One morning, I (Eve Binder) awoke from troubled dreams to discover that my life had been transformed into an epic cliché. Not, sadly, the kind of cliché where drunk people wake up married, and talking animals hem your pants for you, and you fell in a barrel of toxic waste, and now you have superpowers. More like the cliché where you wake up from Kafkaesque dreams to realize that your life’s plans are totally unoriginal, and you’re just treading a road that’s been trod by a million before you, and you are an unspecial little turd in a big trite world.
1) I am a Yalie, and right now I’m studying abroad. Big fat whoop. That’s actually just L6 Foreign Language — par for the courseload, in other words.
2) More specifically, I’m a lit major, studying in Paris. Again, quelle surprise. If you can survive Tartuffe in the original language, you automatically get French citizenship. Seriously. They send you a beret in the mail.
3) Finally — and most relevantly — I’m a food columnist with the IQ of a panini press and the skill set of a spork. And instead of going somewhere creative like Tibet, and learning how to make balep korkun using a corkscrew and a copy of Skymall, I’ve just schlepped my four overweight bags to the culinary capital of the world. Paris is practically a rite of passage for food people. If you’re a budding chef, you’ve got to head to French cooking schools. If you’re a budding critic, you’ve got to head to French restaurants. And if you’re just a hungry hippo (like me), you pack up your Julia Child action figures and your 8-ton SLR camera, you spend your flight poring over “Parisian Tarts For the Parisian Tart,” and then you Metro your eager eater ass to the world’s most famous boulangeries, patisseries, fromageries, brasseries, etc. for your Authentic Parisian Food Experience. And eventually you fly home, where you write a lengthy personal essay about the joys of French cooking and tag all your Facebook friends as pieces of cheese.
Thus, here I am in Paris, poised to have an adventure that’s already been had. Frankly, I feel a bit like I’ve been had. I don’t want to be the clichéd foreigner, with the stupid phrasebook and the stupid satchel and the stupid sparkly eyes. I don’t want to be the clichéd lit major, reading Faust folios in the Tuileries and smoking Gauloises with a cigarette holder. And above all, I really, really don’t want to be the clichéd, awkward foodie, moaning like a hooker every time I eat a frite, and being all smug because I know what a croquembouche is (a pile of cream puffs, FYI, and I had to look it up).
What I do want is a memorable, and original, overseas experience. I want to cast off/flip off those leagues of besneakered Americans before me, and toss all my travel guides in the trash can and run amok like a lunatic doing all kinds of deviant things. Screw you, Parisian tarts and Julia Children. Screw you, cliché that has recently become my life. I might’ve colored inside the lines until this point, but I refuse to be just another sweet-toothed student import — I’ll get my fill of Paris, and I’ll do it my own damn way. Starting and ending (since I am, after all, a food columnist) with what I’m chewing on. How do you like them pommes?
THE BEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD (WHICH ISN’T ALL THAT GREAT ANYWAY)
So Project Trailblazing Foreigner is officially underway. And I’ve begun by hitting those clichés where it hurts — at the very heart and soul of the Authentic Parisian Food Experience. Oh yes, Baguette, you are going down.
It’s not that I have anything against long phallic sticks of crusty white bread. I love long phallic sticks of crusty white bread. But so does every American who’s ever fantasized about Paris. C’mon, you know you’ve pictured it: a balmy summer evening in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, surrounded by fragrant rose bushes, entwined in the arms of sexy Jean-Claude/Marie-Claude/both, amorously gnawing on a hunk of baguette. It’s a national treasure. It’s every tourist’s breakfast. It’s the only thing in this city that you can get for one Euro.
Well I ain’t doin’ it.
Paris is not just a giant baguette factory. The French know how to get their hands doughy, and their mastery of baking goes far beyond the typical baguette tradition. Step into any boulangerie and you’ll find carbs of every shape and size: grainy breads, rye breads, nut breads, endless varieties of rolls and rows of desserts pretending to be bread (hellooo, brioche). I mean, talk about flour power. What’s with this myopic obsession with baguette? Who freaking cares about baguette when there are figs in them there loaves?
