Friday, September 19, 2014

Trying to Express your Person

Learning another language is like being young again and trying to master your own. When I was 8, I overheard Sarah Cahill, 10 and cool, say 'crack a fat' at the tennis club. That night I said to my mother 'Mrs Moore will crack a fat if I don't do my homework'. My mother said, 'Come with me'.

It's important to truly understand the context of an expression before you use it, though it's so very tempting not to wait. It's hard, because you do have a personality and that personality is limited to the breadth of a pre-teen because you simply don't have the knowledge yet.

Here are some examples of French expressions that I would like to master how to use:

À la limite
À fleur de peau (misused the other day when trying to describe someone who was looking lovely - the two words 'flower' and 'skin' seemingly perfectly expressing this fact. Apparently it means scared, or something like that..)
Tu m'étonne

And I'd like to know the correct way to write 'à toute'!

That is all.

Bunny X

Sunday, September 7, 2014


Have you ever had clafoutis? It's a cake, not a venereal disease. Have you ever had a venereal disease? I haven't but I remember one nervous hour in a waiting room. And being convinced for one solid month that I had AIDS. Is it human nature to constantly think you have some kind of terminal disease? Do your teeth sometimes ache? I have a toothache in my lower right molar that sometimes goes away so I think I don't need to go and see the dentist on the Avenue Parmentier who hurt me so much when she cleaned my teeth I cried. Can Clafoutis cause gum disease? Should I be brushing three times a day now I'm over 35?

Another piece won't hurt. Ukie bought it yesterday from Julhès. It tastes like heaven. Imagine a baked custard tart with little red berries in it, but slightly fermented and with a custard so rich it's practically caramel. Couple this with the sweetest saltiest butteriest crumble crust you've ever stuck in your hole and you have me, in bliss, on Sunday night, alone with a 3/4 full wine glass. And you.

Do you like Riesling? I remember it being terribly unfashionable when I was in my early 20s. Do you remember a wine named Moselle? Did you parents drink wine from a cask? Have you ever spent 7-10 years composing a novel and then reread your first draft and found it better than your current one? Probably. Anyway, I stopped writing to you here in order to focus on such redrafts. I thought it was right but the feeling was a bit constipatey. Better out than in! So... me-revoilà. Do you still want to be friends? Want some clafoutis? 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

No Tongue

The first time I saw someone buy a pig's head was at the Au Bon Porc. The purchaser was a dainty elderly lady as high as my shoulder, and wearing a perfect magenta twinset with an immaculate silk floral scarf, matching felt hat, beige stockings and navy shoes.

'Mais ou est la langue?' said the woman, looking up from the bag. The butcher wiped his knife.

'The tongue is not included,' he replied.

'The tongue, not included with the head?' she argued, astonished. 'But it's part of the head!'

'Of course madame,' the man continued, huffing and turning a deeper red, having clearly encountered this argument before. 'But it's a delicacy. The tongue is never included with the head. One must buy it à part.'

'But I wanted the tongue,' said the woman, 'I am serving the head, and I want the tongue.'

It was saturday morning. The Faubourg St Denis was quiet and the concrete cold and hosed-down. I was having friends for lunch and I wanted a chicken, but the tongue discussion and a thudding hangover were making me weak. I was also ill-positioned in front of the terrines, a milky greyish one called fromage de tête affecting me on a cellular level. I had seen head cheese plenty of times before, but as I stood listening to the argument a documentary played in my mind of how it was produced. Skulls crunching, pressing out mucus which is then mixed in a dish with squashed brains and pus, to congeal in a dish before being guzzled by a delighted Gérard Dépardieu. I vomited a little in my own mouth and pushed my head with my own hand towards the lined up jars of peas and casserole, trying to think of fields of crisp green lettuce.

The Au Bon Porc was the cheaper butcher on the Faubourg St Denis, right in the centre near the Julhès delicatessens and opposite the Lecoq School where I had been a student for two years. I still lived up the road, and regularly visited the Au Bon Porc, though I would prefer to go to the neater, fancier butcher closer to the Gare de l'Est with their meats on display in an art-like cabinet, but they cost double. Also, I knew where to point at the Au Bon Porc. And the big fat lady behind the till always smiled, and also, they had hot crispy potatoes that could carry a hungry student stomach an entire day.

