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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