Monday, November 20, 2006

Ode to Cojean

As if the invention of the Slingbox wasn't enough exhilaration for one week, another extremely exciting event occurred right in my own neighborhood last week. Cojean opened another café on the lower level of the Bon Marché department store! Yes, I know, this news makes Tom and Katie's recent Rome nuptials and the Iraq war seem almost obsolete. To those of you living under a rock (or in any city other than Paris, France), Cojean is a chain of cafés offering healthy (or at least disguised as healthy), Anglo-style sandwiches, quiche, salads, soups, drinks, desserts and snacks in a très chic atmosphere complemented by the world' most smiley waiters and waitresses. The atmosphere is zen, the food inventive and delicious and, with locations all over Paris, Cojean is the perfect spot for a quick, take-out lunch on the go, an intimate tête-à-tête with a friend, or a relaxing solo lunch hour complete with both French and English-language magazines for one's reading pleasure. Their toasted sandwiches put street paninis to shame; today, I sampled (read: scarfed down) the mozzarella, tomato and artichoke on toasted organic sesame bread variety, and also enjoy the chicken Caesar on poppy and goat cheese, pesto and fresh veggie versions.

The soups, sandwiches, quiches and salads change seasonally, and this autumn's menu offers a mélange of the traditional (mini ham and cheese sandwiches on fresh baguette, 3-cheese quiche, molten chocolate cake) and the original (chicken-coconut-pineapple-mango chutney mini brioche sandwiches, sweet potato-pear-mint soup, white chocolate raisin cookies). There is something to satisfy everyone's tastes, even the pickiest of eaters. And the employees are an international pot pourri of could-be models in blue aprons whisking your empty tray away before you have a chance to swallow your last bite, attending to your every desire (or at least culinary, that is) and never ceasing to smile in the process. A few of the employees from the Madeleine location (my former stomping ground before the opening of this new location) have now moved to the Bon Marché venue and I am now welcomed with friendly faces who have upped me to official Cojean VIP status. Some of my current seasonal favorites include their homemade granola ( which makes for an excellent mid-afternoon snack at work), their turkey-swiss-tomato brioche sandwiches (with real turkey, a rarity in this city of myriad ham sandwiches), pretty much any of their soups (although the pumpkin-vanilla and eggplant-coriander stand out), their cakes (chocolate, carotte and lemon), their fresh slices of mango (apparently delivered daily from Ghana especially for Cojean), not to mention their thai chicken or poached egg-parmesan-green bean salad varieties, their freshly-made fruit smoothies and their wrap sandwiches.

Not to mention free copies of The International Herald Tribune and every luxury magazine printed in France to peruse while chewing. Cojean represents the new trend in modern Parisian "luncheries" (a word I just invented seconds ago referring to cafés with modern design that offer lighter, more inventive cuisine for the new generation). Cojean is the pioneer, but these modern, usually organic, luncheries are popping up all over the city: Naked (healthy salads and snacks on the rue Colisée in the 8th), Lood (juice bar), Jour (make-your-own salads), Bioboa (organic café near Opéra offering perhaps the city's best veggieburger), La Ferme (fresh-from-the-farm "bio" products, and a mean Sunday brunch) and Eatme (a French nutritionist's dream). Long gone are the days when one had to choose between a steak frites or a street crêpe for mid-day nourishment. And while these other establishments are all delicious and enjoyable, no one holds a candle to the original "snack chic" Master, Cojean.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Ode to the Sling Box

I watched “Gilmore Girls” with my Mom today. She pressed fast forward when there was a commercial, and I pressed pause for periodic bathroom breaks. Incredible, isn’t it? Oh, and P.S. I live in Paris, France and my mother, in Cedar Grove, NJ.
Ostensibly a banal mother-daughter activity, my little TV-watching moment with Mom was actually a miracle in modern technology. At 9 am EST and 3 PM in Paris, as I sat on my couch in my Paris apartment, I was able to join my mother in New Jersey for a morning/afternoon TIVO break. With the same remote, mind you, which, for the untrained Slingbox user, can be a bit strange. As the first segment of the show made way for a long commercial break, I went to click the fast-forward button on my remote (aka virtual remote on my computer screen) but noticed that the images were already moving forward quickly, then stopped right as the show came back on. After checking my apartment for French TV-loving ghosts, I soon realized that it was not a Gallic “Gilmore Girls” fan who had broken into my computer, but rather my own mother, sitting in our living room, using the actual remote (and scaring the merde out of me). It was the epitome of laziness; not only was I lying on my couch watching TV on a Wednesday afternoon (G-d bless the 35-hour French work week), but I had my very own assistant to fast-forward through the commercials and “play” as soon as the show came back on. Incredible. However, trans-Atlantic TV viewing sessions do have their drawbacks; our bathroom breaks weren’t timed accordingly and there were admittedly some remote-control battles as I attempted to rewind when Mom had already seen a scene and vice versa. At least we couldn’t kick each other for leg room on the couch.
While I admit that a 24-year old young woman watching a cheesy WB – sorry, CW – show with her mother on a Wednesday afternoon is perhaps questionable, the fact that I was able to do it is quite extraordinary in my opinion. An exciting – if not imperative – addition to expat life. While the “Live TV” aspect of the Slingbox is perhaps its most interesting feature, let’s be honest: how many times will I actually want to watch my favorite show at 4 AM Paris time? Especially when I can watch commercial-free at a more reasonable hour. Even so, if I do happen to be counting French “moutons” (sheep) I’d much prefer a romp through the sordid love triangles at Seattle Grace (of Grey’s Anatomy, for those of you living under a large rock… or in a Slingbox-free household abroad) or a laugh with Pam and Michael and co. (The Office).

