Inégalité

This was going to be another post about my life between France and Switzerland, and the latest developments in our new home search. But then things in the world went sour and I just don’t have the heart for it right now. To talk about such things as the world explodes with injustice seems a little, well, tone-deaf.

For most of my life I rejected the idea of privilege. Even as a kid, I remember being told I was fortunate. To think of all the starving children in Africa when I wouldn’t, couldn’t finish what was on my plate. To be grateful for having two parents, a stay-at-home mom and a father who left for work each morning carrying a briefcase. For being able of body and sound of mind.

I rejected outright the guilt that came from this accident of birth, which struck me as entirely unfair. I hadn’t asked for any of it. To be born in Canada to parents who had enough to feed us and have a nice home. Appearances can be deceiving, I would say. My so-called lucky white middle-class family struggled in different ways. Besides, there were so many other people who had so much more.

I never accepted being identified by my race, gender or whatever other labels people threw at me. Catholic. Blonde. North American. Single or married. You don’t know me, who I am or what I think, I raged, whenever I felt seen through such filters. Don’t judge me by your standards!

In return, I did my best to do the same, to see the person before the skin. No racist or gender stereotypes for me. Which was, of course, delusional.

The first time I heard the words ‘Black lives matter’, my reaction was true to form: “What? Why only Black lives? All lives matter!”

Many years ago, I lived in a well-to-do suburb and a bastion of white privilege outside Minneapolis. In Edina, people of colour were rare birds indeed. But in the twin cities (Minneapolis-St.Paul) the racial divide was extremely evident. You could draw a line between the rich and poor, white and black parts of town.

Coming from Toronto, a city that defines itself on diversity and what we then called the ‘cultural mosaic’ (as compared to the American ‘melting pot’), the reality of segregation, of outright racism, was shocking. I knew it was wrong but I didn’t know what to do about it. They were formative years for me, in my early to mid-teens, and a time of huge social unrest in the US. I remember the Kent State shootings as the first time my eyes were opened to the terrifying power of the state and how it could be turned on its citizens.

Now I see ‘Black Lives Matter’ differently. All lives can’t matter until Black lives do. White privilege is real. Acknowledging these truths doesn’t make us any less valuable as human beings. On the contrary.

I’m not sure exactly when the shift happened. It has certainly been gradual. Perhaps my eyes started to open while watching a Netflix series called ‘Dear White People’ that portrays a group of black students at an elite, mostly white university. Recent events in the US, culminating in last week’s murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, made me realize that the issue of race, which I had naïvely assumed to be a thing of the past, is still very real.

And not just in the US.

In Paris yesterday, demonstrations turned violent when 20,000 people gathered to protest against racism and police violence.

“Demonstrators voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter protests and demanded justice for Adama Traoré, a young black man who, like Floyd, died while in police custody in the Paris suburbs in 2016.”

Racism is different here in France, but it is still racism.

Inégalité — inequality — is real. So are poverty and hunger, as the long lines for aid from our food banks attest.

It’s okay to feel guilty. It’s okay to feel outrage. It’s not okay to act like it is normal or acceptable.

How are you feeling?

La truffe

Their rich yet subtle aroma is earthy and reminiscent of rich chocolate. They are prized for the intense flavour they bring to cooking and the rarity of their supply. They are most often found in certain regions of France and Italy.

Truffles are found growing in the root systems of trees like oak, beech, birch, hazel, pine, and poplar, especially where the soil is light and high in limestone. In France, the Périgord region in the southwestern part of the country is most famous for its prized black truffles or ‘la truffe noire du Périgord.’ The best white ones are said to come from Alba, Italy.

Truffles can be cultivated but are most often found growing wild under trees. Truffle pigs or dogs can be trained to earth them up, but the pigs are more inclined to eat the bounty before the hunters can grab them. I guess because they are, um, pigs?

Oddly enough, some of the best truffle dogs look quite like the prized truffles themselves, don’t you think?

