Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The best day of the week... Tuesday.

I live an a quiet residential area of Nantes, just off the busy star-shaped Plaza Zola. On my road, about a block closer to the plaza, is a large supermarket with a parking lot around back and a moderate blacktop in front. Most mornings this blacktop is home to renegade shopping carts and the occasional beggar. However, Tuesday is different. Sometime before dawn, the Abid family park their large van there. It is not a normal white van, but one of those you see at fairs where the side flap opens up to reveal the counter of a food vendor. The Abid family sells one of the most important foods from this particular region of France: crepes and galettes (whear, savory crepes). On two huge crepe cookers (they look like a large skillet turned upside down) they keep cooking the crepes all day. For less than 15 cents you get the basic building block of the crepe dinner - the cooked batter. People line up, in fact I rarely see any less than three people in line at any given time. In general, I buy three huge crepes (31 cents) each week - in the afternoon, when the wife is working. She is really nice and likes to small talk... anyway... Each week I plan on saving them: eating one when I get back, one after dinner, and one for breakfast the next morning. Nothing fancy, mind you. Just butter, lemon, and sugar. No matter how forcibly I remind myself about the planned rationing, I have yet to have a crepe remaining after two hours. They smell too good to leave on my shelf for too long. I end up eating them in rapid succession - usually ending in a stomachache. However, this never stops me from buying three crepes each week from my favorite crepe-mobile.

Bon Appétit!
Discovering the joy of Socialism...

In general, I am a healthy person. As my mother may proudly boast, I have used antibiotics less than ten times in my entire life; however, the weather and the climate in my new home caused an interesting health condition. Nothing serious - just a circulation problem in my toes - common in old men. This brought about an interesting situation: Heather had to go to a French doctor.

After putting off the inevitable for two weeks, I attempted to get up the nerve to make "the call." I hate talking on the phone in French. Much of my ability to understand the language is based on context clues and facial expression, all rendered impossible by the phone. After the first dial-and-quickly-hang-up call, I managed to control my irrational nerves long enough for the nurse to answer. In halting French I explained that I wanted an appointment with Dr. Tauty for a problem with my feet. She gladly (and speaking in wonderfully slow French) gave me an appointment for the following morning at noon.

Figuring I would have many forms to fill out and with my dictionary in tow, I arrived at the office a comfortable 15 minutes early (as the receptionist in the States tells you to). The nurse showed me into the waiting room, though I am missing the paperwork. I sat there for 20 minutes, along with the typical crying babies and sneezing businessmen. When the door opened and my name was called, I was surprised to find that the doctor himself had come to fetch me. Dr. Tauty is a short, balding Dutch-South African man who was dressed in a perfectly tailored three piece green tweed suit and white doctor's jacket. Plus, I was still concerned (obsessed?) that there was a mistake - I had yet to fill out any forms.

After the traditional and mandatory French introductions, he (he himself, mind you) directed me into his office and motioned for me to sit in the comfortable leather chair opposite his desk. I wasn't weighed, wasn't measured, wasn't asked to sit awkwardly in an empty closet-sized room silently waiting. None of these. Before we began he asked me where I came from and why. Then he got down to business... after I explained he directed me to the examining table on the far side of the room and took a look at my feet. Then he told me to put my shoes back on and to return to the comfortable chair where he explained the problem. Dr. Tauty even took the time to translate the diagnosis into English.

Now I was sure that the paperwork would come, but it didn't. He handed me a prescription and a form I had to send to the Social Security office because I only have a temporary number. Then his face became grave and apologetic. Because I only have a temporary number, I have to pay him the full amount and be reimbursed later. Alright, I was ready. Before I went to the appointment I purposely went to the ATM and withdrew a decent amount of cash for such an occasion. With down cast eyes, he asked for 21 Euros. I had to have him repeat the sum, I thought I hadn't heard correctly. But he assured me that it was 21 Euros. I let out a hardy laugh which elicited a perplexed look from Dr. Tauty. After explaining that a similar visit in the States, without insurance, would cost at least 60 Euros if not 100, he joined me in laughing. "Thank goodness for socialism then," he chuckled.

As he guided me back through the hallway, he shook my hand and kissed my cheek. Then he said, "If I ever see you with anything less than two pairs of socks and thick boots on, I will hit you upside the head with my Hippocratic oath." Out the door I went.

And that was my cultural experience for the week. When I tried to explain to my Danish landlady how weird and bizarre the doctor's visit was, she explained that much of it was the same in Denmark; however, nothing prepared her for the first time a doctor volunteered a house call when her youngest had the flu. Apparently, the house call is a uniquely French custom - I am glad that I did not have to have that cultural experience. If one appointment at the doctor threw me for such a loop, I cannot imagine what it would be like to see the doctor chez moi!

