French Friday: Post Charlottesville

On Saturday, as I was selecting the photos for my Monday post about Blacksburg, Virginia and the peaceful gardens set on the campus of Virginia Tech, despicable acts of violence hit Charlottesville, Virginia. Retrospectively, the Hahn Horticulture Garden seemed even more peaceful.

We all know that flowers, plants, and trees alone won’t bring peace between people. But if they could talk I want to believe that this man-made landscape realized in total harmony with nature would say they are the proof that humans can always choose gorgeous over ugly, peace over war, love over hate.

 

I’m not familiar with Charlottesville. My family stopped there only once, in 2012. We had dinner at the lovely Ivy Inn, near the University of Virginia, after visiting Monticello.

This is the link to the posts I wrote back then. One is written in French and the other in English. I re-read them and didn’t want to alter their content since they reflect my state of mind back in 2012.

I live in the US but emigrated from France with my husband and our first-born child. Her three siblings were born in this country that we all consider home now. As any fairly recent immigrant I still discover the entrenched roots of the complex violent history of my adoptive land. My native France knows its share too. Including racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism.

As a child I didn’t study the American Civil War at school and didn’t live through the Civil Right Movement. What I studied, though, and moreover lived through “true lived” stories told from my parents, relatives, and neighbors is WWII. Great moments of pride with the resistance and moments of shame due to the hateful acts perpetuated against Jewish people.

Seeing the Nazi flag on the American soil, hearing the bearers of such flags shouting words that ooze so much despise against anyone who’s not them is bone-chilling and untolerable.

There are too many powerful articles and exceptional blog posts that have been written since Saturday. I only selected two articles from the New York Times, my primary source of info. This one is written by a Charlottesville resident and is a must-read since all of us, Americans, are in this. That particular one moved me to tears.

 

 

Monday Miam-Miam: Peace and Tranquility on Virginia Tech Territory

The lovely town of Blacksburg, Virginia and the college campus of Virginia Tech breathed so much peace and tranquility in these early summer days that it was hard to imagine violence striking there. As we strolled through the Hahn Horticulture Garden that stretched on the opposite side of the college buildings, the shooting of April 16, 2007 seemed to have never happened.

Any college town comes with its array of bars, breweries, and restaurants. Our pick for the night was 622 North Restaurant and Wine Bar. The restaurant is housed in a renovated Victorian building in Blacksburg’s historic Downtown District. I’ve already eaten in a few restaurants, on both coasts, also located in former houses and have always liked their warm atmosphere.

The weather was gorgeous that night and it was tempting to join the young crowd gathered on the large deck/patio that opens on the Blue Ridge Mountains. Retrospectively, I’m glad we ate inside.

I suppose that when sun is not granted, you seek it

It was a sans music night, but I imagined the pianist on a winter night

Only two years ago, if anyone had asked me where to eat great cheese in the US I would have thought of Wisconsin, Vermont, and California, but not Virginia. With one daughter studying and living in Baltimore, I’ve been lucky to sample excellent local cheese through the upper part of the Southeast. At 622 North, the trio of cheese was served with toasted sourdough, apple butter, pepper jam, and fresh berries. Miam-miam.

The first time I attended an American girlfriends’ night I was asked to bring cheese. Yeah, it happens when people know you are from France 🙂 I showed up with a small goat cheese, a slice of blue cheese, and a piece of Gruyère, a green salad with its dressing on the side, and a baguette. The host seemed a tad puzzled when I set everything on the counter and told her that I would toss the salad at the last minute when we would be ready to eat the cheese. Then she started to slice the bread that she toasted. Meanwhile, she displayed the cheese on a large platter and brought it to the living room where everyone gathered. I watched my new friends dig through. So I followed in their steps. That’s how you learn a foreign lifestyle.

Now my husband and I also love cheese as an appetizer. Only when we eat out, though. Never at home, where cheese is always served right before dessert or a fruit and often as a dessert. Like my father, who didn’t have a sweet tooth, did. It often surprises me to watch our own American-born kids follow in our steps as well. Early life traditions stay with us.

I would do anything for sweet potatoes, which I discovered in the US over my first Thanksgiving. So I chose the snapper only as an accompaniment 🙂 The salsa on top was amazing too. 

My husband’s sweet potatoes is called tuna. He loves tuna in all its forms.

I should no longer be surprised to meet friendly, professional waiters and waitresses in the US. Yet I am. Things have changed a lot in France where service used to be sometimes intimidating and even condescending. I’ve met young French professionals who are now extremely pleasant and helpful. But I still find the American big smile and down-to-earth attitude exceptional. Our waiter that night was also perfect. When we ordered our two glasses of wine he mentioned that today all their bottles of wine were sold at half-price and that we could take home what would be left. So…

We obeyed, of course.

I didn’t find any independent bookstore in Blacksburg, besides the Barnes and Noble at the mall and the few typical college town shops that carry textbooks and college gear.

But our dining room counts as a bookshop no?

Art, wine and books.

What else do you need when your plate is filled and you eat with someone you love?

 

 

French Friday: From the CIA to the CIA

On Monday, I took you to The Culinary Institute of America, the CIA for short, located in Hyde Park, NY. I mentioned a story behind my family’s initial first visit.

Four years ago, while we were planning yet another cross-country trip from California to Maine I was designated itinerary-planner.

Poughkeepsie is a must, I decided when I had to find a stop somewhere in New York state before reaching Maine.

If you read French, you can find out here why in the world I picked a town with a name I could barely pronounce. Si vous lisez ma langue natale vous pouvez lire mon billet ici.

If you don’t read French, here’s the story.

Poughkeepsie was a must because of Malko.

