Thursday, February 25, 2010

Strikes, affecting more than just H&H Bagels.

The idea of a strike is laughable in America. If you won't do your job, we will find someone to replace you. Problem solved. Actually, the word strike used to make me think of Kramer and his one-man picket line in front of H&H bagels. The Human Fund. Two Face. Festivus. Those were the good 'ol days. Now, the mere mention of the word grève makes my left eye start twitching, things can get downright messy. How messy, you might ask? Let me count the ways:

Try two weeks sans garbage collection in Marseille, in the dead of summer. Stinky Marinky. Or how about refusing to stock ATM's with cash? Money, who needs that? Chaotic train service rife with cancellations and delays? Been there, done that. Opération escargot? That's when the truck drivers park their 18 wheelers in snail shell formation around the beltlines in major cities. This makes getting anywhere a real challenge. No metro, tram, or buses for days on end all because of a mouvement social? It happens all of the time. Strike-related fuel shortages? There's currently no diesel fuel left in all of Toulouse. Thanks Clio, I've never been happier that you take unleaded. Universities barricaded by tables, chairs and any other moveable obstructions for weeks and months? Par for the course. I've even seen 5 year-olds take to the streets with their parents and teachers over the closing of an école maternelle. They start 'em early in these parts.

Which brings us to today, less than 48 hours before the wedding and the air traffic controllers are still on strike. I wish I knew why. Probably because they work 100 days per year and earn six-figure salaries, paid in euros. I will be hosting no pity parties any time soon.

What does this mean for us? Monsieur J's parents may have to drive or take the train, a 12-hour adventure from Brittany. Their local airport is, get this: CLOSED. For real. Other guests leaving out of Paris-Orly have a fifty percent chance of their flight taking off. As for my parents, I can only hope their flight will not be cancelled. At least they're flying through London, so James can charm the British Airways staff en anglais if need be. So there you have it, we may be 17 for the festivities or we may be 8, only time will tell!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Not-so-friendly skies.

So I was perusing the online news this morning, and what catches my eye? A headline about upcoming airline strikes. That'll get your attention 5 days before a semi-destination wedding.

Now we all know the French go on strike at the drop of a béret; this is nothing new. But things have been pretty calm over here lately. I knew that some teachers in the suburbs of Paris had been striking as a means of protesting violence in schools and I'd heard rumblings about worker discontent at a Total refinery in Dunkirk, but nothing major. The post office, public transit and mammoth public sector have all been more or less rocking along, until today.

It sounds like the ringleader of this mess is our German friend, Lufthansa. Air France is to join the cause tomorrow, followed shortly by British Airways. The worst part is that it sounds like the air traffic controllers are striking too, damn them. I should probably add that 6/8 out-of-town guests are flying Air France and my parents and sister are flying British Airways, meaning that as many as 9 guests could potentially be affected. Not good.

But what can you do? Hope. Pray. Cross fingers. I guess that's about it. But as my mom likes to remind me, "travel is an adventure." Like it or not, this is shaping up to be quite the adventure.

Do you think if I give them some macarons they'll go back to work?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Here's what makes me happy.

Everything is planned and we are officially ready for next weekend! Friends and family will be there to support us on the big day, and it's going to be a FUN weekend. I have a dress, Monsieur J has a suit and the wedding bands will be ready for pick up on Tuesday. We certainly won't go hungry this weekend, as dinner reservations have been made for Friday night-Sunday lunch. The flowers will be ready for pick up on Saturday morning and we have the official convocation form from city hall to prove that we really are supposed to get married on February 27th at 10:30 a.m. It wouldn't be a real French wedding without some sort of paperwork, right? We've even found a studio to rent in the Pyrenees for an impromptu winter honeymoon!

And to celebrate the planning of our nuptials in a mere two weeks, a special Sunday treat was in order today: macarons. The best French cookies EVER. The bakery nearest chez nous is crazy good, and these little pillows of sugary deliciousness are no exception. Choosing from their many cookie/filling combinations is anything but easy: ginger-honey, pistachio-cherry, violet-blackcurrant, chocolate-caramel, nougat-orange blossom, lavender, coconut-mango, vanilla and rose-lychee, YUM. Unfortunately these little guys are fragile and don't travel well, so you'll have to come see me in Toulouse to get your hands on some!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Café culture.

