Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Tag: Paris

27, rue de Fleurus

For Elizabeth

“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”
-Italo Calvino

A decade has passed since we lived here,
So we delighted in the fact that the new tenants kept
Our curtains, our finials,
Our terra cotta pots on the distinguished,
Haussmannien balcony. It was in these
Containers that I cultivated a
Smuggled Martha Washington geranium,
Double bagged in A&P plastic tucked
Deeply in a canvas duffle bag that
The sniffing labrador retriever
Gratefully ignored. He instead
Sucked in the moist air around
My ankles, swollen from flight,
Expectancy and pregnancy
And moved along with indifference
To the next foreign traveler.

I suppose I thought I was being provocative
By the gesture, yet disappointingly the
Red blooms never thrived here. They grew, but were
Choked out by the native sort, with which it shared
Soil, lived but never showed her
True, showy blossoms, which stay contained
As the french, split variety spilled over
And welcomed passers-by
On the rue de Fleurus,

Where now a shadow of a sentry
In front of her own personal Picasso
Lays fixed, a mark on the cobblestone
Where her formidable human form
Blocked the terrorizing radioactive light
Of a holocaust.

We were barred entry,
No code de porte; the keypad
lacking in letters which were once permanent,
Offering nothing now but an
Unknown digital sequence.
A less emotional being would remember
Exactly: there are 3,621 miles from
The sidewalks of New York to the
Ville de quelqu’un d’autre,

Where sirens’ foreign screams
Woke us from sound sleep,
Disoriented until I regarded the
Familiar curve of your newborn lips
Blistered from nursing and puckered
Exactly the way they do when you rest,
My own Moveable Feast,
Here, years later,
At home,
Wherever that might be.

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette Slept Here (and So Did George)

In the Spring of 2003, there was ample coverage of the animosity felt between Americans and the French over the Iraq War in The International Herald Tribune. Manifestations on the streets of Paris were not unusual; one of the more memorable “manifs” was grand marshaled by an individual in a skeleton costume burning an effigy of George W. Bush. On more than one occasion, complete strangers in French cafés recognizing my American accent would ask me if I had seen Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11 and what I had thought about it. Conversely, I heard reports from back home about talk of a boycott on French wines, parties where individuals dumped their perfectly aged, liquid investments into the rivers for the media to see. Freedom fries, instead of french fries were served in American cafeterias.

The French were protesting the unilateral waging of a war without international support in a global community, and jumpy Americans, still licking their bleeding wounds sustained in the massive attacks of September 11th were slowly starting to understand just how successful that attack was, terrified and debilitatingly imagining weapons of mass destruction bound for their borders, believed to be cleverly hidden under Saddam Hussein’s stolen Kurdish tribal rugs.

Other than an incident of my son’s baseball cap, a casquette, that was stolen off his head, cursed with an epithet reserved for we Yanks, and thrown into the garbage in the cour of the école maternelle, we survived unscathed. Startled by the intensity of the demonstrations on the street, perhaps, by their boisterous and loud presence, we simply understood them to be a culturally genetic trait of a society formed at the broken ramparts of the Bastille. Vive la France! No offense taken. Many a sympathetic American would have take up banners beside you. We just weren’t among them.

It was not long after that my parents came to visit and see how their grandchildren were faring in the Land of Gaul amongst all this perceived animosity. A military history buff wanting to see the beaches of Normandy and the museum in Caen, my father would often enliven our dinnertime conversations with the inevitable present day politics, but also that of the past. We once enjoyed a very tight American – French alliance, one that was integral to our formation as a nation.He told a terrific story about the World War I Commander-In-Chief of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing, who later went on to serve as the Army Chief of staff and author a Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography.

