Friday, September 30, 2011

The Perpetual Leftovers

On Tuesday, the day after I got here, I offered to make dinner for my host mom and her daughter. I bought four chicken breasts, figuring I’d have one for the next day. I used cream of mushroom soup as a sauce and served them over rice with some grated carrots on the side.

It is now Friday night, after dinner. I still have leftovers.

Wednesday at noon, I wasn’t feeling that great, so I just had some rice with a little bit of mushroom soup on top. That left me still with soup, rice, chicken and carrots. Wednesday evening I was invited to my host teacher’s house for dinner and Thursday I had the world’s best sandwich ever*.

Thursday evening, however, I chopped up the chicken, mixed it with the rest of the rice and carrots, threw in some soy sauce, ginger and shallots, then sautéed it to make something that I’m not really sure qualifies as stir-fry. Maybe it was fried rice? I have no idea. Leftovers à la fake-chinese, as it were—which I then couldn’t finish.

Friday, I returned to the leftovers à la fake-chinese and consumed all of it! I thought I had at last vanquished the perpetual leftovers. I was even still hungry and returned to the refrigerator to discover…there was still mushroom soup. Cue dramatic music here.

More seriously, either there’s appetite suppressants in the water (which would explain how the French eat patisserie and drink red wine and still stay skinny) or I eat much less than I thought I do. The latter may be a product of me eating alone. Though I still keep more or less standard meal times rather than just grazing throughout the day, and still prepare meals that actually resemble real-person food, with no conversation to distract me, I notice that I’m full a lot sooner. It could also be that I have a tendency to get up and do the dishes once I’ve finished my plate of food, rather than going immediately to the fridge to get a yogurt or an apple.

For whatever reason, two chicken breasts, a decent quantity of rice and about 200 grams of grated carrots had made up four meals for me. I guess this bodes well both for my health (considering that sort of diet combined with walking around two miles every day to get to where I need to be will definitely result in me losing some weight) and for my budget. Which means I can buy more wine!

*The best sandwich ever is thick-cut French ham, Gouda cheese, mayonnaise and some lettuce on whole-wheat bread. And when I say mayonnaise, I mean real mayonnaise that you can still taste that it’s made from egg and is flavored with a little bit of Dijon mustard. Mmm.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Food and Wine (or Clearly, I have my priorities straight)

Before putting the form in the mail that will allow to stay legally in France, before opening a bank account, before calling the school that has a my paperwork, what did I do?

I went shopping for food and ended up buying wine.

In my defense, the wine was a gift for my host teacher, who invited me to dinner at her house. And I did need food otherwise I wasn’t going to have much to eat today unless I wanted to go buy kebab. Which I really shouldn’t do, being that eating out is kind of expensive, even at the little kebab stands. And I should use my money for important things, like wine.

Anyway, my shopping trip was to Auchan, a hypermarché on the outskirts of Toulouse. A hypermarché is a store that’s bigger than a supermarché, or supermarket, and which generally carries a whole range of stuff beyond simply food—pharmacy, clothes, electronics, etc. It’s fairly convenient because the metro goes right to it, the prices are very reasonable and there’s an SNCF store near it in case I need to pick up train tickets.

I got my loyalty card and went to it. A great deal of food shopping in France, unless you’re going to the market, is very similar to food shopping in the U.S. The main difference is what products there are and which of them are emphasized. Cheese, for instance, gets its own aisle. One side is more “commercial” cheese, ranging from stuff you put on sandwiches to higher quality (think the difference between Kraft and Cracker Barrel) and the other is deli-style, where you get the best cheeses, either prepackaged or cut to order. You find a lot more duck in the meat section as well as a range of Spanish and North African sausages (merguez, kefta, chorizo, etc), though that may be more exclusive to Toulouse than to France as a whole.