Even within subtypes, the product diversity is pretty astonishing: the pain aux céréales is completely different at every outpost, and every baker has a different dried fruit of choice. Of course, the baguettes vary as well—but considering that there’s such a wealth of alternatives, it’s really a wonder that the foodie armies even bother with them. I suppose you could argue about purity of form or something, but I don’t set much stock by purity of form. (I mean, obviously.)
I’ve only bought two baguettes since I’ve been here, but I’ve eaten lots of macho peasant bread and cheery little raisin rolls. And not only do I feel zero itch for the tradition, but I feel like I’ve had a personal breadvelation. Eve: 1, Cliché: 0.
WHEN IN ROME, DO AS THE ROMANS DO (ONLY THIS IS PARIS, SO WHO CARES WHAT THE ROMANS ARE DOING)
Unfortunately, it’s not always so straightforward.
I’m fighting tooth-and-fork not to be that formulaic foreigner, but sometimes it’s hard to draw the line between stereotypical-expat and typical-French. When I step off that well-worn Teva-trod path, who’s to say I’m not also turning my back on the natives?
Take, for example, the brasserie. No self-respecting epicure is going to leave Paris without having at least one Authentic Parisian Déjeuner. Which means the following: (1) an outdoor table at Chez Jacques, or Chez Georges, or Chez Marquis de Sade or whatever; (2) three hours to spend doing essentially nothing; (3) an espresso the size of a mini muffin; (4) some classic French dish like soupe à l’oignon or salade Niçoise, to be consumed at an escargot’s pace. (The pack of smokes is optional.) Languishing for hours over langoustines: it’s a Parisian cliché, to be sure. It’s on every touring foodie’s to-do list. But on the other hand, it’s also a cultural tradition, an integral and real part of the French lifestyle. So if I refuse to sit for 80 million years in a little wicker chair, because I’m antsy and it’s boring, and because the French teenagers keep tapping ash onto my croque-monsieur — am I sticking it to the stereotype, or am I slapping the face of the nation’s value system?
In this case, it might be a little of both. Dear Nicolas Sarkozy: I’m sorry I insulted the time-honored French tradition of dining al fresco. Please send Carla Bruni to my house so I can apologize in person. Sincerely, Eve.
But really, I should lay down the law a little here. I’m all aboard to do things that the French do — I just don’t plan on doing them simply because they’re so French. That, I think, is the big distinction between expat occasion and cultural tradition. The Parisians spend hours in brasseries because, well, that’s what they do. The students and foodies and hordes of invading Francophones and unemployed literary types and loners looking for Francofun spend hours in brasseries because, well, that’s what the Parisians do. I’ll to
tally eat lunch in a brasserie — but if I spend hours there, it’ll probably be because I’m frickin’ starving.
VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE (AND SO IS CHILI POWDER, ON OCCASION)
There’s a reason everyone goes to Paris for the food. The chefs really know their stuff, and they strut it in ways that are both thrilling (I can’t believe I’m about to eat this) and humbling (I can’t believe I get to eat this). From simple, iconic dishes like coq au vin, served in pots on modest checkered tablecloths, to towers of delicate pastries wrought by famed masters of fine cooking—this city really is overflowing with delicious French fare.
But more importantly, it also has great Thai.
Please don’t shoot.
If you boiled down every Michelin guide, every edition of Larousse Gastronomique, every Paris post written by every blobby blogger, you’d get the following kernel of wisdom: the French know how to cook French food. Oh my God, my mind is blown. I mean, true, you probably won’t find better frog’s legs anywhere else — but that little chunk of charcoally insight has somehow become the bonfire under the collective ass of Paris’s tourism industry. Once you hit customs, you are officially in The Land of The Pot-Au-Feu, and you would have to be a pot o’ fool to eat anything other than fricassees and foie gras. Even the airlines know it: on the redeye from LGA to de Gaulle, I fell asleep to spongy lasagna and a bricklike brownie, and awoke to a fossilized croissant and Camembert’s retarded cousin. Welcome to France—we hope you like French food, because THAT’S WHAT YOU EAT HERE.
And that’s what everyone does eat here—including me (at first). The bistros and brasseries all have practically the same menu, give or take a cheese course. Haute cuisine does its own thing, and so do the people who enjoy it on a regular basis (they’re also the only people who take taxis when the Metro is running). For the general masses, a wealth of classic, delicious French dishes is more than just available: it’s expected, it’s unavoidable, and—if you’re a Yalie or a foodie in search of immersion—it’s totally imperative.