One of the things I love most about truffles is the word play in French. ‘La truffe’ is either a truffle or — you guessed it — the canine sniffer that finds them. In other words, a dog’s nose.

The resemblance is quite remarkable, n’est-ce pas? Although I wouldn’t want to eat a dog’s truffle, especially if it looked like my dog’s (not the one pictured below, which actually doesn’t look bad…). And also as I know where it’s been!

However, as much as the authentic truffle is to be savoured, there is a disturbing trend in restaurants these days to use truffle oil, a fake, chemical flavour that bears little resemblance to the real deal. Personally, as I am highly sensitive to perfumes and other synthetic (chemical) smells, it gives me a headache.

I enjoy the taste of truffles but am not crazy enough about them to go truffle hunting or pay the price for the privilege of slicing off shavings from one of the little nuggets to flavour a nice risotto. I will happily order such a dish if prepared with authentic truffles by a good chef. I recently heard about one such place in Paris, an Italian restaurant: http://www.prestofresco.fr/

How do you feel about truffles? Have you ever been truffle hunting?

La Petite Ceinture

Did you know that you can explore history and discover the secret green spaces of an old Paris train line known as ‘La Petite Ceinture’?

The little belt, as it was called, circled Paris long before the métro. A rail line built in the second half of the 19th century, it was designed to link the different train stations and provide an efficient way of transporting freight around the French capital’s fortifications. It began serving passengers in 1862 and the complete rail loop, 32 kilometres all around Paris, was completed in 1869.

Le Métropolitain de Paris, built at the turn of the century, brought about the decline of the Petite Ceinture. From 39 million passengers in 1900, during the Exposition Universelle, the traffic fell to just 7 million in 1927. Le métro soon became the preferred way to get around Paris.

The old line closed down in 1934 and entire sections of the railway were left to decay for many decades. Access was forbidden but the old ‘chemin de fer’ became a kind of ‘secret’ greenbelt enjoyed by graffiti artists and those seeking a haven of calm within the city.

In recent years stations and sections of the old line have been restored and transformed, some as modern links in new transit lines like the ‘RER C’ at Courcelles-Levallois. Other sections have been taken over by restaurants, cultural centres and urban green spaces. Full history and a chart of all the sections here on Wikipedia.

Today, you can access 6.5 kilometres of parks and cultural activities on the restored Petite Ceinture line at different spots all around Paris.

This Saturday, August 31st is the ‘Fête de la Petite Ceinture’. Entry is free with fun and games, nature walks, concerts and workshops happening at different times and places. Visit the City of Paris website for details (in French only 🧐😠).

If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris this weekend, check it out!

Do you know La Petite Ceinture? Have you ever walked along the old train line?

France’s best baguettes

Baguettes at “Le Capitole” bakery in Nice, France, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The baguette is the most popular loaf of French bread. There are 32,000 bakers and cake-makers (boulangers-pâtissiers) in France. Like so many things that the French take seriously, the profession is regulated. What this means is that you can’t make it up. Cela ne s’invente pas. There are rules and regulations around the fabrication of the humble baguette de pain and a professional association that sets the standards and governs the making and baking of our daily bread.

Every year, the Confédération Nationale de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie Française holds a contest to crown the baker who makes the best ‘baguette de tradition’. Now, the traditional French stick is not to be confused with its lesser cousin, ‘la baguette industrielle’. The industrial or ordinary type of baguette can be found in every French supermarket or ‘point chaud’ and while some centimes cheaper is far inferior in terms of quality.

Traditional baguette is made by an artisan baker at a relatively small scale and according to a strict set of rules. The flour must be of a specific type (55), with nothing added other than yeast and salt, then kneaded for a minimal amount of time, weighed, divided and allowed to rise. It is then shaped by hand into the iconic long ‘baguette’ shape before being baked in an oven with a stone floor.

