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Archive for the ‘Lost in Translation’ Category


What is a birthday without cake?  It is like a baseball game without peanuts, a movie without popcorn, or (as I discovered when I moved to France) a day without cheese.  Jim’s birthday was yesterday, and I spent the better part of the day shopping for, worrying about, and sweating over his birthday cake.  Back at home, I have perfected my cake baking routine.  I have my favorite recipes, my insanely cute and wonderful red stand mixer, and all my supplies.  In France the playing field has changed drastically.  No red mixer to make me smile, inappropriate utensils (three slotted spoons, but no spatulas), recipes that are confusing and migraine inducing because they require intense mathematical conversions, and ingredients that are unfamiliar and down-right weird.  I don’t think people bake their own cakes here.  French women are too busy strutting around in fabulous shoes and skinny jeans while guzzling wine and munching carbs, making the rest of the world crazy jealous by staying magically thin.  (Consequently, it may be that NOT baking cakes contributes to their perplexing twig-like figures.  Because they do NOT bake cakes, they do NOT spend 2 hours traipsing around the grocery store looking for baking soda.  During which they do NOT have emotional breakdowns that cause them to find solace in consuming an entire bag of potato chips and half a baguette while they wander the aisles.)  Perhaps, though, the French understand that the art of cake baking is best left to professionals, and they simply buy their goodies at the local Patisserie, which is what I should have done.  But, old habits die hard, and I was determined to bake Jim a cake, just as I have for every birthday since we have been together, metric system be damned.

Here is what I discovered on my shopping odyssey yesterday.

#1  Cream cheese is surprisingly difficult to find in a country that boasts more kinds of cheese than there are vuvuzela tooting fans in South Africa.  I’ve been told that you can find Philadelphia brand cream cheese in Switzerland, but I didn’t have the energy to cross the border, so I settled for a French soft cheese called St. Moret.  I also threw in a few squares of a strange cheese called Kiri, that is marketed to children and has cartoon characters plastered all over the packaging.  It looked similar, and smelled similar, but it just wasn’t the same.  Perhaps it wasn’t processed enough.  The consistency of my cream cheese frosting was oddly runny and drippy, not ideal adjectives for carrot cake icing.  The end result was a frosting that was suspicious looking, but tasted enough like good-old American cream cheese frosting to garner a smile from the birthday boy.

#2  People in France rely heavily on the skills of their neighborhood Patisserie and truly do not do much baking at home.  Perhaps it is for this reason that baking soda is not sold in grocery stores.  It would have been nice to be privy to this bit of information before I spent the better part of a morning scouring the aisles for some “Bras & Marteau.”  I had an embarrassing conversation with a teenage grocery clerk concerning the whereabouts of “bicarbonate du soude.”  It consisted of me thrusting my google translated shopping list in her face and her leading me away from the baking aisle and toward the tooth brushes.  She then proceeded to point to her own teeth, which I assumed was a polite way of telling me I had potato chip or baguette slovenly crusted onto my mouth.  I blushed, and attempted to discreetly wipe the evidence of my stress-induced food binge off my mouth, but she continued to pantomime something involving her teeth.  I was at a loss, until she said “bicarbonate du soude, for teeth brushing.”  Uhhh?  “No,” I said, “for a cake.”  She gave me a confused look while I began a panicked rendition of “Happy Birthday” and pushed Emma forward because she was proudly holding the birthday candles.  So there we were (all three of us, because Maggie and Emma never miss an opportunity to wow the masses with their lusty warbling) in the toothpaste aisle, singing “Happy Birthday” to a French teenage grocery clerk.  I will never know if she got the gist of our charades-like conversation, but she understood enough to inform me that regardless of what we intended to do with it, we had to go next door to the Pharmacy if we wanted bicarbonate du soude.  So, the girls and I took our traveling circus to the Pharmacy next door and tried out our material on another clerk, who, thankfully, spoke English, and was able to show us to the treasured baking soda.

