the afternoon shopping.  We set off down the road and would you believe that nestled among the other cars in the parking lot sat Marmotte’s red Renault!  Naturally, as soon as Popi and I laid our eyes on it we broke into an excited sprint.  In perhaps what was one of the most romantic movie-like scenes of my life thus far, I uninhibitedly jumped into Marmotte’s arms and burst into tears.  The boys had driven back to the island for the sake of Marmotte’s heart and I could not have been happier.  Through my crying sniffles we managed to go over our whole goodbye once more and as we bid our final adieu I gave him kisses and he gave me a letter.
    Unfortunately, between between the suitcase packing and the general shuffle of the summer house, I returned to the United States sans lettre de Marmotte.  From what I can remember, however, Popi and I snuggled in the same bed than night and she struggled to translate it into English because she could not help but cry.  I recall the letter as one of the simplest expressions of affection that I have ever read and for a seventeen-year-old girl, it was a total dream.
    To this day, Marmotte and I remain close friends, and he now attends engineering school and dates a lovely girl named Elodie. Popi and BP are still together, and I just spoke with them last week.  Popi remains the sister that I never had growing up, and even though there is an ocean separating us, my life cannot continue on without her.  You will all be hearing more stories about our friendship as this blog continues. As you can imagine, I reflect on my first experience français with a hearty pinch of wistful affection; the setting was a dream, the food incredible, the language a blur, and most importantly, the people were perfect. And even if I had not written down the bulk of my adventures in my Tour Eiffel-covered journal, there are certain moments of my first three weeks there that are positively unforgettable. 

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My Beloved Bodum

     To be honest, I never imagined myself becoming a coffee drinker.  My mom is a thé dévouée and my father is a straight-up Folgers-drinking firefighter.  While I always loved that distinct brewed coffee aroma, I found it unpalatable until I was about sixteen.
    The summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school I had the great and well-earned opportunity to take a ten-day tour of northern Italy.  God bless Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Erd for putting up with the unfailing shenanigans of a group of sixteen-year-old high school students.  They were absolutely wonderful guides and chaperones, and thanks to them I was able to see some of the most beautiful places and taste the most delicious food (Buongiorno limoncello!) in the world.  This blog, if you haven’t noticed, is about my love for France however, not Italy so I should get to the point.  Mrs. Bennett and our travel agency did a fabulous job of arranging our accommodations throughout the trip and every morning we fueled up on a European-style breakfast before heading out on a day of sightseeing and photography. 

     I feel that American breakfasts come in two distinct breeds - skip and scarf.  According to my highly unscientific random sampling of people I know, I gather that there is a significant proportion of people in this country who make the conscious choice to ignore  the advice of nutritionists and their mothers alike and skip breakfast.  I have never fit into this category of creatures, and never will.  There is also the type of breakfast that is a legitimate meal.  This does not include any variety of pop-tart/pastry streudel/granola bar/carnation drink.  I suppose cereal can be included in this sort of breakfast, but even that is typically accompanied by a medium glass of orange juice (preferably fresh squeezed), some sliced fruit, and maybe something hot to drink.  Into this category also falls the myriad of other breakfast foods that Americans are accustomed to, including but not limited to, eggs, toast, waffles, pancakes, bacon, hash browns, and oatmeal.  From personal experience, the Americans I know who eat breakfast, really eat breakfast.  Seeing as I love breakfast, I always try to prepare myself for the day with a bowl of oatmeal, not instant, topped with fresh fruit, a few almonds, and a splash of soy milk.  Perhaps this sort of breakfast is as appealing to you as it is to me.  Let me tell you, if you are planning on spending any time in Italy or France, you are in for an awakening.
    Throughout my fabulous first experience abroad I found the breakfasts at our hotels to be the only thing leaving me unsatisfied.  In fact, breakfast was basically a few pieces of toast with jam, a small glass of orange juice, and very strong coffee.  Prior to this trip I had never even tasted coffee, but I suppose I coupled a “when in Rome” attitude with an attempt to be more mature and cultured.  The end result has been yet another gastronomic love affair.
    I returned from my European adventure ready to continue getting to know my new caffeinated friend.  During my first stay in France, I had forgotten the European style of serving coffee (i.e. I didn’t remember a demi-tasse being so small) and was quite dissatisfied when my très petit café crème failed to ward off cool ocean breezes at a cafe in L’Ile d’Oleron.  During my stay in Paris, however, I learned to appreciate a teeny cup of strong café when my host family introduced me to their French press. 
    Sometime on a lazy Saturday or Sunday afternoon one of my host brothers, Antoine or Benji, would heat up the kettle and break out the press and accompanying espresso cups.  If you are unfamiliar with a French press, it is a very simply designed device that brews strong coffee.  Basically there is a glass cylinder, that typically sits in some sort of cage for protection and easy handling, with a lid that stabilizes a plunger with a strainer on its end. You put the desired amount of coarsely ground beans in the bottom, pour just-off-the-boil water on top, steep, replace the lid, and push down the plunger (and the grounds with it) - très simple, non? Sharing an occasional pause-café with my host brothers was a great bonding experience and my anti-drip conversion was complete.
    The French do not actually call a French press, an “appuyer français,” but because it was reportedly designed by a Frenchman, they have rightfully taken the credit.  If you are interested in acquiring this simple device that may change your coffee-making life, I suggest you turn to Bodum. Here is a little excerpt from their website:

