November 11, 2014

France, A Love Story in Food (now with more travel chaos!)

View from our hotel -- Terrible room, but great view.
I've stayed in France many times, mainly with friends, but once living in my own apartment as a French government employee for the entire summer. This time, however, I was like a normal business traveler, working all day in English from my hotel and eating out for every meal.  Not my ideal way to visit a country whose culture and language I LOVE.  But I still went and did my best to enjoy it...

Okay, it wasn't all work. This was our hotel's 34th floor bar view. It didn't suck.
Despite this, one of the things I could make time for was a checklist of the French Foods I wanted to enjoy.  So, most days, I took myself out for a solo lunch at a local brasserie and also tried to influence the dinner group to check one or more boxes on my food list as well.
Nighttime view -- the hotel room was small, old, and lame -- peeling paint, non-functional tub, but damn, what a view!
Soupe a L'ognion -- check. (Yes, this was my first choice. Lunch.  Paris.  Smokers in my outdoor/indoor glass cabin.  What can I say?  It was iconic and I love me some French Onion Soup. Also, perhaps I just love butter, but either way, it was delicious.)
Iconic.  Place de la Bastille -- unexpected  bonus of lunch with my childhood French pen-pal.

Moules Frites -- check. (Across the street from the hotel, a chain, and deliciously so, and from Belgium, whose people, supposedly, are responsible for both the moules in the preparation we enjoyed and the frites, so it was wonderful.) 

Bistek tartare – check.

Crepes -- check.  We went to the  closest creperie to our hotel, just off the Champs Elysees, not too far from the Franklin Roosevelt metro station.  I assumed that if a creperie could stay open in Paris it wouldn’t be bad.  And my assumption was correct.  Normally, I opt out of the dessert crepe, but E convinced me we needed one.  He was right.  The savory buckwheat crepes were delicious (mmm… mushrooms, emmenthal, et jambon).  But the Nutella caramel white wheat crepe was sublime.  The quintessential dessert.

You know you are jealous!

The third day’s bistro lunch was with a friend and I enjoyed choucroute de la mer avec la sauce beurre blanc (This was an adventure – something I’d never had before, I love me some Sauerkraut, but the French version at this restaurant with fish around it in a packed tube-like preparation with potatoes and rich sauce was entirely too much food, but delicious, of course.) (CafĂ© Europeen)

Love locks.  Going strong on the passarelles of Paris.

Nightitme Seine view.
Musee D'Orsay.
The Fourth day’s surprise lunch was simply opportunistic -- to avoid the long lines at the metro for the folks heading out for their weekend holidays, E & I went to a local fancy place (Le Congres).  La Degustation de fruit du mer had the expected oysters and prawns, but it also included a couple of surprises I’d never had before including *raw* mussels (les moules espagnoles) and les bulots.  I had to look “Bulots” up, as I’d never had them before, ever, and I didn’t know the English word either – so, in case you were wondering, “Whelks” are nautilus shells with delicious meat inside, and apparently this is the British term for cooked seasnails (not to be confused with landsnails/escargots).  Did I mention they were delicious? (Also, "Bulots" should not be confused with "Boulot" or job.  Good luck with the pronunciation differentiation on that one...)

On the Fourth night in Paris, E and I went out and I ordered encornets a la provencale. (Mmmmm…. Delicious.  New to me.  Never had squid in this style or preparation before.  Absolutely delicious.) (Restaurant Georges.)

The next AM, despite our best efforts, we left France in a typical international travel fiasco.  We arrived at Gare du Lyon 1 hour before our TGV.  We’d purchased tickets online, however, the automatic ticket machines wouldn’t recognize our US credit cards to print our tickets.  So, I went to information, explained the problem, was sent to the guichet, which took a while to find, finally arrived, took a number to wait to be helped for today’s travel issues (not to be confused with *future* day’s travel issues, a much shorter, faster line, for future reference), and learned that there were 34 people in front of me.

