Chocolate, chocolate, and (no) more chocolate.

Fountains of chocolate

Fountains of chocolate

A couple of weeks ago I trotted along to the annual Salon du Chocolate that’s held at the huge exposition centre at Porte de Versailles on the edge of central Paris.  It was, of course, all in the interest of writing a story for this blog……..oh what a fib! I am a chocolate fancier; research for a post is the best excuse ever.

Now I confess that even though every aspect of chocolate and cocoa production was covered in the exposition with cocoa producer exhibits, chocolate sculptures, cocoa processing and chocolate making displays, chocolate workshops for kids, even fashion parades with models wearing artistic chocolate designs, I was really there to indulge in a little sampling and buy a few treats.

Feast your eyes on these…………

Patisserie by Laurent-Duchene. Chocolate and patisserie boutiques in the 13th  and 15th arrondissements.

Patisserie by Laurent-Duchene. Chocolate and patisserie boutiques in the 13th and 15th arrondissements.

 

Bowls of Chapon chocolates

Bowls of Chapon chocolates

Halloween themed chocolate gifts by Bruno Le Derf chocolatier

Halloween themed chocolate gifts by Bruno Le Derf chocolatier

Fine chocolate by Dalloyau

Fine chocolate by Dalloyau

Eyecatching as well as delicious chocolates from Brest.

Eyecatching as well as delicious chocolates from Brest.

No, I didn’t try all these, tasting and photographing were separate activities.  I came home with a delicious small dessert treat moelleux chocolate framboise from Arnauld Larher chocolatier, and what good luck: two of his chocolate and patisserie boutiques are within walking distance of our apartment.

There’s talk of a chocolate shortage looming.  I’ve read the reports and concluded I can continue with my ration of one square of dark (healthy) chocolate after-dinner and an occasional treat without catastrophic consequences.

When things go right

Entrance to Parc aux Buttes Chaumont, opposite Hospital Fondation de Rothschild, Paris 19th

Entrance to Parc aux Buttes Chaumont, opposite Hospital Fondation de Rothschild, Paris 19th

Living at the other end of the world away from home and speaking a language other than your mother tongue is an adventure.  That’s what this blog is about, our Parisian adventure, and the fun we have along the way with the light hearted challenges thrown in our path; troublesome toilettes, conversing with the hairdresser, navigating the Dordogne countryside and surviving the Paris Metro.  Nothing had been too serious until a health problem turned up.  Working your way through an unfamiliar health system in a foreign language is an extra complication in the process of getting better.

The beginning.

My dearly beloved had been having a bit of sciatic pain for some time, he’s a stoic chap but it was enough to visit our general doctor, a lovely Englishwoman.  Initial x-rays revealed nothing more than possible disc pathology, but a series of physiotherapy sessions didn’t resolve the problem.  His discomfort had increased to the point that sitting and lying down were not possible for more than an hour or two – sleep deprivation torture.

The MRI scan.

Unable to make an appointment by telephone or website (recorded messages, endless loops and no option to select an MRI) we visited the radiology clinic in person.  We managed with plenty of la politesse and my best French to explain the degree of need to secure an appointment soon.  We were offered one the next evening – Friday’s late shift.  It was the right thing to do; the MRI showed a tumour inside DB’s spinal canal was causing the worsening problems and needed to be removed.  The radiologist made sure we understood it needed urgent follow up.  Interestingly in France, in our experience anyway, the patient is given the report of lab tests and diagnostic procedures to take to their doctor, and only sometimes the doctor is sent a copy directly.  In this case the radiologist made sure her report was emailed and faxed to our doctor that very evening.

The referral to a neurosurgeon.

