dropping in

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It’s been awhile. I’m writing this from Paris, after a whirlwind tour of southern New Jersey, New York, and Los Angeles, where I caught up with family and friends and generally ran around like a crazy person doing an average of twelve things each day compared to the one or two things that was my norm in Dakar. Hence, no time for blog posts.

I actually did write one on my phone, but I never found a moment to upload it and now it’s obsolete. Ah well.

So anyway, I got to Paris on Tuesday, which makes today my one week anniversary. Not that I’m counting the days or anything… Rather, I’m frittering them away like a retiree who doesn’t realize that she’s about to run out of money very, very soon. Or, like a retiree who does realize this and yet somehow feels very emotionally insulated from that knowledge. I don’t know what’s going on with me and my usual stress response, but I’m living the good life here in France while doing the bare minimum to find work, even though I estimate I have about three months left to bleed money before my good life will come to an end and I’ll be on the next flight to wherever someone will give me a job.

But for now, here are some random tidbits about my time in Paris thus far:

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For a month, I have an AirBnB rental in a heavily West African neighborhood called Barbès. I did this by design, figuring it would help me pretend that I hadn’t completely left a place I didn’t really want to leave. What I didn’t realize when I booked the apartment was how close Barbès is to everywhere else. Paris is a much smaller city than I thought. A few days ago I walked from my house, which is fairly close to the ring road that encircles the central city, all the way to the Seine in the middle of the city, in about 40 minutes.

The tiny apartment has two windows, one towards the front of the house and one towards the back. The front one – my bedroom window – has a view of a blooming lilac tree and an apartment building painted dark magenta across the road. It’s quite picturesque. But the view out the back window – the one in the image at the top of this post – steals the show. The frame is filled by Sacré-Cœur in such a way that it looks like a backdrop for a set. At night they light up the church, and I turn off the lights in my kitchen and just stare out the window grinning.

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My plan had been to spend every other day of my one-month Paris trial, as I’m thinking of it, strolling aimlessly around a different arrondissement to get to know the city better. (And I was supposed to spend every other day at home in front of my computer, working hard to find a job. I may or may not have stuck to that plan.) I found a box of 50 index-sized cards in the rental, each one with a different short tour of a Paris neighborhood, and I decided to use those to guide my walks instead. They are amazing because you don’t look like a tourist holding a map or a guide book when you walk around with one of the cards, and the landmarks include some fairly random yet intriguing places, like candy stores from the 1700s.

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As expected, I am continuously tempted by the million and one ways to dispense with my money here. When I visited the Galeries Lafayette as part of one of the walking tours, it felt dangerous to linger too long, because everything looked perfect and amazing and I feared getting sucked in to a buying frenzy. IMG_7997.jpg

(When I took a picture of the famous cupola I noticed that with only slight modification, the bunting echoed my nostalgic thoughts: Trop cher. Fly me to DKR forever.) And yet, I can’t even blame the French for their overconsumption of luxuries the way I do Americans. Haute couture and gastronomy are part of French cultural heritage (even UNESCO says so.); how can you begrudge them their Chanel and their artisanal cheese?

On that note… I did some grocery shopping so that I wouldn’t have to keep spending money eating out. I stopped in to a charcuterie shop and picked up a few slices of ham and a wedge of emmental, which I figured would last me a few breakfasts. When the cashier rang it up as 19 Euros, I gasped, “Jesus Christ,” which is appropriate given that my own god would have been like, “That’s what you get for eating pork.”

Also what I get for eating pork (and six kinds of cheese, and ice cream, and Sancerre, and steak with blue cheese sauce…): I became progressively more and more sick to my stomach for the first four or five days I was here. The theory I came up with in Senegal holds water: my stomach does a million times better in places where other people’s do much worse, because my stomach does not like the good life the way my heart and taste buds do. (I’m ignoring my stomach and trying to push through.)

To conclude: I will soon be both broke and physically broken, but in the meantime I’m quite happy. This is a really nice life to lead, however long it lasts.

