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Blending Franco-American Traditions in 2013 and Beyond

January 10, 2013
Christmas tree or hannukah bush? Unclear

Christmas tree or hannukah bush? Unclear

I’m a bit late to the reflecting and resolving that happens this time of year and I really prefer to avoid trying to dissect the successes and failures of the closing year. But a recent conversation with Frenchie had me thinking about the future, and I suppose a new year is as good a time as any for that.

Frenchie and I have spent the last few Christmases with my family on Long Island, and we’re just back from another trip. It’s a simple affair comprised of family, food and a little too much wine-fueled fun. But it’s distinctly ours, and we fiercely defend our traditions, from the hodgepodge of toddler-made ornaments on our tree and cheesy Disney-themed stockings, to the seafood-heavy meal and Italian fried appetizers.

Just as Hanukkah and Christmas traditions have fused in my childhood home (the result being a clearly conflicted tree), I imagine that our future Franco-American household will be host to an amalgamation of French and American traditions. On most issues I can easily imagine a middle path. Foie gras and shrimp scampi on the menu followed by a buche de noel? Why not?

But this year, a discussion with our cousins revealed a tradition clash that might not be so easy to negotiate. Preparing themselves for a sleepless night, they anticipated that the pitter-patter of their 7 and 9 year old girls would commence as early as 4 am, as they routinely checked if Santa had arrived and begged their parents to let the present-opening begin.

Frenchie shared that at his home in southeast France, Santa visited at midnight while the children were kept in a separate room until Santa had left and they were free to open their presents, thereby eliminating the early morning Christmas rousing.

I can’t even fathom the challenge of sending little ones to bed after they’ve gained access to their bounty of toys. But the discussion revealed Frenchie’s steadfast determination that this tradition be carried on in his own household, asserting that he had no desire to awake at the crack of dawn and that parents made the rules (channeling Bringing Up Bébé, maybe?). Any pitter-patter of little feet in our home is a long way off, but it got me thinking about how challenging it might be to find common ground when it comes to traditions we can’t bear to part with. Can we really mash all of our beloved holiday rituals into a Franco-American hybrid?

I’m sure we’ll meet somewhere in the middle on this as we’ve done on all other things, and as countless couples have done before us. As 2013 kicks off, this conversation reminded me not only of the hurdles we’ve already conquered, but also what lies ahead to navigate. Since it’s too early to plan for conflicting parenting styles, I’m setting just a few resolutions for my hybrid life this year.

  1. Read in French – I’ve been switching to English way too often when I’m thwarted by an elusive word and it’s time to find a way to refresh my vocab. I’m challenging myself to read three pieces of French lit this year. Any book recommendations?
  2. Connect with the community – The best place to find France in a new city? With the French expats, bien sur. We’ll be making a concerted effort to tap into the French scene here in Chicago. Of course, the French are notoriously hard to make friends with, so we’ll see how well we do.
  3. Reflect more often – I set out to use this blog not only to find French culture wherever I am, but also to be an outlet for thinking about how straddling two languages and cultures has enriched life, created unexpected experiences or presented unique challenges.

Not lofty, but certainly achievable.  Hope 2013 is off to a great start for everyone. In the meantime, I’m starting a new tradition for our life in Chicago – an annual raclette party (assuming I can find a converter for my appareil). Bring on the cheese!

A Gripe about Global Gifting

December 21, 2012

We always knew the price of living in the US was being an ocean away from half of our universe of family and friends. We go back as often as our measly vacation allotments allow, primarily taking summer trips to enjoy the southern France sunshine. Traditions being stronger on my family’s side, Christmas (or Christmukkah in our case) has typically been spent in the wilderness of New York. No big deal, right? We’ll just send fabulous American-made gifts to our French family, who will wear/carry/display them proudly and say “Why yes, it’s the latest trend in the US”.

Without fail, holiday shopping for our relatives in France is the most tedious challenge of the holiday season. This coming from a girl who makes homemade gift tags for Christmas gifts three months in advance. In an increasingly globalized world, global gifting somehow seems to be getting HARDER.