Malko is the protagonist/hero of the best-selling French spy series SAS authored by Gérard de Villiers. In these books, the eternally young Malko contracts for the CIA (the other one). As a cover, he works for IBM, at least in the first books in the series. Malko’s also an Austrian prince who owns an old castle expensive to maintain and in need of serious work. To help with the cost of remodeling and also to limit his living expenses Malko accepts a mission in New York City and rents a small cottage in Poughkeepsie, NY. Conveniently located next to IBM.

My husband had read e-ve-ry single SAS ever published, often more than once.

Poughkeepsie was unavoidable.

A little background info about the infamous collection that took the family to this otherwise banal New york state town.

When I met the guy who would become my husband I knew I could deal with his impressive train set and numerous books. I had mixed feelings about his extensive collection of SAS.

The reason was simple: each book cover depicted a sultry female creature often clad with a Kalashnikov slung across her chest in place of a bra. Or still wearing a fur coat or leather jacket above … nothing.  A semi-automatic pistol or any type of weapon, however, always between the hands. These women owned an arsenal but a limited underwear wardrobe.

I was slightly reassured when I saw that my fiancé had also kept many children’s books that I also loved as a little girl, and even his series of Oui-Oui, which I had given away when I turned seven but that he still read occasionally.

He’s not only faithful to the books he loved as a kid, I thought then. He’s also unashamed to display the ones he reads as an adult. It seemed to be a rare quality when so many people can be such hypocrites when it comes to their personal tastes.

So this is why I allowed the SAS series to move in with us.

In addition, I like to know why someone I love favors a certain book or movie genre and I figured that if we were meant to live together I should probably read one of those books. I did read one and decided that a male author wrote these stories for other men. Period.

Now at least, I understood why the series was highly popular among its fervent readers and yet snubbed by the Parisian literary scene.

SAS aka Son Altesse Sérénissime aka His Highness aka Malko is often sent abroad on enemy territory to fight communism but also neo Nazis as well as all kinds of mean, despicable characters depicted without any complacence. Even though Malko works for the CIA, some controversial facts about the organization as well as elements of American foreign policy are often revealed through the books. Each story always sticks to current events. Some have even been prophetic. The reason is the relentless research behind each and every book. In fact, the author continued to travel the world while in his 80s before starting a new book.

This is why my husband said he liked the series. The research is impeccable, he explained, and the author’s knowledge on his topics extensive. I don’t even notice the front covers, he insisted.

The covers, however, hinted at Malko’s controversial reputation. The libertine is an unrepentant cheater, despite the fact that his fiancée is a beautiful woman who seems, however, unaware of this legendary unfaithfulness. They remain engaged throughout the series.

Okay, I said, the books can move in but not in our bedroom.

When we left Paris for California, I was working full time and hadn’t been able to sort through our crowded bookshelves. My husband decided to pack for me. Probably best if he wanted to take Malko with us.

Even though the books had been relocated far away from the family room from the time we had kids, our teenage daughters were outraged when they discovered them.

Dad!

Mom!

I know, I said. But we all know that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Roll of eyes. One-shoulder shrug. Heavy sighs.

Had my husband turned me into a SAS fan?

No, I’ve read exactly two books from the series, the second many years after the first. I could still appreciate the diverse foreign settings, the political context, and the suspenseful plot, but my impressions about Malko’s personal lifestyle hadn’t changed. And the covers?

In a funny way, while we don’t have kids at home anymore the books have moved to the garage. My husband decided it was time, considering the shelving space they took.

Imagine, the 200th book of the series was published in October 2013 and my husband proudly owns each of them.  The author passed away at the age of 84, also in October 2013. No more book, I thought.

But as I was writing this post and double-checking my facts – I’m far from being an expert, as you know now – I found this French article in which Gérard de Villiers’s spouse, also her collection director announces new covers for the series. Long overdue, she added.

Ha, I thought, someone else shares my opinion. I was only hoping that my husband wouldn’t want to get the updated series.

Then, I read that after years of mixed reviews, the SAS series is now gaining the respect and much interest of many secret service agencies throughout the world, due to the meticulous geopolitical research the author provided in each of his books.

Maybe, I realized, my husband was right after all.

Morality: Don’t judge exclusively a book on its cover.

If you want to know more about the author behind this best-selling series, here’s an article published in the New York Times a few months before we stopped in Poughkeepsie. The New York Times again published a tribute to Gérard de Villiers when he died.

 

P. S. A great plus for Poughkeepsie, the Walkway Over the Hudson, with an additional entrance in nearby Highland, only miles away from Hyde Park. Hyde Park, home of the CIA (the other one).

When I ate at the CIA I easily imagined the author of SAS having fun with this play on words.

 

After a very breezy walk across the walkway, before having dinner at the CIA.

Sans Malko. But with one of his most faithful fans.

Monday Miam-Miam: When Students Feed You

We had toured the gorgeous campus of The Culinary Institute of America located in Hyde Park, NY once in 2013. Not that any of our kids was planning to enter the hospitality industry, but we knew that we could eat food cooked and served by students there. Anthony Bourdain, Michael Mina, Bocuse’s son, and several hosts of popular TV cooking shows, to name only a few, are alumni of the prestigious school.

This fountain faces the Hudson River

It was graduation week and the flag was gorgeously hung across the impressive facade

On Friday, I will tell you more about the story behind the story.

Our schedule that summer didn’t work out and we were only able to eat an early morning pastry at the Apple Pie Bakery Café before hitting the road. This yummy experience, however, convinced us to come back for dinner.

