Thursday, April 23, 2009

Before the wheel there were...stairs...and the Devil

Escalier du Diable-The Devil's Staircase
The Devil's Staircase-Going down from centre ville to the train station

Poitiers being both old and hilly, it's interesting how stairs have been used in various forms here for a very long time. In fact, if Poitiers were merely hilly, the staircases might not be quite as numerous. The major staircases are placed where roads are impossible, literally up the sides of cliffs.

cliffside staircase in Poitiers
Besides being interesting elements of pre-automobile urban planning, they are (occasionally) still used today. Allowing pedestrians access to the center of Poitiers who would otherwise have to walk much farther, along slowly climbing, curving streets.

The stairways on either side of the train station, combined with the passerelle allows pedestrians in centre ville and the areas to the west direct access to the train station, bypassing the circuitous route the cars and buses must use.
La Passerelle in Poitiers
La Passerelle, which crosses above the trains in Poitiers

Besides the public staircases that help pedestrians shortcut the winding streets, many houses have extensive private staircases to take advantage of as much real estate as possible. You can put your garage on one level and your house on another:

house with stairs and elevator in Poitiers
The stairs wind to the left, while the more modern elevator (or dumb waiter) goes straight up

Or expand your garden into a multi-level affair:
multi-level garden in Poitiers
Note the white lounge chair near the center of the photo, perfect for a sun-drenched afternoon

It also allows this city to put a park somewhere that would normally be too steep. This park is tucked between two parts of the road that snakes down from centre ville to the train station.

Park along blvd. Verdun

While all these stairs allow a pedestrian to more easily navigate the area, it's not surprising that sometimes you might want to take the long route. These two pictures below comprise one staircase, and a lot of stairs.

Escalier de la Grotte des DruidesEscalier de la Grotte des Druides
Escalier de la Grotte des Druides-Staircase of the Druids Cave

Hmmm, maybe I'll take the bus.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Armchair Tourism

Jefe rode his bike around in the Spring rain and then fell asleep watching the Paris-Roubaix race on TV...

Perhaps we've been a little inattentive of the blog lately, but we wanted to let you know that it has been for a good reason. Many good reasons, in fact.

1. We've been waking up before dawn to go to this place:
...second semester is almost over at ESIP!

2. We've been doing a lot of planning for our friends' upcoming visits:
...checking out local wineries, cognac distilleries, (and not so local) bicycle routes.

3. We've been biking and running.

4. We're learning to make awesome (gluten) bread. And Rebecca is dreaming of the perfect gluten free loaf... too bad you can't get quinoa flour, arrowroot starch, or even certified gluten-free oats in France.

5. We're continuing to try our hand at artsy photo-taking...
...sigh. We need a camera stand.

6. We've been making fancy things with white asparagus:

7. We've been walking up and down a lot of stairs. Jefe will have more on that soon...

8. We discovered how to make our own French minty green cocktails at home, so we save money without skimping on flavor or fun...


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Paris from the Perspective of a Non-French Person

The purpose of this post is to give guidance to tourists and visitors to Paris (and other French tourist towns).  If you want to add to our commentary or dispute some point we've made -- please do so in the comments!!  
Thanks --ARAD
image from

We hope you've been well as we've been traipsing around Poitiers and Paris with Jefe's family.  (And thank you if you are still reading...)

Now that we've been to Paris three times as "resident aliens" (i.e. not counting the times we came before moving to France), we feel like we're beginning to know our way around, which areas we enjoy and which ones to avoid like the plague. 

When people visit Paris, they think all the people they see (at least all those who aren't looking at maps) are Parisiens. Well, that probably isn't the case. While exact numbers are hard to come by, Paris is host to at least 9 million non-French tourists every year, and at least that many French tourists.

Some people (e.g. us) try and hide the fact that they are tourists so that the waiters don't start speaking English before you even sit down. To be hired in a restaurant or cafe in Paris, it's clear that you must prove that you are fluent in French and English. I think preferential treatment must also be given to applicants who have cultivated a special blend of hackneyed "bad English" pronunciation, patience, and a side of caffeine addiction. Unfortunately, Jefe and his backpack and unfashionable coat are usually a give-away. But that's ok, because we ride bikes, we go places most people don't, avoid the places that most people flock to, and we even save some cash at lunch by packing a snack to eat in the numerous parks and gardens (when it isn't raining/freezing).

Paris can be a little intimidating because it feels like everyone is judging you, and they are, the French being an especially opinionated people. The way you dress (she's not wearing black?! OMD --"ouh mon dieu" the French equivalent of OMG), where you eat, what you drink (a Pinot Noir from Alsace with veal liver?!?!?), how you tie your scarf.

french scarves


Even which hand you hold your fork with. It's very difficult to switch from the zig-zag style of eating to the Continental style. Almost as difficult as learning to write with the opposite hand. But, it's worth it to teach yourself, especially if you are the type of person (e.g. me) who thinks that the patrons and waitstaff in French restaurants are surreptitiously watching you cut into your food and silently judging you. Maybe if you learn to eat properly, they won't think you're a tourist. Oh wait, everyone is a tourist.

