December 22, 2008

Celebrating Christmas and New Year in the Country of Napoleon, Champagne, and Fromage

(Champs de Elysees at night on Christmas)

Paris in December is cold, but absolutely fabulous. The city is filled with tourists who are looking for extreme romantic lights of Paris when the temperature is below zero and the Parisians seem to be a little bit more annoyed than usual with the crowds because end-of-year taxes are due. This might put a pressure on any other person, but not a French. While some might resist foire gras with crispy toasts, oysters sprinkled with lemon-vinegar juice and Bordeaux wine in favor of state monetary liabilities, but not a French person.

(Notre Dame de Paris)

December can be a dry and not a such happy time for anyone, but French gourmet lovers, who will still rather spend the last Euro on a bowl of onion soup than on dry cleaning. The days are shorter, the air is crisper and the Champs de Elysées (Elysian fields) lights up right after the last lunch call at 5 p.m. And still, only one place is open for shopping past 6 p.m. – it is the touristy Champs de Elysees, all thanks to hungry for souvenirs tourists from Japan, Italy, Spain, Russia and America.

What makes the winter in Paris even more special, besides all the holiday lights and hot-air-cooking fumes coming out of cozy brasseries, is the Southern France’s delicacy – the chestnuts that come in all cooked styles – as street roasted, as deeply-boiled-in-syrup sweet delights, as sautéed and served with a leg of duck on Christmas eve, and as pureed sweet chestnut feeling in a crepe (the French crepe did originate in Brittany, so a 3-Euro price for an authentic sweet delight- a thin crepe filled with the marron puree (crème de marron or chestnut sweet puree) - is a true heavenly treat.

(Picture 1 and 2: shopping on Champs de Elysees)

Same goes for the very “winter” treat, the duck, almost all self-respected French restaurants serve duck for lunch and dinner both as a main dish and as a smoked thinly-sliced delight on a bed of crisp greens for a cold appetizer. Duck is cooked till the meat comes easily off the bones and is most likely to be served with mashed or sautéed potatoes or famous (real) French fries.

(Siene river at night overlooking Île de la Cité)

(The Place de la Concorde, which is the largest place in Paris, is situated along the Seine and separates the Tuilerie Gardens from the beginning of the Champs Elysées. It is in the 8th arrondissement)

Do let yourself loose with the holiday cuisine, substitute wine with cold alcoholic cider (very Southern-French), beef meat for kangaroo meat, a chicken thigh for legs of frogs, cold cheese (*fromage) cuts for a Normandy cheese fondue, and an omelet for a Brittany’s buckwheat crepe topped with foie gras (or the liver of a duck or a goose).

(The Arc de Triomphe, commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon shortly after his victory at Austerlitz. It was not finished until 1836. It's 284 steps tall. Offers the best views of Paris - even better than from the Eiffel Tower.)

If you are looking for ideal French scenery, come around the bakeries in a village or in suburbs of Paris on either a Saturday or a Sunday morning. Not a weekend goes by without freshly baked croissants and bagets. No global news discussed at a bakery, instead most likely you will hear talks about a 5-percent raise in metro fares, a local café switching to a later dinner time or about another student strike in Paris. Forget your country’s news; it is all about France – “when in France, think of France as the only country on Earth”. Mr. Zinedine Zidane (Zizou), the star of French football – is their God; and is my favorite as well. So is Serge Gainsbourg and now his much-adored-by-French daughter from his marriage to Jane Birkin (yep, the actress, whom the Birkin bag was named after) - the young and talented actress and musician, Charlotte Gainsbourg!

(The first stone of the Pont Neuf bridge was laid in 1578. It is the most famous bridge in Paris for in fact it is two spans each anchored on the tip of the Isle de la Cité. You can see both Louvre and Notre Dame de Paris from Pont Neuf. For more on all the bridges in Paris, click here.)

A dinner without a desert is a waste of an evening - or at least that's what French think. Next time you are at a crêperie, order yourself a “sour” crepe for a main dish (as French call a crepe that is not sweet) and is finish your dinner with a sweet crepe for a desert. Two delicious crepes is what French call a "fab dinner" to finish just another work day.

(Christmas decorations of Hôtel St. Régis)

If you ever go to Paris, do not buy a tour with a dinner – you can always find a restaurant to your best tastes and desires without a “commercially planned not-so-authentic” dinner. It’s a trick to drive customers to the least successful restaurant in the area; if a restaurant stands well on its own, at any day and hour it will be busy with both locals and tourists.

(Night view from Pont Neuf bridge onto Notre Dame de Paris)

Favor and don’t be afraid to wonder in some unknown neighborhoods, you would be pleasantly surprised to stumble over a very authentic inexpensive restaurant. Even a simple looking onion soup (soupe a` l'onion) is made differently all around France, if the broth tastes the same all around, it is the toasted bread pieces and the kind of cheese melted on top of it– that’s what makes it different. (For the soup recipe, click here.)But as long as you do understand what you order, you are safe, because even one ingredient you do not know can make a dish quite an experience. Be on a look for gizzards (cooked entrails of poultry.)