The criteria for the ‘best’ baguette are the following (20 points for each):

  • Aspect – the look or appearance of the loaf
  • Croûte (couleur/croustillant) – the colour and crustiness of the crust
  • Arôme – its flavour or taste
  • Mie (couleur / alvéolage) – the colour and cellular structure of the white, doughy part of the bread (which must not be overly dense)
  • Mâche – its chewiness or mouth feel
The word ‘alvéole’ comes from the cells of a bee-hive but its holes should be irregular.

The best baguette is somewhat irregular looking, with a nicely browned, crusty exterior and a soft, airy interior. It has a bit of character in terms of taste but is essentially a perfect backdrop for other flavours: cheese, sauces, pâtés…

This year’s top prizes at the national level were handed out in Paris on May 15th. The three top bakers are in Franche-Comté, Brittany and Ardèche: https://www.boulangerie.org/blog/concours-national-de-la-meilleure-baguette-de-tradition-francaise-les-resultats-2/

In April, the winners of the 25th annual competition in Paris were announced. The baguettes of this year’s winning baker, Fabrice Leroy, can be found at the Leroy-Monti bakery in Paris’s 12th arrondissement and also grace the president’s table at the Elysée Palace (if you are lucky enough to be invited). https://www.sortiraparis.com/news/in-paris/articles/190183-paris-best-baguette-winner-is-leroy-monti-bakery-in-the-12th-arrondissement/lang/en

How do you like your bread? Dense and doughy or light and fluffy?

Ella, elle l’a

Voici ma chanson pour un samedi — here’s my song for Saturday.

The year was 1987. We were living in Toronto when France Gall released this song, written for his wife by the incredibly talented and gone-too-soon Michel Berger. It became a hit in France along with several countries in Europe.

I must have listened to this song a hundred times before I realized what it was actually about. The song, whose title literally means, ‘Ella, she has it’, is a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, the first lady of song, and an anti-racism anthem. Here are the lyrics, with a bit of a translation in English:

C’est comme une gaité, comme un sourire
Quelque chose dans la voix qui parait nous dire “viens”

Qui nous fait sentir étrangement bien
C’est comme toute l’histoire du peuple noir
Qui se balance entre l’amour et l’désespoir

Quelque chose qui danse en toi, si tu l’as, tu l’as

It’s like a joy, like a smile
that thing in her voice that seems to be saying “Come!”
that makes us feel strangely good
it’s like all the history of the black people
that swings between love and despair
that thing that dances inside of you, if you have it, you have it.

Ella, elle l’a, ce je-ne-sais-quoi
Que d’autres n’ont pas, qui nous met dans un drôle d’état
Ella, elle l’a Ella, elle l’a, cette drôle de voix
Elle a, ou, ou, ou, ou, ou, ou, ou, cette drôle de joie
Ce don du ciel qui la rend belle

She has it, the thing I know about
that others don’t have, that puts us in a funny state
she, she, she has it, she has that funny voice, that funny cheerfulness
that gift from up above that makes her beautiful, she has it

Elle a ce tout petit supplément d’âme
Cet indéfinissable charme, cette petite flamme

She has that extra bit of soul
that indefinable charm, that little flame.

Tape sur des tonneaux, sur des pianos
Sur tout ce que dieu peut te mettre…

Montre ton rire ou ton chagrin
Mais que tu n’aies rien, que tu sois roi
Que tu cherches encore les pouvoirs qui dorment en to
i
Tu vois ça ne s’achète pas

Hit the barrels, the pianos
and everything that god can put in your hands
show your laughter or your sadness
but if you are nothing or if you are a king
if you are still looking for the power that is sleeping inside of you
you see it can’t be bought

Ella, elle l’a… (etc.)

Around that time, my husband and I had the incredible privilege to see Ella perform live at the Imperial Room of the Royal York hotel in Toronto. It had to have been one of her final performances. She used a cane and was helped onstage by her manager. But once she began singing, her voice was as fresh as spring

On that note, here she is singing of my favourite songs.