 

Great spot for breakfast for here or to go

We did return twice to the CIA with and without kids, still over a cross-country trip, and absolutely loved the casual and friendly pasta night at the Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici. Students from the school took our order, served us, and more importantly talked with us about their schooling and their plans for the future. I still remember the two young women who waited on us that night and how professional and yet spontaneous they were. It was fantastic to read such enthusiasm through their work and conversation. All had set up specific plans in the hospitality industry right after graduation.

I wouldn’t stop eating if I studied there

Wine Spectator classroom

The hallway leading to classrooms

A clean kitchen after a teaching day

An amphitheater unlike any other

We ate again at the CIA last fall while Hurricane Matthew battered part of the East coast. That night felt like a hug within the solid walls of the buildings and the warmth of the food, still served by students on the verge to graduate. Instead of the Italian restaurant we chose American Bounty, which focuses on local and seasonal food. Our experience was once more a total success.

 

So earlier this summer we returned again. Sans kids.

As much as I had wished to eat at the recently opened Bocuse, named after the legendary French chef, in 2013, I no longer starve typical French cuisine when away from France and favor the limitless creativity of the American chefs who go for local and seasonal. So this is at the American Bounty Restaurant that we ate again.

Students come and go, but the work ethic, food the quality and warm atmosphere remain when a college dedicates its purpose to the guests’ enjoyment.

This summer we particularly enjoyed hearing the students/waiters/waitresses telling us that their families were around that night, some of them in the dining room, because of graduation.

Our waiter had lined up several interviews and was looking forward to returning to his home state of Rhode Island. A strikingly efficient young woman, who set up a table next to ours with such grace that I had to compliment her, told me that she would work at a resort in the Hamptons for the summer and possibly for longer. I can totally see that happen. And more.

Our sommelier was unforgettable. He had been lucky to visit Europe and was particularly fond of France, due to the wines. I promise him a long career since he was a born storyteller and already an accomplished wine connoisseur.

California wine in New York state

What about the food?

This mini pan is adorable and the warm buns are so-o good. Some people beg their waiter to remove the pan before they eat the six buns. Are you kidding me?

His or Mine, I cannot remember who chose what

We were equally impressed, though, by the quality of the fish and the awesome presentation

You already know that I love desserts. The other day Dan Anton complimented, through a comment, my husband and me for sticking to our “one dessert with two spoons, please” policy. I must say that it is sometimes hardly possible to resist. Particularly at the American Bounty where you can watch the apprentice bakers whip chocolate ganache, check their ovens for perfectly broiled crème brûlée or still decorate with amazing delicacy cakes and tarts, right across your table.

For once, I claimed my own dessert.

 

Panacotta with nuts, ginger ice cream, and edible flowers. No comment.

His (because unlike me he’s a chocolate lover)

I love a cup of tea at night and when tea tastes as good as in London, it’s a must.

All smelled so wonderfully tea-tasty

Eating out is a pleasure for most of us. When food and décor are equally unique, it becomes a real treat. When future chefs of America feed you (even guided and supervised by their professors) and future waiters, waitresses, and sommeliers watch over you, the experience is unforgettable and also inspiring.

Nothing lifts me more than witnessing young people embracing with passion, professionalism, and grace their early working life.

No need to leave the CIA to find a bookstore. There is one, right at the entrance of the building, and also a window with gorgeous cookbooks in display, next to Bocuse restaurant. Just enough to mouthwater before dinner. And dreaming of cooking like a chef afterwards.

Someone I know wants this book really bad

Eating, yes. But no junk food, please

And a bounty of veggies

 


French Friday: Can I Have Another Slice of Western North Carolina? Please?

Once, in Paris, I bumped into a group of American people at a café terrace. They didn’t know each other and had accidently met there, too. None spoke French, so I helped them with the menu and ended up sharing a late evening drink in their company. They told me in detail what they had done since their arrival in Paris, only two days ago. I was totally impressed. They had covered so much while I had done so little in comparison. I congratulated them on their ambitious program, but since they had another day in the city I suggested at least an early morning walk in a neighboring square without any plan in mind. Nobody wakes up early in Paris, I said, you’ll have the city to yourself. A real treat that I appreciated when I lived there, either on Sundays or more likely in the summer when Parisians leave for their vacation.

Although it was none of my business I wanted my fellow Americans to enjoy these few precious moments. I truly think that any new place is best when discovered little bit by little bit. Of course, it is tempting to want to see e-ve-ry-thing, especially for us, Americans since we have much less paid vacations than the French. But still, I would always prefer making a shorter to-do-list with the promise of return than galloping full speed.

Taking the time to enjoy the flowers if not smelling the roses

Friends had told me that Asheville, North Carolina was a town unlike any other American town, a place in its own league, and that knowing me I would love it. I knew of a few yoga instructors who train at this East Coast Mecca of yoga and they also spoke of Asheville with awe.

It feels like Berkeley, some said, but it’s not Berkeley.

It will remind you of towns like Santa Fe or Sedona, but it’s neither one, others said.

There is something really unique there, which is hard to describe, so you have to go and see for yourself, said most.

Expectations run high when people are unanimous about a specific place.

Sometimes, however, expectations not only meet their promise but also exceed our own imagination.

Yes, I fell for the easy-going charm of Asheville.

I can see why it has been compared to other liberal, artsy towns. A few hippy-ish shops, reminiscent of the 60s and 70s, reminded me of the ones along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. The sporty shops displaying mountain and biking gear can be seen in Sedona and the art in Santa Fe, and yoga studios abound.

But it’s for the stunning natural surroundings that I will go back to Asheville. Wow. Western North Carolina you got me.

Familiar with the rugged Sierra Nevada and the stunning Arizona and Utah canyons I had only glimpsed at the Blue Ridge Mountains a few times, mostly from Virginia when I visit my daughter in Maryland. But I had never set foot so close to them than in Asheville.

