Shooting the Stranded Balloon Rodents

The other day I blogged about the difficulties of capturing a certain blue heron, because on the days I see him, I have only a crap cell phone camera with me — and when I bring a better camera, he’s not there.

So it seems only fitting to describe the opposite situation, when the only reason I got an interesting photo was because I happened to have a camera handy. In this instance I was flying home from Paris, and  I wanted a camera in my carry-on bag so I could take pictures of airplane snack foods — which makes more sense if you read the blog post.

(I certainly didn’t intend to shoot photos of the airport. The terminal at Roissy/Charles de Gaulle was nice as far as terminals go, but I have to agree with Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, who said, “It is no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase ‘As pretty as an Airport’ appear.”

But before I got on the plane I was in the airport terminal at Roissy/Charles de Gaulle, waiting to check my baggage, when I happened to look up.

stranded rodents

Balloon refugees on the airport ceiling at Roissy/Charles de Gaulle

I have no idea how Mickey and Minnie got stranded up there, or why there’s a whole flock of them. Maybe the Balloon Rodent Liberation Front managed to free them of some child’s clutches, only to have them snag on the ceiling. Mabye it’s an obscure EuroDisney promo.

As the French say, on ne sait jamais.

Pastry Hunt, 2.0

In the comments to my blog post “A Tale of Two Countries, and their Snack Foods,” one commenter asked, “Would you be able to tell us where in Paris you had that memorable pain au chocolat?”

Good question — and I’m using good question the way a politician does, when s/he doesn’t have an answer. When I travel I lean on a guidebook for things like hours, directions and tips, but I also do a lot wandering around on foot, and tend to eat at whatever place looks appetizing.

I learned this tip from my cousin. We were rambling through Seattle one day in search of lunch, and I had my nose in my guidebook. He suggested winging it, and we ended up eating in Chinatown at a place called Uncle Ball’s. The food was just okay, but eating at a place with such a bizarre name was one of the highlights of our trip.

But I digress. I didn’t actually know the name or exact location of the patisserie in Paris, but I did know it’s general location, since I had gone to the Saturday produce market at Place de la Bastille:

Then I wandered down a side street, went by a good-looking patisserie, and bought goodies there. I also remembered it was right around the corner from a Starbucks.

Thanks to the awesome power of Google (and I mean awesome in both senses of the word), it’s alarmingly easy to retrace my steps. I didn’t know the name of the side street,  so I simply mapped the locations of Starbucks nearby.

Place de la Bastille

Detail from a map of Paris, showing Place de la Bastille

From that I knew the Bucky’s I was thinking of was on Rue de la Roquette. I used Google Street View to check out the street corner a half-block away and then panned around, and … voilà:

There’s your answer: La Tradition du Pain, at Rue Duval/Rue Saint Sabin. If you paste the store’s name into Google, you can even see some Italian guy’s photo of the display cases on Flickr.

His photo caption sums up my thoughts pretty nicely: Aspettavo il giorno successivo solo per fare di nuovo colazione lì sperimentando altre squisitezze!

(P.S. – Don’t read Italian? Try dropping the sentence into Google Translate.)

What’s for Flunch?

I saw this sign in Paris and it gave me a chuckle, so I took a picture. Flunch. It looks like a typo, or one of those cute Euro near-misses at rendering a sign in English.

It took me another week to actually look it up. According to Wikipedia, Flunch is a restaurant chain roughly comparable to Sizzler. More interesting is the entry’s trivia section: “The word ‘flunch’ is a portmanteau of ‘fast’ and ‘lunch’; it has become part of French slang, coining the verb, ‘fluncher’.”

That’s a slightly disturbing trend. Imagine if American fast food restaurants achieve verb status — or, almost as bad, if their marketing departments attempt to promote their names by turning them into verbs:

  • “Just let me Arby’s this before the meeting starts”
  • “We’re not just eating lunch, we’re Fuddruckering it”
  • “I love the way that girl Chick-Fil-As her food with her sensuous lips”

But that’s only a mildly amusing concept for us Americans, because we’ve been Dunkin’ Donutsed by marketers for so long, we’re used to fast food companies committing language atrocities. I’ve actually written about it before, when I came to obvious conclusion that many of the foods with crappy names — Hardee’s Monster Biscuit, Bob Evans Stacked and Stuffed Caramel Banana Pecan Hotcakes — tend to be epically crappy foods.

I happen to be Dairy Queening in and out of a book called Pardon My French: Unleash Your Inner Gaul, which is a guide to French words and phrases, especially ones that explain some quirk of French culture.