Pershing was called to duty after the Americans declared war against Germany, arriving at a time when American presence was a much-needed lift to the French psyche, which had understandably suffered a fierce blow embattled in the trenches for three years, suffering innumerable casualties. On July 4, 1917, the city of Paris amiably and with honor celebrated the Day of American Independence, featuring a parade which concluded at the Picpus cemetery. Pershing was to lay a wreath at the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette, but not being fluent in French, asked Lt Colonel Charles M. Stanton make the brief remarks. He reputedly said upon facing Lafayette’s grave, “Monsier le Marquis de Lafayette, nous sommes arrivées!” They had come as Patriots to endeavor to chink away at the enormous debt of gratitude that we as a nation owed Lafayette by aiding France in arms against Germany.

File:Pershing at Lafayette Tomb.jpg

General John J. Pershing saluting the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, Cimetière de Picpus, Paris, July 4, 1917.

The debt was huge. Most Americans know that Le Marquis de Lafayette was 19 years old when he came to America in 1777 to take the post of General George Washington’s aide-de-camp. Most can report that the French gave financial support to a fledgling America not-yet-born, a gesture that was invaluable to our success in forming a new nation. We simply would not have won the war for independence without their support. What many don’t know about Lafayette was that he was an Idealist, a military mind who believed so deeply in the cause of American Independence that he actually had to find passage via Spain to get to America, as the French monarchal support had not yet been garnered, putting himself at great personal risk. Because British spies were paying close attention, he had to disguise himself as a woman. Because the cargo ship was bound for a trading stop in the West Indes, he bought all the cargo in the hold to avoid stopping and eliminate the risk of discovery. He fought ably and with distinction against the British on American soil for no pay for years. Yes, he was an aristocrat, but he actually helped fund the cause with $200,000 of his own fortune, paying the salaries of many military hands. During the two year hiatus (1778 – 1780) he spent in France during the war, he helped Benjamin Franklin lobby King Louis XVI for more financial support, supplies and men to be sent to America.

I dare say that with no Marquis de Lafayette, there may not have been a United States of America. Incidentally, while browsing an antique book fair in the Place Saint Sulpice in Paris, I came across the first map ever printed of the New World, referring to that eastern chunk of North America as “Les États-Unis d’Amerique.” The book seller told me that it was the first ever printed with our new country’s proper name, and it was optimistically printed before we actually won the war. Merci beaucoup pour votre confiance, nos amis!

Marquis de Lafayette

Lafayette returned to America in 1780, right around the time when General Washington was fighting to keep his New Jersey stronghold and Benedict Arnold infamously defected to the British. In October of that year, the two generals had their temporary headquarters here in Montclair. In 1938, the Eagle Rock chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution installed the stone that was the doorstep of that house in a nestle of shrubs, marked by an American flag at the site of the house that once served as Lafayette’s headquarters. It is located just next to 551 Valley Road, presently home to a photography equipment shop, Photo Cullen. About a mile due south is the site where Washington garnered his own headquarters, on the north west corner of Valley Road and Claremont Avenue, on October 26, 1780 “while on the march from Totowa now Patterson to support Lafayette’s expedition against the enemy on Staten Island.”

Chez George has long since been torn down, too, but the plaque commemorating the events is embedded into a boulder in front of a Dutch Colonial that was built some 150 years later. Interestingly, “Ripley’s Believe it Or Not” once listed it as The World’s Smallest Park, a coveted title now bestowed on Snow Park in Tampa, Florida. Ironically, Snow Park is located on Kennedy Boulevard, a rue that was formerly known as Lafayette Street.

Lafayette went on to have four children, two of which are named for his very personal American friends, cementing and indelibly marking his great fondness not only for the individuals, but the ideals they represent: Georges Washington Lafayette and Virginie Lafayette, after the home state of Thomas Jefferson. He even has two barrels full of Boston’s Bunker Hill soil on that grave of his in the Cimitière de Picpus in Paris, fulfilling his wish to be buried on American soil.