I could hardly contain my impatience and wanted to explore the countless parks and trails that can be reached from town and within a twenty-minute drive. There is so much to see in and around Asheville!

Since my husband shares my philosophy “less is always better than too much,” we agreed to enjoy our stay to its fullest but to accept that it is truly impossible to pack an entire region in only three days.

So, here is a thin slice of our trip through a gallery of photos. As great as photos can be they remain a pale rendition of reality. Especially when we shoot nature’s portrait. This is why I really want to go back for more walks and hikes.

Neighbors who became friends had told us about the spectacular Grove Park Inn. The hotel is so large that walking through its common areas is sure to stretch any pair of legs. In addition, the grounds are gorgeous and a trail is accessible directly from the lobby. Perfect for a pre or post breakfast short walk.

The North Carolina Arboretum. Miles of trails and acres of garden areas opened to us that afternoon. Including a bonsai extensive exhibit in a unique landscape and a garden-scale model train representing the coming of trains to western North Carolina at the turn of the 20th century.

Mount Pisgah, accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Anyone who can’t walk can still admire the view from the terrace of the Pisgah Inn.

DuPont State Park and its waterfalls is truly a perfect neighborhood park for Asheville residents.

The small town of Black Mountain, still part of the Asheville metropolitan area and less than fifteen miles away, is adorable. Not overly quaint as some old towns can be. We took an early morning walk through quiet streets while stores were still closed and people still home.

The Old Rail Station

And its little red train

Looks like other French fell for the natural beauty of Western North Carolina

This sign spotted in a small gift shop made me smile, of course. Based on this (too) short trip to Asheville and area, this part of the South has no doubt much more to offer.

Monday Miam-Miam: Savoring Asheville

From the summit of Mount Pisgah, accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway

Savoring the natural beauty that surrounds Asheville, North Carolina was such a treat that I will write more about it on French Friday.

But even when savoring gorgeous land you get to have your food too, right? And in lovely, vibrant Asheville it can be an equal treat.

Sticking with our deal: one table for an independent bookstore, my husband picked the restaurants based on our mutual desire to support chefs who in turn support locally sourced food. Our two top choices proudly display the names of the farms and farmers they work with. They can be proud of their cooking as well.

Our #1 choice is The Market Place located on Wall Street, which is a short, paved, historic street filled with various small shops.

The restaurant has an outdoor terrace, which was packed due to the lovely weather. Besides, there was a band playing inside and I’m a sucker for live music. So we ate in the back of the restaurant, far enough from the bar and the musicians but still close enough to eat en musique.

Our waitress was from Maine, so it created an instant connection. She had also worked and lived in Spain and knew France, so here we had another connection.

The real connection, though, was with the food.

We started with a bowl of edamame soaked in chili soy glaze and sea salt and served in a beautiful bowl. Pottery abounds in Asheville and every restaurant uses very unique stoneware plates and dishes. Now, we are all big fans of edamame at home. They can be quite addictive, and these were very unique but a little too glazed. We definitely had to wash our hands afterwards. Which was a good way to admire a funny poster. Well, only if I had used the male restroom. So I only got the photo.

Although we both read French, we cannot figure out what the bucher tells the steer. Quelqu’un le sait?

I had decided to go vegetarian that night. It’s not a punishment for me since I’m a huge fruit and veggie person. And when you eat seasonal food that grew locally, you can’t go wrong. The roasted indian cauliflower, black quinoa, green curry sauce, shaved fennel and cashew salad was a delish. Lots of colors, flavor, and texture. Which is a nice goal to reach when we cook.

Mine was spicy-tasty like I love my food

I had a bite of the sunburst farm trout, served with lentils, smoked bacon, and a dressing of confit tomato vinaigrette that my husband chose. Man, that trout was a gem. The way the chef prepared it was genius. The skin was infused with flavors and so perfectly grilled. My husband tried to mimic the technique at home. He confessed needing more practice. It’s great, I reassured him. Which was true. Anyway, I insisted, must be the trout. Have you noticed that trout figured on every menu in the two Carolinas?

His

For dessert we split a saffron & wildflower honey crème brûlée, accompanied by a small pink peppercorn biscotti. Which I generously gave away. The honey flavor was distinct and yet subtle. Saffron is unusual with crème brûlée but it was a great addition.

With Two Spoons, please!

 

A glimpse of the French Broad River that flows through Asheville

 

Our #2 choice is Table. Which definitely reminded me of a favorite place of ours in Le Marais in Paris, before this low key, unpretentious Parisian neighborhood became way too trendy, too popular, and thus too expensive. But this is for another topic 🙂

I love small restaurants best. You are neither too far from your dinner companion nor from the other guests. I like the background of conversations, which tend to naturally adjust a notch lower in more intimate settings. Food at Table is served on gorgeous stoneware plates or even on slabs of wood in a room barely larger than a typical American dining room. The tables are just big enough for a tiny vase and a few fresh flowers. Homey and yet classy atmosphere.

Service was impeccable and friendly from the second we stepped in. A small dish of olives was immediately brought to our table with thick slices of bread and high quality butter. We are both bread lovers. Can’t help it when you were born in France. Table bakes its own bread and I owe my compliments to the baker.

Ours

We picked one order of chanterelles as an appetizer. I’ve loved mushrooms since my youngest age. In France, one of my uncles knew his champignons and treated us to amazing foraged mushrooms omelets. Our chanterelles at Table came with tiny tomatoes, citrus, basil, sweet onions, and almonds. A perfect blend that left me nostalgic for those French autumn suppers. I could smell the woods. We ate our chanterelles before shooting their portrait.

