As promised, here we have a guest post by my marvelous best friend, Alexandra, who went to France recently, and ate a lot of cheese! I think it might be my fault, as I texted her relentlessly with commands to "eat cheese for me today," which is what I say whenever anyone goes to France. Can we all just take a moment to sit dreamily in honor of cheese? (a favorite quote: "The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." -GK Chesterton) And the last thing I'll say about cheese, before turning you over to Alexandra, is this: one of the highlights of being pregnant was a feeling of perfect entitlement to eat cheese! And now, without further ado ... Alexandra!
I read that Winston Churhcill said of France in 1940, “A country producing almost 360 different kinds of cheese cannot die!” Before my trip, such a statement would have meant 100% nothing to me. I even spent two years in Bulgaria, otherwise known as “the land of only two cheeses,” and my tongue never batted a flick. Yes, I've lived a nearly cheeseless existence for 38 years until last month when, while in my third day in Paris, walking along one of those narrow cobblestoned alleys strumming the Seine, I heard wheels of cheese sing out to ME. And just like that, wherever I went throughout France for the next thirteen days, all I had to do was open my mouth and wheels of cheese rolled themselves right in!
Munster, Roquefort, Tomme de Savoie, Explorateur, Gaperon, *sigh*.....I believe I was eventually welcomed by all eight of the cheese family dynasties, and each of their distinguished relatives seemed to take to me immediately. All I have to say is God bless every single morsel of cheese in France, and every last stinky fromagerie within its borders.
(My only cheese-related regret is that I didn’t have a spare pair of buttocks that could metabolize les fromages without any evidential trace of its consumption. Unfortunately, it looks like those will have to wait, along with my other dream of detachable limbs you can drop off at pilates on your way to work and pick them up at the end of the day.)
But of course thats not all there is to France! You already know that you can find the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, croissants, and pain du chocolat here too, but no one ever mentioned to me the wild boars everywhere muscling their tusks through the Saint Germaine quarter with all their overflowing shopping bags, midnight open air markets selling dried fruits and teas and lavendar alongside aerial gondola expeditions that will have you to Tanzania and back by sunrise, bath oils produced by local Mediterranean mermaids, and very lively crepe eating competitions for reptilain vultures of all sorts. Who knew that bats could devour so many Nutella smothered crepes so very quickly? Not to mention the hippie ostriches selling their beautiful oil paintings of French countryside life.
[ed note: I want to go to that France! Is there a special airline? A crack in a wall somewhere that takes you there?]
Since I’ve been back, I’ve been trying to replicate some of my finest cheese moments, and I leave you with my favorite, which can be made easy enough whether or not you like to cook. It comes very close to something I ate in Avignon. The only difference is that there it was served with literally a carpet of cheese about half an inch thick- and unless you have ample calories to spare or like to feel like you are eating a tundra of cheese, I prefer to spread the cheese only about three ants high instead -- and its still very tasty! The only other difference I notice is that the goat cheese in France smelled much more “goaty” than any I buy here. Its almost as if the goat cheese that you buy in the U.S. has been forced to shower!
Alexandra’s Very Easy & Tasty Sandwich Recipe
Serves 4 Adults with a Regular Appetite or Laini at dinnertime [ed. note. Hey!]
All you Need Are:
2 Red Peppers
2 Yellow Peppers
2 Sweet Onions
Goat Cheese - but preferably not the sort you squeeze out like toothpaste
Preheat oven to 350.
Cut each baguette in half, or in thirds. Then slice them in the middle using your knife- or you can do what I do which is just pry them gently apart with your fingers. I like the more ‘tousled’ bread look better myself!
Next, slice your peppers and onions in two and three inch long strips. Saute in olive oil.
Meanwhile, don’t forget about the bread! Place them in the center of your oven with or without a baking sheet for 5-7 minutes, or until toasty and a tiny bit crunchy. I like to turn the bread over for the last two minutes but sometimes I forget and its no biggie.
Now the bread, peppers, and onions should be all finished and temporarily placed aside because really they only play second fiddle roles as the headliner will always, always, and always be....the goat cheese, showered or not. Turn on the French national anthem as you take out your finest knife and proceed to spread a nice layer of cheese across each open faced slice, and only then, after each last teensy weensy part of the cheese has taken its place on stage, then you can bring out the supporting cast and arrange your sauteed veggies on top. Eat while warm with the anthem playing on loop.
Moving on, I come from a family in which I have been conditioned and am now unable to sleep past 7 am most mornings. My father revealed to me recently that on long road trips growing up, after we had all fallen asleep in our hotel beds, he would quietly set all the alarm clocks one to two hours ahead so that we could be up and out as early as possible. The upside of this years later is that one of my favorite things to do when traveling is to meet the city at the break of dawn when most of its inhabitants, and all of its tourists, are still snoozing. You see things you wouldn’t otherwise -- the way the sunlight skims and tickles the horizon and rooftops out of its slumber, the smell of baking croissants wafting out the backdoors of bakeries left open, and farmers pulling their vehicles into open market stalls as they unload cherries, melons, tomatoes, lettuce, among other edibles. I watched in Nice as two men, both with soccer ball bellies, tossed heads of lettuce to each other from the car to the stall’s tables, laughing and teasing as they did so. There is a crispness to early morning air that hasn’t yet been trampled by the breaths and banter of bankers and bakers on their way to work, mothers with crabby toddlers in tow, oblivious teens who bump into you as they text, not to mention an absence of honking cars, radios, sirens, and other miscellaneous human murmurs and yelps. The city seems to perch on your palm, and beckon to be explored alone.