(Galeries Lafayette Department Store in Paris)

Again, the time that French dread the most is Christmas shopping time and the reason is one – no parking available at almost any malls. French come to malls way before the doors are open to secure any available parking lot (almost like we do on "Black Friday.") Sundays are off for all businesses; the only places that are open in Paris are the touristy ones – like the Champs de Elysees. Courtesy to the tourists, on holidays French can buy their milk and stamps on the Champs de Elysees.

Don’t be surprised if an Arab selling roasted chestnuts on the street of Paris speaks perfect Russian, or English, or Spanish to you. Just make sure you understand the difference between “deux” and “trois” (“2” and “3” Euro.) They are natural with tricking tourists in getting a small bag for a price of a big bag of chestnuts.

If you crave some of your national foods and drinks and can’t go by without your regular Venti Caffe Latte, Starbucks has already invaded Paris. It’s not yet all over the city, but it does have some stores in and around Louvre, as well as you might stumble over it in other busy districts of the city. If you are expecting to get same kind of drink order as you used to do at your local Starbucks store in USA, do not try to order Chai Tea Latte, Venti, with soy milk, no water, extra hot in French, because it won’t have same cup sizes, neither they would understand what means “extra hot,” or “extra milk,” or “skim milk”. Just play by “rules” and order something simple, like an espresso or cappuccino. And the milk, I can assure you, would come for a local cow and most likely from Normandy region.
It is refreshing to see American fellows crowding Starbucks cafes and munching on so-dearly-missed chocolate chip cookies and crumb cakes.

The first time you get a hold of Paris metro map, you might look puzzled and lost, but don’t be. The metro system can be easy comprehensible as long as you know the end stations of each of the 14 lines! And, the doors of metro trains are opened manually, not automatically, so get that hook working as the train stops on your station.

(View from the top of The Sacré-Coeur basilica of Paris on Montmartre. Built at the end of 19th Century, it is a holy place and a flagship of Catholic devotion to the Holy Virgin in Paris)

When getting around, remember - Parisians don’t speak of districts in names, they speak in “arrondissments,” which go by a number – arrondissment 1, arrondissment 2…arrondissment 13, and so on. You are a true Parisian if you can say “J’habite le 6-ieme arrondissment” – “I live in the 6th arrondissment.”

(Eiffel Tower - at night it lights up every quarter to an hour and plays lights for 15 minutes. These minutes one should not miss.)

At a French restaurant - Célébrez la cuisine française ravissante!

Never assume you really, really understand the menu. It might look like chicken bits in your le salade, but actually it is the “intimate parts” of a rooster. Yum!

Even if you try to speak French to French, they switch to English instantly, not for the sake to practice their English with you, but more as to give you a hint – “Don’t even try to speak our language, you comprehend it not.” And that’s ok, because it still more convenient for all the non-French speakers to understand a French with bad English rather than speak bad non-comprehensive French to a French.

When confronted by a very French waiter in a restaurant in France, many people have no idea where to start the conversation and how to interpret the menu. Just a few tips from someone who has been in the shoes of an only non-French persona dining elbow-to-elbow with smoking French crowd at a French busy bistro (bistrot) looking down at a menu handwritten in old-fashioned French.

The following instructions will help you avoid ordering crème brûlée as an appetizer or a goat cheese salad with the rooster’s testicles for a dessert.

("Let Them Eat the Cake" - Marie Antoinette.)
• Action 1: Expect to see a lunch menu from about noon to 3:00 p.m., and a dinner menu from about 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Many restaurants close between lunch and dinner. French do not snack. You won’t see French sitting on the stairs of the office buildings, or standing at a bus stop or going into a metro station chewing on a bagel, or on potato chips, or sipping a soft drink!

• Action 2: Find out if the restaurant features a "plat du jour," or daily special. If the soup du jour is your choice of the soup. The fixed price does include a glass of wine and a desert. Otherwise, the price would ring up to the same deal as if ordering from a regular menu list. The most likely side dish – French fries, or home fries, or mashed potatoes. Just remember, they do not call fries – French fries, they are just called – fries!

Extra tip: Menu is not the same thing as it is in English: le menu in French means a fixed-price meal. For the menu list of all available dishes, look for and/or ask for la carte.

• Action 3: Start with an "entrée" if you prefer to order a full meal from the menu. This doesn't mean the same thing as it does in English; it means "appetizer" in French. The main dish is one of the "plats principaux," or main dishes.

Extra tip: All you need to learn are the words for “meat”- la viande, “fish” – le poisson, or vegetarian – “végétarien”! And if you are looking for very French cuisine, depending on a season, look for:

(Le grenouilles; they actuallly do taste like chicken, only with fewer more bones.)

Les escargots – snails (Delicious, I must add.)

