Absinthe-minded

I was eating peanut butter sandwiches everyday at my middle school cafeteria when Anthony Bourdain started making a name for himself, but I still had the same initial reactions to him when I became interested in food writing and watching as the foodie world did about five or six years later than the initial Bourdain breakout. When I watched the pilot episode of No Reservations on Netflix, I ended up more impressed with Bourdain than the food he tried. He seemed like the most badass of chefs, with the ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips and the small silver hoop dangling from his earlobe.

In the world of Emerils and Mario Batalis, he was the food world’s Keith Richards and I was the little girl falling in love all the way at the very back of the concert hall.

When I started planning my Parisian 4-month vacation, I rewatched that episode again. I knew that I might not be able to afford to visit all of the bars and restos and patisseries and boulangeries that Bourdain did, but I definitely had to go to that absinthe bar.

And two months in, when I watched it again, I felt like such an insider that I scoffed at Bourdain’s recommendation that taxis are an easy way to get around Paris and could pick out neighborhoods and streets that he passed by. But then I deflated when I realized that no, I hadn’t actually gone to that absinthe bar yet and only had a month or so left to do it.

As I wrote in a previous post, suddenly it was  Thanksgiving—aka, Thursday, in Paris. I had gotten a little taste of the holiday and its tradition the Wednesday before at a little potluck dinner thrown at my school, but I still wanted to do something. And I thought, if I can’t have all of my Thanksgiving traditions, then I’m going to do something so outrageously un-Thanksgiving like that there’s no way I’ll be able to get homesick.

The outside. You can already tell it's pretty badass.

The outside. You can already tell it’s pretty badass.

Using that brilliant logic, I ended up suggesting the absinthe bar to my friends.

I sent over the Youtube clip of the bar scene—and my friends actually took the time to watch it, which usually doesn’t happen (to be fair, I do love sending Youtube videos).

“We’re not actually going to hallucinate like that, right?” one friend asked.

“Nah, of course not,” I said. “We don’t have the special camera effects Bourdain did.”

We also didn’t have the illegal, pre-prohibition absinthe that he did, either.

The bar looked pretty kitchsy in the video—low lighting, skeleton decorations, cartoon pornography featuring hot naked demon ladies. The website was equally bizarre. The “philosophy” of the bar is to be exactly what a “rock ‘n’ roll” bar should be like—but also being “punk rock” and “metal” at the same time.

IMG_9639

I made sure I wore my leather jacket—but it’s a jean-colored fake leather jacket cut in the style of a jeans jacket, so I was nowhere near the leather daddy/witch goddess fashion of all of the bar patrons.

And this was something I picked up as soon as I walked through the door—although that could have been because a woman with piles of dark hair messily held on the top of her head laughed and said, “Come on, kids” in French as we walked by her.

Yeah, not exactly the kind of welcoming I wanted.

Later, my friend confessed, “As soon as I walked through the door, I wanted to bolt out of there.”

But we soldiered on, trying not to stare at the demon porn or all of the leather. It’s funny, because there are a lot of bars in Paris that try to capitalize on the coolness of rock or Anglophilia and call themselves “bar du rock” or a “bar du punk.” But La Cantada II really was a metal bar, sure, but the people here were older, in their thirties and forties. The Oberkampf/Parmentier neighborhood the bar is in is really known for being the cool hangout place for the young hipsters and “bobos,” and we quickly decided that we were at the bar these people went to when they got too old or too creepy.

If you want to see the cabaret in the basement, you have to make sure you're cleared by the bouncer.

If you want to see the cabaret in the basement, you have to make sure you’re cleared by the bouncer.

I felt like I was back working at the record store I worked at in high school—once again, I was the only natural blonde there with no piercings, no tattoos, and no way of ever intimidating anyone ever. Except now, my friends were with me and there’s always strength in numbers, I guess.

We timidly approached the bar, and I was thrown once again when I didn’t see a menu for absinthe. Sure, I saw the absinthe bottles and the antiquated “Absinthe” sign, but I didn’t see prices or names for absinthes, only for beers, mixed drinks, and wines. I started internally freaking out—I brought my friends here, I was the one pushing for the bar, and then there wasn’t any absinthe?