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Shipping gifts is risky business, at least in my experience. Trackable, seemingly reliable delivery services often means fees far higher than the worth of the gifts, which can quickly add up. More bothersome are the strict customs regulations. Anything that could be remotely considered in the beauty, perfume, food or a handful of other categories you’d never even think about ensures that your package will likely be savagely opened for inspection and maybe, just maybe, closed and put back on its original path. If you’re lucky, you’ve packed your gift with care and lots of buffer materials (driving up the weight and therefore the cost), and it arrives with the gift wrap and contents perhaps just slightly battered.  And if the universe hates you, your gift that you’ve spent hours scouring New York for (like the most perfect NYC-themed, handmade, manufactured-with-sustainable-fabric booties for your stepsister-in-law’s new baby) never arrives at all, while the post office shrugs its shoulders. No bitterness here.

But there’s that space-agey thing called the internet now (yes, I did just steal a line from Step Up Revolution).  And if I can visit an Abercrombie store in Paris and fill my closet with duds from a Spanish brand in the US, then surely the internet retailers have got this whole shipping conundrum figured out. Not so much.

The majority of online brands – even those that are multinational – won’t ship a purchase from one country website to another country.  To purchase within the recipient’s country – on Zara France, for example – only a French form of payment and billing address is accepted. Also – there’s no telling when your gift might arrive, or how complicated a return might be.

You might think gift cards, which are now available electronically by many brands, could be the answer. This is yet another trap to watch out for; the fine print on most sites indicates that gift cards can only be used on the country-specific website it is purchased on. Even the New York Times is baffled by the absurdity of all this per a recent article on the challenges Macy’s and others are facing in opening up to foreign shoppers.

There are a handful of sites that are starting to get on board, like ASOS.com, which offers extremely reasonable shipping to almost anywhere. UrbanOutfitters.com will allow for international shipping for a reasonable fee, but gift cards are off limits unless you can purchase from the country site. Nordstrom and Macy’s have now made it possible to send many classic American brands to far off lands. However, with no gift wrap or even gift message option is available, your gifts will arrive without any holiday fanfare.

Sure, we could bring Christmas presents during our summer jaunts, but where’s the fun in getting a Christmas present in July?

I suppose this post came primarily from a desire to vent about the global economy’s shortcomings, but also because there must be a better way out there and there must be other expats who have figured it out. So looking to you, blogosphere. Have a fail-safe method for holiday gifting? Any tips and tricks are most appreciated. And maybe by next year, I’ll have given up entirely and resorted to IOUs to be redeemed the year we eventually move back to France. In the meantime, we’re off to another Christmukkah on Long Island, where Frenchie will shake his head at each and every one of our wacky traditions. Wishing everyone hassle-free gift giving and de tres bonnes fetes!!

NYC’s Zucco: Le French Diner

December 13, 2012

It’s my humble opinion that you have effectively conquered a city when you can confidently rattle off recommendations to friends and family – whether it’s where to get the best hot toddy when temperatures plummet or the perfect trendy (but not overly so) spot for a first date. For HIMYM fans, it’s the coveted golden stamp of approval.

With Frenchie in tow and my own obsession with all things Gallic, naturally the most frequent incoming question was “where do we get good, affordable French food in NYC”.  For more than two years, I’d struggled with this same question myself, and I avoided a real response by murmuring something about “We have a LaDuree!” and then not so subtly pivoting to ask if they’d tried my favorite Mexican in Hell’s Kitchen.

New York is home to a plethora of well-known chefs who run establishments producing imaginative France-inspired dishes – such as at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin and Mr. Boulud’s empire, just to name a few. As expected, the prices are more “special occasion” than “random weeknight craving”. My own experience is that the bulk of restaurants offering more affordable French fare are far from authentic and crowded with tourists as opposed to expats.

Which is why I’m both thrilled and terrified to share my ode to Le French Diner with you – a restaurant that I discovered late in my NYC stint and that I’m missing dearly after just three weeks in Chicago. Echoing the thoughts of many a Yelper, I’m afraid that by talking about it, somehow this non-secret, long-established gem will become overrun. But alas, I cherish my own golden stamp, so here we go.