We discussed hospitals with our doctor, there are several hospitals for neurosurgery in Paris, and went with our doctor’s recommendation.  She called the clinic but only a recorded message was at the end of the line.  The referral was faxed and emailed, we hoped for a prompt reply with a date for an appointment.  We waited, not really knowing what would happen next, when, or if anything at all.  After three days with no response, and many unspoken thoughts about making a run for it back to NZ, (probably not even possible) we called the clinic.  Our doctor called them, but still no way to speak to someone or leave a message.  We resent the email to every address on the clinic website and activated the read receipt requirement.  Several of the email addresses, including the main addressee, were “no longer valid”.  What? How does that instill confidence?  Our doctor eventually made contact going through another service and later in the day I took a call from the Fondation de Rothschild clinic.  An appointment was arranged, even on the phone my French was good enough to understand and confirm date, day, time, place, Dr’s name and what documents to bring.  Nothing happens without the right documents.

Rendez-vous with the neurosurgeon.

Fondation de Rothschild

Fondation de Rothschild

Five days later we arrived at the clinic with some trepidation; were we really in the right place, was there really a rendezvous for us?  Some things were reassuringly familiar; the multitude of coloured lines on the floor to direct patients to the right service – blue for neurochirurgie adulte.  The meeting with the neurosurgeon went well; she was matter of fact, assured and spoke English for us.  Best of all with the right documents with us we saw the administrator and the anaesthetist that same afternoon and were given a definite date for surgery just over 2 weeks later.

The pre-op paperwork.

In the meantime there were tasks to be done: pre-op blood tests (no problem) and making contact with our private insurer, (our mutuelle) to have them contact the hospital administration, agree the payment arrangements and then let us know.  This is not as easy as it sounds when it’s all French to us.  In the time we’ve lived here we’ve come to understand the health system at a superficial level; fees we pay for some things are reimbursed magically, in weird amounts, behind the scenes without submitting documents, others require signed forms.  The system is complicated, bureaucratic, it’s hard to believe it can be cost efficient, we never quite know what the rules are, but it’s generous and thorough when you get it.

We never did hear back from our insurer but with help from French speaking friends we managed to establish that the hospital had the information they required from the insurer and surgery had the green light.

Going to hospital.

The day of admission to Fondation de Rothschild Hospital in the 19th arrondissement finally arrived.  Several weeks of minimal sleep for both of us, and considerable discomfort for my DB was a long time.  We arrived at the hospital with fingers crossed; were all the bureaucracy boxes really ticked? Were they really expecting us?  The thought that my DB might be sent home for more waiting scared both of us more than the surgery.  We were armed with every document, form of identification, lab and radiology reports that we could carry.

Ah bonjour Monsieur Belton, yes go up to Level 5 and see the Secrétaire d’ Entrée.  What a relief.

Follow the green route for surgery

Follow the green route for surgery

In hospital.

The surgery went well; the tumour – a Schwannoma – was the least nasty of the possible types, it was completely removed and there were no unexpected complications.  The medical and nursing care was excellent.  On the ward no-one spoke more than a few words of English but they did everything to help us understand.  My DB’s main nurse, Katia, was better than wonderful.  As well as being efficient and expert in providing nursing care, she spoke slowly and carefully in French and my DB understood.

Being a French hospital we had expectations of nice French food, the menu sounded promising.  In reality it was horrible hospital food; fridge-cold stiff bread rolls, cloudy water of varying muddy shades pretending to be soup and the standard limp overcooked vegetables that come out of most institutional kitchens.  It amused us that the menu always included a cheese course with a named cheese – it is still France after all.

Home again.

Five days post-operatively my DB was out and glad to be home.  We are back to sleeping through the night and enjoying good French food.  We’ve successfully located the infirmière domicile (home care nurse) for prescribed post op wound care and removal of stitches.  Friends and family from all around the world have been sending their love and best get-well vibes.  We are thankful for the French healthcare system, as mystifying as it is, it worked.  Yes there is room for improvement, but my DB’s good health has been restored and we are enormously grateful to all the people who made things go right.