The bartender approached us, and I was so busy being surprised at how he looked exactly like Harris from Freaks and Geeks would look as a thirtysomething bartender at an absinthe bar that I fumbled and just said, in French, “Good evening, it’s our first time here and …”

He immediately interrupted me and said, in English, “You came for absinthe,” as he grabbed a laminated absinthe menu from behind the bar.

It was that obvious. We were one of those American tourists who wandered in because of Anthony Bourdain. But really, how many twenty-year-old girl American tourists can say that?

No, you're not hallucinating, there's a coffin in the corner.

No, you’re not hallucinating, there’s a coffin in the corner.

The names of the absinthes meant nothing to us, as did the country of origin listed in parentheses. What did interest us were the prices (less than 5 euros for most of the glasses—a better bargain than most alcoholic drinks at bars here) and the alcohol content (around 60 to 70 %). But when the bartender came back a couple minutes later, we still had no clue what we were doing.

“What’s the best drink for our first time?” we asked, since giving us the menu really didn’t help us out.

He pointed to the “Mata Ari,” which was 4,80 euros so we felt confident that he wasn’t trying to rip us off.

I’d Google the drink later, and apparently it’s a bohemian absinthe without the pedigree of a French or Swiss absinthe, which means it’s more like a wormwood bitter than the proper anise absinthe. But to my newborn absinthe palette, it was a pretty good starting off drink.

Who am I kidding—anything would have been a pretty good starting off drink. I started giggling as soon as the bartender pulled out the old-time water drippers. Everything about this bar and this drink was becoming an experience in itself.

Ooh la la!

Ooh la la!

He poured a little bit of absinthe—not even a full shot—into a fancy glass, and then took out a triangular log with holes in it to lay across the rim of the glass. A small sugar cube was then placed on top of that, and then the water from the water dripper slowly dissolved the sugar into the absinthe.

The resulting color of the drink was a pale mint—not the bright green I was expecting. It tasted a lot of black licorice, but in a way that I could easily drink (I always give the black licorice anything to my mom, can’t stand the stuff). And this is something that is not something that should be easily drank in large quantities. I went home after one drink, not even wanting to try another because I just felt heavy and thick.

Maybe it’s because of all the pancakes I like to eat on brunch excursions, but has anyone ever described food as “sitting on your stomach?” Well, because absinthe definitely sits on your liver. I think people would have to be crazy just to drink large amounts of absinthe. I’m glad I went to an absinthe bar, and I would definitely drink absinthe again, but it’s a one-time-only per occasion kind of drink for me.

But I still like absinthe. Like many people before me, I only knew about absinthe because of its scandalous reputation, not because of its taste. It was only a friend of a friend, with those “friends” being Anthony Bourdain and Oscar Wilde as the people I most associated with absinthe. But now I’d say that absinthe and me are acquaintances, and it’s always nice making friends at bars.

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Five tips for eating with your host family

1. Eat what’s put on your plate

It’s funny how much of a difference it makes when my real mom said this to me and my host mom didn’t.

Growing up, I was a picky eater. No fish, not a lot of green vegetables, no steak. There was always extra fat on my pork. If there was that vegetable pasta with green, red, and white pasta, I’d never eat the colored ones—or, at least until my parents tied a handkerchief around my eyes and gave me a taste test where I guessed wrong every time.

I’ll admit, that when I grew up and actually tried the foods I didn’t like the look or smell of when I was a kid (and even some of the foods I didn’t like the taste of also), I saw—and tasted—what a brat I had been. I love fish now, eat a little bit more green vegetables, and I still don’t eat steak but I’ve found that hasn’t really been an issue for me as a college student.

To my parents’ chagrin, this light bulb moment happened right around the time I moved six hours away.  So all of those years of working around my eating habits (or not and then having to deal with me complaining during dinner) were wasted … like the food I would refuse to eat off of my plate. Sorry guys, my bad.

