Growing Pains

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

We moved! As hard as it is to believe, we are no longer residents of France. It seems like just yesterday, I was breaking my ankle, turning 40, and moving to Paris to begin a unique chapter in our lives. Now that chapter is over. How could that possibly be?

When we left, it seemed like we were going to be gone for forever. Yet, here we are back in our same house, in our same city, watching the same TV on our same old couch. Needless to say, moving overseas, especially to a city as immensely entertaining as Paris, turns to make your old life seem a bit boring. Since most people ask how we are handling the transition back to our old lives, I thought I would share some thoughts.

First, let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. Stores here, especially grocery stores are insanely large. We have a back yard, even though it is a small one. Our refrigerator and freezer are cavernous. Malcolm can stomp around on the floor without threat of the grumpy woman downstairs coming up to complain. The cheese here is shit, we can’t find a decent bottle of wine for $4 and no matter what day of the week, we can eat dinner at 5 o’clock if we wanted to. You might have been able to guess all these.

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I wonder what major thing happened between May and August that would cause so much inactivity?

To me, the most notable change in lifestyle between Paris and Oakland is the need for a car. I loved walking Paris as a tourist and never really grew out of it while living there. I would routinely walk to destinations even though they were a mile or two away. Throw on some headphones, chart a course through some cool neighborhoods and off I would go. Here, you drive everywhere and this is definitely a crappy habit to return to. I just looked up the distance to and from our normal grocery store here, and, oddly, it is almost exactly the same distance as the walk to our grocer in Paris. Even so, in Oakland, walking to and from the store with a rolling shopping cart seems about as normal as a thinking Jared from Subway WASN’T a pedophile. (Of course he is, why do you think he was always holding up those giant pants? Kids love giant pants: fact!) Anyways, I never even considered walking to the grocery store here, even though I never considered taking the metro or driving to the store in Paris. I blame the stupid car.

Americans eat weird food. This we all know. What strikes me upon return is how many of the events we attend are now just excuses to cram shitty food down our collective pie holes. It’s not a ballgame, it’s a chance to eat cha cha bowls and garlic fries. It’s not a mall, it’s an invitation to Cinnabon. They sell fucking mozzarella sticks at movie theaters! (I’m sorry, but if Italians knew that we are taking their beloved, hand pulled buffalo milk delicacy and are chopping it up and deep frying it so that we can enjoy watching Arnold Schwartzenegger movies in 3D, they would dig up Mussolini and give him another shot.) Social life here seems like it has become way too centered on unnatural food. The county fair shouldn’t be about deep fried Coca-Cola or butter. (It should be about protecting your children from carnies!) Instead of the thing, we are enjoying the shitty food at the thing. To me, “food” like this is best enjoyed in a place which makes you realize that you are engaging in aberrant behavior. If I am going to pound down a a bucket of KFC, I do it in a dark closet, cloaked in a veil of shame, and not, as some do, on an airplane.

Oddly, laundry is also quite different here. Here is how you do laundry in Paris:

1. Load the washing machine. The appliances there are impossibly small, so you can really only wash two or three shirts at a time.

2. Turn on washing machine and hit start or “depart” or whatever the hell button makes the washing machine go. I think I pushed every single button on the front of our washer the first time we used it. It broke shortly after.

3. Wait. Appliances in Europe are very energy efficient. That is really just code for “things don’t work very well and whatever they do takes an inordinate amount of time.” Expect each load about to take about three hours to wash.

4. Put clothes in dryer.

5. Wait.

6. Haha, just kidding. Your clothes will never get dry in France, no matter how long you wait. It’s like waiting for a Republican in the Senate to embrace science. It just won’t happen! Evidently, the EU banned dryer technology some years back, so the only thing that dryers can do for you is make your clothes hot and damp. When you need to leave the house, you put on your hot, damp clothes and head off into the Parisian world. Remember, the appliances are really small there, so you are ALWAYS doing laundry. This means you are ALWAYS wearing hot, damp clothes. Existentialism can trace it’s roots back to dissatisfaction with the laundry in Paris. In the US, a load of laundry takes two hours total and I can wash every piece of clothing owned by every person on our block if I wanted to. My clothes are only damp when I spill wine on myself. It is glorious.