Nowadays, we don't have to look at the map quite as often, and even I know which way north is and how to get to the airport (I'm even getting good at helping out lost tourists). I could also give pretty good directions around Le Marais, one of the trendy shopping areas in the 3rd and 4th arondissements.

We're always looking for weird art, and Paris is happy to oblige with many controversial exhibits (which they've conveniently labeled as such). Since the worst minority oppression takes place in the suburbs, Paris has to import their controversy. In this case, from the U.S. in the form of David LaChapelle.

One photo from the series "Jesus is my homeboy" by David LaChapelle

And since I like making lists, here's another one:

How To Look Like a Tourist in France: Top Ten
1. Ask someone for directions.  Extra points if the person turns out to be another tourist.
2. Wear jogging shoes.  Extra points if they're white.  (I still walk to the gym already wearing my gym clothes.  I also--gasp--leave the gym, visibly sweaty, still wearing said gym clothes, and walk home.  I know that it identifies me as a foreigner, I just don't care.)
3. Sport multi-colored eyeshadow, fake bake, or cakey foundation.  French girls typically go for "le smoky eye" look with neutral face and lips.

le smoky eye

4. Wear anything that is visibly optimized for comfort.  Fleece is an excellent example.
5. Count with your hand incorrectly: the French start with the thumb, not the index finger.
6. Hesitate for more than 10 seconds when someone asks you a question in French.  You will know that 10 seconds have passed because he or she will repeat their question in English.
7. Only order a plat instead of the whole formule. Extra credit if you order the wrong kind of wine, too. 
8. Stop in the middle of the street to take pictures of a building.
9. Travel in a group of more than 5 people.
and of course...
10. Start speaking.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How to cook when you only work 35 hours per week...

Back in Illinois we have a cookbook of traditional French recipes (purchased long before we knew about our trip). It includes classics like coq au vin, bouillabaisse, cassoulet, and roulade of wild pheasant. Before coming here, we had only tried a very small number of the recipes. Most were very time consuming and/or required seemingly exotic ingredients.

The longer we spend in France, the less difficult these recipes seem and the less exotic the ingredients become. Making a terrine that takes three days, c'est normale! Making your own chicken stock, pourquoi pas? Finding duck fat, goose fat, chicken necks, rabbit, and horse are as easy as walking down the street.

Perhaps this newfound sense of time has something to do with Jefe not working at all, and Rebecca working a little less than she did in the U.S. Perhaps, the inexhaustable supply of excellent restaurants here have raised our standards a little for our own cooking.

There are a few things we now keep around that take home-cooking to the next level. Duck fat: available at all grocery stores and many specialty stores in France. Chicken stock: you might be shocked to find that it isn't for sale in grocery stores, but after you make this easy, delicious roast chicken recipe (adjust for gluten allergy as necessary), you can simmer the carcass and some vegetables and herbs in a pot for an hour or two, strain and store in jars in your fridge or freeze in an ice cube tray. Brown butter: butter that has been cooked until it turns a golden brown and develops a caramel, nutty flavor. Infused olive oils: herbs, or garlic boiled in olive oil and strained, and refridgerated.

homemade chicken stock
homemade chicken stock

The visit of Jefe's brother and the ensuing restaurant testing in Poitiers and Paris lead to a few of these discoveries along with another new favorite: terrine. The word terrine can refer to either the cookware (like a loaf pan with a tight lid) or a chilled, compressed meatloaf that you would make in the aforementioned cookware. We tried a couple restaurants that offered their own take on this dish as an appetizer. It is made with various ground meats (uncured bacon, pork liver, and chicken liver are usually included) herbs and usually port or brandy. Often very aromatic, it is delicious with a side of cornichons and mustard.

In preparation for Jefe's parents, we made Country Terrine, using ground, uncured bacon from our favorite pork butcher Yves Henaud. The three-day prep was worth it. It smelled so nice and was a perfect addition to our regular mid-afternoon snack of cheese, artichokes, roasted beets, bread, and cornichons.

Country Terrine
we made a few changes to the recipe with our terrine,
including the use of local Calvados instead of regular brandy

And since the only canned beans available here are white beans, we've been buying bags of black beans (thanks to the exotic grocery store) and soaking them overnight in preparation for tacos. Tacos for which we make the tortillas by hand out of masa (thanks to Jefe's parents who brought a bag of masa from the U.S.) since real corn tortillas are unavailable here. The homemade tortillas are definitely worth the extra effort, they are fresher, fluffier, and taste delightful.

Jefe's dad demonstrating proper tortilla technique
You can hear the filmographer--Jefe's mom--asking the tough questions