Trout again for my dinner companion that night, only whole. Years ago, I embarrassed myself with a whole fish while having dinner with my husband’s boss. He was a cool guy. Still. You don’t want to mess up with bones and skin while you need to appear smart and elegant. So, I’m wary of a whole fish when away from my kitchen. My husband, however, did a fabulous job with his trout, which he found less spectacular in taste than the one at The Market Place but impressive on a plate and impeccable in terms of freshness.

His

I went fishy too and chose the seared tuna. Which was perfect, no doubt due to the addition of corn, blueberries, and okra that complimented the medium rare cooking of the tuna.

Mine

If you like cocktails, wine, beer, and small plates you’ll love the Imperial Life, the bar and lounge situated at the top of a narrow set of stairs, just above Table.

 

Seen along a hiking trail

Now food for the soul!

Art abounds in Asheville, including bookstores. My favorite is located right in the heart of town.

Packed with books of all genres, for all levels of readership, and with tons of authors’ visits, Malaprop’s is my kind of bookstore. Plus, it’s a few doors away from the public library! What can a reader ask for?

But the special treat was to stay at the Grove Park Inn where F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed twice.

Facade of the Arts and Crafts style hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places

The terrace overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains

To find these artifacts displayed inside the hotel gave me the goosebumps.

Zelda died in a fire while hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic, also in Asheville. F. Scott Fitzgerald had passed away eight years earlier.

 

French Friday: American Black Coffee

Virginia Tech Horticultural Gardens

When driving together my husband and I often pull over for a cup of mid-morning coffee that we share. We didn’t use to share coffee when we lived in France. Both of us loved our breakfast coffee served in a bol and our espressos in tiny cups.

My French bol and espresso cup

We discovered mugs in the US and also that coffee could be ordered for here or to go and in different sizes. Most exceeded a typical French serving. We learned how to grind our coffee at the supermarket while it was professionally done in France. Lines at the drive-through puzzled us. We were almost shocked to see some people drink coffee with their lunch. I spent quite some time in the dairy aisle. What did people do with all these flavored creamers and half and half? They seemed to have something to do with coffee.

Things have changed, of course. Here, because all these American things are mine too, even though I don’t use all of them. But also in France. I can no longer say that my mother doesn’t speak a word of English. She drinks her tea in a mug. Since the arrival of Starbucks in the early 2000s, the French also order tall, grande, venti, and for here or to go.

Yet some things never change.

Last month, as my husband and I acknowledged the snaking line at the Starbucks we decided to split. He’d check his email and I’d get our tall black coffee to go.

I waited, sandwiched between a young woman and an elderly gentleman. I had ample time to admire the pierced heart, the flying birds, and the homage to a beloved grandma tattooed on the young woman’s tanned shoulder blades and triceps. Soon, however, I couldn’t miss the conversation happening right behind me. I never eavesdrop, but it is impossible to not hear when people talk inches away from you, right? Appeared that a second gentleman stood behind the first one.

“All this line to get a five bucks coffee!” said gentleman #2. “You can get black coffee for next to nothing at Burger King.”

“Right,” said gentleman #1. “But not as good.”

“Don’t like black coffee no more,” said gentleman #2. “Go to Starbucks for their iced stuff. Keep me awake on the road.”

“Only drink black coffee. Straight up,” insisted gentleman #1.

“Went to the Navy or what?” said gentleman #2.

“Nope. The Army.”

Followed then a detailed description of the awful but necessary black coffee they both drank while in the military.

“I know,” concluded gentleman #1 with a sigh. “Starbuck makes it much better, though.”

The line moved on. Now, he and I stood eye level with the small tantalizing pastry window.

“Not sure Weight Watchers endorses any of that,” said gentleman #1.

By then, I could hardly keep my chuckles at bay.

“Oh, you can afford ALL of them pastries!” he said, visibly addressing me, although we had not technically seen each other.

I turned around and smiled. “You can still have this,” I said, pointing at the boxed Caesar salad.

“Without the dressing and the croutons, though.” And he chuckled back.

My turn had arrived and I ordered a tall coffee.

“With room for cream?” said the barista.

“No, thank you. Just black.”

“You’re a black coffee person too?” said gentleman #1. “But you didn’t go to the Army, right?”

“Right.” And I raised my cup.

“Cheers to that black coffee,” said both men in unison.

I walked back to my husband who had finished checking his email.

“It took you a while,” he said, when I handed him the cup for a sip. “And it was only for black coffee.”

“That’s not any black coffee.”

And I told him about gentlemen #1 and #2.

“I don’t know,” he said. “How you always manage to talk to everyone everywhere we go.”

“I don’t talk to them. I only hear them talk. Then, we talk.”

In the US, it is so easy to strike a conversation with people we’ve never met and won’t ever meet again. Yes, it used to surprise me and almost freak me out, back in the days. Not anymore.

I know that sometimes we’d rather avoid a casual chat. Some days when we feel a little sad or worried or too busy or just want to be left alone. Surprinsingly, it it when I want to stay away from small talk that they happen. But guess what? In most cases, I feel then better than I did previously. Then I’m glad to realize that the pleasure of these spontaneous discussions has never faded away.

Truth is only Americans can chitchat about black coffee with total strangers.

 

This pine tree, seen at the Virginia Tech Horticultural Gardens, reminds me of these two elderly men who also stood proudly as they waited for their black coffee and iced stuff. 

 

 

Monday Miam-Miam: Where and what to eat (and read) in Quebec City

Back in France, my OB was highly respected in his field. As a first-time expecting woman I trusted his advice.