 

Seriously good knitting

 

Knitting Fair Isle wristlets

Knitting Fair Isle wristlets

Knit night, or tricot-soirée, at L’ Oisivethé has become quite the place to be on Wednesday evenings.  As soon as the event is posted on the Ravelry group page on Sunday evening the places are snapped up by knitters from near and far.  There is the core group of Paris based knitters; both the French tricoteuses and the expat knitters like me who enjoy having a place to meet up and chat in our native languages as well as to practise our French in kind company.  Then there are visitors from elsewhere in France and from all around the globe; USA, Mexico, Norway, Australia.  It has been a real pleasure to meet such lovely women and to be able to keep in touch via Ravelry, Facebook and Instagram.  Knitting is like a universal language that we all speak, and regardless of being beginners or experts the conviviality of our knit nights is perfect.

As if that is not enough, last week I enjoyed two special events at L’ Oisivethé.  First up was the special book-signing evening for US based designer Gudrun Johnson’s second Shetland Trader book.

Gudrun Johnson, author, designer The Shetland Trader

Gudrun Johnson, author, designer The Shetland Trader 

 

As well as getting to meet Gudrun, whose designs I admire immensely, we were able to see and fondle (!) the knitted up garments featured in her book.  I barely had time to update my to-do list with new “heart’s desire” projects before I was back the next evening to participate in a Fair Isle masterclass with MaryJane Mucklestone.  What. A. Treat!  Three hours learning, knitting, playing with colour and pattern; oh la la, any knitters reading this will understand what fun we had.  I want to acknowledge too, that the class was organised superbly by Aimee and MaryJane with take home notes, a 6-colour yarn kit for the workshop, delicious food and refreshments all provided in the class price.

We each selected our individual colour arrangement and knitted the charted pattern for a wristlet.  For some it was the first time using two colours at one time, and others like me had self-taught skills for multi-colour knitting.  At the end of the evening we compared swatches looking at how the colours harmonised, drowned each other, clashed, or popped.  The best advice: swatching, swatching, swatching – all is revealed in the swatch.

As well as the swatch knitting, MaryJane had shown us a stack of glorious Fair Isle sample swatches that were so inspiring I wanted to stop all other knitting and cast on new Fair Isle projects the minute I got home.  I restrained myself.  Instead I sat up in bed and read her (personally signed) book on Fair Isle motifs until the wee small hours!  (Don’t laugh.)

Having met these two immensely talented and lovely knitters I am more inspired than ever for all things knitting and yarny, and I’ve learnt a heap of things to develop my knitting skills.  Autumn has been full of seriously good knitting weeks.  Now if only my fingers could wield those pointy sticks even faster I’d be able to cast on more exciting new projects.

Oh la la, j’arrive!

Eiffel TowerIt seems we’ve been here long enough to have adopted a few French words into our everyday chit chat at home – our own peculiar Franglais.  We hear these little phrases and words everyday from friends, on the tele and just out and about.  They are so endearingly French, and being able to use them makes us feel just a teeny bit French ourselves.

Take the verb arriver for example.  When I was at high school (a looooooong time ago – last century in fact) my beginner text book told me it simply meant to arrive.  Now I understand all the nuances of this ordinary little verb, it’s way more interesting than I’d imagined.  Usually announced with a bit of a flourish it turns the truth – “I’m still on my way” – into a positive statement; a personal triumph even.

We have a friend that we meet up with every couple of weeks.  She’s always just a tad on the late side.  A couple of minutes after the agreed meeting time a text from her will ping into my inbox announcing j’arrive!  She’s not actually arriving just yet, what she means is that she’s just got out of the nearest Metro station and is walking to the café we’re at and will be there in just a few minutes.

Cafe on Rue de Levis

Cafe on rue de Levis

Waiting at the appliance store for someone to help me, an endless stream of terribly busy sales folk bustle past holding important documents until eventually one makes eye contact and announces j’arrive madam as he whisks past.  He means yes, I’ve seen you there with that slightly impatient look on your face and I will come and attend to you soon; I’m on to it!