Tomorrow I’m having breakfast with Barbara Walters (The View) and perhaps a mid-morning snack with Martha (Stewart). Then maybe I’ll fall asleep with Dr. McDreamy by my side (Grey’s again- are you noticing a trend here?). When I recently expressed my extreme joy at this relatively new invention to a friend, the response was “So? You can download everything to itunes.” Yes, this is true, but a) I cannot download everything to itunes – some of my favorites such as Boston Legal and Without a Trace are still not available in that format, and a morning without Regis (of the Regis and Kelly variety) is well, no morning at all if you ask me; b) I can’t watch itunes downloads with family and friends overseas; and c) Slingbox shows don’t cost $1.99 per download. So back to b). Yes, I realize that perhaps a phone call, email, text, or “poke” on are perhaps more sociable ways to communicate with my loves ones across the ocean. However, it was amazing just how close I felt to my mother today when we were watching “Gilmore Girls” together. I can hear you thinking: “Oh, what’s the big deal?” Yet for that one hour (or, let’s say, around 45 minutes minus the commercials), my mother knew where I was, what I was doing – even when I stopped to go the bathroom – which, for a mother whose daughter lives in another country, is a very big deal indeed.
Despite its assets, the Slingbox is surprisingly unknown even to many technology buffs. I was amazed at how easy it was to set up. I simply downloaded the software, typed in our access code and password and – voilà! – minutes later, our home remote appeared on my screen and everything that had been taped Chez Leffler for the past months appeared for my viewing pleasure. It was a historical moment in the life of Rebecca Leffler, you should’ve been there. Not only can I catch up on my favorite shows whenever I want, but I will also be able to catch major televised events – the Oscars, the Superbowl – in real time, rather than waiting for the re-runs to appear dubbed on French television. And although I am now immersed in French culture and enjoy my life here, sometimes it’s nice to cuddle up with Mom to watch TV as I munch on my peanut butter sandwiches and Oreo cookies.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Foie Gras and Peanut Butter Sandwiches