        “We combined the skills of these Normandy craftsmen with modern production, and the price became  affordable to the many people who loved the taste of the coffee brewed in this unique coffee maker, later known as the French press coffee brewer. Thanks to Bodum and thanks to the increasing need for better coffee, the French press coffee maker became one of the most popular coffeemakers in the world.”

    Bodum products are of the highest quality and these smart Danes have been making coffee makers since the mid twentieth century.  Since 1974 they have produced close to 100 million French presses!  I happen to own a Bodum press and I can personally attest that it scores high points on both the quality, functionality, and style scales.  Making coffee in the morning or afternoon could not be simpler and every time the result a smooth, strong brew.  So, in closing, while I absolutely adore my stylistically French manner of preparing coffee, I must admit that I retain a very American sense of portion size and enjoy my coffee in the biggest mug I own - no demi-tasse for me*, s’il vous plaît!

(*Or in the words of my little brother circa 1994, “...and don’t bring it to me in that little cup!”)

-One last thing... After writing this post I spoke with my darling French ‘sister’ Popi regarding my devotion to the French press, to which she replied, “Oh, hardly anyone I know uses that anymore, we all have a Nespresso!” Needless to say, I will remain faithful to my French press even if the French themselves have all but abandoned the cute little contraption in favor of a George Clooney-endorsed machine!
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Bonne Maman

     I have this thing for jam.  I didn’t have a thing for jam before I went to France for the first time, so let us just assume that something there infected me.  Honestly, I don’t think the fascination is unique to the French, or even a French characteristic.  In fact, I am fairly certain that I have one person to thank for this attachment, his name is Philippe Haldenwang, and he at least, is French.
    Philippe, my French papa, is an all around awesome guy.  He is spry, smart, and both a talented cardiologist and sailor.  While by French standards he is on the American side of the touchy-feely scale (I mean, he’s not a big hugger or kisser), he has taken a liking to me, and the admiration is completely mutual.  From my experience in the Haldenwang household in Niort, Philipe is a great lover of tea and jam.  He taught me all sorts of things about tea (I am saving that post for another day, désolée
!) and I was always spreading exotic flavors of jam on my morning baguettes thanks to his fully-stocked frigo.
    To the untrained and unappreciative consumer, jam is a kind of run-of-the-mill condiment.  To me, however, jam is the ultimate accessory to any food in the bread/cracker family, both savory and sweet.  I am really not sure why Bonne Maman jam is so insanely delicious, but from the adorable checkered lid, to the charming French text scrawled in delightful cursive letters, and of course, the true fruit flavors only enhanced by a bit of sugar, these preserves manage to be the one grocery store splurge that I can truly justify.

    When is comes to flavors, Bonne Maman manages to tempt both the simple and more adventurous palette with flavors ranging from Framboise (Raspberry), Fraise (Strawberry), and Abricot to Figue, Cassis (Black Currant), or Mirabelles (a type of plum).  The flavors really are fruity and these confitures contain absolutely nothing artificial.  If you’re a jam-lover like me, you will also be thrilled to know that Bonne Maman carries a line of confiture “intense,” of which the apricot is my favorite, that literally have whole pieces of fruit in the jar.  Unfortunately, I am not sure that these varieties are available state-side, tant pis. 
    If you are looking to try any number of Bonne Maman flavors you will be pleased to know that they are the top imported preserve and thus can easily be found in supermarkets from New York to San Diego!  So I encourage anyone who has been so inclined to read about my irrational love for jam to take a mini vacation via Bonne Maman preserves.  So buy yourself a baguette and apricot jam, brew yourself a café
crème, and imagine that you are nibbling your petit déjeuner while sitting on your balcony overlooking the Seine... Not only is it totally worth the delight for your taste buds and imagination, but it’s certainly cheaper than an aller-retour ticket on AirFrance!
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Reminiscing about Paris