“You can eat everything you like,” he told me at my first visit. “Don’t eat for two, though.”

In fact, I had started to eat for three as soon as I knew I was pregnant. I felt so good and so happy. He really put a damper on my appetite.

“Of course,” he added. “Alcohol in moderation.”

I had immediately stopped drinking wine and even coffee as soon as the two lines had appeared on the pregnancy strip test.

“And I would stay away from steak tartare.” He sighed and smiled with empathy. “I know, I know. Same with sushi, of course.”

Sushi had barely entered France, but steak tartare was a staple. And yes, as barbaric as it must seem to you, my fellow American readers, I loved my red meat raw when I used to be 100% French.

Of course, I ate steak tartare occasionally and at the best restaurants or bought the meat from my trustworthy butcher who sold grass-fed beef. With capers, fresh onions, a fresh raw egg, a side of green salad and good bread, steak tartare was a treat that I loved. I knew I would miss it.

But I would have done anything for my baby. And I did.

My daughter was eleven months old when our small family moved from Paris to the San Francisco Bay area.

This is in California that I saw for the first time all sorts of warnings about alcohol and raw food, particularly targeted to pregnant women.

This is also in California that I built my vocabulary list and learned strange words related to the way Americans liked their meat.

We didn’t eat out very often in our early days in California. When we did, my husband ordered his steak “rare,” saignant (bloody) or bleu (blue) in French. I preferred mine “medium,” mostly because it was easier to pronounce than “rare.”

Many years later, when I could order rare and be understood, I rarely eat red meat anymore. When I do, it’s always cooked medium rare or à point in French.

Unless I visit Quebec City and discover that this city loves anything tartare.

“Quebec City,” had said one of our hosts at the auberge, “isn’t a foodie destination.” Originally from France, he grew up eating fresh and seasonal. So he had mixed feelings about Poutine. Me too 🙂 However, he gave us the names of a few places he liked.

To be frank with you, my French and American sides battled when I read the dinner menu at the lively Bistro L’Atelier, in the heart of the old part of the city.

Is it safe to eat raw beef in an unknown place? But you loved it, remember? Yes, but it was a long time ago. Oh, please. I want to make sure it’s the freshest. You’ve become such an American. Well, yes.

This is when I saw the waiters and waitresses carrying wooden boards, which served as plates, loaded with fresh raw meat or salmon or still tuna centered around greens, red onions, capers, and decorated with parsley. Talk of throwback France.

I ordered the 4oz two salmons tartare accompanied with greek yogurt sauce, capers, mango, and coriander, and served with croutons.

My husband prefers tuna to salmon and opted for 8oz. His tuna was served with lemon vinegar, avocado and pineapple. The larger size comes with fries and a green salad. My husband generously offered me the salad but I had to steal some fries 🙂

As always we shared dessert.

The trio looks bigger than the real sizes which are perfect for two

Our waitress was extra nice and professional. We were momentarily confused when we asked for the check and her name appeared as “Jonathan.”

“It’s because it’s my first day,” she explained. “I cannot be in charge of payments yet.”

She would be soon, considering her impeccable service.

View on the St. Lawrence River

The weather was cool with occasional quick showers when we visited Quebec City. On Monday, after our brief encounter with the Prince of Wales, we had lunch at Bistro B on rue Cartier in Montcalm, really close to the place where we stayed.

The décor, service and food are impeccable there. Unpretentious yet sophisticated, original yet totally approachable, Bistro B is a real neighborhood restaurant that will also fit any visitor since the waiters and waitresses don’t play favorites.

Despite the weather we both went for the soupe froide melon canari. It’s cold soup melon in English. Wow. Never had melon used as a soup ingredient before. This bowl was an explosion of flavors with a remarkable texture. Double wow.

We each ordered one appetizer. Impossible to share soup. Besides, this one should never be shared.

Then I had the grilled asparagus with fresh mozzarella, toasted almonds, a poached egg and croutons while my husband enjoyed a beef strip loin, served with roasted beets in Xeres vinegar and a parsley smoked cheddar rosemary sauce. The beets were extraordinary. And believe me, my relationship with beets is complicated. I had to eat them at my school cafeteria and hated the mushy bloody appearance and sweet taste. These would convert anyone. Both our entrees were remarkable.

Mine

His

Instead of dessert, we ordered two espressos. Presentation, execution, and service are excellent at Bistro B. And the check is also very reasonable. Even more for Americans due to the current change. With another night in the city we would have returned for dinner to this really cool place.

I noticed that tartare was also featured on the menu at Bistro B. A quick Google search informed me that for the fourth year, Montreal and Quebec City had celebrated tartarefest, a weeklong May festival dedicated to meat and fish tartare. May is to consider then for another visit 🙂

Love the mix of French and English throughout Quebec City

 

Bookstores for the mind and soul: for such a small city Quebec City has LOTS of bookstores. We visited several. My two pics, only because the list would be too long.

  • La Librairie du Quartier, located rue Cartier, a short walking distance away from the auberge Aux Deux Lions where we stayed and next door from Bistro B., is a true neighborhood bookstore. Despite its sparse décor, the selection of books is wide and diverse. I noticed an extensive selection of contemporary books written in French by Canadians authors. And many novels and non-fiction books translated from American English but also from several other languages. When in Quebec I’m always surprised to find French books written by French authors displayed in the foreign section. If you read French you will notice the homophones nouns “Quartier” and “Cartier.” Quebecois, even more than the French, excel at these play on words.

We couldn’t resist, of course.

For the chef

The Tintin complete Series followed us from one continent to another. Our son taught himself how to read in French spending hours with Tintin

P.S. All photos from this blog post (except the book covers) are courtesy of Evelyne’s husband.