One morning I was the first to arrive at a cafe in the Provencal town of Avignon. The waitor asked what I was reading and when I told him The Bread of Angels by Stephanie Saldana, he asked me what it was about. I explained that it is an autobiographical account of Saldana’s year living in Syria as a Fullbright scholar at the height of our war with Iraq. A Catholic from Texas, she was there to study the portrayal of Jesus in the Koran. It is also very much about the Syrians she comes to befriend and provides a very much-needed human face on the people of Syria as individuals at a time when our government was giving them the not-so-distinct honor as a member of the “Axis of Evil.” Because I was the only one there, he was able to sit down and tell me his own experience of being Muslim in France. “When I’m in France,” he explained to me, “I’m not really considered French though I was born here. But when I worked in England, I was. I’m French everywhere but in my own homeland. Because I’m a Muslim, because I’m an Arab.” This same sentiment was expressed to me by a college student, Naouel, whom I traveled with by train from Avignon to Nice. She wore a beautiful silk orange headwrap. I asked her what she thought about Chirac’s efforts to make wearing the headdress out in public illegal. Her eyes welled up and she shook her head. Then she said, “It will not change anything if it happens. What needs to change, to open, is the human heart.”
I met Mormon boys on two year missions in France, a Croatian couple who gave me the rundown on the last 25 years of their lives in broken English, an aspiring Mexican filmmaker, Rafael, who spent two great hours describing to me in amazing detail his month spent on El Camino De Santiago with his father, wonderful cousins I had never met before, and a once famous and now retired actor from Algeria while sipping tea in Le Mosque patissierie which is a part of the oldest mosque in Paris.
And of course thats the best part of traveling, that one meets so many people you would otherwise never cross paths with. We discover new parts of ourselves in places we have never been as we set eyes on new sights, taste new flavors, and are exposed to different ways of seeing and being in the world than our own narrow conditioning has often allowed.
More pictures at the Mosque de Paris:
If you’re planning to go to France, here is a wrap-up of things that I would highly recommend and that were the definite most favorite moments.
Annecy is a small town in the Alps that offers the best bike ride I have ever taken in my life. You can bike for miles and miles on a relatively flat path along the lake, surrounded entirely by the Alps, as you whiz by tiny villages and cathedrals. Bring a sandwich with you, and a huge bag of cherries naturally, and have a picnic after a few hours in any of the sweet tiny lakeside parks along the way. Annecy itself couldn’t be any more idyllic with its medieval center filled with flower-lined canals, cobblestoned streets, and the best apricot and coconut sorbet known to mankind. An old 12th-century prison jettisons out at one juncture right over one of the central townsquare canals. I would love to have spent a whole summer here eating ice-cream, going for local hikes, renting paddle boats and reading out in the middle of the lake, and strolling through the daily early morning open market that stretches right over one of the canal bridges.
2) CHAGALL MUSEUM
Chagall is one of my all-time favorite painters and his prints, along with Laini’s, make up the bulk of art on my walls both at home and office. Nonetheless, I wasn’t initially super excited to see the Chagall museum down in Nice because I knew it was comprised primarily of his biblical scenes which have never interested me nearly as much as his paintings of Russian or Parisian life. All that changed the moment I entered the surprisingly small but beautiful museum. The works are huge and displayed in a white gallery that is flooded with just enough natural light to illuminate each painting’s vibrant details perfectly. Each one was filled with so many details I had never picked up seeing in a book or even a poster. There is also a great little garden cafe outside that was a great spot to read and journal in.
3) ROTHSCHILD VILLA
I came back a second day just to write and draw here. The Rothschild villa took five years to build, and is a flamingo pink extravaganza with an enormous garden in the shape of a ship’s bow. In addition to that garden, there are five others, with my favorite being the Spanish Garden. I really like the Baronness’s sense of practicality too. While she already had four villas in the rather near vicinities, one can never have enough villas. Isn’t it weird to think of having so much money that you could build a villa the way children build houses out of Legos? [ed. note: what's weird about that? Doesn't everyone do that?] I read that when she lived there until her death in the 1930s she made all the gardeners dress like sailors and liked to dress as Marie Antoinette when having guests over. The villa overlooks the Mediterranean Sea in the heart of the French Riviera, and is an easy 20-minute bus ride from Nice.
4) ICE CREAM
This isn’t a spot so much as a suggestion. I kept a gelato ratings page in my journal so I could be sure to track my favorite flavors. Plus time was short and I wanted to be sure to try as many kinds as possible, and avoid revisiting any of the more mediocre flavors accidentally. Focus and planning is very important with so many flavors to cover. The top three star ratings went to cocco, stracciatella, bacio, pistaccio integrale, amarena, and nocciola piemonte!
Maya Angelou said somewhere that “Every child should have traveling shoes.” I’d add to that “every adult too.” I came back from this trip reinspired to work on my second draft of my novel after feeling rather stagnant the last few months. I come back feeling grateful for my family of dear friends and of course, a new appreciation for cheese. I also came back with a reassembled list of priorities and goals. Great travel does that, and while its fun to have new adventures far from home, my favorite part I think may always be the new miles it allows us to travel inwardly, infusing the soul with courage and desire to have more adventures right here on our own home turf and in our very own sweet hearts. [ed. note: yeah yeah yeah. And the cheese!]