Everything in Paris is closed on Sunday. Well, not everything, but if it is Sunday and it isn’t sold at the Gap on the Champs-Élysées, you better buy it on Saturday. Here, Sunday is almost like every other day. We bought a cell phone, changed cell phone plans, signed up for satellite TV, filled a prescription and had a nice dinner on our first sunday here, and it was so strange! I am happy about every change in our lives which makes things easier/require less planning. The sunday thing is a big one.

Lastly, I became a little more chatty while in Paris. When you live in a foreign country, you spend a lot of time not knowing what the hell is going on. You walk around in a bubble, undecipherable noise happening all around you. In the bubble, your mother tongue becomes golden. For me, every conversation in English was a lifeline, a way to feel “not-stupid.” There were days when I would have given anything for some easy chit chat, when I could have appreciated the desk clerk at the clinic telling me I had herpes, as long as she did it in English. There, whenever I could speak to someone, I would. This has followed me here. I am much more likely to chat up people than before I left, drawing me into conversations with neighbors, store clerks and movie theater employees (who seem pretty ignorant as to just how mozzarella sticks became cinema food.) My head is no longer down and I am learning a lot about the people around me.

Time will tell whether these things still seem strange after a while and how we will adapt to our new life. Maybe I’ll try walking to more places. Maybe I won’t.

If anyone needs me, I will be in a dark closet, enjoying a bucket of KFC (which I just bought in a drive thru.)

Big Daddy Paul’s Guide to Shopping In Paris

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

I am not what you would consider a fashionable person. During the course of a typical year, I am supplied with new clothes twice a year: on my birthday and at Christmas. These clothes arrive by way of my lovely wife, whose fashion sensibilities run a little more sophisticated than “hoodie and flipflops.” Occasionally, at a nice dinner out, I will look presentable, but most of the time when you see me on the street I look like a character out of an Adam Sandler movie.

Every once in a while I feel compelled to augment my array of ill fitting polo shirts and awkward length shorts, causing me to head out looking for the holy grail of men’s fashion: girth obscuring apparel. Yes, my entire approach to fashion is the same as Kirstie Alley when she was pregnant on Cheers that one year. In the United States, I can navigate stores like Ross Dress for Less and Marshalls to satisfactory results. Shopping in Paris is quite a different beast, though. If you ever find yourself similarly situated, I created this handy, dandy guide to surviving the Parisian shopping scene. Enjoy!

Ground Rules:

I find it helpful to have a set of well established principles to guide me when out looking for clothes. With all the potential prats and pitfalls that go along with any shopping trip, if you have no foundation for your search, you might just drown in details. Here are mine:

1. Nothing white. The only people who should wear white clothes are chemists and orthodox Christians on their way to church. The rest of us have life to deal with: coffee stains, kids with grubby fingers, toothpaste mishaps and such. White clothes will usually only be used once or twice before they become a walking announcement of how much you suck at life.

2. Absolutely no denim above the waist. Really, the last time it was acceptable to wear jean-like clothing was the two weeks following the first time you saw, “The Outsiders.” Now, if you wear a denim, you look like a 1940’s mechanic.

3. No used clothes. Many people consider vintage clothing a great way to find unique clothes that are often a fraction the cost of their new counterparts. I don’t. When considering wearing someone else’s clothes, all I can think is, “These are the clothes that someone else wore when they went to the bathroom.” Pass.

Those are my rules. Make your own and then stick to them when you head out.

The first thing you need to do here when buying clothes here is knowing where to shop.  You might think that there a lot of options to choose from in Paris, but really the clothes are pretty much the same at every store here. Really, the only decision you need to make is “What size store do I want to shop at?” For me, the critical consideration is how much I want people to laugh at me. The smaller the store, the more they will laugh. Bitchy shop clerks at large stores have to spread their condescension over a large customer base. At a big enough store, they may never even see you! At a small store, you are often alone, meaning the small gaggle of employees focus their entire attention on you. Try on something ridiculous enough, and the snickers will emulate a pack of hyenas. I generally stick to the larger stores, but when feeling particularly masochistic I will head to a small boutique for a lesson in humility.