French Friday: French-American in Quebec City

Late June, The New York Times published an article titled: Canada Doesn’t Know How to Party. Related to Canada Day and the 150th anniversary of the country, the author who’s Canadian explains that Canadians are conflicted about the origin of their country but still love it, only quietly. More quietly, he writes, than their next-door neighbors.

My husband and I were in Canada a day after Canada Day, so I can’t tell if people did celebrate or not.

This is what we saw when we walked through Quebec City on Sunday.

This is also what happened on Monday.

While Quebecois were already at work and tourists still asleep or breakfasting we took an early long walk from our lovely auberge to the Old City, passing quiet streets lined with boutiques and shops.

Including a public library in a former church.

We stopped by Château Frontenac to shoot its portrait remembering of our young children, so impressed by the architecture and enthralled by the jugglers on the plaza, now still deserted.

Then, before climbing to the top of the Citadel we sat at one of the café tables set right across the cathedral-basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec. While my husband checked his work email I noticed the two Queen’s Guards on each side of the cathedral’s main entrance door. For a second, I thought I was hallucinating. But it’s impossible to misidentify the peculiar uniform. Soon, a few other people had noticed them too and wanted their pictures taken, as it happens in London at Buckingham Palace.

“These guys,” my husband declares, “mean that a royal member of the family is close by.”

Quickly, the area in front of the cathedral bustles with effervescence. We spotted four policemen on their motorcycles. Men in suits arrived from the neighboring Hotel de Ville.

“Must be Quebec City’s mayor,” said my husband, pointing at the man who crossed the plaza with purpose and ease.

Then, the doors of the cathedral flew wide open and a bishop and other men, wearing official religious garb, gathered at the entrance and welcomed well-dressed men and women before they entered the cathedral.

My husband, meanwhile, had unsuccessfully run a Google search.

“Unbelievable,” he muttered, half pissed, half excited.

Now, if my favorite literary genre is children and teens’ fiction, his tastes fluctuate between thrillers, crime fiction, cookbooks, famous chefs’ memoirs, and current policies. In another life, he was either a chef, but more likely a detective or a spy. So, I knew he would not go anywhere until finding who, from the British royal family, was already inside the cathedral.

“Ah!” he finally exclaimed. “Can only be Charles and Camilla. They were traveling Canada for the 150th anniversary. What’s strange is that there is no official calendar.”

“I bet they aren’t popular everywhere,” I said, right when the Anthem of Europe, based on Ode to Joy, started to play from the Hotel de Ville.

The doors of the cathedral closed. The four policemen congregated and then roared away in two different directions.

“Come on.” My husband pulled me up and together we crossed the plaza. “We could just have a look,” he suggested when we reached a side door left ajar.

“Okay.” By then, I was as curious as he was.

The cathedral was filled to full capacity and about ten people stood in the back where we easily blended. Someone, however, offered us seats, a few rows ahead. We declined.

The bishop addressed his congregation in French, acknowledging and thanking many people from all across Canada for their presence. All were unknown to us, until he included the Prince of Wales and his spouse in his speech.

“Bingo,” whispered my husband.

We left the cathedral on our tippy toes, our curiosity satisfied, yet still wondering why the venue of the Prince of Wales had not been publicized anywhere. A little bit more Internet digging confirmed that Charles and Camilla had received a mixed welcome across the country. Which explained the decision to simply go sans promotion in Quebec City.

Upon our arrival on Sunday, one of our hosts at the Auberge Aux Deux Lions had warned us, “Some restaurants or shops may be closed, due to Canada Day. Not sure.”

We only noticed that shops in general opened later that in the US but closed also later. The weather was still cool and even rainy, but an undisputable summer mood floated through the streets. People acted festive, talking and laughing as they ate at the lively sheltered terraces. Most were locals or at least Quebecois, considering the flow of conversations held in French. English was also spoken from visitors from other Canadian provinces. Not a word about the royal visit or Canada Day.

We returned to the States in time for the 4th of July.

This is what we saw from our little corner of our big country.

Firewords shot from the middle of the lake

My poor pic doesn’t give credit to our neighbor’s ingeniosity. With his boat, he had pulled a small platform to the center of the lake, far from people and trees. The show didn’t last long, but the fireworks were quite lovely for being non professional. There were far less than usual around the lake, and the festivities didn’t last until late in the night either.

We may celebrate the American Independence in a more rambuctious way than the Canadians, but this year appeared (to me, at least) more restraint. In any case, we share a common past with the Canadians, as I was reminded when I read La Rose that night, the latest novel from Louise Erdrich.

Erdrich was born from a German-American father and a Chippewa Indian (of half Ojibwe and half French blood) mother. She is one of the few contemporary writers who features Native Americans characters and settings throughout her fiction work. Also one I admire most.

“From there, he can see down the hill into the marrow of the reservation town. High and mentally blasted as he is, he sees into each heart. Pain is dotted all around, glowing from the deep chest wells of his people. To the west the hearts of the dead still pulse burning soft and green in their caskets. They stream out pale light from the earth. And to the south there are the buffalo that the tribe has bought for tourism purposes. A darkly gathered congregation. Their hearts also on fire until the dreadful message of their extinction. Their ghostly gathering now. Like us, a symbol of resistance. Like us, now rambling around in a little pen of hay getting fat. Like us, their hearts visible as lamps in the dust.”

 

 

 

 

Monday Miam-Miam: Croissants in Quebec City

Quebec has been, for years, our family quick escape to a world where most people spend also their lives between English and French. Even though French is one of the two official languages of Canada, it is clear that Quebec remains the #1 French-speaking region of the country.