    Not that long ago I was able to meet up with a dear friend I made while I spent a sensational semester in Paris as part of an undergraduate exchange.  While Amanda is a native of Minneapolis (I use the term native loosely, since as a child she moved around for a substantial part of her formative years as a part of her father’s contract with the US Navy), attended college in Olympia, WA, and happened to meet me, a Jersey girl, in the City of Lights.  As part of my cross-country move to sunny San Diego, we arranged a rendez-vous in Des Moines since it had been a long two years without seeing one another.
    Four four months in the autumn of 2007, we spent at least five afternoons a week, sitting next to one another in Madame Jehiel’s class at the Sorbonne’s Paris IV language institute for foreign students.  Upon seeing her brilliant cheveux rouge (courtesy of Aveda, I believe) in the restaurant parking lot, I was immediately struck with intense feelings of nostalgia for the blissful months we had shared as American ex-pats.
    Over dinner, we began to recall the dozens of Parisian particulars that we longed for, as part of our lingering re-entry shock.  First, we described, for my mother’s benefit, a detailed account of our typical grammar class.  Located in a kind of shabby building near the intersection of Raspail and Montparnasse, our daily grammar drills required us to walk up at least ten flights of stairs into a stuffy little room lined with old wooden tables and chairs.  The setting, more typical of an elementary school classroom than a collegiate lecture hall, was only enhanced by the melange of nationalities and our eccentric Prof, Mme. Jehiel.  Fortunately, or perhaps for the sake of learning French grammar drills, unfortunately, most of the students in the class were either of American origin or spoke fluent English while our beloved instructor did not.  Before I continue, I feel obliged to provide a physical description of this unforgettable Madame.  Standing at barely five feet tall, Mme. Jehiel was of an unknown Asian origin, though we suspected Vietnamese or Chinese, and had quite a unique style, both in fashion and instructional method.  She wore flamboyantly colored pantsuits, reminiscent of my ninety-one-year-old grandmother, while Mme. Jehiel was probably not a day over sixty.  In addition to these colorful get-ups, which always provided an interesting subject to study during roll-call, she was adorned by what must have been pounds of jewelry, typically bangles and large earrings, high heels, a sort of triangular bob, and of course a full face of maquillage, often with bright lipstick.  
    While none of the pupils were really ever impolite enough to tease her about her physical appearance, her mannerisms and favorite phrases were simply too easy to parody.  There are many things that I can hardly recall about the way she conducted her afternoon grammar drills, but her favored expression, which she managed to exclaim and bark simultaneously, was, “ZERO!”  Hardly a day went by where neither she nor a student, in an affectionate, mild sense of mockery, used the expression to draw attention to a complete failure to do a grammar exercise with a shred of accuracy.  In fact, to this day, there is even a Facebook group dedicated to her former students who were either scarred or simply entertained by her eccentric and amusing antics.  
    Amanda and I giggled over our meal as we recalled those long afternoons, longing to take a stroll up the Boulevard Montparnasse to grab a cafe creme at a cheap, chain cafe before riding line four to line twelve to search for exorbitantly priced delicacies in the Grand Epicerie or my biggest weakness, yarn from my cherished Bon Marche.
    When we snuggled into bed in the hotel that night, we made a list of all the things Amanda would need to do in the coming year, since she is in fact returning to Paris to teach as part of the Language Assistant in Paris-Créteil-Versailles program through the French embassy.  “You have to got o BHV, and don’t forget the gelato place with the cherub on the sign,” I reminded her.  “Do you remember when I had to sleep at your apartment in the 13eme during one of the grèves?” I asked her.  “Do you remember when you gave me your books and ran all the way to Raspail from Bois Colombes during on of the grèves?!” she replied.  “Please eat a lot of creme fraîche, Bonne Maman, fromage frais with a bit of sugar sprinkled on top, and drink kir for me,” I requested.  As we began to drift off to sleep we continued to list memories or Parisian vices, the bad date I had at La Defense - well it wasn’t totally bad, since I did get to see the latest Bourne movie - dinners at my house, the little old man who spilled red wine on my cream-colored sweater, F.G. her host brother who is not only perfectly sarcastic  and basically all-around awesome, but had the knack to remove red wine from aforementioned sweater, baguettes, pain au chocolat, the mairie in Bois Colombes, and its live creche at Christmas, the transillien, Vietnamese food - the only food we could afford to eat out - chocolat chaud at Angelina, and countless others that escape me even now. 
    As my chère Amanda embarks on her latest Parisian adventure, I cannot help but render an emotional fondue of happiness, envy, and longing.  With any luck, however, I will be able to save enough money in the coming months to be able to also hop a transatlantic flight to CDG and Amanda will not be forced to enjoy ALL of our favorite Parisian pleasures toute seule.