Having selected the right store to fit your needs, you will head in and start looking at clothes. Upon entering, clerks greet you and ask if you are looking for anything special. They will turn on you, I promise. All of them. Just preemptively sneer at them and tell them you are looking for clothes for your dog. Anything else will give them the upper hand.

If you are lucky, you won’t find anything that you like and and you will be free to leave to go have lunch. Occasionally, however, something may catch your eye. This is really a shame, because this means you will have to try something on. Find the “Cabine” and select your size for the stuff you want to look at. It’s really hard to find your size here, so with any luck you won’t find anything. For men, the most common size for pants is 28 W x 36 L. WTF? These dimensions suggest that the men of France are as tall as Shaquille O’Neal and have the same waist size as one of his legs. Occasionally I will read the pant sizes backwards and only realize my mistake when I am unable to pull the pants up above my knees. For god sakes, definitely don’t ask a clerk for helping finding a size. You would be better off just bringing in a cricket paddle and asking them to whap you upside the head with it. Find the size yourself or move on.

One of the many cringeworthy moments I have had shopping.

I don’t remember the name of the brand, but if I had to guess, it would be called, “Cringeworthy.”

Even when you think you find things in your size, you really haven’t. This is because fashion designers here lie about sizes. I try on clothes here in the same size that I have been for 20 years and find that I look like Doctor Banner about 3/4 of the way to his transformation to The Hulk. Not good. In the US, I wear clothes size “L.” I have clothes here that say “XXL.” I AM NOT A FUCKING XXL! The sizing here are a pack of lies. To figure out your European size, use the same formula used to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit and then rip the tags off to hide your shame.

If, when trying on clothes, the clerk asks if you are OK tell them that you are just shredding up the clothes to rework them into something worth wearing. Do not, leave your cabine and ask how it looks. If you do, the following will occur:

Clerk: Is everything OK in there?

You: Yes.

Clerk: Can be of any assistance?

You: How does this look?

Clerk: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. It looks like a marshmallow man bound in saran wrap!

Having made many, many mistakes while shopping, I found a store where I can happily find clothes that fit. The store is called “C & A,” short for a name that translates to “Short and Fat.” It is the French equivalent of a store somewhere between Target and Home Depot. It is chronically understaffed, making the cabines wonderfully hyenae-free. I can’t say I look particularly good with the clothes I buy there, but my clothes are not white, not denim and have not been previously used by anyone who has gone to the bathroom. For this stay at home dad, this is just fine. Good luck shopping in Paris. Unless you are one of Shaquille O’Neal’s legs, you are going to need it.

Cheese of the Week: Epoisses

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Cooking and Eating

The cheese education is one of my favorite aspects of living in France. Most of the cheese eaten here are quite difficult to find outside of the country. Here is my latest find:

Epoisses is a cheese made in the Bourgogne region of France. Like all good cheeses, it is stashed away in secret caves to mature, and then rinsed several times a week with alcohol. (In the case of Epoisses, it is rinsed with a mixture of rainwater and marc de Bourgogne, a fancy French way of saying “moonshine.”)

At this point in the review, I would like to just take a step back and go on record as saying that everything in this world, EVERYTHING, should be rinsed several times a week in a mixture of rainwater and moonshine. Can you imagine how much better off everything would be? If you rinsed “The Godfather” with rainwater and moonshine regularly, it would come out looking like “The Godfather II.” Rinse Al Gore with rainwater and moonshine a few times a week, he’d become Barack Obama. Give Obama the same treatment and he’d become JFK. There isn’t anything in this world that wouldn’t benefit from a rainwater/moonshine rinse, so go ahead, start looking for ways to improve your life. You are welcome.

OK, back to the cheese. Epoisses was wildly popular in France in the 1800’s, even becoming Napoleon’s favorite cheese. (Another entry for best band name ever!) However, due to the fact that France most of its cheese mongering men during the World Wars, Epoisses fell out of production. The cheese was revived later in the 1950’s and now has a special place in the French culinary scene. How special of a place? This special:

It has oft been said that Epoisses has the force of Charles le Temeraire and the sensibility of Madame de Sevigne.