I think it was one-half maturation and one-half of a newfound “I’m in a new place, I should try this” mentality that I adopted during the drive down to Philadelphia. And I packed up that belief system and took it with me to Paris, and more specifically my host family’s house in Paris.

The first dinner with my host family was an easy one: roast chicken, potatoes, shredded carrots, lettuce, cheese and bread, ice cream. Later I’d have to peel the heads off of shrimp and eat this weird dish of sautéed onions in a cream sauce and finish the last piece of steak that my host mom couldn’t eat but didn’t want to save or throw out.

What are pancakes. Or, even, what is breakfast.

 

When the British couch-surfers made breakfast one day and plunked a plate of beans, mushrooms in a butter sauce, sausage, and a blanched tomato FOR BREAKFAST, I ate it all and didn’t once think about pancakes or eggs or, you know, normal breakfast foods.

I’m not being forced to eat all this. If anything, I feel guilty about not eating something, even if there are people at the table who don’t take a scoop of something. And from what I’ve heard from other kids in my program, this is kind of a universal truth when it comes to living with a host family.

 

2. Don’t be afraid to look like an idiot

Definitely the weirdest example of this was when my host mom brought whole shrimp home and taught me how to peel a shrimp and take it’s head off. I never really ate shrimp when I grew up and then once I started eating it in college, I never actually prepared it. So I wasn’t really ready for the sight of the shrimp with their little beady eyes and everything staring up at me from underneath the plastic packaging they came in. I have to admit, she helped me take off the heads of the first couple shrimps, and it wasn’t until after we finished the preparation that I figured out the French translation of “Off with their heads!”, but we had a couple laughs at my expense and it was a good meal.

I ate these. Aren’t you proud of me, Mom and Dad????

Another was when I had Chinese food with my host family. It wasn’t takeout Chinese food, and I’m pretty sure it was one of those premade things you can get in grocery stores and heat up when you get home. But it was still a shock because it was fried and not good for you and I couldn’t believe my health-conscious host parents were serving this.

And then I got another big surprise when, in addition to the fried circles, cylinders, and triangles of unidentifiable meat, my host mom also placed a bowl of fresh mint leaves and a bowl of romaine lettuce leaves on the table. And then there was a little dish of oil—maybe sesame seed oil?—on my plate as well.

As always, they insisted that I serve myself first. So I took my fried ball, cylinder, and triangle and put it on my plate while I stealthily snuck peeks at my host dad, who had literally taken a branch of mint leaves and put it on his plate, and my host mom, who grabbed a couple leaves of lettuce with her hands. Hmmmm….

I copycatted obviously, and I thought I’d be able to do the same and take my cues from them on how to eat this meal. And I watched as my host mom took off a couple mint leaves, laid them on one lettuce leave, and then put a fried cylinder thing on the lettuce and rolled it up in a big weird actual-food rollup and dipped it in the oil. I tried to do the same, but my awkwardness and hesitation must have shown because my host mom asked, “Do you do it like this in the States?”

Um, no. Not ever.

But I have to say, it was actually pretty good. The mint somehow drew out the flavor from the fried stuff (is it obvious I’ve been lazy and started watching The Food Network on Hulu and Netflix—like come on, who DOES that?) and well, any meal where I can make myself feel good about eating lettuce is a good meal, even though it was the equivalent of eating lettuce on a burger or something.

Plus, I’ve found that if I have no idea how to eat something, it gets the conversation going. And most of the time I’m more scared of having enough to say/knowing enough to say at the dinner table that being weirded out by the food kind of takes second place.

 

3. Do not give edible gifts

So one of the many emails you can expect from your study abroad program is about how to act with your host family, and this includes bringing a gift that represents your hometown.

My hometown has more pizza parlors than any other type of restaurant in the tiny town. There is no local standout meal that screams, “MEDFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS!” and just because I hate my hometown like the superstitious but jaded cliché that I am, I wouldn’t want to bring that with me to my new French life. So I was in a pickle. You could even say I was in quite the jam.