Here I am, just back from a quick trip to Montpellier. It was great seeing friends and hanging out at some of my favorite cafés, using the weather as an excuse to drink inordinate amounts of tea and coffee. The only downside? Au bonheur des tartes, my absolute favorite lunch spot was closed for vacation. Foiled. All the more reason to return, right? Maybe I can time a trip this spring when asparagus is in season so I can eat their velouté d'asperges aux zestes de citron, yum.

Lucky for me, Café Latitude was open, which made for a great break from the drizzly weather. I sprung for a pot of green tea and settled in with a book, March by Geraldine Brooks. If you're into historical fiction, I'd highly recommend it! There's just something indulgent about taking a break in the afternoon, reading and watching other customers come and go. My friend A put me on to this café, she has great taste. It doesn't hurt that the place is run by two George Clooney look-alike twins either. The chairs are also super comfortable, which can make it hard to leave. Oddly enough, for a French café, Latitude maintains a cozy coffee shop feel, almost like you'd find in Asheville, NC. And though I opted for tea this visit, their café au lait is not to be missed.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Is this normal?

So it's snowing here again this morning, no real accumulation to speak of, just lots of pretty flakes falling from the sky. Monsieur J and I bundled up to go to the market and are now back to the warm apartment with supplies to make a big pot of pureed vegetable soup, yum.

As we were walking, I noticed something unusual: every third person was carrying an umbrella. Male, female, young and especially old were all proudly brandishing their parapluies.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think Americans do this. I know we put on hats, gloves and scarves, but do we break out the umbrella for a few flakes?

I told Monsieur J about my latest discovery as we scurried along. I'm sure he was less than fascinated by my chosen topic of conversation, but he is kind enough to entertain me.

Being French, Monsieur J claims this is a perfectly normal behavior. I think his explanation went something like this: "no one likes getting hit in the face with cold snowlakes; therefore, the best solution is to carry an umbrella. Now that you mention it, I wish we'd thought to bring one too."

I confessed that as an American, I would feel simply ridiculous carrying an umbrella in the snow. Is it just me? Or do you all secretly carry one in case of snow and I'm just late to get the memo?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Snow day.

So I know all of you on the east coast have had more than enough snow to last you for years to come, but here in Toulouse an inch and a half is enough to slow down the whole city. No bus service means that Monsieur J is home for the day, an unexpected treat.

This morning we went to the covered market, Victor Hugo, for some indulgent grocery shopping. Three cheeses for a weekend raclette, charcuterie, potatoes, mushrooms, carrots and fresh sheets of LASAGNE.

True confession: I've never made homemade lasagne, probably because I rarely bother to buy fresh pasta and because I've always been too scared to boil large noodles. Cat's out of the bag.

But today I made Monsieur J inquire at one of the Italian stands, on the off-hand chance they might have sheets of lasagne behind the counter that they were not sharing in those display cases. As the daughter of James, I am a firm believer in the mantra, "it never hurts to ask."

No harm, indeed. We are now home with three sheets of fresh pasta and a fridge full of leftovers that I hope to combine into a real treat. You see, I love both varieties of lasagne. The cheesy, saucey, tomato-y kind and the lighter vegetarian-style ones. And yet, every time I sink my teeth into one or the other, something seems to be missing. I think I crave the best of both worlds: meat AND vegetable lasagne, what's a girl to do?

With an abundance of ragu sauce leftover from last night's dinner, a homemade rosemary artichoke spread, oven roasted tomatoes, arugula and goat cheese, I think today's freezing temperatures call for a culinary experiment: daring duo lasagne.

Here's the plan: a layer of meatsauce, a layer of artichoke and roasted tomatoes, a layer of arugula and goat cheese, and a final layer of meat sauce + parmesan. Doesn't that sound good? Or maybe it's just me... Then again, if I had room in the kitchen for this nifty jobber, maybe I wouldn't need to combine everything into one!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Breathing a sigh of restaurant relief.