HAHAHAHAHA! My goodness, that one gets me every time. If you do not understand the reference, it is really a pity. I am quite the expert in French culture and get the reference perfectly. Really, I do.

epoissesBeing such a hit in France, I was especially looking forward to my first taste. The taste, however, is not the first thing you notice. The first thing you notice upon opening the little box is the shiny, almost laminated orange exterior, the fromage equivalent of John Boehner in the sauna. Then, the smell hits you. The professional tasters out there mention the pungent smell as “earthy” or “meaty.” They can’t use terms like “funk” or “pretty funky” “sweet Jesus, that is really just too much funk.”

I wasn’t put off so much by the smell though, as the taste. I noticed a hint of cat piss in it, which either meant that the cheese was reaching the limits of it’s ripeness or that “Lucky” the neighborhood cat had taken some liberties with the open air market at which I bought this cheese. For the rest: whoa. This cheese is strong. There is a lot going on, so I recommend trying this cheese for the first time like I did, in an empty, unlit house.

Words I would use to describe this cheese: gym locker room, wrestling in the dirt, Greek cab driver.

Words I wouldn’t use to describe this cheese: boring, simple, a hit with children.

Serve Epoisses at room temperature with a pinot noir, a Belgian beer, or some moonshine. If you must serve with white wine, something a little sweeter would be better, as a drier white would take your mouth down a path it will not enjoy.

I Hate Paris in Winter

Posted by Big Daddy Paul in Living in France

I rather dislike Paris in Winter. There, I said it. Oh, sure, the food is top class, the museums are amazing and Paris fashion week brings out some of the more “interesting” looking creatures in our species. Still, it’s just not enough.

What’s wrong with Paris in Winter, you ask? Just five things. Five big things.

It’s dark. The sun comes out late, leaves early, and, to make it worse, even when it’s “out” it’s not really out. It hides behind clouds all the time so the light is quite filtered. On the “out” scale from Liberace to Aldus Dumbledore, Parisian winter sun is definitely more Dumbledore on the scale. Everything is dim and shadowy and depressing, and I hate it. It’s like everything here is lit the same way as the basement of the New York Public Library.

It’s wet. Parisian winters are damp. We are in the midst of a pretty dry season here, and even so everything is usually just moist enough to be annoying. Imagine a kitten following you and sneezing in your face every minute or so to get a sense of what I am talking about. Sure, it will also rain properly, and once in a while even snow, but mostly the Parisian winter bombards you with tiny, irritating droplets just large enough to be un-ignorable. Generally, people walk around with an agitated look on their face. Wouldn’t you if you were constantly being bombarded by kitten mucus?

Well, at least it's shepherd's pie weather...

Well, at least it’s shepherd’s pie weather…

It’s cold. I am cold in Paris. I wear a hat, gloves and a scarf to leave the house here, and this is quite difficult for a person who doesn’t want to even wear pants when he leaves the house. Are there colder places in the world? Yes. Why anyone would want to live there is beyond me. In terms of preferred climate, I am sticking to places that are pants: optional.

It’s full of vampires. Not to get too young adult fiction on you, but there are a ton of good looking vampires that live in Paris over the winter. Annoyingly, all the vampires here act like they want to have sex with you, but when you get close, they wonder if they are really ready after all. Then, these other vampires get all jealous and think that they should have sex with you first, and then fights break out. In the end, there’s a lot of male grappling, no sex and a lot of longing glances. It’s pretty shitty. Come to think of it, that may explain all of the people who are here for Paris Fashion Week.

There’s terrorism. In case you didn’t know, Paris was the site for a recent terrorist attack. There was quite an unsettling week when we didn’t really know what was going on. At one point, Malcolm’s school was closed due what was termed a “direct threat,” and I thought, “Great. I have to wear pants and now this?” The threat to the school was deemed not credible, and life here is slowly returning to normal. Terrorism is a fact of life in the world we now live in, but reminders are always very scary. Like the smell of a skunk that lingers even after you’ve given your dog a tomato sauce bath, the terrorist-related ugliness persists in spite of the passage of time and the posting of armed guards at your kid’s school. Besides, it’s not as if life back in Oakland, California, USA is free of gun violence. The world is a pretty shitty place when you think of it. Doubly so in winter.

So there. Paris in winter is less good. Maybe that’s why you never see marketing along the lines of “Come to Paris. It’s dark and wet and cold, and if the terrorists don’t get you, the vampires sure will!”