The shop fit the street. It had huge front that took up at least three shop-sized blocks. The meat was housed in large glass cabinets that went in a semi-circle around the walls of the shop, and you entered one end and moved along in orderly fashion, past the cashier on your way out. In the middle of the all the wasted space was a tired old stand housing cheeses, charcuterie, wine and pickles nobody bought because why would you when you have specialty wine, cheese and charcuterie shops all around? The cheeses were wrapped in plastic and looked guilty for being there. There were also greasy potato chips in see-through plastic bags, sweating to get out. The shop was the centrepiece of the Faubourg St Denis and reflected all that was mad and nonsensical about it. If you don't know the stretch of the rue du Faubourg St Denis between the grand archway on the Grands Boulevards up to the Marché St Quentin on the Boulevard de Magenta, here is an attempt to describe it. It is the craziest street I have ever walked down, and that first day I strolled the length of it in 2004, I thought I had entered another planet. Every kind of culture and colour and smell and song seemed smashed together here in a giant festival - the poor, the rich, the fat, the emaciated, people passed out on filthy sleeping bags, Indian, African, Middle Eastern, Eastern-European, polite, insane, Syrian, Afghani, English, French, sexy, smelly, delicious, dirty, immaculate... everywhere you looked the eye was met with the perfect contradiction of what you'd just seen before. A model in trainers sashaying past a man with a tumour the size of an elbow coming out his head bent over the hood of a running car. Gourmet restaurants, kebab stands, hairdressers and spice stalls... nothing ever made sense. And it still doesn't. But one thing that I always liked about it was this fact. And that, of course, is changing.

In my 10 years in the Faubourg St Denis I've watched it change, slowly at first. It began with Chez Jeannette, the rundown red-seated bar/bistro three doors down from the Lecoq school that was once run by crabby old Jeannette, who wouldn't let us eat our crappy home lunches or Paninis in there. One day, Jeannette was gone and Grég had moved in. He cleaned it up a bit, keeping its charming cracked mirrors and old cheese cabinets, making the coffee and food slightly less awful. The hipsters came in droves, soon also taking over the humble Mauri 7 across the road, to the astonishment of sweet Tim and his Tunisian compadres. Then, one by one, things began to smarten up. The Capri Bazaar moved in, serving exquisite meats and italian goods. The Daily Syrien took over the old panini joint and started selling quality kebabs. Chez Julian took a dive and got lost amongst the dust of its hats in the front window which once fooled passers by to not think that Karl Lagerfeld was actually down the back seated beneath the magnificent art nouveau mirrors and roof. Fine dining Bistro Bellet moved in, the Quincaillerie, Paris New York burgers with its claim 'Cheaper than a psychiatrist' (but only just I always said in my head). Suddenly you could hear English being spoken - and the French were liking it. The street was becoming something else.

And then before summer 2014, the Au Bon Porc was suddenly boarded up. I had never seen it closed for more than its usual 2 days a week (and lunchtimes). It made me sad - the centre of the Faubourg St Denis seemed to have fallen out - but it was summer, so I figured they would be back. They weren't. I read that the handsome group of young men who had created the trendy 'L'Office' and 'Le Richer' would be taking it over at la rentrée, putting in an entire new restaurant. 

Though I felt sore in the chest, I felt excited. Maybe it would be amazing - maybe they'd take the spirit of the old Bon Porc and serve nothing but pig and make the place all homely - maybe they'd do eggs (FINALLY!) - maybe they'd make great homely, comforting all-day-long food, which Paris as much as it was changing, just never seemed to figure out how to do. They weren't used to comfort-dining, so they just didn't expect it. Bacon and eggs! Coffee and a roll... Ah Tom Waits. He would come and we'd lounge around the Au Bon Porc (because they wouldn't change the name) and read newspapers and there'd be a jukebox and it would become that place I'd been dreaming of for so long, where we could bring our kid, wear trackpants, have messy hair, drink fresh juice. I began to get really excited. And then, the day the new place opened, my hip Paris guide-book friend and I arranged to meet there to check it out.

52 Faubourg St Denis, it was called. I had seen the décor go in piece by piece and it looked comfy, diner-ish. But as soon as we entered we realised it was nothing of the sort. One of the handsome men I knew from his other two restaurants greeted and seated me. Damn, it was posh. No! No formule midi. Straight à la carte, and all rabbit and deep fried cheek. I just wanted a toastie. Zut! We ordered wine, the sommelier taking our order very seriously and generously allowing us to taste. Bof. The butcher's wife wept in my head, manning her till, pressing the 'ding' button over and over. The floor oozed in blood. The blood of toil, all those years of flesh and knives and guts and tongues and heads. Where were the Au Bon Porc family now? Were they happy? In retirement, surrounded by animals, which they feed and carve with peace and joy? I hoped so. Though I got the feeling gentrification didn't quite work that way and that they were perhaps somewhere muddy - lost in their own head cheese.

I didn't want to be here. We ordered our coffees to finish off the meal, which had been delicious, but so very expensive and unnecessary.

'What, no spoon?' asked my friend, as the waiter handed her her noisette.

'No,' said the man, 'We don't include spoons with our coffee.'

'Um, pourquoi?' asked my friend, affronted.

'Because we don't include sugar with the coffee. It is of such fine quality, the sugar turns it bitter.'

My friend guffawed into her cup. 'What a giant wank,' she said loudly, as the man disappeared.

'What if I want to just stir it?' I wondered aloud.

We paid and walked out into the sunlit street, and it felt as though stepping on to it from an entirely new perspective. The Au Bon Porc was old, tired and outdated, but I would have preferred millionfold wait in a queue there for a pig's head. Tongue or no tongue.