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You might walk right past Le French Diner if you weren’t looking for it. The discreet storefront on Orchard is best identified by the quirky bulldog print on the window. When you enter, don’t give too much thought to your surroundings – which you might characterize as cozy or claustrophobic depending on your tolerance for small spaces. The narrow space is dominated by the bar, host to perhaps ten stools and housing the full kitchen behind it in full view. Three small tables crowd the remaining area between the bar and the door, and expect some creative maneuvering of your limbs should you be placed there. If you’ve dreamed of having a walk-in closet or maybe a foyer in your next NY apt, it wouldn’t be much larger than this.

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What makes Le French Diner so special is the full experience; the sum of its disparate parts and the details that will charm your socks off.

An extensive menu includes French bistro classics such as Coq au Vin and L’Onglet aux echalotes, as well as more surprising dishes such as toulousain sausage and pates a la carbonara made French-style. Don’t waste time looking for the wine. They serve a handful of quality red and white options – whatever is currently on hand – and are happy to give you a few choices if asked. The fare is cooked before your eyes and is simple and delicious, the way French cooking should be. A plate of merguez was served with a flavorful vegetable ratatouille that had my legume-averse Frenchie eating peppers.  Sauces are the stars here – whether it’s the creamy saffron-infused broth for the mussels or the various concoctions that accompany the steaks. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of good bread and fries for mopping.

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The owner whips around the small space, seating guests and taking orders, interspersed with colorful commentary. Whether you’re conversing with him in French or English, expect a heavy dose of sarcasm and profanity laced with charm that only the French can deliver. Embrace it and the staff will reward you. A few hours of friendly conversation at the bar with a girlfriend earned me a two-cheek bisous at my next visit.

The details bring it all together. Modest tableware features classic Duralex glasses with the inlaid numbers on the bottom that clearly signify French childhood. The décor is eclectic; an assortment of (sometimes lewd) knickknacks and prints dots the walls, supplemented by Polaroids of guests and a cut out mask of DSK’s face one night I was there. The owner spins tunes from his laptop in the corner ranging from old school French hip hop that brought a nostalgic smile to my Frenchie’s face to more recent hits.

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As for the price, it’s the brand of affordable that makes this jaded New Yorker order appetizers, dessert and an extra glass of wine or two. Just remember to bring cash or an AMEX – the only accepted forms of payment – and your best French cool. And don’t tell too many people – word might get out!

188 Orchard St., New York, NY 10002
nr. Houston St.  See Map | Subway Directions Hopstop Popup
212-677-5200

A Southeast France Day Trip: St. Paul de Vence

November 28, 2012

Does that name sound familiar? Don’t hide, all you Fifty Shades fans. Indeed, it’s the quaint French village where the infamous Mr. Grey took the barely tolerable Ms. Steele for their honeymoon.  I admittedly await the movie in a state of half-dread and half-shameful anticipation.

With Nice, Cannes, and Grasse under our belts from past trips, we opted for a daytrip there ourselves (without the yacht) during our recent trek. I’m a huge sucker for French medieval villages. Let’s be honest – who isn’t?

 Nestled just 15 minutes from the coast between Antibes and Nice, St. Paul is one of the oldest medieval towns on the French Riviera. Arriving there requires driving to the base of the city (plenty of picturesque vistas along the way), and then parking on one of the streets around the main square before heading in on foot. You’ll also find at the city gates one of the larger Fragonard boutiques, carrying the latest scents from the namesake iconic parfumerie headquartered in the region, as well as a collection of artisan-made housewares.

Not for the easily fatigued or newly hungover, the walk to the summit of the city involves cobble stone streets and a handful of steep ascents.  But the stroll is well worth it. Multi-floor art galleries line the winding streets – some half hidden below street level or down even smaller alleyways. You’ll also find small boutiques with local specialties and giftables, such as La Cure Gourmande, which offers a massive selection of travel-friendly and traditional biscuits, bonbons and treats. A quick tip – they’ll also let you sample almost anything in the store – try the flavored caramels for sure.

