Archive | February, 2012

Mouton Drinks Paris

19 Feb

Drinking à l’anglaise is near impossible in Paris. Well it is for me at least. If you know me I’m sure you’ve already heard about the kettle fiasco (bought a kettle to make tea and it blew the electricity in the entire room, three electricians came and left nonplussed, had to move out for two days, randomly decided to unplug kettle and the electricity miraculously returned: cold hard proof that France has a conspiracy against tea drinkers). Even if I do manage to make a cup of tea, the water here doesn’t mix right, the milk separates and the microwave makes it taste vaguely of carrot soup. Baileys is notoriously difficult to find (for any fellow Parisians, it’s in the Carrefour at Alésia, right at the back of the liquor section). So I have been reduced to drinking coffee out of mini cups which hold only one and a half gulps of liquid each.

But fear not said she for all is not lost! Heureusement Paris has another drink to offer…

France is the land where the wine flows free. An older, wiser, frencher person than myself once remarked in conversation that once you start drinking expensive wine, it’s impossible to go back to that less-than-10-euro muck don’t you think? I nodded and umm-ed in agreement making a mental note never to offer anyone wine of my own choosing. Because in all honesty, when I first came to Paris I found it very difficult to differentiate between good and bad wine. I can still knock back that 4€ “muck” quite happily! The 95 cent wine from LIDL is pushing it a bit (you know who you are and yes, I’m judging you) but right now, can I really afford the extra 5 euros for a wine which knowing my alcohol tolerance I will barely be able to taste after the second glass? One day when I’m rich and fabulous I will waltz into a restaurant on the Champs-Élysées or somewhere similar and request a bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild 1945 (MOUTON Rothschild geddit?) which, according to the online wine guide terroir-france.com, is the most expensive vintage in France at $28,750 a bottle. Until then, LIDL anyone?

Had a bit of an embarrassing moment when I first went to a French dinner party entre amis. Late, as always, my Kenyan friend and I decided to grab some wine from the corner store. Sometime into the soirée we were sipping our white on the balcony feeling very parisienne and sophistiquée when another friend requested a sip of what we were drinking. “Bleurgh!” she exclaimed “Mais c’est du vinaigre!” (Translation: “Yuk! This is vinegar!”). I sipped it again… it tasted like wine to me! But the rest of the party had by now agreed that it was indeed vinegar. I hung my head in shame (but still finished the wine… I mean vinegar, because once you’ve suffered ouzo vinegar is a piece of cake!).

I have a handy trick for ordering wine in restaurants though. It’s incredibly simple: just ask for “la maison”, the house wine! It’s brilliant! It avoids all the embarrassment implicated in attempting to pronounce the name of some remote French château when all you want is a glass of red! You sound sophisticated (à l’aise quoi!), you don’t have to worry about whether the wine goes with the food or whether it is specialist enough. You will be in no way judged on your choice of wine, in fact you’re complementing the establishment by trusting them to choose for you! They will invariably bore you with the details of the wine: “Ce soir c’est château mumble mumble de la region de blah blah blah l’annee deux mille quelque chose”.  Nod, look at your companion, pretend to carefully consider and say “oui”. Simples!

It really is a bit of an insane circus. All was put back into perspective the other night however. This year our halls have had an influx of a rather wonderful bunch of English people from Kent or Canterbury or somewhere, I’m not quite sure. I’d crashed a gathering with another of my more dubious wines: even I could tell this one was muck. “Does that taste bad?” asked one of them, “Here, add some of this,” and he reached under the bed and produced a bottle of lemonade. I must have looked pretty shocked because he shrugged and added “Well it can hardly get any worse”. Sigh, I’ve really missed my people!

‘Mouton’s First Treatise on Awkwardness’ or ‘Mouton Fights Off a Chinese Man’

7 Feb

Part 1

The other day someone asked me how to say “awkward” in French. “Ummmmm, I’m not sure” I replied and for the rest of the afternoon was plagued by that annoying feeling, the one you get when you recognise an actor in a movie but just can’t remember where you’ve seen them before. I waited for that eureka moment when you shout “It’s Septimus from Stardust!” or “She was in an episode of Merlin!” but it didn’t come. So I had to conclude (with a little help from my friend Google Translate) that the French simply don’t have a word for awkward. It just doesn’t exist. The closest I could get was “mal à l’aise ” which means “uneasy” and that simply does not cover “awkward”.

Awkwardness is a complex thing. It’s suffocating, it’s in-your-face, sometimes it’s so tangible it’s as if you could cut through it like cheese. It descends upon a silent dinner table like a dense fog that envelopes the entire party. “Mal à l’aise ” simply doesn’t portray the feeling of utter mortification when, to use a completely random example that is in no way connected to myself or any of my friends *cough*, you made out with your friends brother the previous weekend, you remember, the whole school remembers, but you haven’t told her yet and on Monday morning you all have to sit together in religion class. Now that’s not “mal à l’aise ”, that’s awkward.