P.S. The most random of the random tidbits: I find young trendy French people’s relationship to the English language hilarious. Today I passed a hipster-bearded guy wearing a cap that said MILF on it, and I really wanted to ask him if he knew what it meant. Instead I laughed out loud while checking him out and he caught me in the act. I don’t know, maybe he does know exactly what it means and is just taking the concept of wearing things ironically to a rather brilliant level.

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Senegal, kay lekk! (If you don’t know what that means, read today’s earlier post.)

One summer when I was home from college, I trained to be a Philadelphia trolley tour guide. (I was too lazy to study for the exam so I never actually became one.) I don’t remember much of what I learned about my quasi-hometown’s history, but I do remember a piece of advice that a seasoned guide gave us during an instructional tour. He said that if we ever forgot the name of a landmark, we could take an educated guess that it was Franklin [Hospital / Square / Bridge / Museum / Parkway / Institute / Etc.], because, “9 times out of 10 it’s Ben.

In Senegal, a bastardization of this rule can be perfectly applied to food. If you’re not sure what you’re going to be eating on any given day, well:

“9 times out of 10 it’s thieboudienne.” Continue reading

The American Food Store

After eight months of living without many of my most familiar, beloved and/or regularly eaten foods, I finally visited the American Food Store in Almadies. I had been holding out as a point of pride, but also because I was never in the immediate vicinity and didn’t expect to find much there that I’d really want. There’s no way to not sound like a snob saying this, but most American food exports are not the kind of thing I ate in the United States anyway, whether because of dietary restrictions, nutritional preferences, or personal taste.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago on my way to drop off my absentee ballot at the American Embassy, I passed the American Food Store and felt it was time to stop in and see what they had to offer.

Surprisingly, the answer was: the entire range of human emotion. Browsing through the aisles of the American Food Store, I swung widely from one strong feeling to another. There was the joy of cultural recognition when I saw the jumbo-sized canisters of Heinz ketchup, yellow mustard and relish. There was amusement when I spotted the section devoted to beef jerky. There was deep (misplaced) nostalgia at the Jiffy-Pop stove-top popcorn. It was misplaced since when I was a kid we used to make popcorn with a machine, but something about the Americana of it got to me. There was deep (real this time) nostalgia in the candy aisle, with its Mounds and Mars and Three Musketeers and Baby Ruths.

There was delight when I spotted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups among the chocolate offerings. (Ten minutes later, there was disappointment when I realized that my palate has changed after months abroad, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups now taste more like sucking on a packet of sugar than eating deliciously sweetened peanut butter.)

There was relief when I saw that they sell cans of cranberry sauce, which means that I can attempt to recreate Thanksgiving here in Dakar. There was detachment when I spied Starbucks coffee, a newly stocked item, next to the Café Bustelo and resigned myself to sharing this city with the empire I hate most. There was gratitude when I found gluten-free pasta, and anger when I noted the 300% markup of gluten-free pasta (and everything else).

But mostly there was revulsion. Not to make a mountain out of a molehill… but the United States has really lost its way when it comes to sustenance of both the body (and, I would add, the soul). I already knew that while I was living there, but “dropping in” from somewhere else makes it stand out in sharp relief.

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breakfast of Senegalese champions

This millet porridge is called lakh and it’s the traditional breakfast across Senegal. It’s really heavy and in olden days was perfect for keeping farmers full all morning in the fields. If you’re a working stiff with a desk job, though, it’s a bit of a soporific, so these days in Dakar a baguette with Nutella or Chocopain (the Senegalese equivalent, made with peanuts instead of hazelnuts) is a more typical morning meal.

Traditionally, lakh is eaten with sweetened lait caillé – fermented milk, sort of like a very pungent yogurt. But here the Lo ladies are just eating regular store-bought yogurt and some condensed milk on top.

