lundi, septembre 26, 2005


Last night I called a good friend. One of those friends who understands my idiosyncracies. One of those friends who is just as complicated and multi-faceted.

I said to her, "You and I, we are not light."

I meant that we felt the weight of being, and sometimes it's heavy.

But there are times I feel light, like I'm floating. Like the time my photo was taken with Rio de Janeiro in the background. At the exact moment the shutter clicked, I thought, "Here I am, in a place I've always wanted to visit, speaking a language I didn't speak two months ago. All because of me."

Today, my friend sent me this. And it transported me.

And for a while, I floated.

Thank you.

mardi, septembre 20, 2005

Movin' On Up

I think if I were looking for work in Paris, I would learn to be an escalator repairman. Because I swear to god at least twenty of those things are broken at any given moment in the city. It's the damnedest thing.

The one leading from the metro station to the plaza where I work (or vice versa) is broken at least half of the time, which in my morning or evening stupor, I tend to not notice until I have heavily placed one foot on the first step, making that tell-tale thump, and nearly falling on my face to realize the thing isn't moving.

I remember in college one of my eight roommates had never been on an escalator in her life. (Small town Wisconsin, what can you say?) I thought that was so fucked up and weird. But I was a snot then. And, (have I mentioned?) very fucking cold.

Then there is the mall - yes, the mall- that I walk through every day to get to the metro station to go to work. Those escalators are broken half the time, too. Once, I was wearing some nice new shoes I had bought whose heels happened to fit snugly into the grooves of the escalator steps. When the escalator reached the bottom floor to deposit me on solid ground, I stepped off, and heard "pop! pop!" as the rubber soles came off the bottom of my stilettos one by one, and I was left standing on two nicely adorned nails to grudgingly click-clack my way to work.

dimanche, septembre 18, 2005

Sense of Direction

The other day after work, I didn't feel like going straight home. It was a pleasant warm evening, and I felt adventurous, so I got off the metro at Louvre Rivoli, thinking I would have a drink at Le Fumoir, and perhaps meet some interesting people. I had been there once by myself and met a really interesting older engineer who gave me the addresses of some good world music clubs. I lost the piece of paper, of course, but it was a pleasant way to pass the evening. It reminded me of Apres Diem in Atlanta where I was always sure to have a good time.

I looked into Le Fumoir, which was packed with people, so much so that I couldn't even reach the bar. I decided to take a stroll around the neighborhood and come back later. I had no particular destination in mind, and even if I did, I have zero sense of direction, so I wouldn't have been able to find it anyway. One of the other reasons I really like Le Fumoir is that it's right outside the exit of the Louvre Rivoli station, so even someone like me can find it easily.

I strolled along the banks of the Seine. The bouquinistes were shutting up their stands for the evening, the tourists having gone back to their hotels to take a nap before venturing out again for dinner. I passed a cafe, and as I turned the corner, the waiter standing outside said,

"Bonsoir, Princesse."

I laughed and muttered bonsoir, passing him to stop at the window of a perfume shop next door.

He suddenly appeared beside me and said,

"May I offer you a drink?"

I looked, up, surprised. "You want to buy me a drink?"

"It's on me," he said.

I am on a budget, I reasoned, so free drink = why not.

He led me to a table inside, and brought me a bowl of potato chips.

"What can I get you, Princesse?"

Cute the first time, the princess thing was getting old quickly.

"A kir, please," I replied, and opened my book. He hurried away. Through the window, I watched him serving an American couple on the terrace, reciting the desserts in English with a smile, charming them into a chocolate cake and ice cream.

Back at my table, he set down my glass and said, "So, Princesse, do you like the spontaneous things in life?"

"Yes," I replied, "otherwise I wouldn't have accepted your offer." I smiled, but braced myself for what was surely coming next. The drink might have been free, but I was sure there was a price of some kind. Sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me.

"And are you coquine?" This is a word I have been called before, but I am not a hundred percent sure of its meaning.

"What does that mean, exactly?" He looked taken aback. I don't have an American accent in French, so it really throws people off when I do that. "I'm not French," I explained, "so I'm not sure I understand what you mean."