A hidden art display down an alley

What makes St. Paul truly unique is that it’s also become an enclave for budding artists – and not in the Montmartre-style soliciting passersby kind of way. We stumbled upon art classes from all corners of Europe, where students took direction from teachers and put brush to canvas, unfazed by the throngs of tourists peering over their shoulders.

Italian students getting a tutorial

Lone artists can be found hiding out in corners (or on ledges), turning what looked like a mundane ivy-covered archway into a glimpse of secretly captured moment.

Caught in Action

At the summit of the hill is a small area for a Kodak moment with sweeping views of the countryside and even the shore in the distance.

A view from the top

As you emerge from the city, the street widens and small restaurants, cafes and gelato counters dot the sidewalks. We grabbed a long, euro-style lunch at Le Tilleul – which offers a lovely outdoor terrace perfect for a glass of rose and a steak tartare, followed by an obligatory café. A visit to St. Paul is a great respite from the flash and fanfare of the larger cities on the Cote d’Azur, and can easily be enjoyed in just a few hours. What are your picks for must-see sights the Southeast?

Dreaming…In the Windy City?

November 20, 2012

It seems this Francophile nomad is on the move once again. After nearly three years in la grosse pomme (a record for us), Frenchie and I have decided to jump on an opportunity to pursue new adventures in Chicago. In short, we packed up our entire lives and hopped four states to the west in under four weeks.

Luckily, we’re professional nomads (make that five cities in five years) and city dwellers, so the physical relocation was a snap. The emotional moving on was a bit harder. Where else can you find an expat population of nearly 100k, the best French chefs outside of Paris and French films on the green every summer?

While this blog will undoubtedly take on a Midwestern focus as I set out to discover what being a Francophile in Chicago might mean, count on continued love for NYC as trips back – if only for the best French food we’ve found on the east coast (post forthcoming) – will be frequent.

And as I’m getting settled into Chicagoan life, I’m excited to share in the coming weeks a few posts from our latest trek to France that have languished in the midst of our frantic move as well as a few more NYC hotspots that are perfect for tapping into your inner Parisian.

For any readers who have spent time in the Windy City, where should this Francophile go first for a taste of French culture? All recommendations much appreciated!

 

Toulouse: The Ever-Evolving Ville Rose

October 10, 2012

I’ve now been to Toulouse (Frenchie’s hometown) four times, and nearly every time, I feel like I see a new side of La Ville Rose, known for its pale salmon-hued buildings, preference for rugby over soccer, and southern twang. This time around brought a whole new crop of experiences. Perhaps my favorite discovery during this most recent trip was Tariquet – a chardonnay based wine produced in the region that kicks the butt of any chardonnay and many other white wines I’ve had (and I am most certainly not a chardonnay fan). Now begins the quest to find it in New York. In the meantime, a few of my picks for a trip to Toulouse based on my recent passage:

 

Southern-Style, Stress-Free Shopping: Paris shopping always seems to overwhelm me. Between the Marais boutiques that seem to get more adorable as you wander down Rue du Temple and the big brands spread over 3 floors at Galeries Lafayette, I tend to leave without a single purchase. Toulouse is always a much more successful endeavor.  Swing by Les Petits Poids for edible local gifts and goodies such as violet-flavored caramels, flavored syrups, and cans of cassoulet. For a more manageable Lafayette and French and Euro staple brands like CosmoParis, Kookai and Mango without the Paris crowd, stroll down Rue Alsace-Lorraine and the parallel Rue Saint-Rome.

Les petits poids: 
48 rue des filatiers – 31000 Toulouse
05 61 55 52 48

Tartines and Tartes: Take a breather from shopping at the tiny Le Flowers café complete with a sprawling terrace on the sunny place Roger Salengro. I love French “formules” and this is one place where a quality plat+ dessert+ café goes for about 10 Euros. Salads are filling and the tartine – an open-faced sandwich – selection creates indecision, with combos ranging from the traditional cheese and meat to the slightly edgy (think smoked duck and aubergine). Dessert is obligatoire and a glance at the fresh-baked treats in the window should inform your decision. Try the tarte framboise chocolat for a sure bet.