Once we conquered the grocery store the actual cake baking was not that difficult.  I would have been lost without the computer on hand to help me calculate how many grams of butter is equal to one and a half sticks and other mathematical cooking mysteries.  Although it was not my most aesthetically pleasing creation, the cake was edible, and actually pretty good.  Jim praised it (but he may have sensed that anything other than flattery and accolades would have resulted in tears) and both girls cleared their plates (but they do not have the most refined pallets, one would eat nothing but butter noodles and peanut butter toast and the other has been known to snack on rocks, paper, and other found objects).  My inaugural French baking experience was a success, but I think there may be something to the local sentiment that baking is best left up to the experts.

This is how I should have spent my Wednesday afternoon...

but this is how I actually spent it (all the metric conversions turned my hair gray).

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It was bad enough in the U.S., hauling two children to the grocery store, one screaming because she does not want to sit in the cart, the other wailing because she does.  The horror of this chore is magnified when grocery shopping in France because I don’t yet know my way around the store, nor do I know exactly what food to buy because it is all so foreign to me.  Back home we had a trip to our Trader Joe’s down to a science.  I could have gone there blindfolded and still got out in less time and with fewer tears and curse words than I do at Migros, sans blindfold.  Ahhh, we miss you TJ’s.  We miss your balloons and stickers, your toddler sized carts, the friendly faces clad in festive Hawaiian shirts, your free samples, your complimentary chocolate bars, and your tolerance of toddlers and the havoc they can wreak in a grocery store.  A giant, wet tear just plopped onto my keyboard.  Moving on…

Yesterday I had a particularly harried trip to the grocery store.  Empty cupboards coupled with the daunting task of hosting our first dinner guest (Jim’s old thesis advisor, no PRESSURE) made my grocery list exponentially longer than it usually is.  Fully caffeinated and with pockets full of snacks for my monsters (like a trainer at Sea World) I optimistically entered the store.  I can handle the produce section at Migros, because, believe it or not, apples in France look exactly the same as apples in the United States.  Fruits and veggies are easy.  One thing I love about the produce section here is that they have large signs above each display that tell you where the produce is from.  It makes it much easier to buy local food, or at least to avoid those peppers that came all the way from California.

But once I leave the familiar land of fruits and veggies, I am thrown into an obstacle course of foreign food.  I am constantly playing a dangerous game of keep away with the girls when I am at Migros.  Keep them away from the overflowing candy/chocolate aisle, and from the ridiculously tempting potato chips shaped like ghosts and smiley faces.  Yesterday, I wove my way through brightly colored cookie packages featuring a handsome prince that looks suspiciously like He-Man, all the while ignoring the screeching child in my cart whining for “TOOKIES!”  (Maggie can do a great impression of a starving child, even though she has food either in her hand or mouth every waking moment of the day.)  Distracted by Maggie’s bid for best actress in a shopping cart drama, I temporarily lost sight of Emma.  I found her drooling, standing comatose in front of the Haribo gummy candy display.  Taking her by the shoulders, I gently lead her away from the colorful gummy menagerie, and shoved a baguette in her hand, knowing that bread is a poor substitute for sugary goodness, but hoping it would at least stifle her whining.  It was somewhere around this point in the trip that I began fighting back the tears.

After I had finally navigated the store and filled my cart to the brim (and walked up and down every aisle twice in an attempt to find matches), I realized that I had forgotten two of my shopping bags at home.  No problem, I could squeeze everything into the one bag that I had, right?  Wrong.  I filled the bag and still had an enormous amount of food waiting on the belt.  But where to put it?  The line behind me grew longer and more impatient as I attempted to stuff more food into my bag.  Finally, I gave up, throwing it all willy-nilly into the cart, grabbing my receipt and lumbering away.

Exhausted and depleted of any will to diet, I dragged my overflowing cart and tearful children over to the pastry stand right next to the Migros.  Usually our shopping trips end with a cookie binge, which is much better than the alternative, because right next to the pastry stand is a wine shop.  All the efforts I took to divert the girls from the junk in the store were thrown out the window as we devoured delicious, flaky, buttery, sugary Palmiers.  We ate like only the emotionally exhausted can, fighting for the crumbs stuck to the bottom of the bag and licking our sticky fingers for one last taste of sugar.

