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my name is lesley stern and I am an addict

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My first taste was during the Menton Citrus Festival in February.   Some pusher on the street was handing out samples. I guess you could say it was peer pressure…I was trying to be agreeable. I generally pass on samples because I’m afraid they’ll make me buy something. That was the least of my worries.

The substance? Mille et un miels, Delice au miel au Citron de Menton (Honey with essence of the coveted Menton lemon). I’m pretty sure whatever they put in Starbucks Mocha Frappucinos (a habit I had to move to France to break), is also in this honey.   Something evil and irresistible.

I remember the flood of pure bliss when the honey first hit my lips.   My body was unprepared for the seratonin surge of lemony-honey goodness.   I think I blacked out for a few moments.  My friend Angela found me dazed on the sidewalk with a huge smile on my face and the plastic spoon still in my mouth.

I talked her into trying the honey (please don’t judge me, my intentions were good—I just wanted her to experience the pleasure, I swear!). The next thing you know we were both in the store buying a couple of jars each.

Since then, all my thoughts and actions have revolved around this nectar of the Gods.

Honey paraphernalia

Honey paraphernalia

I’ve been stocking up on honey paraphernalia.   I’ve googled the health benefits of honey.   The side effects.  Honey recipes.  The dangers of eating too much honey.   The history of honey.   Honey as medicine.  Signs of an overdose.  You name it.  Sometimes I have to rush home and indulge when the vague thought of a baguette, goat cheese and lemon honey has me jonesing for a hit.

Two jars don’t even last me through the following week. Granted, the jars are small (about 2/3 of a cup per jar) but it’s clear this is going to be a problem.   Especially since the minute I opened the second jar, I began to worry about how to get more.   As the jar empties, my worry rises to panic. The voice in my head becomes shriller:   Gotta get more.   Gotta get more.   GOTTA GET MORE!   QUICKLY, BEFORE I RUN OUT!    The mere thought of facing a morning without lemon honey slathered on toast/yogurt/fruit/ricecake/oatmeal/baguette/croissant/my hand… fills me with despair. I long for simpler days, when a cup of coffee was enough.

I make the 50 minute train ride to Menton a few days later under the pretext of visiting the Cocteau museum on the waterfront. It’s very nice; a glaringly modern (yet elegant) building that stands out with Menton as its charming old-world background.   It seems entirely fitting. There’s a lot of art, ceramics and stuff.   But enough about Cocteau!

I buy four more jars of honey and head on home.   On the train, I begin to worry that four jars isn’t enough. I’m already giving a jar to a friend as a thank you gift.   Oh jeez.   That only leaves me three jars.   And I will probably give another jar as a birthday gift.   Two measly jars?   That won’t last two weeks!   They need to make these jars in a large economy size!

I consider getting off in Monaco and going back for more, but I’m tired and the four jars of honey are pretty heavy.   And then there’s the embarrassment of going back in and buying more jars the same day. The shop girl will judge me.

Then I notice the flyer in my shopping bag.   There’s a website .   Maybe they sell this stuff a little closer to Antibes.

I hurry home and peruse the website over a refreshing cup of iced honey.   I discover there’s an online boutique and immediately order five more jars which will be delivered in two days.

The e confirmation arrives.   For the first time in weeks, I have this overwhelming sense of peace and that all is right with the world.

 

Postscript: I gave one jar to Michel, who called me immediately after trying it and told me his mouth had an orgasm and he was about to smoke a cigarette and take a nap.   I gave another jar to my friend Joc.   The following day, she chased me down the street holding out wads of cash, asking me to get her more next time I go to Menton.   Hmmmm, this might be a good way to support my habit.

step it up, frenchie!

I know I moved here to slow down a bit and take the time to stop and smell the lavender so to speak, but perhaps transitioning from New York City to the South of France is just too abrupt.   Hell, transitioning from Barbados to the South of France is probably too abrupt.