Yogurt and yogurt-like foods also get almost an entire aisle to themselves. I say yogurt-like foods because there’s not only the puddings and little prepackaged desserts like you would get in the United States but also some foods that are uniquely French—fromage frais, les faisselles and les caillés. Fromage frais is an unripened, unsalted cow’s milk cheese. It’s usually enriched with cream, so you end up with a very smooth and creamy product. It’s sold in little plastic Linkcontainers, much like yogurt, and eaten as a dessert, inverted into a plate and served with honey, sugar or fresh fruit. La faisselle is also a smooth, enriched cow’s milk cheese, but it’s packaged in its own liquid. You lift it out of the container using a little plastic mesh bucket. I believe the word for that type of bucket in French is faisselle, so that’s where the cheese gets its name. Finally, caillé is like cottage cheese, but unsalted and with a much smaller grain. It’s often made from lamb’s milk though, and is sometimes flavored with vanilla.

Finally, Auchan’s wine section makes me incredibly happy. It’s pretty large—three aisles, and almost exclusively dedicated to domestic wine. There might be a little Spanish and Italian wine, but next to nothing from the “New World” of viniculture. There’s a nice range of wines from the local AOCs (Gaillac and Fronton) as well as from other areas of France. It’s also significantly cheaper, since you don’t have to fly the bottles across the Atlantic. For instance, at Total Wine and More, my dad and I had tried a Chateau Tour de Bonnet, a white Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon mix from Bordeaux. It cost $13 at Total Wine and four euros (about $6) here.

This price difference means that I can also get some very good wines for a very reasonable price. Thus, I have a proposal to make. I’m going to do some wine reviews on this blog. Originally, I was thinking once a week, but I feel like bad things might happen if I try and consume a bottle of wine myself per week, so it shall be a wine review of however long it takes me to finish the prior bottle.

This, I think, is going to be the first one I review. Feel free to leave suggestions on what else I should try!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thoughts from a Metro Ride

(I do promise I will eventually stop being fixated on public transportation, but they’re such useful vehicles for blog posts.)

(Also, pun totally intended. You’re welcome.)

I spent most of yesterday being rather jet-lagged—and by rather I mean lying on the couch drinking Diet coke and eating crackers because that was all I could keep down and I needed to eat something if I was going to take ibuprofen for the killer headache that I also had. Wonderful first day in the culinary paradise of France, non?

Today was much more productive. I got my loyalty card for Auchan (a large, reasonably priced supermarket near the outskirts of Toulouse) and my metro card. Then I was off to the metro to go spend some euros!

During my ride up there, I realized just how much you can learn about Toulouse by using its metro system and paying attention to the symbolism it uses and the way it presents itself. There were four major points that jumped out at my during the train ride.

1. La Carte Pastel- The metro card for Toulouse is a pretty blue color and roughly translates as “Woad Card.” As it turns out, during the Renaissance, the city of Toulouse was actually quite prosperous, in part thanks to the cultivation of woad, a plant used to produce blue dye. This led many wealthy merchants to construct huge houses in the city, called hotels particuliers, many of which have engravings of the woad plant to honor the dye that brought them such success. However, this prosperity didn’t last long. The arrival of indigo from the United States beginning in the late 17th and early 18th century put Toulouse out of business. Indigo was cheaper to make, produced a truer blue, and also didn’t involve human urine in the production process. (No, I am not kidding.

2. The announcements in Occitan- In Toulouse, the announcements of approaching stations is done at least partially in two languages. The first, obviously, is in French, but the second is in Occitan, a mostly dead Romance language that sounds a little bit like Spanish. Up until the 1200s, in fact, Toulouse was not part of France. Most of the South was a very loosely allied confederacy of states that get called (with more or less accuracy) Occitania or le Midi. It was a fairly progressive society for the Middle Ages, permitting women to hold property in certain cases and to pass down their names. There was even limited tolerance of a heretical sect of Christianity called Catharism—which eventually led to the area’s downfall.

The Roman Catholic Church was losing power in the South—mostly to the nobility, but also in part to the Cathars. Clearly, this did not make them happy, so they turned to the King of France and offered him papal sanction to invade the South in the first crusade ever led against Europeans.