And Quebec City (only called Québec in Quebec) is the #1 Canadian city where French is widely spoken.

Courtesy Evelyne’s Husband

On our very first family trip to Quebec, in the early 2000s, we drove from central Maine to Quebec City, a short four-hour drive.

The city immediately reminded me of the French walled city of Saint-Malo, quite close to where I grew up.

Morning walk on the Promenade des Gouverneurs. Which stretches along the citadel with the fortification wall on one side, and a stunning view of the Saint Lawrence River on the other. You’ll climb a whole bunch of uphill staircases and over 300 steps to get to the top. Worth the effort. I promise.

With four kids in tow we didn’t explore much, back then. We had splurged and stayed at the stunning Château Frontenac. The highlight of this visit was the formal afternoon high tea. My then five-year-old son still remembers of the delish tiny sandwiches. He behaved so well that our waiter brought him a few extras.

Courtesy Evelyne’s Husband

 

Courtesy Evelyne’s Husband

Since this first trip, we’ve returned many times to Quebec, preferring vibrant, diverse Montreal, more appealing to teenagers than quiet, historic Quebec City.

Early summer, however, sans kids, my husband and I decided to return to Quebec City for a couple of days.

Sometimes, returning to a place is a bad idea.

Sometimes, it is au contraire as perfect as these flowers seen in a neigborhood park in Quebec City.

Courtesy Evelyne’s Husband

Courtesy Evelyne’s Husband

You know what they say in real estate? Location. Location.

The same applies to hotels. Staying at the right place when traveling transforms the experience and makes it unforgettable.

We wanted a location that would allow us to leave our car and just walk. We were also a little tired of the predictibility of the big hotel brands. Reassuring but not too personal.

Based on our dream-list and the stellar reviews, my husband selected the Auberge Aux Deux Lions, situated in the heart of the Montcalm neighborhood, the artsy part of the city.

An “auberge” in French is an inn. The difference between an Inn and a Bed and Breakfast is subtle. Usually, it’s based on the number of rooms and also the possibility to have dinner on site.

Aux Deux Lions is an inn since thirteen rooms are available but a B&B since only breakfast is available on site. Although the rooms come with a fridge, a coffee maker, and access to a full, modern communal kitchen is granted to all guests.

Courtesy Aux Deux Lions

I can’t possibly rank the reasons why I want to return to the auberge. They rank ex aequo. Which means equally placed in French. So with absolutely no order, here is why I wanted to stray away from my typical Monday Miam-Miam and introduce you to a place where I found myself at home for the time of our visit:

  • Perfect location
  • Warmth of the owners and staff
  • Gorgeous old house updated to modern comfort with a purposeful attention to detail

Courtesy Aux Deux Lions

Courtesy Aux Deux Lions

  • Unique rooms decorated with impeccable taste to accommodate different needs and budget
  • Full breakfast including croissants baked from scratch every morning on site (the buttery smell was so mouth-watering I could barely wait for the seven o’clock opening)
  • Did I say Location? Within walking distance from the Old City, the Montcalm neighborhood is not touristy at all. So, you get a true local experience as you see people going to work, out for dinner, running errands, and just going their own business. No car is needed, unless you want to explore the surroundings, which we will do when we return.

Courtesy Evelyne’s Husband

  • Did I say Uniqueness? Our stay was a last minute decision and we were very lucky to get a room since Aux Deux Lions can be fully booked for weeks in advance. However, my husband scored the loveliest room for us.

Courtesy Aux Deux Lions

  • Did I say Croissants? Wow! Full disclosure: I rarely ate croissants for breakfast when I lived in France. When I was a kid, my bought them on Sundays, and only when we took our annual three-week summer vacation. Croissants remain a treat in my native land. Otherwise, all French people would be fat 🙂 But staying in a lovely city, in a gorgeous auberge, in a stunning room, calls for exception. And these homemade croissants? Irresistible. My compliments to the baker.

Courtesy Evelyne’s Husband, right before Evelyne devoured this croissant. Please, click twice on the photo to see what I’m talking about 🙂

  • Although I’m not a huge breakfast person I never skip breakfast. And I like to enjoy this first meal of the day in a nice setting when away from my own cozy kitchen. Breakfast at the auberge is served in a warmly, elegantly decorated room. I loved the red mugs, which were such a happy splashing note against the white table clothes. Coffee, tea, and a smile welcome you as soon as you enter. Then, you can help yourself to the buffet, where in addition to the four-star croissants you’ll find ham, cheese, hardboiled eggs, fresh fruit, various yogurts, banana bread, bagels and bread, mixed cereals, butter, assorted jams, and of course Canadian maple syrup. Ambiance and setting are a nice break from the more rambunctious typical hotel dining rooms. A lovely pause in our busy noisy lives.

Courtesy Aux Deux Lions

  • Did I say Warmth? The hosts are here for You. Any request, any question, any tip to make your stay better is fulfilled, answered, and suggested.
  • Two gardens, one on the side of the building and the other at the top, are open for the guests’ enjoyment.

Courtesy Aux Deux Lions

  • Lucky us, we had our own terrace, accessible from an adorable nook off the bedroom. Showers punctuated our stay. So, I wasn’t able to write or read outside. See? I must go back.

Evelyne’s little corner

Evelyne’s little corner for next time

Aux Deux Lions has a fabulous website and I borrowed some of their photos since mine wouldn’t give full credit to one of the most charming places I’ve ever stayed in North America. And beyond.

This visit to Quebec City was too short, yet long enough for two additional blog posts.

So, as they say in Quebec, “Goodbye, au revoir.”

As always, “Thank you, Merci, for reading!”

 

 

 

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