I’ve been here about a year and a half and I still marvel at how the French are basically oblivious to anyone behind them in a line.   They have no compunction about spending hours searching through their purses for their wallets, slowly counting out the exact price to the centime (even if it means cleaning out their purse at the same time), chatting endlessly with the cashier while a line resembling the apple store on the launch day of the latest iwhatever forms behind them.  I think it’s more pronounced in the South. They have no problem lingering to chat in doorways, sidewalks, intersections.   Where ever they can block the most traffic.   I sure don’t want to be behind these people at an emergency exit!

Today 20 or so people were held up by a woman trying to count out exact change (centime by centime) from her purse with her elbows because her nails were still drying.   That was before waiting a half hour for a woman with a very full cart who waited until after everything was rung up and bagged to begin searching for her carte du fidelite.   Then she waited until after she finally paid to commence a long conversation with the cashier.   I hate her almost as much as I hate Dick Cheney.

Oddly enough, the only time the French seem to be in a hurry is when they’re on the road and looming in your rear view mirror.   Maybe they’re trying to make up for the time lost lingering in doorways and holding up the line at the grocery/drug/hardware/bakery/butcher/shoe/clothing/home decor/etc store.

Granted, in a way, it’s kind of nice…they’re taking the time to interact with one another in real time/real life, not on some social media site.  They know everyone in their neighborhoods by name.  They bring each other baked goods and tomatoes from their gardens.   They have a glass of wine together and watch the world go by.   I think it’s part of what makes this part of the world so special and drew me to it in the first place.  It probably even makes for a more civilized society.

But jeezus h. christ, I’m going to kick some French ass if they don’t get the lead out so I can get home and check my facebook feed.

 

damn you, snooty antique dealers!

Every April there’s a big antiques fair in at Port Vauban (about a 5 minute walk from my apartment).   Over 120 antiques dealers are here from all over Europe and you’ve got to pay 9E just to look at some of their stuff.

It’s one of those changeable weather days, threatening to rain, so I wander on down to the port after a flower run at the Marche Provencal.   I pay my 9E, enter and immediately feel intimidated.   I may be under a big tent, but it feels like a museum in here.   Instead of the locals selling their wares, chatting with the regulars and having their breakfast at the weekly Saturday market in the old town square, these guys are in suits (black) and they’re all on their cellphone or texting very important things.  I’d say it’s the antique/art version of the Cannes Film Festival.

Despite the fact that a lot of the items shown here are a little fussy for my tastes, many are beautiful and I want them.   Like the Asian portraits of the man and woman (see extremely blurry photo on right).   The man in this picture –the human, not the painting–yelled at me for not asking to take the picture.  Since he was scolding me in French and I understood every word, I was inappropriately cheerful (but desole) which seemed to make him want to scold me more.  But why should he give a crap if I take a picture?   Maybe his wares have actually been stolen from some museum and he’s afraid of being exposed.  He’ll be pleased to know the picture turned out like crap.    However,  I won’t be buying his awesome Asian art (which I was totally going to do, sir) because he’s a total dill weed (that would be “connard” in French).

I also want this book with butterflies coming out of it.

And one of the garden gnomes (below right) for my balcony would amuse and please me every time I looked at it.    But I’m afraid to ask how much anything costs.

One woman who has some of the most beautiful Asian art and antiques I’ve ever seen glances at my 3E posies from the marche provencal and says something rude.    Well, I’m pretty sure it’s rude, she’s talking pretty fast.   I storm off in a huff.

My synapses are starting to go crazy.   I don’t know where to look. Too much stuff.  Things that would look amazing in the living room of my new apartment.  Things that would look good in the dining room.   Things that would look good in the bedroom.    Things that make me gasp in awe at their beauty in much the same way I do when I see the alps on a clear day.   I’m starting to get lightheaded from all this gasping and the horrible realization that my life won’t be complete until I can afford to buy these items, which I’m pretty sure will be never.

Must.  Get.  Out.    If I can find the exit.   I’ve tried two doors with little running person icons pointing towards them only to be stopped by security.   I’m lost in a maze of really expensive stuff and clearly, the only way out is to buy everything in my way.   I feel like I’m back in NYC.   Dear lord help me!   I find the exit right before I’m forced to ask the price of the inlaid desk, credit card clutched in my hand at the ready.