In the book’s first section (Food and Drink, mais bien sur), the author Charles Timoney explains the phrase manger chaud — literally, to eat hot.

The average French person will expect to eat mat at least once a day and will also expect at least one dish of each main meal to be served hot. Suggesting that a colleague might skip a decent meal and just grab a sandwich may well be met with an appalled cry of “Mais if faut manger chaud!”

If we can take Timoney at his word (unless he’s secretly a cultural knuckle-dragger, I’m inclined to, since he’s lived there 20-plus years), a proper hot sit-down meal is a big deal to the French. I mean, all you have to do is walk around Paris and see the soixante million or so cafes and bistros, compared to the relatively low number of MacDonald’s and Starbucks.

But there’s another disturbing trend that’s more disturbing than bad verbing. Slate magazine points it out in their story, Why is there so much violent crime at fast-food restaurants? A lowlight reel:

In January, Toledo, Ohio, resident Melodi Dushane punched out a McDonald’s drive-through window when she was told they didn’t sell Chicken McNuggets in the morning. Another woman recently drove through a crowd of people in a McDonald’s parking lot, injuring four. In 2008, a Los Angeles man punched a 16-year-old girl in the face at a McDonald’s after she complained about him cutting the line. A Wendy’s customer reportedly assaulted a female clerk at a drive-through window in 2007 after she didn’t tell him to “have a nice day.”

The story cites a number of reasons for this: location on busy streets, the restaurants keep long hours, and a lot of cash, their customers tend to be younger and poorer, and so do their employees. But the reason I found most interesting was at the bottom of the piece:

Customers may feel stressed out, too. Professors at the University of Toronto released a study in 2010 concluding that exposure to the logos of fast-food chains like Wendy’s and Burger King made people hasty and impatient. When “fast” food doesn’t live up to its name, people might lash out.

That’s kind of rich, isn’t it? The golden arches condition us to expect speed. We’ve become Pavlov’s dinner guests.

I’m not surprised customers are stressed out. Think about the fast food business model: They want you to speed up to the counter (or drive-through), order, pay, and then leave. They don’t want people in their restaurants, since that creates a mess they have to pay someone to clean up. The entire place is designed to be bright, clean-looking, and inhospitable: the molded furniture, the tiny tables, the fluorescent lighting,  the lack of amenities on the table, the lack of a waiter, etc. Often they wrap your food for you (whether you want it wrapped or not), the default assumption being that you’re going to eat somewhere else.

Yet another book about France I was Krispy Kreme-ing recently explained the difference between restaurants and bistros. Since that book is still in Paris and I am not, I’ll have to lean on Wikipedia for a brief history:

Bistros likely developed out of the basement kitchens of Parisian apartments, where tenants paid for both room and board. Landlords could supplement their income by opening their kitchen to the paying public. Menus were built around foods that were simple, could be prepared in quantity and would keep over time. Wine and coffee were also served.

In Paris,  restaurants were for the well-to-do, and the bistros were for the working class (kind of our like our fast-food restaurants, but without dancing spokes-clowns). Nowadays, Parisiens are being infected by flunch, and the US is a littered landscape of Carl’s Jr.,  El Pollo Loco, Panda Express, and Quiznos, where people brawl and mow each other down with their cars.

Meanwhile, we’re still trying to master the art of the bistro — something the Parisiens figured out back in 1884.

A Tale of Two Countries, and their Snack Foods

I recently traveled to Paris, which offered me a chance to observe all sorts of things, including the stunningly important issue of the ways airlines differ in feeding their passengers.

On Air France, the morning snack service consisted of the usual beverages (coffee, tea, water, juice, soda). Then the flight attendant presented a plastic tray, which was filled with breakfast pastry and little napkins. I selected pain au chocolat.

pain au chocolat

Pain au chocolat, the morning snack on Air France.

It’s a bit of trouble to get fresh pastry on a plane. Somewhere someone has to actually make the pastry, then it needs to get shipped to the airport and loaded onto the plane — all in short order, or else your snack goodie will be about as moist and chewy as your seat cushion/personal flotation device.

I’m not suggesting that Air France is being all that visionary or altruistic. They’re merely reacting to the cultural norm. The traditional light breakfast fare in France is often coffee and a croissant, so offering the same on a flight is kind of a no-brainer.

With that in mind, what does Delta Airlines offer?

Prepackaged pretzels and peanuts, the snack handout on Delta Airlines

The pain au chocolat was not the best one I had in Paris (after that one, my mouth wanted to spend the afternoon in bed, staring at the ceiling smoking cigarettes). But it was still pretty good.