Le Flowers Café: 6, place Roger Salengro, 31000 Toulouse, France

See La Ville Rose by Train: Almost every French city I’ve visited offers a “bateau mouche” tour that takes tourists through city water ways to see the sights. But Toulouse is one city that I think is better viewed from the seats of the petit train. The locomotive weaves through the city, hitting both major urban hotspots like the St. Sernin cathedral and snaking along tiny ruelles packed with boutiques and uniquely-decorated cafes. Hop aboard at Le Capitole for a mere 5 euro 50 and enjoy the ride!

Toulousain Cuisine with an Ado Twist: Resist the first restaurant you spy with Cassoulet on the menu and try out Les Sales Gosses near la Place Wilson. The cute and kitschy décor based on a schoolroom setting and “Les Crados” – a “Garbage Pail Kids” inspired card series for kids – belies the seasonal menu and truly fresh takes on classic dishes you’ll find here. The house Kir a la fraise tagada is a must just to experience the Haribo strawberry gummies infusion. A starter tartelette filled with girolles (mushrooms) and parmesan sauce was delicious and just filling enough, and the magret de canard crusted with dragees (yes, that abominable wedding fixture known as the Jordan almond) offered a salty/sweet sensation unlike anything I’d ever tasted. Reservations highly recommended.

Les Sales Gosses: 7, rue de l’Industrie, 31000 Toulouse, 05 61 99 30 31

Southwest Culture and Wine: Finally, drop by the Bar St. Jerome for a nightcap (perhaps a glass of Tariquet) just off la Place Wilson. A tapas bar by day, the bar was chill but enlivened just enough by a group of Spaniards the night we visited, while art from local artists adorning the wall elevated the St. Jerome above the usual student bars you’re bound to find in the third largest student center in France.

Le Saint Jérôme: 21 Rue St Antoine du T, 31000 Toulouse

What are your favorite spots in Toulouse?

Initial Reflections from our Trip to Cheeseland

September 30, 2012

I’m fresh of the plane after our biannual pilgrimage to the homeland. This year, our trip encompassed 5 cities in 11 days, six planes, a fantastic 3-day wedding, 10 in-laws visited, at least 7 chocolatines devoured (pains au chocolat for you northerners) and not nearly enough wine.

AKA no pouting/bitching/complaining allowed

Before the maelstrom of work-induced stress, life to-dos and social obligations makes me forget I was even there and what a breath of fresh air it was (see photo reminder to myself), I wanted to take a moment to reflect  – what’s changed since my last visit, what made me smile, what baffled me, what made me possibly nostalgic. A few not-fully-baked thoughts here:

  1. The joy of a three euro glass of more-than-drinkable wine never gets old
  2. Boursin Nut cheese (be enlightened here) is still my favorite French foodstuff and one day, I will figure out a way to get it across the Atlantic
  3. Descriptions of our American work/life balance and vacation allotment elicited reactions ranging from shock to pity to outrage. For a primer on French work culture, check out my friend Lindsey’s post here
  4. The French don’t understand the American healthcare system. And when I try to explain it, I realize I don’t understand it either
  5. French music artists have figured out how to respond to listener demand for English and conquer the language quota the radio stations are held to – songs in Franglais! Need an example? See French Canadian band Simple Plan’s “Summer Paradise” lyrics
  6. The same applies to corporate marketing ploys. Anglicisms all over the place – Carrefour City, Carrefour Drive, Societe Generale’s “So Music” promotion (What does that even mean?!)
  7. French weddings are still way more fun – and affordable – than American weddings. Partially because there is a standard wedding playlist song that requires all men to strip down. Or do only our friends partake in this tradition?
  8. The French are still more knowledgeable about (and mystified by) US current events than Americans. Case in point – Todd Akin’s recent commentary on rape was common table conversation
  9. The secrets of language learning never cease to amaze me.  I consider myself pretty bilingual and have worked hard on my accent in French over many years. I take great pride in the fact that the majority of folks I meet believe I’m French until we get into more robust conversation. However, after just a handful of exchanges, the four year old daughter of a friend caught on to my tricks – accusing straight out – “tu parles pas francais comme nous”.  Go figure.

More posts and pictures from our marathon through the south of France to come!

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