"Well," he said, looking around, "I'll be right back."

I chuckled to myself as he went to check on his tables outside. I read my book and snacked on the chips until he got back.

"So, Princesse, what do you do for a living?" he asked, standing back to look me over.

"I'm an administrative assistant," I answered.

"You really look like an administrative assistant," he said, his eyes traveling appreciatively up and down me.

"And you really look like a waiter," I replied with a smile. I quickly added, "I used to be a waitress, and I had the same uniform: bow tie, black vest, white apron. I learned a lot. Especially about people." I smiled up at him, waiting for him to get to the point.

"It's a nice career," he said, "you meet all kinds of people."

"Mmm hmm," I replied. I always forget this is not a noise the French people make. It sounds totally dismissive, as if to say, yeah, what-the-hell-ever, instead of being a way of agreeing or encouraging one to continue.

"So, you see, I take photographs," he said. Now we're getting somewhere, I thought. "Photographs of beautiful women like you. It's my private hobby - I'm married, you see - but I do it very discreetly. I especially like women in suits. Are you an exhibitionist?"

I took a large swallow of my kir, and looked up, feigning as if I had never thought about whether I was or not. "Noo," I said slowly, "that's not really my thing." It was absolutely true at that moment.

"Oh, that's too bad," he mused, pratically drooling, "I'm sure you'd be very good at it."

"Do you meet a lot of women who accept?" I asked.

"Oh yes," he said, "I pay 150 euros per photo, or take them to dinner."

"Expensive hobby," I said. "And what do you do with the photos? Do you keep them? Do you frame them? Do you put them on the web?"

"They are for me," he replied, "but I have to be discreet because I'm married. It's my little secret."

I nodded, in my pop psychologist way, but I didn't believe for a minute they just stayed in his camera.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Patrick," he said, extending his hand.

"I'm Penelope," I replied, shaking his hand. "Thank you for the drink, Patrick, but I need to be going now."

"I'm here every day except Monday," he said, "if you change your mind."

"I'll know where to find you if I do," I replied with a smile, secure in the knowledge that there is no way I would ever remember how to get back there.

mardi, septembre 13, 2005

Fodder for Ridicule

Rightly or wrongly, I consider myself a better than average cook. I grew up helping my mom in the kitchen, who taught me most everything I know. She had recipes from all over the world, and almost every kitchen utensil known to man, not to mention a kick-ass gourmet kitchen. We made rum and chestnut cream tortes, feijoada, crepes suzette, roasted goose, pecan pie so good she had people begging her to ship them via mail, butternut squash soup, fondue, zingy Lebanese tabouli, and all kinds of dishes ranging all the way from shark to sushi. Her penchant for trying new things had its funny side effects, namely the most extensive vinegar collection in the Western Hemisphere. Once, my sister and I counted 16 different kinds.

So as you can see, I am no stranger to cooking. I actually really enjoy it when I am cooking for an occasion. I find it less rewarding when it's just for me, but budgetary concerns have forced me to confront the limitations of my miniature Parisian kitchen (which is more aptly described as a corner of a room). Despite its small size and odd usage of space, it has relatively large cabinets, and two whole ceramic ranges! (insert ironic tone here.) I recently acquired a little toaster oven, a hand-me-down from a friend whose parents moved back to Mexico, and it sits on my counter, taking up precious room. I was skeptical when I saw it - it looked good for little more than heating up croissants and blinis - but I discovered to my delight that my small Pyrex dish fits inside. So recently, I concocted a nice little dish of chicken, tomatoes, olive oil and feta, put the glass cover on, and baked it for 30 minutes. It came out tender and flavorful. I was more than pleased with myself and my little oven-that-could.

I have a good friend who lives in a 16m2 studio (~160 sq ft) and makes a mean quiche lorraine. She beats the eggs, heavy cream, lardons, emmenthal and herbes de provence in a bowl, and puts it in an oval dish fitted with a pre-made pâte feuilleté crust. She pops it in her (slightly larger) toaster oven, and 30 minutes later, we all have a tasty treat to stave off drunkeness a little longer.