My friend Lily, who comes from the Hanover, Pennsylvania that makes Hanover Pretzels, did not struggle like I did. I don’t remember if she brought pretzels over, but I know for sure she brought Old Bay seasoning. It’s a Baltimore-area spice used for crabcakes and French fries like Chickie & Pete’s (a Philly thing). Cheap, non-perishable, and unique. Lucky girl.

I finally ended up picking salt-water taffy. It’s definitely not a Medfield-thing, and it’s not even a Massachusetts-thing even though I bought the candy during a weekend trip to Cape Cod (FYI, it took me a while to figure out how to say where I was without saying Down The Cape, which is totally a Massachusetts thing). But—fun fact!—salt water taffy is only made on the Atlantic seaboard and I knew there wasn’t even a French word for it because salt water taffy does not exist in France, so I thought I all clear. I even bought the sampler box that I used to beg my dad to buy at the big sweets shop in Falmouth, Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium.

And it was this same sampler box, now slightly-dented after being transported in a backpack from Falmouth, Massachusetts to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and then to Paris, France, that I proudly presented to my host family after the dinner we ate on the first night.

“This is only found on the East Coast and there isn’t a word for it, so I guess it’s just les bonbons,” I said. “In English, this is ‘salt-water taffy.’”

“Oh, that’s nice,” my host mom said.

She smiled at me and gingerly picked a candy from the box. It was a mint one.

She had no way of knowing by the black and white striped wax paper packaging, but at the time I felt bad that her first sampling of salt-water taffy was with such a yucky flavor. Now I feel the opposite. It was the least candy-tasting of all of the flavors she could have gone with. I shudder to think of what would have happened if she picked blue raspberry.

Turns out my host family limits their processed sugar intake, which means sugar-free, fat-free vanilla yogurt for dessert. The only time they had non-yougurt dessert was the first dinner with me when we ate chocolate ice cream popsicles, so I’m thinking that’s because it was somewhat of a special occasion. But God bless them, they at least kept the box out on the kitchen counter for a week before throwing out the candy. I never saw anyone eat the candy, but I also never saw anyone tossing the box in the garbage.

And Lily? Her mom asked if she could put the Old Bay seasoning on salads. From what I can tell, she hasn’t tried it on a salad or anything else in the three months Lily’s lived with her.  So I guess that doesn’t make Lily a lucky girl after all.

Bottom line: don’t chance buying food for your host family because if they don’t like it or they don’t get it, you have to live with it for the rest of the semester whether they toss it or not.

 

4. Keep food in your room (seriously)

To be honest, this started because there aren’t shelves of food in the kitchen and my host family is super organic and health-conscious so of course there isn’t going to be a place to put my cookies.

But I kept it going when I realized that my host family liked entertaining and there would be times where I’d come home from school or get out of the shower only to hear extra voices upstairs. And of course, no matter whether I was really dressed or not, I wouldn’t want to go upstairs and be like “Hey guys,” while they were eating or drinking or talking. I’m not going to make my dinner and then sit on the couch while everyone else is eating at the dinner table or—even worse—make my dinner and then sit down at the dinner table with everyone.

So now I usually make sure I have a box of cereal or some nonperishable fruit or something in my room just in case. And then sometimes, yeah, I’ll keep Pringles or chocolate bars in my room for the cravings I could get while I sit in my makeshift bomb shelter for hours. I hide it all in my suitcase so the parents can’t see it when they go into their bedroom across the hall and the maid can’t find it when she cleans my room.

And who am I kidding, I partly keep the food in my room for the days where I’m too lazy to go upstairs or I’m too antisocial and don’t want to get out of bed and leave one of the only places I feel like I can have to myself and be myself in this foreign country.

I felt really guilty about this hoarding. I still do. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to write about this. It’s like keeping the food you eat for a midnight craving two feet from your bed so you don’t have to walk all the way to the kitchen during your craving.

But from what I’ve heard, this is pretty common with people in my program. I remember it was the second week of my homestay and I was confessing that I kept food in my room like I was talking to a priest and my friend Olu was like, “Yeah, I totally have a croissant drawer.”

So there you go. Make sure you have a cereal/chocolate/Pringles part of your suitcase or a croissant drawer when you stay with a host family, I guess.