Le lapin – rabbit (smoked and/or deeply sautéed and/or oven roasted – a pure heavenly treat.)

Le canard - duck (If with the chestnuts – very Christmasy.)

But with any side dish – (you would not regret the saucy rich duck meat.)

Le grenouilles - legs of frogs (don’t judge before you try – if you can overlook the look of the cooked frogs’ legs on your plate, it does taste like tender chicken! But the feeling of guilt can be hard to overcome and disgust.)

• Action 4: If you prefer veggies to potatoes, make sure you mention that to the waiter and ask him/her specifically for the "légumes" (veggies.)

(Just around the corner from The University Paris-Sorbonne in Latin Quarter- Parisian cafes stay open till very late, but they don't serve dinner all night. Café de la Mairie is very popular with the Sorbonne students and was a favorite of James Joyce and Hemingway who, surprisingly, liked to stand and drink sherry at the counter.)
• Action 5: Always reward yourself with dessert. France is the country of desert! Just think of all the pastries that Marie Antoinette has indulged with and what about her famous line “Let Them Eat the Cake…” Chocolate mousse, Opéra cake, Éclair and Crème Brûlée is a must!

• Action 6: Don’t overlook the power of "fromage" (cheese), ranked from stinky to VERY stinky (Vieux Boulogne*), from white to very blue, from soft to very hard and salty.

*Vieux Boulogne, a soft, yet firm French cheese made from cow’s milk and matured by washing with beer is the world’s smelliest cheese (or as my French teacher at the Paris Alliance Française school of languages used to say say about this kind of cheese – “qui pue, qui tue”, “which smells, which kills.”)

("qui pue, qui tue")

• Action 7: Before paying, check to see if the menu says "service compris," or service included. Always check if a 15% tip is already included in your bill. A generous tip would really make a French waiter happy.

Bonne Appétit!

Some tip for the New Year that not many of us know: Do not assume that New Year’s endless intake of champagne would substitute the “fattening” foods of the New Year’s feast. Champagne has the same amount of the calories as does red wine! (To learn more about Champagne region of France, go here.)

Uncensored Traveler's Winter Shopping List from France:

There are, of course, more to France that one would want to bring. Me, personally, every time I go to France, I stock up on things from black and white photos of burlesque dancers to truffles - and I can't avoid the flea markets of Paris, which have the things that one could only see on Bridgitte Bardot at Cannes Film Festival to Catherine Deneuve in "Belle de jour" - timeless and unique pieces of clothing and accessories.
However, there are a few things that are absolutely a must-have and must-bring from Paris:
  • Caramel liquor from Normandy

  • Fromage from Boulogne

  • A set of chocolate and coffee éclairs from a Paris bakery café

  • And of course it wouldn't be a true "French" experience, if you didn't get a corset!

Travel Bonus:

The best guide to Paris is not Michelin, it is not Lonely Planet, it is not Eyewitness and it is not even Fodor’s. It is The Little Black Book of Paris: Essential Guide to the City of Lights (Little Black Book Series) by Vesna Neskow and Kerren Barbas - small, detailed, and only $10.95 new at a Barnes & Noble bookstore and $7.24 used on the

(The Sacré-Coeur basilica of Paris, Montmartre - the place where Dali lived and worked and where to this date artists gather to exchange ideas and share their paintings with the visitors and locals.)

(Moulin Rouge, just below the The Sacré-Coeur. Go the official website to learn more how to book a show and excursion before you take a trip.)

And most importantly – this little black book has been tried and tested with much success. I don't just say it, neither do I encourage free advertising and promotion of any products on my blog. And don’t underrate the cafes and bistros that are not mentioned in a guide book, they can end up being less expensive and very authentically French.

Visit my photo gallery of Paris on Christmas and New Year holidays on the right hand side of the blog.


Lena said...

Very informative! I like the idea!
Looking forward to traveler's tips in NY - best places to eat&drink, shopping, nightlife, etc.

Lara Dunston said...

Ah, Paris, what a wonderful city - and a very good overview too!

Did you ever see the "Best of Paris" guide published by Lonely Planet 4-5 years ago? Probably not, as it has since been replaced by Paris Encounter (the 'Best of' series no longer exists). My husband and co-author wrote most of that one, although I wrote the Shopping and Entertainment chapters - in my opinion it was one of the best compact guides (it's by no means comprehensive) to Paris - it was also very much "tried and tested" - we tried every single restaurant, cafe, bar, club and shop - lots of fun! Although unfortunately we only tried a few different hotels, moving hotels so often is not much fun - these days we rent apartments in cities instead.

I'll have to check out the guide you've recommended next time when we're in town. The problem is for us is that because we know the city so well - and have friends in the city - we rarely use other guides when we're there, but I will check out this one!

I got your invitation to check out the blog via LinkedIn - thanks! - it's looking good.

Uncensored Traveler said...

Thank you, Lena, for reading my blog. NY travel tips are coming!