A Votre Santé! (To your health)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Christmas Day...

Around 12:30 a knock on the door roused me from my coffee and alternate news reading. I opened the door to find a very large Danish man who informed me that I should head to the "main house" around 1:30.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning. Camilla and Guillaume invited me to have Christmas dinner with them and their family. You have no idea how excited I was - a real French Christmas! Guillaume's mother (Mdm. Micheal), father (M. Micheal), and brother Matthieu from the coast were coming in along with Camilla's brother and mother from Copenhagen would be there as well.

I walked in through the back door a comfortable five minutes late (as French custom requires or at least as close as I can come) and Guillaume was ready with a glass of Drappier Champagne and began introductions. I was happy to learn that Camilla's mother and brother spoke perfect English, because my Danish is a bit rusty or nonexistent. We all stood around the fire as the children were jumping out of their skin to open presents. Apparently, this was their second Christmas. The Danish tradition is to open presents on Christmas Eve while the French celebrate on Christmas Day. As we all enjoyed our second and third glasses of Champagne, presents were handed all around. I even got some - a beautiful plume pink scarf, Danish chocolates, and a potted flower! I gave the kids those Lifesavers Storybooks from the States.

After the gifts were given, we all continued to chat and enjoy the fire. Guillaume and I discussed the wine selection for the evening - he comes from a classic gastronomic loving family and knows my interest in wine. He even agreed to introduce me to his merchant. I can't wait!

Dinner/Lunch started promptly at 2:43 and, from what Guillaume's father said, it was THE traditional feast that they have been having in Breton for centuries. The first course was fresh oysters... plates and plates and plates of them. French oysters are usually rough shelled and large, everyone was impressed with my skills which started a conversation about Seattle sea food. Along with this they served a local Muscadet wine (light, dry, easy to drink) which is produced by a friend of the family 20 miles outside Nantes. M. Micheal is an avid clam hunter and provided me with a lesson on how to eat live clams. You have to surprise them or they clam-up (too bad the joke doesn't work in French) and slip a thin knife in through their shell. Then you scrape them out and enjoy like an oyster. They taste like the sea - iodine.

Second course was foie gras. No, that doesn't even do it justice - it was the most creamy decadent foie gras I have ever had, even M. and Mdm. Micheal were impressed (and they have eaten foie gras their entire life!). To drink with this, we had a very sweet Cote de Rhone wine whose name I have forgotten. I am not generally a sweet white kind of gal, but with the foie gras I felt as though I was eating/drinking the most decedent thing in the world. So rich, so sweet, so lovely.

Following this we had the main meal - duck with potatoes and red beets. I believe that my dad is laughing to himself - I hate beets. However, if he had made them like this growing up I think I would have had a permanently red-stained mouth. They were cubed and lightly pickled in a sweet vinegar. With the beautiful duck and amazing potatoes they served a Crozes Hermitage Papillon 2005. A bit of a shock after the Cote de Rhone, but it brought out the duck very nicely.

Salad and cheese were a nice way to fill in the gaps after such a rich and exciting meal, although I still don't understand eating the salad after dinner... but oh well.

Desert was a homemade Bouche de Noel, a rolled cake that looks like a log. But the wine, in my opinion stole the spotlight at this point. We has a Loire Valley sparkling wine from DomaineChevrot, Cremant de Bourgogne. A little sweeter than champagne, but still dry - many light fruits and a touch of oak. If I could only take one wine home - it would be this one.

Over coffee we had some Danish marzipan candies, and great discussion. I loved talking to Camilla's mom, but my main accomplishment was the small talk with Mdm. Micheal. She was the only one who didn't speak English and my French is better than Camilla's family's French so, from time to time, I felt bad because we were speaking mostly in English. At one point she came back to the table where the ladies were lingering over coffee and candy. The moment the conversation dropped for a second, I took the opportunity to switch the language. I am not a small talker, but we did have something in common - the sea. Mustering all of my nerves (I still get a bit nervous to have a chat in French), I started by confirming that she lived by the sea. To my great relief, I could see that her face lit up - she liked the sea. We chatted for quite a while, going over all aspects of the ocean, Pacific and Atlantic, and she even invited me to Sunday dinner at her house sometime in the future.

When the party was breaking up, I realized that, next to being with my family, I really enjoyed myself. By the time I returned to my petite maison it was 7:30. In true French style, lunch lasted six hours! Experiences like this are why I decided to spend time here!

Joyeux Noel!