The pastry was small, tasty, and not many people said no to them. I expect that the flight attendants ran out of them, or came pretty close. It was a little ceremony: the box was presented to you, and you got to choose between a croissant, pain au chocolat, or an escargot aux raisins. The latter has nothing to do with snails; in fact it’s a spiral pastry with raisins in it. They look like this:

The entire Air France morning snack ritual seemed to encompass the French approach to food: It’s fresh; it’s personal; the portions are small; it’s high-quality. When you eat good food, you pay attention to it.

So what do the two plastic packages of pretzels and peanuts say about the American approach to food? Well let’s open that package up a little.

Is it fresh? No, not in the way bakery goods are. It was put in a plastic package, but that could have happened days, weeks or even months ago.

Is it personal? No. There is no ceremony involved, no opportunity to survey the items and select one. The flight attendant reaches into a container, pulls two out, and hands them to you.

Is it high quality? Only if you think you can eat haute cuisine by shopping at the gas station.

Are the portions small? Yes, but if you’ve ever asked a flight attendant for more peanuts or pretzels, they’re all too happy to give you a handful. Since the snacks have almost no worth, no one minds giving you as much as you want.

Put another way, the peanuts and pretzels are mass produced low-cost and last for ages — they’re forgettable food widgets, but you’re welcome to eat as much as you want.

Needless to say, after eating the French way for a week (smaller, local, quality-driven, personal — the French way produces food like mom used to make!), it’s a little hard to come back to a country where so much of the food is bland, mass produced, and wrapped in plastic.

Sigh. Pass the peanuts.

Night of the living ranch dressing, and flying cats

We survived the first week with the French exchange student, despite our bad French. While polluting the poor kid with onion rings at a restaurant, Carmen tried to say that she liked the ranch dressing (je l’aime = I like it). Instead, she said je t’aime — I like you. Ranch dressing had become a being.

Yesterday the boys were playing with little Nerf guns, and I tried to say my coat was impermeable to the bullets: “Mon manteau est imperméable aux … euh, Curran, comment-dit-on ‘bullets’?”

Curran: “Fléchettes.”

Me: “Quoi? Les chats?”

Today we go to le champ de citrouilles — the pumpkin patch. I’m sure we can’t possibly mismangle the language there.

Culture is Like a Box of Chocolates

We’re hosting a French exchange student, who arrived from Paris yesterday. Tonight was our first dinner together, and for dessert, we put out what we had at and hand: some Mint Milano cookies, and some Hershey’s Halloween chocolates:

After dinner, our little student (he’s ten years old) presented us with a small fortune in gifts: a coffee table book, two coffee mugs, books and t-shirts for our kids, and a nice box of chocolates from Le Nôtre, a French chocolatier.

Now, one could speculate all night about the motives. The family loves to shop. The family is generous. This is a traditional thing to do, when you board your child with someone else. Or, it’s like tipping a valet when you first drop the car off with him, so that he’ll treat it well. Actually, it’s kind of a French cultural tradition. But whatever. That’s not the point.

What I find interesting is how easy it is to generalize on the basis of the chocolate.

We almost never have Hershey’s in the house (I think it tastes like a mixture of wax and granulated sugar), but at US supermarkets, you can literally buy bags of the stuff. In other words, it a symbol of the American approach to food: cheap, mass-produced and low quality. Dump it in a bowl, and it’s all you can eat.

On the other hand, here’s a photo of some Le Nôtre chocolates:

Notice anything? What I see is that they’re small, elegant, expensive — not the kind of chocolate you dump into a bowl on the coffee table. Both the Americans and French make chocolate but they take opposite approaches. Where the US mass produce for mass consumption, the French make chocolate something better: more expensive, meant to be enjoyed in small portions, and appreciated.

(Yes, this is generalizing a bit, as I’m sure I could find crummy chocolate in Paris, and there are great chocolatiers in the US. But look at the food that France exports, such as wine and cheese. It’s almost always high quality. The well-known US exports are things like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Hershey bars.)

I think France gets this one right.

Day of the Cravat – The Sequel

Earlier this week someone named Big Sven left a comment on my blog post, Day of the Cravat. In case you missed that one, it was about the movie Day of Jackal, and the sartorial choices of the assassin in the movie (a.k.a. The Jackal).

In case you’re too feckless to go read the original post, here’s what I said about the Jackal’s pants:

First, he’s got these taupe-colored high-waist pants, seemingly his only pair, and he wears them in every scene in the first half of the movie. They’re clearly miracle-pants, surviving scene after tedious scene, including scenes that are sorta action-y, with nary a wrinkle or a stain. These pants are the pride of the British Empire. They have a stiff upper inseam.

