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.

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.

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.