Then there are the phrases that didn’t make it into my text book; like oh la la.  I’m sure that I’ve mentioned this before because it never ceases to amuse me; especially in the rugby season.  It’s an essential tool in every commentator’s repertoire.  That one little expression can be used to convey every emotion from great excitement to wincing pain and utter despair.  A rapid oh la la la la la la laaaaaa accompanies the nerve wracking moments when the All Blacks (of course) are right on the try line, the weight of the pack pressing hard on the French defenders, man after man attacks the line, will the defence hold?  In contrast a deep, guttural oh la la transmits the horror of one of those bone-crunching tackles that stops a player in his tracks, leaving him prone and gasping for breath.

Then there is pffff!  It’s not a word or a phrase, just a sound.  But you have to be able to render a truly expressive pffff to be French.  It’s hard to define exactly what it means, I’ve interpreted it as “yeah whatever,” “who knows”, or “who cares”.

So, we learn our grammar, listen to the tele, practise our oh la las and try to spit out j’arrive with the panache of Parisians.  Are we really getting to be a little bit French? Pffff!  We’re having fun.

 

C Sacre Coeur

A whole bunch of differences

9/11 Memorial, NYC

9/11 Memorial, NYC

911 memorialTwo years!  We’ve been in Paris for two years now, living an ordinary life in one of the least ordinary cities in the world.  We feel at home, we know the routines and understand more about the “way things are done around here.”  I realised that my point of comparison for “the way things are done” has changed.  While in the USA for a family wedding last week, we kept noticing how things were different to what we were used to in Paris.  We had to think hard to compare with NZ, and wondered what we will notice when we return.

In Sackets Harbor, a small town of 1500 people way up in the north of New York state, the extraordinarily prompt and bubbly customer service in the restaurants struck us.  A soon as the meal (gargantuan – we shared) was done the plates were whipped away and the “check” delivered to the table.  No dilly-dallying around trying to catch the eye of the waiter to signal for “l’addition.”

The drill was the same once we arrived in New York city; super-friendly, fast and forthright.  In some places the check arrived with suggested gratuity amounts printed on the till receipt, starting at 18%, with higher options of 20% and 22% handily calculated too, or in other cases already added onto the total.  In one place we watched the scene at a nearby table where the waitress bowled up to the guests, just as they reached the door, to ask for a tip as they hadn’t included a gratuity amount on their credit card payment.  Unfamiliar tourists, or discerning diners – I wasn’t sure – the waitress made sure and got her tip.

Even if the language was familiar, the accent and the turn of phrase in overheard conversations had me smiling: “ah there’s a whole bunch of things we could do.”  A whole bunch?  It doesn’t really translate directly into French or Kiwi.

For all the differences though there were plenty of things the same (a whole bunch of ’em) that we loved: family and traditions.  Proud parents, bride and groom, bridesmaids, groomsmen, the best man, confetti, the first dance, wedding cake and speeches; all the elements for a wonderful day shared with friends and family.  We were thrilled to be together with all my family and a couple of Kiwi friends at the very happy occasion of my nephew’s wedding held on the historic Battlefield site.

In New York I was right at home in familiar surroundings in two gorgeous yarn stores.  Knitty City on the Upper West Side (W 79th Street) just happened to be only two blocks away from our hotel, and Purl Soho (Broome Street) on the bus and subway route between our hotel and downtown Manhattan – both easy to get to, how convenient!  At Knitty City I chatted with a few local knitters sitting around the knitting table.  We shared opinions on fair isle techniques and admired a recently finished object that had us all complimenting the knitter while jotting notes of designer, pattern name and yarn.

 

That’s it really – life’s the same but different, here or there, we loved New York too.  The differences don’t matter, they just make life interesting.