Enter my obnoxious naysaying self, like a brat out of hell. I love French food, I really and truly do. But sometimes all those bread baskets and crème brulées and puddles of creamy sauce make me feel kind of gross. Like a gym sock filled with pudding or something. And so last week I decided to skip the Authentic Paris Indigestion Experience, and take my chances at the tiny Thai spot around the block.
It might have been the best Drunken Chicken I’ve ever had. I was shocked. There was nothing greasy or dishwatery about it: just simple prep and a clean, tasty flavor. And dare I say it, there was a kind of Frenchness about it — hefty, unshriveled hunks of chicken, and an unusual richness in the sauce. I bet they got the chicken drunk on Bordeaux.
That won’t be my last visit to the Thai place, and soon I may be expanding my arsenal to include Indian, Italian, Greek—who knows? At any rate, woe to the visiting foreigner who thinks that Paris’ best food can only be found at a brasserie. The French have clearly expanded their minds and palates to other cuisines. C’mon, expats—you know you want that sushi.
THE RECIPE FOR SUCCESS (I.E., THIS IS WHERE I TRY TO MAKE A POINT)
I admit, sometimes I can’t help but follow those old formulas. It’s not easy to be a Trailblazing Foreigner when you’re surrounded by beautiful historical relics, fascinating culturalisms and a language you’re working your ass off to imitate. Stick me in the Luxembourg Gardens at sunset, and forget it, I’m a starry-eyed expat cliché to-the-max.
But that said, it’s hard to believe that the Authentic Experience is the only good one—that in order to succeed as students abroad, we’ve got to assimilate, cooperate, leave behind all our little ingrown prejudices and “go native.” In principle, it makes perfect sense to embrace change, to be as open-minded as possible, to adopt and adapt to a new lifestyle. But being a blank slate or a blind disciple, slavishly adhering to the Do’s and Don’ts of our predecessors — is that really living authentically? Doesn’t sound like living at all, frankly.
So I’ve started off on a non-cooperative, non-assimilative foot. Looking askance at everything edible. Bitching about brasseries. Offending Nicolas Sarkozy. Eventually betraying French cuisine. And bizarrely enough, I feel like I’m already knee-deep in authentic experiences (note the lowercase). Onward and upward with Project Trailblazing Foreigner — we’ll see how long this lasts.
GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN (JUST NOT THE AIR-POPPED KIND)
A final word on eating abroad. Even in a city as gastrotastic as Paris, it’s hard not to miss the taste of home, and I do … though maybe not the way I should. I know I should be pining for my mom’s grilled cheese, or at least Alice’s Vegan Meatballs — but frankly, what I crave most is —
I’m struggling to admit this —
There, I said it.
American movie theater popcorn is basically crack for gluttons. It’s a big ol’ bucket of salty, greasy, crunchy yellow crack rocks. And unlike a real bucket of crack rocks, it costs $8 and comes with a free refill. (This is also known as “genius.”)
The French, meanwhile, don’t really give a damn about popcorn. They’ve got it in their theaters, sure — it’s usually sold in a miniscule cup by a bored bilingual, who stands behind his dinky Cinépop cart and breathes heavily while you count out your Eurocents. But the natives don’t actually seem to eat it. In fact, most people in the cinemas just sit and watch the film. (This is also known as “civilized,” and/or “totally effing tragic.”)
I’d be okay with sitting and watching and not eating. Really. What’s five popcorn-free months in a lifelong popapalooza? But last week I went to the movies, to sit in a dark French theater and watch a dark French film without subtitles. And there was the Cinépop cart, waiting for me. Almost like it knew.
According to the code of the Authentic Parisian Food Experience, I ought to just shut up, snuff out my obnoxious American cravings and bide my time until the next demitasse or whatever. Even my contrarian self was having trouble justifying this snack attack/crack attack/blatant Yankee Doodlefest. I mean, the French weren’t even eating it. It would’ve been like waltzing into the theater wearing an Uncle Sam hat and playing Bruce Springsteen on a kazoo. As in really inauthentic.
Well I bought it. I ate it. It was worth it.
Because ultimately — ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Yalies and foodies and Carla and Kafka — I’m just an American in Paris. Hit it, Bruce.