 

5. Saran-wrap your thoughts about food preservation

Remember that show Cribs on MTV when a celebrity would walk a camera crew through his/her mansion? My favorite part was when he/she would open the fridge and I got a little peek into his or her life. Don’t worry, this feeling of awe and curiosity translates to regular people too. The first night, I couldn’t wait to see what the fridge looked like in my new house (sad but true).

But I was kind of overwhelmed when my host mom opened the fridge and told me I got a shelf and a drawer. SCORE! That’s a lot more than what some of my friends got.

Once I saw that there were three different types of butter in the fridge, I knew that this magical box of coldness would provide endless wonder for me during the semester. And it did.

The biggest thing for me is that my host family never saran-wraps anything. They don’t put leftovers in Tupperware containers either. If there’s leftover pasta, the bowl it was served in is plopped onto a shelf and there’s nothing covering the noodles from the cold air. Same goes for meats, cheeses, vegetables, puddings, everything.

I was really unprepared for that, and I think that’s why I’m so floored by this revelation. I was used to the saran-wrap/aluminum foil/freezer paper way of covering up the leftover food that you put in plastic containers, so it never even occurred to me that someone could choose not to do that.

I can get the no-Tupperware, since it could be a waste of a clean container or something. But I’m sorry, I just can’t get over the no-saran-wrap. Sometimes the meat or vegetables start stinking up the fridge and there’s nothing I can do about it!

I haven’t even found saran-wrap in the kitchen. Believe me, I’ve searched high and low for it. I know it exists in France, because I specifically went and looked for it at the grocery store the day after I found stinky blue cheese on a plate in the fridge.

I just don’t know why my host family doesn’t have it and/or doesn’t use it. And you know, I had to adapt and not use saran-wrap either when I put away a half-eaten bowl of salad or soup or whatever. I dealt with it but I still felt weird  putting the bowl away and then being reminded of it every time I went to the fridge until it was time to finish whatever I had started.

Maybe I’ll buy it for them as a Christmas/going-away present. NOT.

I went to Oktoberfest and all I got was this lousy cold…

So I know I said in my last post that my next post would be about Oktoberfest, OKTOBERFEST Oktoberfest. Welp, sorry, but this is not that post.

I am lazy. But I am sick, so that means being lazy is allowed and I can’t be judged as much for it. And, even more, I am lazy and sick in a foreign country where chicken noodle soup doesn’t exist, so that blog post isn’t going to be up until the end of the week.

That paragraph had a lot of important information in it (such as I am sick, waaaah mommy please come back to Paris and take care of me), but the most important was I AM … IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY WHERE CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP DOESN’T EXIST.

Pretty sure I feel weaker after writing (and then rereading) that last sentence.

I was feeling a little below the weather the Wednesday before Oktoberfest weekend. No big deal, just a little sore throat, and just like schools everywhere this time of year, there are a couple of kids I have to sit next to who were sick. And there’s the public transportation I take at least twice a day. So I thought I was dealing with a small common cold that would be gone before I left on Friday. Pssh. NOT.

You’ll read about this in my next post, but I slept in a tent Friday and Saturday nights before leaving Sunday morning, and it was cold (Under Armor spandex and jeans and every one of the five shirts I brought and hat and scarf and gloves and three pairs of socks) and the next night it RAINED. And I was in a tent. And I was a little sick when I got to Munich and then I was a lot of sick when I left Munich.

Eat your apples and pay attention to old wives tales, I guess.

But I will get through this. Hopefully, soon.

For example, I have orange juice. No problem. It’s even “jus d’orange” and there are a million different cartons. So the OJ situation is OK.

And. I have cough drops, though the only brand I could find was Ricola—which, thankfully, is my favorite cough drop brand in the States, because I am that person who has a favorite cough drop brand. Cultural side note: all French medicine is sold in pharmacies, but you can buy cough drops in grocery stores. Specifically, the candy aisles of grocery stores. And they come in little cigarette-sized boxes as well as bags. So now I carry a pack with me everywhere I go … a pack of cough drops, that is.