So I, in the interests of Patriotism and love for the Marquis, kept the fleeting politics of 2003 out of my better opinions, understanding that the same society that burns effigies can produce the most brilliant and loyal idealists. I am proud that if even for just a brief time, Lafayette called Montclair, New Jersey “headquarters” for the cause that so inspired this great Frenchman, and great American. For Lafayette was made an honorary United States Citizen posthumously by Congress in 2002, one of only seven in our country’s history, and one year before Georges Dubya sent troops to Iraq.

In Defense of Ketchup

While living in Paris, my family and I used to patronize a café on the rue Princesse called Coffee Parisien, an American fare pseudo-diner that served hamburgers and french fries, pastrami sandwiches and pancakes on paper place mats with portraits of the American presidents printed on it. We had spent a year in France before we discovered the place, and had already become accustomed to the new food, which of course was not a difficult task. But homesickness tended to set in regularly: when hearing the very foreign sounding sirens of the gendarmes, listening to my then two-year old son sing “The Side Walks of New York” cover by Dan Zanes, and, of course, when craving a cheeseburger. So when in need of a kid-friendly break from all that croque monsieur, omelettes and moules, we would schedule a Saturday outing to Coffee Parisien.

During one Saturday afternoon, as we settled in to our table full of American treats at Coffee Parisien, my husband grabbed the ketchup bottle and in his South Plainfield, New Jersey manner, tapped the neck on its 57 pickle logo to coerce the contents. The bottle was practically empty, so the process — normally done with the ease of an American expert — took a bit more time, prompting a neighboring diner to offer an uninvited lesson on how to properly force the ketchup from the bottle, lessening the viscosity without anticipation.

“Monsieur, c’est comme ça,” he said as he slapped the bottom of the glass bottle, and gestured to my husband.

Without hesitation, my usually well-mannered, astute husband reverted to type and said simply, “Buddy. I’m from JERSEY! I don’t need a ketchup tutorial.” Hearing the Staten Island-esque accent on the “Joisey”, I got a little nervous. Thankfully, the waitress came over with a full bottle and Hubby tapped the 57 again, all the while keeping eye contact with his neighbor de Gaul; with just a few able taps he released a slow stream of the red goo onto his plate, sticking his tongue into his cheek and clearing his throat cockily. He recapped the bottle and spun it in his palm in a glorious red circle blur – cowboy style – and returned it to its respective place next to the salt and pepper.

It was the one and only time while living in Paris that we took pride in our ketchup pouring skills, and were willing to flaunt them. The following year, we would find ourselves apologizing for our ketchup. After my son had enrolled in the École Maternelle (pre school), we decided to host a New York City-themed birthday party for him, New York being the place of his birth. We invited his entire class, featuring all the Big Apple favorite treats, including hot dogs, coca cola and cupcakes. But serving the dreaded condiment was a culinary faux-pas from which I never recovered.

“François! Il faut pas que tu mange ça!” said one horrified parent, bolting into my kitchen to save his very French son from destroying his frankfurter with American poison.

Turning to wide-eyed me, he simply said “I don’t want heem to have zis stuff. Iz very bad for you, all the shoogahr.” I scratched my head as I thought of the snack traditionally served during the 4 o’clock “gouter” after school: a chunk of a baguette with a square of dark chocolate in the middle, washed down with a tumbler of water with a good dash of grenadine syrup in it. And he was complaining about the sugar? Hell, chocolate was even for breakfast in Paris! How many times did I spy a child walking to school all the while gnoshing on a pain au chocolat en route?

Ketchup was one of those American imports that was simply not welcomed in Paris, unlike Levi jeans and Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. The French culture is very connected to their agriculture, their cuisine, their art form. A typical French chef will not serve a certain kind of steak well done because it will destroy the flavor of the cut of meat. Each cut is lovingly rubbed with herbs with tender hands in just the right proportion. It is a thing of beauty. So please don’t cook it well done (the dreaded “bien cuit”). And whatever you do, don’t dump that red viscous concoction on it.