Encouraged by the Greek chicken success, and my friend's repeatedly perfectly turned out quiches, I decided to make one in my Pyrex dish last night. I had gone shopping at the corner store on Saturday when I realized I had almost nothing to eat and thirty minutes before the store closed. It's not open on Sunday, and I hate grocery shopping on Monday night after work because it's full of stressed out scowling people, and the shelves are half empty. So I rushed through the store on Saturday night, and the shelves were almost bare. There was no chicken or beef to be had, only lonely looking turkey and pork cuts. So over the announcement that everyone should immediately proceed to the checkout counter because the store was closing, I quickly bought the ingredients for the quiche. I hesistated over whether my friend's is so good because she picks a particular kind of lardon over another. Salted or smoked? I went for salted, partly out of loyalty to my Southern heritage (ya'all ever had country ham? Dang, it's salty!) but mostly because smoked stuff scares me. I'm always afraid it will remind me of that smoke in a bottle stuff. Bleah. I grabbed what I thought was pâte feuilleté, salted lardons, emmenthal, eggs and heavy cream and obediently proceeded to the checkout.

Last night, I happily mixed the ingredients, lined the Pyrex pan with the pre-made crust, and popped it in the oven. I checked on it a few times, and it didn't seem to be cooking very fast. The shelf of the oven was at a height that made the top of the crust almost touch the heating bars, so I should not have been at all surprised when I smelled burning later. I took it out, but was heartened that the top of the quiche was a nice brown color and it seemed to be cooked throughout. I set it out to cool. When I went to see if it was cool enough to eat, I began to pick off the burnt parts of the crust, and that's when I felt it. That telltale heaviness of uncooked ingredients. I looked closer. The crust on the insides and bottom were almost raw. Okay, so my Pyrex pan is small, but it's not really shallow, and the inherited toaster oven is no convection masterpiece. Then I see the wrapping of the pre-made crust sticking out from the trash : pâte brisé. Oops. That's more for tarts and pies. No wonder.

Determined to salvage it, I picked off the burnt crust, put on a saute pan to heat, and scooped the whole darn thing out - intact - into it. I covered it, and let it cook. When I once again smelled the crust burning, this time directly on the bottom, I took the spatula and peeled back the crust. I scooped up the inside onto my plate in two parts and threw the burnt pâte brisé away.

My concoction, though not a quiche lorraine, turned out to be a very thick, rectangular shaped, yummy baked omelette.

But still, fucking up a quiche is fodder for ridicule. So be nice until I figure this kitchen corner out.

mercredi, septembre 07, 2005

My Country

I don't know how to express what I have been feeling over the past couple of days. I have alternately felt numb, incredulous, helpless and deeply ashamed.

I have seen so many photos that have made me quickly turn away to bury my face in my hands and cry. I can only imagine the state I would be in if I had TV. There was the one photo of a poor scraggly dog that had been tied to a railing on the interstate for six days and was barking for someone to save him. My heart broke into a million pieces.

Then there was the shot of evacuees waiting to be flown out, piled onto cots seven high. It looked so much like the images of ships carrying slaves on the Middle Passage that I immediately burst into tears.

That the current administration fucked up is no surprise. That the people who could not leave New Orleans were black and poor is no surprise. That the blacks are portrayed as 'looting' and the whites as 'scavenging' enrages me.

"Everyone knows," my caustic co-worker said to me today, "that the Americans are the most racist of all." This from a woman who refuses to drink out of her bottle of mineral water if it's left out overnight lest the North African cleaning crew help themselves to it. "You never know with those people," she whispered conspiratorally.

Like Mary Landrieu, I feel an urge to slap someone upside the head.

But with everything this whole disaster is revealing, I certainly cannot argue that we don't have a serious problem. More than a problem with race, however, I feel from a distance here in this country where tenants who fail to pay their rent cannot be evicted in the winter months, a kind of shame that we treat our poor people, regardless of their skin color, so callously. There are many things wrong with the system in France, I grant, but their idea of the role of government is to provide for and protect its citizens. I wish ours were.

There are some rays of hope. A long complacent press seems to be getting some balls. Ordinary citizens have directed much of the discourse in the blogosphere. New Orleans might recover.

I hope my country recovers its conscience.