Once we found out that 15 people would be joining us to celebrate, my biggest concern was finding a restaurant that could accommodate all of us for lunch immediately following the ceremony. All sorts of pesky what-ifs were buzzing through my head: what if it's too last minute? What if we can't find a restaurant that has private rooms? What if all of the nice ones are already booked and we end up someplace shady?

However, I am sneaky and had been eyeing a restaurant called Les Copains d'Abord for a while now. Private rooms [check], tantalizing menu [check], not too far from the city center [check].

Monsieur J called on Tuesday because I loathe the telephone here. I know, it's been almost 3 years, but guess what? I still hate talking on the phone in French, especially with strangers. So there. But I digress. The owner confirmed that they had plenty of space and sent a menu for us to review. Well folks, the menu has just arrived and since I can't contain myself, I have to share:


sparkling white wine with wild blackberry liqueur


foie gras with Guerande salt and toasts

crawfish ravioli in foie gras sauce

sweetbreads with parsley, endive and pine nuts

main course

oven roasted sea bream with hazlenut pesto and rice

cassoulet with duck confit

lamb shank with seasonal vegetables

filet of beef topped with seared foie gras


candied chestnut soufflé

lemon meringue pie

custard with raspberries


I'd say it's a pretty traditional French menu with a solid dose of southwest flair, hence all of the duck products. And with three or four choices per course, everyone should be able to pick something that strikes their fancy. Of course no meal in France would be complete without wine, so there will be red and white available to pair with everyone's menu selections, à discrétion.

Who knew? I really can plan a wedding in 3 weeks!

Monday, February 8, 2010

A very Juanita wedding dress.

I'm going to be honest; I really wasn't sure what dress shopping would yield over here. I mean, I know the French are skinny and fashionable, but they do casual chic more than formalwear. Would I be able to find a suitable dress to wear to my own wedding? I kept telling myself that it didn't have to be a traditional wedding gown, I was very open to the idea of colors and neutrals.

The quest for a dress began this morning at Galeries Lafayette, the major deptartment store in Toulouse and while this was a good idea in theory, I was quickly overwhelmed. No styles were jumping out at me, I tried on a few dresses but none were especially flattering -no lining, limited size selection, and poor color choices [teal and plum, beurk]. I look like an albino bunny rabbit in purple, in case any of you were wondering. Before I hit system overload, I made my way to the nearest exit.

I tend to have bad luck in department stores when I'm in the U.S. and do better in smaller boutiques. Less selection + more people to help clueless customers like me = a better bet. And as I left Galeries Lafayette, I saw what looked to be a cute store right across the street: Duchess. Hmmm, as my niece K used to say, "I not know this."

Of course I didn't know about this shop -I've been on self-imposed shopping restriction for almost 3 years! But in I went, and told the saleslady that I was looking for something to wear to a wedding, oooops I mean my wedding, at the end of the month. With this in mind, she easily picked three short dresses for me to try on. The first one was more of a light grey color with ruffles at the bottom and it made me look like an ostrich. The second one I tried was lacy and lovely but gapingly loose around the shoulders and too tight for my liking through the hips.

I saved my favorite for last, hoping hoping hoping that maybe, just maybe it would work. And you know what? It did! It's an off-white shift dress with a black band and bow to accent the waist with buttons in the back. Best of all, it has a matching off-white blazer that looks great with the dress and that will keep me from freezing in this February weather. Oooooh! Simple, classic, silk. Not too far off from what my mom had in mind, or at least I think that's what she was trying to convey to me over the phone.

I like that the dress/jacket combo is something I'll be able to wear again. I like that it will denote me as the bride without making me look like a fairytale princess and I like that the saleslady said it would look great with black ballet flats and pearls, two things I already own. I simply love when people tell me it's ok to wear flats. I might be marrying a Frenchman, but that doesn't mean I can walk on cobblestones in heels like all of these French women!

Friday, February 5, 2010

No bun in this oven.