We headed to the car cheerfully smiling and laughing, high on a Palmier sugar buzz.  Then I remembered the disaster that awaited me in my shopping cart.  Food rattled around the cart, cucumbers and baguettes poking out of the sides of the metal basket.  I looked in my trunk, hoping to find the missing bags.  All I saw was a large white garbage bag.  I don’t know where it came from, or what it was used for, but it would have to do.  Feeling like Santa, I stuffed the food inside the sack.  Problem solved.  The thought crept into my head that I was shoving 120 Euros worth of food into a mysterious, possibly dirty, garbage bag, but I pushed it away, instead wondering if I should run back inside for one last Palmier.

My grocery shopping crutch.

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Thoiry Marché de Producteurs

Every Sunday our town has a wonderful farmer’s market.  It is really quite spectacular.  You can get everything from fresh berries to a fashionable jean skirt.  Well, the fashions are a bit confusing, but the produce is delicious.  I have to buy extra strawberries and grapes because the girls eat half our merchandise before we leave the market.  We were drooling to get to the market because we haven’t had a regularly scheduled farmer’s market since we lived in Mountain View.  (Ahhh, Mountain View.  We have such fond memories of meeting up with friends at the market and devouring strawberries while our children danced dangerously close to the train tracks.  We miss you Cali people!)  In regards to this market, however, I forgot one very important thing.  I do not speak French.  Therefore, it is very difficult for me to speak with the farmers.  Some stands are user-friendly, with clearly labeled signs that I can sound out, prices marked in bold ink, and merchants who are willing to put up with pantomimes and broken French.  (Jim snickered when he read that I was so bold as to claim that I even speak “broken” French.”

Others, though, are more difficult.  Like the stand that I tried out today that was brimming with fresh vegetables.  I had my eye on some leeks the size of baseball bats.  The operator of this stand was a nine-year old boy.  His parents were busy at the other end of their large domain, fielding questions about an enormous catalog of herbs and plants.  This boy was the sole proprietor of the vegetable stand.  He was all that stood between me and those leeks.  He conversed easily with customers, deftly weighing produce, making change, and cracking jokes (I think).  He was clearly at ease with his job, but could he speak English?  Of course, I was buying something I had never before bought at our market.  I am a pro with asparagus (“asperges”), grapes (“raisin”), and strawberries (“fraises”), but leeks?  I had no idea what the French word for leek was, not a clue.  I hung back for a bit, enviously watching other patrons confidently approach the stand, request their produce, make small talk, and leave.  Oh, how I longed to speak French.  Or at least to know the French word for leeks.  The rest I could make up with smiles, pointing, and correct change.  (People seem to LOVE it here when you give them correct change.  I can’t explain why, but it makes me happy to make them happy so I make a point of giving correct change whenever possible.  Even if it takes me 20 minutes to find it.  Sorry I can’t speak your language, but I am capable of counting out 2.70 Euro.)

Finally I got up the courage to grab my leek and wave it in the general direction of the boy.  His father, freed from the bustling flower/plant corner,  came to weigh my giant leek.  He let loose a mind numbingly fast string of French.  He had lost me at “Bonjour.”  I stammered, the leek shaking nervously in my hand, “Je ne parle pas français.”  Well, that broad-shouldered, thick bearded farmer laughed and laughed at me, took my leek, weighed it, and let loose another string of incoherent French.  Wanting to shrink into the pavement, I stared blankly at his good-natured face and once again stammered the one French phrase that I knew for certain, “Je ne parle pas français.”  Thank goodness for a person next to me who mercifully said, “you need to give him 70 cents.”  Don’t tell Jim, but I love you, kind man with the glasses who took pity on me.  So, I smiled, and slowly counted out the correct change, because THAT I can do.

Maggie devouring a local strawberry

Playground in the center of Thoiry.

Mairie (town hall) in Thoiry

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