But the chicken noodle soup? No sirree bob. And I don’t mean no Cambell’s chicken noodle soup or chicken noodle soup with star/Goldfish/alphabet/Spongebob noodles. I mean, no chicken noodle soup.

Like, I finally found carrots, peas, and noodles in chicken broth (best I could find) and told my host mom I was eating it because I was sick. And then she asked if I wanted a salad. Um….what? Not the response I was expecting. Maybe that’s the standard French sick food, instead of soup and OJ and ice cream? Explains why everyone is so skinny here…

I feel as though the absence of good chicken noodle soup is the only reason why I am still sick a week later.

Looks like all the “PROST!”s I got this past weekend did nothing for my health.

Some thoughts on the French Muslim protests

In case you haven’t heard, or for whatever reason haven’t created a Google Alert for France in order to better keep up with my travels, Paris is one of the many countries that has been protesting the film “Innocence of Muslims” outside of the US Embassy in the country.

And that is incredibly frightening for me.

In the beginning, most of the protesting countries were in the Middle East, places I would never visit and had no connection to. Places where you see American flags being burned and hear of people saying anti-American things because you kind of shake it off because you’re not there and there’s the grocery list you have to write and someone just texted you and wow, is it time to leave already?

I did that too. Still do it, sometimes. I’m guilty of it, I know. I clicked on the link, read the article, and then hit the red “x” button. Out of sight, somewhat out of mind. I’ve got places to go, people to see, croissants to eat—that kind of thing.

But now I can’t do that. These protests aren’t in Egypt and other countries where I don’t know how to speak the native language. Now they’re here, in France, in Paris where I live, in French that I can (somewhat) speak.

In other words, shit just got real.

This isn’t watching protests on the TV or streaming videos of them online—this is talking to classmates who live in the area where the protests are being held (Place de la Concorde, by the Champs Elysees) and have seen the protests in person.

This is a big deal. The French Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning urging French citizens in the Muslim world to be careful. French schools and embassies were closed on Friday, the Muslim holy day, in over 20 potentially dangerous countries.

And that’s not near me, but then I’m getting emails from my study abroad program telling me to avoid certain areas. I signed up to get email travel alerts and warnings for France by the US State Department.

It’s like last November where the Egyptian revolts were kind of just starting and I kind of just knew about them and then a Drexel student got arrested and detained by Egyptian authorities for allegedly throwing Molotov cocktails in a demonstration outside of the American University of Cairo. Unfortunately, it was the kick in the butt I needed to become more aware of the world. It’s sad that it was a student getting arrested that was the final pushing point of action for me.

And because he got arrested literally the first day of Thanksgiving break, I am selfish enough that I felt a little annoyed that I had to do this thing of checking Google News and emailing staff members I thought I’d get a vacation from, all to make sure we were doing the Right Thing as student journalists and working tirelessly.

As the then-assistant news editor and social media editor of the student newspaper, I had to suddenly start paying attention real fast because there were links and updates to tweet and articles to write and contribute to and people to contact and suddenly, this was so much realer and more important now because I was involved with it.

I feel that way now. I’ve watched the video, read the articles, watched online news reports. And I wonder, would I do this if I wasn’t living in Paris? Would I do this if I didn’t have friends in Paris? Even still, I’m paying more attention to information pertaining to the demonstrations in Paris than in other parts of the Muslim world simply because I am living in Paris now.

But then again, Paris has an additional risk-factor associated to it, because this very anti-establishment satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo published an inflammatory cartoon of a naked Mohammad and this has only made the tensions caused by the film even worse. Their office is under police protection, people are protesting that too in addition to the American Embassy and other places, and I’m just waiting for the day where I’ll actually see the protests or maybe one of these times where I’m called out for being American won’t end in a cute, funny story (or blog post).

That isn’t to say that I’m hiding out in my room, but it’s just something that, like I said, I have to pay attention to now and I (ignorantly) didn’t think I would have to. And as long as I’m paying attention to it, then it shouldn’t matter as much that I’m doing it for more selfish reasons as long as I am still making an effort to be informed about it.