I walk home quickly, trying to shake off the tentacles of consumer desire tightening in my gut.  When I get there, I step on the balcony and gasp again.

While I was out, the wind blew off the cloud cover and I can see the alps clearly.   I know there’s a message in this.   Something like:   “Ha, you rude purveyors of gross materialism!   Who needs all your probably ridiculously expensive, too awesome to be photographed stuff?   I’ve got my view of the alps,the blue sky and the Mediterranean practically  at my doorstep.    What the hell more could I want?”

Damn, one of those garden gnomes sure would be great up here.

eating for two

Today I’m eating for me of course, but I’m also eating for Wayne.   Wayne is…was my often partner at the San Francisco company where I do a lot of freelance remotely.   His last day is Friday.  Since I just can’t bring myself to fly 6000 miles to attend his going away lunch,  Wayne and I decide I’ll eat a bunch of French stuff for him over here and chronicle the deliciousness.  So I take a stroll through the Antibes Marche Provencal to find some goodies.

I start by raising a mojito macaron to Wayne’s new job.   It’s surprisingly good–tart but sweet with a subtle whoosh of mint.   Damn, I’ll have another.   Oh, make that four.   It’s for Wayne.

Wayne is experiencing a bit of a sugar rush so I race past all the gorgeous fruit and vegetables (you can get them anywhere) towards the Socca oven that’s up and burning at the other end of the Marche.   Yes, Wayne must have a socca.   It’s distinctly from this part of the world!   Socca is basically a crepe made from chickpea flour, water, olive oil and salt and it’s much better than it has a right to be, especially with a healthy shot of black pepper.   It’s a specialty of Southeast France and the Ligurian Coast of Italy.   It’s like a tidy falafel.    It’s a particularly good choice if Wayne happens to be on a gluten-free diet.

Next up, the Grande Aioli lunch.   Very South of France.   Very traditional.   It’s basically boiled cod and vegetables with an aoili dipping sauce.     It would be very healthy if Wayne didn’t insist on slathering it with the aioli.

Now I figure Wayne could go for something sweet, so I pick up a pack of the nougat that is popular here and in Provence.   I get the multi-flavored assortment to try all the nougaty essences.   It’s sort of a sophisticated version of Turkish taffy.    While there’s a similarity, it’s not as sweet and much more, as the package says, “tendre”.   Also, the flavors are more subtle and natural tasting.   The roasted almonds are a nice touch.   I get another pack for Wayne to enjoy later.

As I make my way out of the marche, all the people selling cheeses, olives and tapenades invite me to sample their wares.   I’m kind of full, but it’s a good opportunity for Wayne to try a lot of delicious Provencal products for free.  He particularly enjoys the the sundried tomato,caper, anchovies, basil, garlic tapenade and the brebis cheese.

As I stagger food-drunk through the old town, I make my customary stop at the window of the bakery and ogle the michettes.  Only today, I go inside and order an assortment.   For Wayne.   They’re yeasty little rolls filled with all kinds of savory things.   Onions, saucisses, chorizo, tuna, spinach, ratatouille, several varieties of cheese, etc, etc.   You could definitely make a well-balanced meal out of them.   The chorizo and chevre ones are particularly good.

I’m not sure if it’s me or Wayne, but one of us is starting to feel a little sick and needs to lie down.    On the way home, I can’t help noticing a beautiful little cake in the window of another bakery.

I start thinking that we really haven’t had any fruit and this cake is full of fresh strawberries.    On the other hand, it’s a little pricey, I’m pretty stuffed, and I think I’ve fulfilled my going away lunch commitment.   But it looks so delicious.

Then it hits me.    I think Wayne’s birthday is coming up.   So I buy it.   Anything for Wayne.

you say la tomate, I say le tomate


If I’m to believe Carole and the guy I buy fruit and vegetables from at the market, my French is improving. I definitely understand more. And I’ve been able to have deep discussions with the owner of the grocery store about which cookies ont meilleux et pourquoi.