It is delicious and filling and a gluten-free alternative to the rice cakes I’ve been eating every morning and which got really old really fast (even smeared with exotic bissap/hibiscus or baobab jelly).

I wonder why millet isn’t more popular in the States. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before people start saying that millet is the new quinoa. Although amaranth might get there first…

Kaolack et Latmingué redux

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Two-day filming trip, back to the city and the 4,000-person town where I spent some time two weeks ago. Non-filmic highlights:

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First shared meal, in Kaolack. Everyone creates little de facto plate borders for themselves out of the food itself, so it’s not really as shared (read: germ-swappy) as you would think.

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I tasted baobab fruit fresh from the tree (the pod-thing it comes in is the top picture). It had the melt-in-your-mouth, chalky texture of astronaut ice cream and was sweet and tart at the same time.

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Also, baby goats.

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I just realized that most of what strikes me as notable and shareable during my travels is food-related. It is such a huge part of culture, no?

On that note, if the Internet cooperates, tomorrow I’ll post pictures of the delicious Senegalese Easter concoction I tried yesterday after it was mass-produced in my house (during a serious two days-long all-hands-on-deck operation).

 

I shouldn’t have done it

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Tonight on my way to the subway, I passed Ladurée, the Parisian macaron shop. Even though I hold as objective truth than one should never step foot in foreign outposts of shops that are beloved institutions in their home countries, I did anyway. Blame my overactive bladder and preference to use the bathroom in a fancy French café over a McDonalds: once in the door, I couldn’t help but eye the offerings. And when I noticed rose glace on the menu, the battle was over before it began. I had been on the lookout for floral-flavored ice cream above all other food in France, because I remember like it was yesterday the moment I had my first taste of fleur glace from a street vendor in Paris two decades ago. One of the best things I have ever tasted. And yet, I could not for the life of me find flower-flavored ice cream in wintry Paris. No street vendors in sight, and the shops only had rose sorbet.

All this to say, I quickly abandoned my deeply-held convictions and ordered a scoop of Ladurée’s rose glace, from an excessively sweet waitress with a Staten Island accent. It tasted delicious in the way American ice cream can taste delicious, but it was not at all like the life-altering French ice cream I had in 1993. While eating, I eavesdropped on conversations transpiring in English. I paid with dollar bills.

And I felt the looming threat of tarnishing the memory of the Ladurée in Saint Germain, where I bought macarons made more heavenly by the knowledge they came into existence in their motherland, were sold in a luxe shop that would have been guillotined during the French Revolution, and were requested in halting French from snooty employees who couldn’t be bothered with silly American customs like politeness. Ladurée should never have crossed the Atlantic.

And I should never have followed that ice cream with chocolate… but that’s a story for a different blog.

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Harney and Sons vervaine

Speaking of delightful French gastronomy… while I was in France in January my after-dinner drink was always verveine, which I had never heard of before but which seems quite popular there as a non-alcoholic digestif. I had no idea what I was drinking until I got back to New York. Continue reading

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Kozy Shack flan

Don’t ask me why I have been drawn to packaged flan lately. I know – it’s just asking for trouble. Still, in a taste-off between two processed, mass produced versions of a dessert that was just not designed to sit for months in the refrigerated aisle, there is a clear winner. Goya’s flan was too sweet and had an overly burnt top layer, but it nevertheless retained the general taste and contours of flan. Kozy Shack’s flan, however, was indistinguishable from paste. It tasted like flavorless Kool-Aid and had the consistency of Jell-o.

Just in case you ever get a hankering for flan and, like me, are too lazy to make it yourself or to find a restaurant in which to purchase it…FYI Goya’s is the lesser of the two evils.

A quick visit to the Alps

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I had been hankering for raclette ever since missing my chance to try it in France, so last Thursday I went to eat it in New York. Philippe found me a quirky little place that serves fondue and raclette – but only on winter nights they deem sufficiently cold – out of a dimly lit, speakeasy-like back room. Getting to it felt almost like going through the wardrobe into Narnia. Continue reading