The Albigensian Crusade, as it was called, had some incredibly nasty consequences, including the birth of the Inquisition, massacres still known for their brutality, and the destruction of a flourishing literary culture. The Crusade has left scars that still remain to this day. You can find Toulousains who still resent the North as an invasive entity. There’s an entire mythos built up around the Cathars and of course, Toulouse now speaks French, instead of Occitan.

As to why there’s still Occitan in the metro, in the late 19th century, there was a renaissance of Occitan literature, particularly that of Frederic Mistral, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature for his work. Although this movement weakened during the first and second world war, it continues to this day, with Occitan poetry contests, Occitan-speaking preschool centers, street signs labeled in both French and Occitan and of course, the announcements on the metro.

3. The rugby-themed courtesy signs. Toulouse may be the only city in Europe that is not crazy about soccer. Instead, it’s crazy about rugby. The local team, Stade Toulousain, is considered to be among the best in Europe, so perhaps that’s understandable. Also, for those of you who don’t know too much about rugby, it’s a bit like the bastard love child of American football and soccer. What I mean by this is that someone had the brilliant idea to let people play football without any pads, time-outs, or stopping and starting. It’s an incredibly exciting game, honestly. I had the chance to see one match when I was here last time and hope to see more!The courtesy signs have rugby players on them showing what to do and what not to do on the metro. I suppose it makes sense—the saying goes around Toulouse, after all, that while soccer is a gentleman’s sport played by hooligans, rugby is a hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen.

4. The anti-immigration stickers slapped on the doors. This is the least positive of the four aspects of Toulouse you can see on the metro. Toulouse is pretty far to the south, and thus receives a lot of immigration from Arab North Africa. There’s an entire neighborhood (around Boulevard Strasbourg) that’s majority Arab and there are more kebab places than pizza places. Which is okay in my boat, since kebab is wonderful. However, this leads to a lot of tension between them and the “native French.” Essentially, if you take a lot of the discourse you hear about Hispanic immigration in the States and substitute the word “Arab” for Hispanic, you’ll get a sense of what Toulouse is like.

So there you go! Toulouse 101 in a five minute metro ride! Also, to follow: the grocery store and how wonderfully cheap good wine is here.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Thoughts from a Transatlantic Flight

1. Murphy’s Law of Airports: If you allow sufficient time for everything to go wrong, nothing will.
a. Having given myself three hours to check my baggage, go through security and find my gate at Philly International, there was of course, no line at the Baggage Check or Security.
b. For the first time in probably two years, no one felt the need to search me and/or my bags more closely.
c. And my gate was literally the first one past security (and next to a wine bar, of which I did not partake, but it worked out well in the end anyway—see #2)

2. Since when did economy class travelers get free wine with dinner on British Airways? I’m not sure if it was because we had a sparsely populated flight or perhaps because of some mystical alignment of the stars, but I got a free mini-bottle of surprisingly passable Veneto Pinot Grigio with my warmed-over vegetarian lasagna.

3. Murphy’s Law of Layovers: All layovers will either be just too short for you to feel safe booking them or obnoxiously long. There is no middle ground.
a. I opted for the obnoxiously long, figuring that safe was better than sorry. Then, possibly by the same mystical alignment as #2, my plane from Philly landed nearly an hour early.
b. There is no free wireless in Heathrow Airport.
c. Their prices to buy wireless access have gone up.
d. I may be a little too attached to the Internet.

4. People watching observations (or what to do when there is no Internet)
a. All old men wear hats. This is a fact.
b. Seeing someone use a laptop while slouching so much their legs angle downwards makes me cringe. I keep expecting to see a very pricey bit of machinery go sliding ovv their knees and shatter on the concourse.
c. For not carrying guns, the British airport security still do not look like people I want to mess with. Maybe it’s the riot gear.

If comic books can do reboots, so can I.

So after my failed attempt at blogging the last time I was in Toulouse, I'm going to give it another try.

Here's the basics this time. I've graduated and instead of going as a student, I will be teaching as a language assistant for middle schoolers studying English. This should either be fun or terrifying.

I'm back in Toulouse and actually staying with the same host mother again. Jet-lagged, so more later. Though I am going to upload something I wrote in the Heathrow airport.