I’m learning that if you put something French sounding at the end of every English word you don’t know the French word for, 75% of the time, you’ll be right. Examples: publicity=publicite (publeeceetay); geriatric=geriatrique (geriatreek); totally=totalement (totalmon). Every now and then there’s an exception to that rule, and instead you put something French sounding in front of it. Examples: weekend=le weekend; internet=le internet.

I’ve also become better at looking like I understand. People can go on for paragraphs before realizing I don’t understand what they’re saying. And by then, I can usually pick out a few words and piece it together. Of course, when I can’t piece it together and am forced,  after someone has rambled on for two paragraphs to say “je ne comprends pas”, they look at me like I’m crazy for not stopping them sooner. Some of them walk away grumbling under their breath, but fortunately, I usually can’t understand them.

I’ve also learned the French stall word. In the US, we have “like” or “uh”. Here, it’s “errrr”, which sounds much smarter than the US versions. Especially if you do it with that subtle roll at the back of your throat and let the rrrrrs roll into your next real word.

The conjugation thing is still a problem. I can only manage the simplest tenses (okay, my repertoire is still pretty much present tense, but that’s  true for me in English too). I’m sure I sound like some stupider version of I Dream of Jeannie to the French. Is it possible to sound stupider than I Dream of Jeannie?

But here’s the thing that really trips me up: every time I think I’ve got all the nouns and adjectives right and the verbs conjugated correctly, I un when I should une or le when I should la. What is with this focus on whether a noun is masculine or feminine? Yes, I’m suffering from acute gender confusion.

Back in the good old U S of A, nouns are just nouns. We don’t care if a pastry, domesticated animal, potato, or an illegal war based on lies is a boy or a girl, to us, it’s just pastry, domesticated animal, potato, or an illegal war based on lies. I firmly believe nouns should not be discriminated against. Well, that’s what I tell Carole when I screw up (“le…la…c’est sexiste!”)

But there’s something really dodgy about labeling all nouns either masculine or feminine.

When I ask how they know whether every word is masculine of feminine, they answer cryptically that they know it en couer (by heart). The implication is that it’s some sort of innate thing. Maybe masculinizing and feminizing things is in the human DNA, a part of the common consciousness.. Maybe the French are just more in touch with it. If I just tap into the part of me that’s plugged into the pulse of mankind maybe the right words will instinctively blurt from my mouth. The problem is I’m not sure if I can still speak when I’m that drunk.

There’s no rhyme or reason to what’s designated masculine or feminine. Baguette and saucisson are both feminine, but I think the French must be mistaken. Look at them—they’re totally masculine. And tampon is masculine. Go figure. I guess I could make a case for that one if I really thought about it, but I’d rather not.

I’m starting suspect that in real life, the French don’t really gender discriminate their words. They only do it when we’re around. It’s just a passive aggressive trick they established to retain a small sense of superiority after we saved their derrieres in WW2. When we say “le baguette”, they correct us and tell us it’s “la”. When we say la baguette, they tell us it’s le. We wind up confused, frustrated and totally helpless. Just the way they want us.

When Carole informs me that chat is masculine, unless le chat est une chatte comme Desdemona, I float my theory past her (in French, of course). She seems impressed that I am able to communicate a fairly complex thought in French. She thinks about it for a moment, smiles and corrects me.

It’s LA deuxieme guerre de LE monde.

Zut! Je ce rende!

***

Check out my latest on the Huffington Post.

 

the rock stars of auvers

vWhere I come from, people stand in line for celebrities and iPhones.

Here in Auvers, it appears the most wanted men are the butchers.   On Sunday mornings before they close for their weekend, the line stretches down the main drag.

J.Y. Gicquel Boucherie  comes highly recommended by the Ladoux family.   I’ve been a little hesitant to venture in there because it will require speaking French and I shudder to think what adorable forest creature I might wind up taking home for dinner.   I’m also not sure whether those numbers before the decimal point in their prices, are ones or sevens and whether we’re talking francs or euros and I’m afraid I can’t afford it if I have to ask.