 

We especially enjoyed these New York places and activities:

Mille Feuille Bakery Cafe, 2175 Broadway, Upper West Side (between 76th and 77th streets)

Central Park Bike tours, 203 West 58th Street, NYC.  (We did the Art and Architecture tour)

9/11 Memorial and museum

Riverside Park, alongside the Hudson River

Golden weather

Dashwood Sauvignon blanc 2013

Dashwood Sauvignon blanc 2013

September.  Autumn.  Winter’s approach is inevitable, but in the last few weeks there’s been no sense of hurry along in the weather.  The warm sunny days stretch into benign evenings; perfect for special soirees.  Our friends said come along to a wine tasting at our local wine cellar, there’s New Zealand wine on the menu de degustation.  We didn’t need asking twice!  We met up at Les Caves de Reuilly on Boulevard de Reuilly in the 12th and joined the throng of people (easily 100+) enjoying samples of bio/natural (organic) wines from Chile, Italy, Spain, California, Argentina and New Zealand.

Now, one of the things about New Zealand that I really miss is screw caps on wine bottles.  That confession may well have some of you reeling in horror.  For me there is nothing so evocative of a gentle NZ summer evening than the crick crackle of the screw cap opening before the first sip.  And so, with much anticipation I bought a bottle of the Dashwood Sauvignon Blanc (2013); what a delicious treat, nostalgia in a bottle.  At our table we hailed from Mexico, NZ, USA, France, Netherlands and Finland.  English was the common language, and we were in unison as to the verdict on the NZ wine.

Twenty-four hours later with the weather still in top form we were out enjoying another balmy evening, this time taking our seats under the stars for Don Giovanni Opera en Plein Air staged in the courtyard (the cour d’ honneur) of L’ Hotel des Invalides.  It was quite a spectacular setting with the golden dome bright in the navy blue sky and the statue of Napoleon at times washed in colour from the stage lighting below.  Together with the music and voices it was a wonderful evening.

Opera en plen air staged in the cour d' honneur at l' Hotel des Invalides.

Opera en plen air staged in the cour d’ honneur at l’ Hotel des Invalides.

 

Autumn can keep up its slow progress; there’s plenty to like about it.

Wool Week in Paris

The glamour sheep

The glamour sheep

Glamour and glitz are not words I would expect to use in the same sentence as sheep yards.  But on Tuesday night a handsome flock of Merino Rambouillet sheep in a designer farmyard took pride of place at the glamorous Vogue Fashion Night Out event on Rue St Honore in the heart of the Paris fashion district.

This was all part of the launch of Campaign for Wool’s presence in France and the start of Paris Wool Week 16-21 September 2014.  Along with The Woolmark Company, CFW were co-sponsors with Vogue for the VFNO event.  This is a big do for fashionistas with activities like make-up demonstrations, a photo-shoot set as well as retail stores offering lucky draws, goody bag specials, champagne, cocktails and so on.  With a free invitation included in the September issue of Paris Vogue and the map and guide to all the events from the wool-focussed VFNO guide, my DB and I dressed up and headed along for a look.  Even if we felt a little out of place (and old!) it was an interesting experience.  The streets were packed with fashionable young men and pretty, red-lipsticked women.  The queues to make it inside the boutiques were patrolled by doormen so elegantly dressed they could have stepped out of the magazine pages themselves.

Off to VFNO

Off to VFNO

The sheep have now relocated to the Berges de Seine for the continuation of Wool Week activities over this weekend.  There will be sheep shearing demonstrations, educational information about wool and exhibitions of interior design and fashion with wool.

For the next two weeks there’s an installation of photographs and information about wool at one of Paris’s most loved and busy department stores le BHV.  I happened to be there when a camera crew from London were filming under the watchful eye of the Woolmark Company people.

Does this all make a difference?  According to the Campaign for Wool’s website, their activities since launching in 2010 have “influenced a new demand for wool on an international scale”.  If my amateur assessment is anything to go by I’m pleased to say yes.  Amongst the winter clothing ranges in stores here there are even more beautiful wool garments than I noticed last year.  The fashion glossies like Vogue are full of models snuggled, wrapped or elegantly suited up in wool; wool is getting serious attention.  Fashion is only one aspect of the campaign, but as a wool lover, knitter and proud New Zealander I’m pleased to see the best of wool being promoted here in the fashion capital.

And now I need to get on with my knitting, I’ve had an awful lot of inspiration and encouragement this week.