“America is my country, but Paris is my hometown.”
-Gertrude Stein
Trudy was so right on. She took the words right out of my mouth (and good thing, because now there is more room for croissants and cigarettes). Like Stein, I am an expat. An expatriate. According to my Latin roots (as in the italic language spoken in ancient Rome, not of the “I’m still jenny from the block” variety), that comes from “ex” (former) and “patria” (native land, stemming from pater, or father). Thus, I no longer live in my native land, and have taken up residence in a foreign country, namely France. Gaul. The Western European Republic. Home of Jacques Chirac, Gérard Depardieu, and 951 million cafés (approximately). I moved here a little over two years ago, and plan to stay until Nicolas Sarkozy sends large French soldiers with hungry watchdogs to escort me onto a plane back to New Jersey. Yes, I’m here for the long Gaul … Yet when most people (more specifically, American people) learn of my choice to reside overseas, the conversation usually goes something like this:
Ignorant American (sorry, Mom): “When are you coming home?”
Me: “I am home.”
Cue the cheesy music and close-ups of the Eiffel Tower.
Oui, it’s true, I am a cliché. I live in St-Germain-des-près. I sip coffee at Café Flore while reading Le Monde. I walk the streets with a baguette under my arm. And every time the Eiffel Tower sparkles for the first ten minutes of every hour at night, I am giddy with emotion. Paris is indeed my hometown.
Many people associate my love – yes, love – for Paris with a consequential hatred for America. That is not the case. I don’t necessarily think that France is “better” than America, I just think that the life that I lead here vs. the one I would be leading across the Atlantic, is. Many people move across the ocean to escape from something, or someone – a traumatic childhood, an unfulfilled life, a violent lover. I’m not running from anything – I’ve had a mostly happy life filled with pleasant memories, plenty of friends and family. My government did not exile me for treason. I am not fleeing the law (I did pay the one speeding ticket I was ever issued, thank you very much.) And, while I think that Jessica Simpson may have done a better job in the Oval Office than Monsieur Bush, I am not a political zealot fleeing the idiocracy of Washington. America is still my country.
I’ve developed a sort of Dr.Jeckyll, Mademoiselle Hyde complex here. I am still the American girl from NJ who misses Skippy Super-chunk peanut butter, un-dubbed episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives and reading the New York Times in print. But I am also the Parisian girl who eats Nutella, watches Le Grand Journal and Les Guignols and reads The International Herald Tribune cover-to-cover. How can I be both? How long can I lead this double life? Maintain these two personalities? Won’t one have to win in the end? If I stay here indefinitely, will I be disgusted at the thought of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Become disinterested in Meredith and Dr. McDreamy’s up and down love affair? Trust the weather report on and forego my loyalty to
Do I want to be a Parisian? Or an American in Paris?
Is it possible to have two souls : one French, the other American? It’s a battle between peanut butter and foie gras: may the best disgustingly unhealthy substance to spread on toast win.
I can’t leave. I have a life here now – friends, a job, VIP status in my local boulangerie. But the thought of never going back to America scares the merde out of me. Will my childhood friends forget about me eventually? Are email and phone conversations (and, I confess, enough to sustain lasting relationships? Will my family eventually get used to an empty seat at the Thanksgiving table? Or, worse, will they fill this seat? Turn my bedroom into an exercise facility? Adopt a small child from Cambodia and name her Rebecca?
My mind has become a croque-monsieur of languages. There’s now a thick layer of cheese (French) covering the ham (English) and though the croque needs both to be a croque, the cheese definitely overpowers the taste of the ham. (yes, I just compared my bilingual brain to a ham and cheese sandwich, I think I’ve been living here for too long.) “This is your brain.” “This is your brain on France.” I think in French. I think in English. I speak in a strange mélange of both. I dream in Franglais. To me, I’m the same person, just in different languages. I am a human DVD – press 1 for French, 2 for English. But do my French friends and my American friends see the same person when I speak?
Do my mannerisms, my personality, the inflection in my voice, change when I switch dialects?
And then there are all of the cultural differences and misunderstandings – things I missed because I grew up in the Garden State and not outside of the Tuileries Gardens, or ostensibly banal things they’ve never heard of. Cupcakes, for example. Who has never heard of a cupcake? Apparently, the majority of the French population. I actually had to google a picture of one to show a confused colleague who couldn’t understand what a “small muffin-like cake covered with frosting and little colorful candies” could possibly look like. But it’s moments like that when I realize that, although I fit in to this strange land where pregnant women smoke, men cheat on their wives and the coffee is served AFTER dessert no matter how badly you want a little caffeine with your lemon tart, we are different. A childhood without cupcakes? A tragedy. A Halloween without candy corn? Heartbreaking. Waking up to old French men yelling at each other instead of Regis and Kelly? Traumatic. And – are you sitting down? – they eat cheeseburgers with a fork and a knife. I know, my eyes are tearing too. Yet, for reasons I cannot explain, I love these strange people who think Jerry Lewis is funny and Gérard Depardieu is sexy. I love that nothing here is easy, that I have to call 467 different people who yell at me in French and charge me 34 cents per minute to listen to a voice message telling me that it will take 15 years and cost me five million dollars and my first born child to fix my television reception. I love that pretty much everything is “eemposseeebull” from making a deposit in another branch of your bank that doesn’t happen to be the exact one in which you opened your account to having your salad dressing served on the side. I love that I have to make plans ahead of time, that I don’t have 700 friends that have known me since birth deciding what our Saturday night plans are. I love that I don’t always understand why my French friends are laughing or why the metro has suddenly stopped moving; it makes life interesting. It makes me more independent. Life shouldn’t be easy. It should be challenging and tough and even sad, lonely and horrible at times. It should also be exciting and passionate and crazy and wonderful. And any expat knows that on a typical day, life can be all those things.
My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberté, égalité fraternité. I am an American. I am a Parisian. And proud to be both. Just no foie gras and peanut butter sandwiches, please, I might get sick.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