But why is there no word for this in French? The British have developed an entire culture around this concept: we have awkward turtles, balloons and even awkward beached whales for those moments so awkward that social norms just cease to apply. But the French, they seem to have this ability to just power through awkward situations using pure self-confidence and a complete refusal to recognise the situation as awkward at all! Maybe that’s why there’s no word for it, because it isn’t acknowledged in France. It hovers over a conversation but, like a naughty child, when no one pays any attention to it, it just walks off. (*Cough* I’d just like to draw your attention to that lovely simultaneous use of simile and personification but I’ll stop now with the crude attempts at imagery.. Don’t judge me, it’s been a while since I got to write creatively).

Going back to the point, I must now admit that even I didn’t know the true meaning of awkward until about 8.40 on Wednesday morning.

Part 2

I had decided it would be fun to sign myself up for t’ai chi classes. Yep, admittedly a little bit random, but I thought it would be a calm, peaceful start to an otherwise unproductive Wednesday: slow graceful movements in the seclusion of the back garden behind the uni’s main library. How wrong I was. I arrived 10 minutes late as usual and decided to cut through the main garden which is bang smack in the middle of the main university complex. Just as I reached the steps I noticed a short middle aged Chinese guy standing at the top of the garden. Alone. “It’s okay,” I thought, “There are a lot of Chinese people at my uni. That won’t be the t’ai chi teacher!” and kept on walking. A voice called me from behind. Shit.

I reluctantly turned around and re-climbed the steps.

“Is this the right place for t’ai chi class?” I asked tentatively. Please let him say no, please let him say no, please let his say..

“Yes”.

Okaaaay.

“Where are the other students?” I asked.

“Normalement there were four last time, but they aren’t here and some have switched to the indoor class on Thursdays”.

Brilliant.

May I remind you of three things at this point of the story?

1)      This guy was Chinese and obviously we were speaking French, both with quite distinct accents. But seeing as this is a translated version and I don’t even know if he speaks English I think it would be absurd and slightly racist to try and transliterate his Chinese accent in this text. So you’re just going to have to use your imagination.

2)      I think it necessary to stress the location of this garden we are standing in. It’s literally as central as you can get, the one used in all the prospectuses (no, it’s not prospecti, I did Wikipedia it). All the main buildings surround it, that’s seven floors of windows with a full view of the garden, not to mention the main lecture theatre. It is the only direct passage between Saint Guillaume and Saint Pères. All in all that’s about 200 students as witnesses to my humiliation.

3)      The temperature: -7 degrees centigrade. Wind chill factor not included. Need I say more?

The Garden, although it’s not as green in winter.

So anyway, the guy explains that since I’ve paid for the class I’m going to have to take it and deal with it.

“It’s a bit cold,” I mumble weakly.

“My weekend class likes to do tai chi in the snow.”

I shut up because there’s simply no answer to something like that.

“We warm up!” he says and starts to twizzle slowly on the spot.

Now I’m sorry, but even with the power of chi on your side how is slowly gyrating your hips in figures of eight going to save you from frostbite? Don’t answer that.

So I decided to keep him talking for as long as possible, we started with some slow, repetitive movements and I’m thinking “Okay, this isn’t too bad! To passers-by I might even look mildly interesting”.

“Now bring  both arms round, bend and PUNCH TO THE FRONT!” he says, and demonstrates what I can only describe as the most grotesque and alarmingly violent movement I have ever seen. He looked like he was having a sudden severe attack of diarrhoea.

“Uhhh, excuse me?”

He repeats.

“Ummm, we didn’t do anything like that in my last tai chi class. It was more focussed on balance, relaxation, respiration…”

“That’s t’ai chi qigong! This tai chi ch’uan! Wu style!”

This meant nothing to me.

In order to try to explain, they say a picture is worth a thousand words so here’s how I’d pictured t’ai chi would be like:

This is what I’d signed myself up for:

*Note to Self: Never presume to understand anything Chinese.

And that’s how I spent the next hour jumping up and down the garden, sometimes being assaulted by a Chinese man, other times fighting off imaginary assailants and all the while wishing I were still in bed or a hench Chinese man so I wouldn’t look so ridiculous attempting martial arts, cursing both my own stupidity and the establishment for creating a class with only one student in it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: what is wrong with these people???

Once my ordeal was over I went straight to the cafeteria to defrost and started writing this, giving serious evil eyes to anyone who looked at me oddly. In retrospect, even awkward doesn’t cover what I experienced that day. In fact there is a saying I rarely use which may actually be fitting to describe this exact situation. It’s a saying so universal that it is completely translatable from French to English. VDM i.e. FML!!!