I also take note of all his cravats, and even include three super-hot cravat photos.  (Really. You haven’t read the original post? Your mother will be secretly ashamed.)

OK, now that you’ve done the reading, let’s check out Big Sven’s comment, because it’s all kinds of interesting–so interesting, I’m going to put it here in all its verbatimness:

It’s a film, small detail-misses occur even in the most expensive films and The Day of The Jackal was a cheap b-film, the actors using their own clothes for the most part. Surprisingly many actors are actually quiet bland and boring as day-to-day people, without a script in their hands.

The Jackal’s trousers: Edward Fox was an ex-lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards (hence that lovely well-trained body!) and thus was used to living rough yet keeping his kit in good shape. He’d have out himself on a charge if his clothes got dirty or creased!

The cravats: Ditto, Fox was used to wearing woollen scarves, camo-net scarves, when out on manoevers, check-out today’s soldiers, they still do this even in the desert. So he preferred cravats in civilian life, too, and thus it felt ok for him to wear them in the film. The Jackal character must have been an ex-soldier as all did their National Service in those days, this is where he learned to be a marksman, as a company-sniper, hence even he would be used to dressing this way. Lots of ‘Hooray-Harrys’ or ‘Ruperts’, as they are also called (can’t use what the squadies call them in this forum!) wear cravats for this reason.

By the way, Fox is ‘of the Manor-born’, related to the British Astor family, heavily into banking and the media, they owned The Times (they were also famed for their involvement in the Profumo Affair) and the (German?) American Langhorne Family, his auntie was actresse Joyce Grenfell.

Fox may also have met the man Forsyth based the Jackal on, an ex-army sniper and now mercenary, Jimmy Duggan, South London. Could explain why he took-on the roll, films never interested him. Eric Porter Britain and Badel certainly knew Duggan, visiting him at his flat in Beckenham, South London and meeting him up at The Garrick Theatre. I moonlighted there and saw them together. I have actually acted together with Porter on a police training-film.

I’m actually trying to get a producer/director interested in doing a remake of The Day of The Jackal, a less ‘boring’ one. But I’ve researched so much material it would probably be better as a TV-series.

One lives in hope….

A Prayer for Halak

It’s Stanley Cup Playoff time, which means it’s time for hockey prayers. Here’s one (I didn’t write it):

HALAK, Toi qui es dans les buts, Que ton plastron soit sanctifié, Que tes pads règnent, Que ta vue ne soit jamais obstruée, À cinq contre cinq ou en désavantage. Donne-nous aujourd’hui notre victoire en série. Pardonne-nous nos huées Comme nous pardonnons aussi a Melançon qui nous a offensés Et ne nous soumets pas a la…… défaite, Mais délivre nous de Crosby. Amen!

Jaroslav Halák:

Franglais of the Day

My sons go to a French immersion school, and from time to time that leads to some odd side-effects. But it also leads to curious dialogue.

This morning my little guy was coming to breakfast after working on a Lego creation. He said, “Moi, je fini de gas station.”

My older little guy, who was helping me set the kitchen table, said, “Well now you besoin de clean up.”


Having grown up mostly in Canada, I have a somewhat skewed perspective on national fervor—which is to say, I don’t have any. I lost the “God Bless America” vibe after 11 years of hearing “Oh Canada” every morning in school, not to mention snippy history teachers mentioning the various slights the US inflicts on Canada, history-wise.

(For example, don’t even get them started on the War of 1812 . Just let the record show that “When the war had finished, 1,600 British and 2,260 American troops had died.” Oh, and the Brits burned down the White House.)

Since I’m a sort of double-immigrant (away and back again), I know my view is unusual. But that still doesn’t account for what’s happening to my sons.

They go to a French-American school, where they’re immersed in French language and culture. A good thing, I think, to counter yahoos like W, and his nutty “shop to defeat terrorism” initiatives and whatnot.

But it has some bizarre side-effects. My older son now loves all things French, but being pretty young still, goes mostly off the moniker. So, he wants to learn how to play the French Horn, he’s big on the Tour de France, and today, when I took him for ice cream, he asked for French Vanilla.

They were sold out. How about regular vanilla?

No, French or nothing. Le Francais ou rien. Actually, he settled for the next-best Anglo equivalent, chocofudgesomethingorother.

I find it amusing, but then I noticed my younger son is catching on, too. As we listened to a French song—ironically titled “L’Amerique,” about wanting to visit Les Etats—younger said to older, “I like the French horn in this song.”

Oh la la!