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Les volets (the shutters)

     To the average American, shutters are simply a decorative attachment to a house that recall a bygone era of the country’s Colonial youth.  Only perhaps if you live in the states potentially affected by the devastating effects of hurricanes would you ever have a functioning shutter to protect your windows, and even then it is almost certainly aesthetically displeasing.  In France, however, shutters are not merely pseudo-accouterments used to look like they will protect a home from the elements, but they function in all propriety and manage to look beautiful in the process.

     The photo above was taken in the Panier in Marseille (I’ll address that experience at some point in the future, but let me say, the beautiful photos I brought home were the only good to come of the holiday).  Regard how the shutters actually close on the windows... shocking, I know!  In fact, French shutters are not only placed around windows, but some summer homes, like my friend’s in L’Ile d’Oleron have big shutters on the doors a well.  I distinctly remember the remarkable experience of my friend Popi making her bedroom as dark as night during the middle of the day.  Unsurprisingly, she tends to amiably grumble that she cannot get proper beauty rest at my house in New Jersey because of all of the bright morning soleil that begins to pour in my room as soon as the sun rises.

     While it may be impossible to see from the provided photos, the shutters often times fold back on themselves in order to make it easier to bring them in when the time is appropriate.  Furthermore, the outward-folding shutters require the windows in french homes to come inside the room, rather than outside, as with American casement windows.  In the grand scheme of the world, these details are probably inconsequential, but to me, the lower height, easy accessibility, and practicality of the windows and shutters lends a certain charm and inviting friendliness to a French home.  I have, on more than one occasion, turned the lock on the frame, folded back the shutters, and leaned out the window in my friend’s Niort home only to be filled with the desire to shout “Bonjour!” to the pietons below and go out and attack the day with a Carpe Diem sensibility.
     I have yet to find an explanation for this cultural phenomenon, which in my personal opinion, is a blunder on the part of American house designers.  Functioning shutters provide protection from not only storms, but relentless summer sun, and allow you to sleep late into the day. undisturbed, which is particularly helpful if you return in the early morning from a late-night, champagne-filled soiree.  Someday, when I am building or restoring the beautiful old stone farmhouse or villa of my dreams, make no doubt about it that there will be charming blue shutters adorning my inward-cranking windows that will allow me to lean on their sills and shout my morning greetings to whomever I please.

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Madeline, the beginning of a Franco-American love affair

I’m not exactly sure at what age the fascination began, but I can figure that I was probably four or five when I was introduced to that very cute little écolière named Madeline. I loved her old house in Paris that was covered with vines. I loved the eleven other girls that walked along with her and Miss Clavel in two straight lines. In fact, my favorite characteristic of Madeline was a tie between her audacious poo-pooing of the tiger at the zoo and the awesome scar she retained as a result of an in-the-middle-of-the-night-Miss-Clavel-said-“Something is not right”-appendectomy. At some point in the middle of my childhood I even had a blue wool cape, carefully crafted by my maman, that reminded me of my own Madeline doll’s blue coat.

The countless readings of not only the original Madeline book by Ludwig Bemelmans (who isn’t even French at all, quel horreur!), but its subsequent sequels, in combination with perpetual screenings of the television cartoon nurtured an early devotion toward all things French in my nascent heart. Before I could even point out my native state on a map of the USA, I knew that France was just across the horizon at the Jersey Shore and that the center of this romantic place was Paris. It didn’t take long to daydream about wandering by the Seine, munching on a croissant, and most importantly visiting the Tour Eiffel.

What I find most peculiar about this fledgling attachment to the nation of baguettes, Victor Hugo, and Le Vache Qui Rit, was that I concocted in my imagination, pictures of a city and country I had only seen in illustrations. I probably didn’t see a photo or image on television of the Eiffel Tower until I was at least nine! Perhaps this is the reason that I still harbor incredibly romanticized images of France in my mind (images that have almost all but been brushed aside the night that I was nearly stranded in Paris because of a grève or the time I broke down into tears when I was followed by creepy men in Marseille). For nearly the entirety of my young life I have had an intense desire to invoke that joie de vivre, the je ne sais quoi, the incomparable Frenchness that will inevitably escape my American self no matter what I try. My honest efforts in my cause have led to two moderately long journeys, countless purchases of L’Occitane and Chanel beauty products, insisting on making my own salad dressing, wearing scarves in the summer, and interjecting des petits phrases en français into my everyday English conversation.

So while I have come to terms with the impossibility of actually becoming French, I will not seek a cure for my very serious case of Francophilia. Instead I will write about my past and future adventures feeding my passion, and humbly attempt to garner a bit of readership that will engage in a bit of reactive dialogue. And if no one comes along, well... c’est la vie!

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