When I was just a tadpole, my mother told me: “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.” So I decided to move across the pond to Paris, France, a city filled with frogs ripe for the kissing. French kissing, that is…
What many people don’t know is that Paris, France is actually a Third World Country disguised as an aesthetically beautiful and civilized land filled with art, poetry and artery-clogging pastries. It’s mathematically quite easy to adapt to culture here – just multiply the time it should take a task to be accomplished by 147.46 and that’s how much time it will take for this task to be accomplished in France, or by a French person. Opening a bank account? TIST (time it should take): one hour. TITIF (Time it takes in France): minimum 4 weeks. Painting the door of a building. TIST: 3 hours. TITIF: 3 months. And if you purse your lips together and make no attempt to smile, laugh or emit any signs of emotion while performing said undertakings, you’re totally in. Félicitations, you’re French.
Anyway, so back to my amphibious animals across the Atlantic. Frogs are often slimy creatures. The French have a word for this. It’s “drageur.” In reality, a “drageur” is just a synonym for any male of Gallic origin, but a more official definition might be “player” or “a male of Gallic origin who enjoys hitting on unsuspecting females with the direct goal of sleeping with said females.” Drageur-radar is a learned skill, and one that I can now boast that I do in fact possess. They come in all shapes, colors and sizes, but they all have one ultimate goal: to say absolutely anything necessary to get you into bed with them. You can’t blame them – it’s in their (extremely tight) jeans. All of the old philosophers did it. I mean, just picture Jean-Paul Sartre sitting pretty at Café Flore and seductively telling the lady next to him “In love, one and one are one.” I can just see her heart melting (mine certainly is.) Or Victor Hugo: “To love another person is to see the face of G-d.” Oh Vic, stop, you’re making me blush.
Before you start kissing said frogs, you need to redefine your definition of a “man.” French men are not athletic, they smoke, they’re skinny, they have big noses and order girlier drinks than you. And even the most heterosexual of them kiss each other frequently and enjoy shopping – many even cry. The hair gel industry in France must be breaking records, since the average hair gel-to-strands of hair ratio is currently at an all-time high among French men; I’d estimate around 7 kilos of gel per strand.
Being an American female in Paris is comparable to a bone being thrown into a cage filled with rabid dogs; one is inevitably poked, prodded, licked and barked at until the canines get bored and move onto another. While the French-English dictionary boats thousands of words, there are really only a very few indispensable phrases for every American female to know. “Dégage!” (Get out of here!) “Fut-moi la paix!” (Leave me alone!) and, if need be, “Je suis lesbienne!” (I am a lesbian.) Even that one doesn’t necessarily always work on this carnivorous, persistent species we call the French male.
Unfortunately, Hollywood has romanticized “le French lover” causing many American females to dream about gorgeous, charming men who speak only in a dull whisper, rolling their r’s as they roll onto you in a passionate embrace. Think: Olivier Martinez in Unfaithful, Vincent Cassel in Derailed, Gérard Depardieu in My Father, The Hero (no just kidding, I was just making sure you’re paying attention.)
That’s not to say that all French men are of the “drageur” variety. Au contraire…there are many good-looking, even tall and muscular, kind, more reserved Frenchmen all over the country. 99.999% of the members of this rare species however are, in fact married (and/or have an affinity for the male race.) However, just because the French man of your dreams is married, certainly does not mean that you should give up hope. In fact, the fact that he is married, enhances your chances of sleeping with him. In America, cheating on one’s spouse is looked down upon. Not that it is never done, but, if/when the act of adultery is committed, it is usually done in secrecy (or attempted secrecy at least.) In France, adultery is considered less of a crime than speaking loudly into one’s cell phone in a restaurant. Bring your mistress home while your wife is asleep in the next room, Pierre, but if you even think about talking over a whisper when she calls your cell… When Bill Clinton “did not have sex with that woman,” it caused a huge political scandal. Yet, at François Mitterand’s funeral, his wife and mistress were photographed side by side, sharing a sob over the death of their lover. That, mes amis, is the difference between France and America. We’re not more moral in America, we just try to act like it in public. Do you expect of a people who eat cheeseburgers with a fork and knife?
There are bi-racial couples walking all over the streets of Paris. By this, I mean of course, the “scrawny, ugly male” race interbreeding with the “tall, beautiful female” race. They’re everywhere. Snuggling in cafés, making out in the subway… everywhere. At first, I simply thought that French women are genetically partly blind. Now, however, after vast scientific research, I have come to the conclusion that they just simply have no choice. For every 27 tall, thin, painfully gorgeous, well-dressed, put-together French women, there is one arguably attractive French man. Thus, the other 26 females are forced to forego Gérard the Gorgeous for Pascal the petit, Hugo the hairy and François the funny-looking. Just look at the discrepancy among French movie stars. Juliette Binoche, Cathérine Deneuve, Nathalie Baye and Ludivine Sagnier vs. Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, Jean Réno and Romain Duris. Sure, these actors are very talented but, let’s be honest, they aren’t aesthetically worthy enough to be in the same room as these beautiful women, let alone sharing the same screen. Yet, who is to say that it’s only the good-looking frogs who turn into princes?

So with that, I return to Le Pond, in preparation of my next amphibious adventure.