Great news! Monsieur J and I will be tying the knot 3 weeks from today. WOW! Can you believe it? Planning a wedding in just 3 weeks? This has the potential to become a new reality TV show if you ask me! And as the title of this post indicates, we're not getting married because of any buns in the proverbial oven. I promise. Instead we came to the realization that a work permit and residency card all rolled into one will be conferred upon yours truly once we get married, and probably not before. Since we were planning on getting married this summer anyway, why not move up the date? Being engaged is great, but not if it means not being able to work and not being able to stay in the country. It seemed like a no-brainer. In the meantime, that leaves 21 precious days to plan! One of my super-organized friends suggested making a to-do list, great idea K:

[X] find a dress pour moi

[X] find a suit for Monsieur J.

[X] arrange for a bouquet and corsage at the florist

[X] figure out exactly how many people are coming

[X] make lunch and/or dinner reservations accordingly

[X] make B&B reservations for out-of-town guests

[X] buy wedding bands

[X] his and hers haircuts

[X] book honeymoon in the Pyrénées

Am I forgetting anything?

It's hard to believe we have EVERYTHING checked off the list in eleven days!

I am just so happy to know that we will be husband and wife very, very soon. Woah, those words are going to take some serious getting used to!

PS- no decorations needed for the ceremony, thank you City Hall!

Monday, February 1, 2010


When the Préfecture gives you lemons and you're not in the mood for lemonade, it is perfectly acceptable to seek comfort elsewhere. Some may be in need of retail therapy but my wallet and I opt for comfort food instead. I found mine in paupiettes de veau and a few other non-edible moments this weekend. The solution was three-part, actually: devise a plan of attack with the boss; forget about all things préfecture-related on the slopes; and comfort myself with a traditional Sunday lunch. As my sister likes to say, "do what works." This, my friends, did the trick.

Meeting with the boss on Friday was a step in the right direction. She still wants me to work for the company [yay!], and that alone is pretty incredible when you stop to think just how complicated this entire hiring process has been for all involved. [sigh]

Saturday I left my cares and worries in Toulouse and spent the day skiing at Piau-Engaly in the Pyrénées. Monsieur J's company had organized the excursion, and it was a fun day of snow and skiing for all involved, even if I don't have any pictures to prove it. Using the camera would've meant taking off my mittens and that wasn't going to happen!

Which brings us to Sunday. Sundays in France are unlike any other day of the week. They're designed for family, friends, a good meal, walks, cultural outings, parks, and other leisure activities. Sundays are not made for frantically running about in an effort to get a jump start on the week. Even if you wanted to cram your Sunday full of errands you'd be hard pressed to find a store that's open, though you can always do a load of laundry at home if that makes you feel better. But while Sundays may not be made for productivity as normally definied, Sunday mornings are a great time to go to the market and prepare for Sunday lunch. Mmmm, Sunday lunch!

At summer camp, we always ate the same thing for Sunday lunch: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, dinner rolls and dessert. So predictable, and yet so good. In the winter months here in France, one of my absolute favorite Sunday lunch options is paupiettes de veau.

I didn't know about these little treasures until a few months ago when Monsieur J and I were at the market and saw an unbelievably long line at the butcher shop. Certainly it must be good, otherwise all of these people would not be waiting in line for 30 minutes. We joined the queue, waited and watched the butcher deftly cutting slices of beef and veal, his wife ringing up the orders and giving tips on how to cook each item. When it was our turn, Monsieur J ordered two paupiettes, and Madame explained how to cook them. My "I'm-listening-to-you-very-intently-so-as-not-to-screw-this-up" face must've worried Madame on some level, and so she fished out a photocopy of the recipe just in case. Merci!

Paupiettes may take a little time to cook, but since the butcher prepares the meat, all you have to do is chop and partially cook the vegetables before adding the veal to the pot. A paupiette de veau is essentially a thin veal cutlet, filled with a ground veal and herb stuffing. The butcher places a lump of stuffing on the veal cutlet, then uses strips of fat and a length of butcher's twine to carefully wrap and bind each little parcel so it won't fall apart during the cooking process. Once you've finished cooking them, you simply remove the string and fat and serve the paupiettes with the chopped vegetables: potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, leeks and fennel in this case, though you can adapt the choice of vegetables as you'd like -it's fun to experiment. When cooked slowly on low heat for 35 minutes and finished for 10 minutes over medium, the paupiettes are slightly golden on the outside, tender, juicy and seasoned to perfection on the inside. What's not to like about that?