Place de la Concorde
I went back to where E was with the luggage, telling him, “Well, it looks like there are 37 minutes until our train departs and 34 people to be helped – this should be exciting.”  I was then treated to a very relaxed set of civil servants calling people to their desks by number and closing and opening their desks on 15 minute intervals as they alternated breaks.  Finally, as the number before mine appeared to be a no-show, I jumped up to the counter and explained my situation to the woman, correctly assessing from observing the previous folks in line that French would be faster even though I may not have all the necessary vocabulary. 

First, our reservations were a bit complicated to find (of course) because we hadn’t bought directly through the French site, but rather through an EU-wide site.  Then, when she found them, she asked, “Vous-etes bien sur que vous avez payez?  Je ne vois rien de charges.” (Essentially – I don’t see any charges on your credit card.  You don’t have *real* tickets!)   Yikes, I had stepped up to the desk with 6 minutes to spare, assuming all I needed to do was show my confirmation, and get the tickets.  Somehow, after I assured her that we had indeed been charged, she found my ticket and was getting ready to dismiss me with “Allez, tu dois faire le courir de ta vie” (Go, you must run for your life!) when I explained that I also needed E’s ticket.  She found it, printed it, and yelled at the people in front of the door to get out of my way, shouting at me as I left “Allez – VITE! VITE! Vous ne compostez pas, allez juste a la voie C et prennez la premiere voiture.” 

So, that’s what we did.  I ran frenetically zig-zagging and obviously-not-French through the crowds, found E, grabbed one of the bags, shouted at him – “Track C, First car!” and we ran.  We arrived with 30 seconds to spare.  The attendant asked as we arrived – “Lausanne?” “Oui!” I breathlessly confirmed.  “Allez alors!  Montez dans!”  Once we were on the stairs, safely inside the first class car, the conductor asked, “Which coach?”  Laughing, I admitted that I didn’t actually know.  We opened the tickets, confirmed that we had a nice long walk through the train and finally made our way to our 2nd class seats.
L'Obelisque de la Place de la Concorde.

Not yet done with the international ridiculousness, after we’d nicely kicked the guy who’d decided to squat in our seats out of the way, I found my way to the bar car to purchase lunches for E&me, since we hadn’t had time to do that in the station.  After our food was prepared and ready to go, the credit card system stopped working and I had to explain that all I had was 15 Euros and a bunch of American money.  The suite attendant refused to accept my apologies and sent me back to our seats with 26 EU worth of lunch and beer in exchange for my 15 Euros and the promise that I’d bring any and all change I could find.  I found less than 2 Euros in my jacket pocket and when I brought it back to him, apologizing yet again, he said, “Vous devez dejeuner.  Ce n’est pas votre faute que la machine ne marche pas. Enjoyez!”  (You have to eat lunch!  It’s not your fault the machine isn’t working.  Enjoy!)

Vivez la France!


L.A. Runner said...

That sounds a bit stressful and chaotic! Those crepes look delicious, though! I've only been out of the country to Canada and Mexico. I would love to travel to Europe someday. Thanks for sharing! Your pics are great.

Biting Tongue said...

@L.A. Runner -- I'm glad you enjoyed them! I definitely enjoyed taking them (and eating in France).

Jen said...

YUM! And what a stressful train story! When Tim and I traveled by train from Taipei to Taichung, I decided to use the machine, thinking it would be the same as going to an agent. Turns out, I didn't get a reserved ticket that came with seat assignments - something I'm sure an actual person would've warned me about. Luckily, we found 2 seats in the very last car, or else we would've had to hover awkwardly for a 4 hour train ride. Anyway, glad it all worked out for you!

bt said...

@Jen -- It was stressful, for sure.

Glad your train stress worked out okay, too. I think trains are one of the few things that international travelers interact with that are still *very* localized. I will be keeping this in mind on my future travels.