I’m feeling a little lazy tonight and have decided that my lack of energy is due to a protein deficiency and I need a good piece of red meat.   Preferably something someone who’s lived on takeout for the past 20 years can cook.

butcher window

I’m a little nervous entering, the vibe here is a lot friendlier than the boulanger down the street, where I feel I must apologize when I enter, again when I order and one more time when I pay.   Sometimes I apologize when I leave for good measure.

It’s not like I’m a total stranger here.  I wave to them every time I walk by and they wave back.  There are usually two butchers; a younger one with a roundish face and receeding hairline and an older guy with salt and pepper hair and a nice northern european face.  They may be wearing bloody aprons, but here, they’re captains of industry.   A woman mans the prepared foods counter (quiche, Frenchy salads, things en croute and terrines with hardboiled eggs in them) and cash register.

A couple of people are ahead of me which gives me time to get my bearings and look at all the meats behind the counter and try to figure out what they are so I can point knowledgably.   There are about 7 different kinds of chicken shaped items in various sizes.  Lots of fillets of chicken colored objects of various sizes,  slabs of red unrecognizable red meats.   Lots of unrecognizable parts.   Sausage galore.   Chops.   Ribs.   Rabbits.   Geese.   I’m getting a little sad and consider fleeing or at least turning to the deli counter, but it’s my turn.Meat Question

Here are the french words for meats I know I’ll eat:   poulet (chicken), agneau (lamb), boeuf (beef), dinde (turkey), porc.   But then we get into cuts and I’m lost.   Is an onglet a steak or some organ I don’t want to know about?   And is it an onglet de boeuf, ou cheval?   And what the heck is french for goat?   Je ne voudrais pas goat.   Or lapin (rabbit).   I’m now in a cold sweat and probably look guilty.

The younger guy greets me in French.    I try to say something in French, but all I can do is look behind the the glass and point desperately at a kebab and ask ‘qu’est ce que c’est.’   He doesn’t understand me.   Shit (merde).   He’s one of those French people who doesn’t understand English OR really bad French.   This could be a problem.

I point again at the kebab and ask “c’est l’agneau?”

He looks at me blankly.   I repeat myself slowly.   Nothing.   By now everyone in the store has stopped and watches curiously.   I really want to flee now, but I might want to come back here sometime, so I blunder on.

I point at the kebab and “baaaaah” loudly like a lamb.   His face brightens and he nods vigorously.   I point to my leg.   He nods again.

I shout excitedly, ca!   Un de ca s’il vous plait.  He doesn’t understand what I’m saying, but we’re on the same wavelength.

He wraps it up and I hold my hand out to take it.   He gives me a slip of paper and points to the cash register while babbling something in French.  And I totally get it.   They give me the meat after I pay.   I say merci beaucoup, he says something and the transaction is completed.    We’re both very pleased with ourselves.

Next stop, cash register.   Grand total about E4.92 which is about 9 dollars, so, pretty pricey.   It also presents the problem of whether I pay with the pocketful of coins in my pocket or just hand her the E10 bill I have and get even more coins.   If I pay in coins it could take hours for me to figure out the right amount.   But if I get my change in coins, I’ll just have to face the problem down the road.   I do the only logical thing and dump the contents of my pocket on the counter and let the very nice cashier pick out the coins she needs.

rock stars of AuversI leave the store with my package, calling out “merci, bon soir!” feeling very French.

I broil the kebab, which is all seasoned lamb cubes with a chunk of some sort of sausage at each end and make a salad.

All I can say is that kebab brought me more pleasure than Springstein, Jagger or an iPhone ever could.   Hours later, I’m still fantasizing the subtle seasoning and the tender juicy lamb cubes.   And the sausage!   OMG!  A veritable medley of spices in perfect pork harmony that I can’t get out of my head.

Tomorrow is Sunday, so I’m going to get in line first thing in the morning.   Maybe I should camp out front over night.   I’ll just die if they’re sold out when I get there.

Consult this meat translation guide before venturing into a boucherie.

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