An American ex-pat couldn’t even buy ketchup at most Parisian chain supermarkets like Monoprix, Franprix or Carrefour. It required a special trip to the Grande Epicerie de Paris, or the American market “Thanksgiving”.

So in what do the French dip their potatoes fried in the French manner? In hotels that cater to the American tourist, yes: ketchup is readily available, but it is not in your typical bistro. Mayonnaise ou béarnaise? Vinegar? Oui. Ketchup? Non.

In retrospect, I do not take offense, this rejection of American culture, as ketchup is not really American in origin. There are many other delicacies that Americans enjoy and call their own but are simply not: hot dogs are German, apple pie recipes date back to the time of Chaucer in England, and Coca Cola… Scratch that, the teeth-rotting substance is all our own. But ketchup is Chinese in origin: originally called ke-tsiap (meaning, “brine of pickled fish”), it had no tomato base in its original recipe and was much thinner in its consistency. Something like soy, the Chinese used it mainly as a dressing for fish. Ke-tsiap was discovered in Asia, a bit further west in Malaysia, by English explorers in the 17th century. The term ketchup is obviously a bastardization of the original Chinese word and it has stuck, with varying, confusing spellings.

It was we Americans who were responsible for adding tomatoes to the pot. The first recipe calling for tomatoes appeared in 1801 in the American cookbook, Sugar House Book. Ironically, many Americans at the time feared the raw tomato. The “love apple”, the tomato was coined, and was first imported from France (yes France!) by Thomas Jefferson and somehow got a bad reputation for being poisonous, but the process by boiling (some recipes called for over two hours of boiling time), apparently removed any fear from diners’ hearts.

It gradually grew in popularity until F & J Heinz introduced his mass-produced bottled kind, offering “blessed relief for mother and the other women in the household,” suggesting that making the ketchup was an arduous task that ranked up there not only in tedium but in frequency of other dreaded chores, like cleaning the laundry or dishes. The iconic bottle offering 57 varieties was born, saving the American housewife and disgusting the French for generations to come.

A few months ago, after sending aforementioned hubby to the market to collect milk and bread, he came home with a variety of other necessities, like Ben & Jerry’s Late Night Snack ice cream (made with chocolate-covered potato chips), gallons of pomegranate juice and Heinz tomato ketchup made with balsamic vinegar. Always a victim to the impulses of a Saturday night grocery getter, I was not surprised that what should have fit in one bag somehow expanded to four.

“What’s with the gourmet ketchup?” I chuckled, vaguely remembering the green apple and purple ketchup varieties that were released about a decade ago, failing miserably. This bottle’s contents was distinctly darker than the bright red repulsion with which I offended our young French friend’s gastronomic sensibilities almost 8 years ago.

I in turn got a tutorial from my born-and-bred Jersey boy about all the benefits of ketchup: its concentration of tomatoes offers a good amount of the antioxidant lycopene, for one. Even Ronald Reagan ordered the US Department of Agriculture to classify ketchup as a vegetable in 1981, but the move was widely derided by the left and therefore abandoned. Studies have been done — at Harvard University no less — to prove that a group of 47,000 men whose diet contained a large amount of lycopene had a drastically lower incidence of prostate cancer. Other studies expand that list to include lung, breast, rectal and uterine cancers. It can reduce your cholesterol, lessen the risk for developing diabetes, fight osteoporosis. It even lessens the risk of gum disease and cataracts. It is an anti-aging weapon and will improve male fertility! The latter studies, of course, were all funded by the H.J. Heinz company with no mention of what their product regularly accompanies: fatty, chopped red meat and potatoes fried with cholesterol-laden grease.

But let’s not kill the messenger. Warmer days have arrived and our grills are back on the patio. Burgers will most certainly be featured on many a suburban menu, so: bon appetit! Serve up the ketchup with your burgers and dogs! Just don’t dump it on a filet mignon, avec ou sans pommes frites.