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  • Writer's pictureLillian E.

Sommeliers and Sulkies

So we last left off with me on my friend’s couch. I eventually got up off that couch to go look out the kitchen window at all of the noise outside, which is where he found me a little while later. We kind of blinked at each other (it was maybe 8am?) and he asked if I wanted to go see the horse training. So we bundled up and he brought me down to the outdoor arena where his colleagues were putting at least 20 horses through various exercises. We stayed there watching for a while, and when they’d finished I got to say hi to some of the people I knew and meet one of their horses (Figaro). He tried to eat my coat, so they gave me a treat to offer him instead and he ended up eating my finger. Oh well. There’s also a small museum within the walls of the Célestin, so I got a brief tour of that, and then we went back up to the warm apartment and watched Friends for a bit.

When I eventually peeled myself off said couch to go to school at noon, I sprinted across the city to make it in time for a course about urban farming and sustainable cuisine practices. We also got a tour of the school’s rooftop garden. Did you know Le Cordon Bleu has one of the biggest rooftop gardens in the capital? Me neither. They’ve even got bees! Lucky for us it was a rainy, windy Tuesday in January, so most things were dead (not the bees though). 

On Wednesday I had the day off. What does one do with a day off in Paris? I’m so glad you asked. I went to the nearest library all day. Nothing more motivating than being told in our exam prep course yesterday that we won’t be allowed to bring notes, and our stations will be assigned at random (my kitchen partner and I are pretty salty about that, we work flawlessly together). There’s so much to study! Do you know how much the standard egg weighs? What the proper mayonnaise ratio of oil : egg yolk : vinegar is? Me neither. Just kidding, an egg is 50g (about 25g yolk, 35g white), and I'll get back to you about the mayo.

In the late afternoon I left the library and went home to get ready for… drumroll please… a super nice dinner!

When I told my colleague I was coming to Paris to study cuisine, she and her husband reached out to a friend of theirs, Marco, who is the owner and head sommelier of Vantre and organized to have me visit for dinner. I can honestly say it was the best meal I’ve had since arriving and I’ve never tried such a wide range of wines before! I even took notes so I wouldn't forget. You're welcome.

Most of the menu was French vocabulary and foods that I don't recognize, even if you translate it into English (I've never had monkfish before? Google it, it's ugly), so I talked a bit with one of the servers to figure out what the best course of action would be. He was super helpful in breaking down everything for me and explaining each dish, so I started with a veal tartare that had a great citrus kick and they gave me a glass of the lightest red wine I've ever tasted. Also the lightest color red, almost like watered-down cranberry juice. Marco said, "it's a red with all the qualities of a white."

Also my own little basket of warm brown bread.

Then, because I wanted to be able to try many things, we decided on a "light" plat (main course). The server suggested the fish and said he'd ask the chef to swap out monkfish for seabass (I'm not sure why since I didn't tell him I dont know what monkfish is, but I would've eaten anything they put in front of me, so I just went with it). It was awesome. Also, so many leeks in France right now, whether in my classes or in this dish. France = leeks.

The chef himself (a whopping 27 years young) came out and gave me an extra tiny bowl of brussels sprout leaves with an anchovy and a... parsley emulsion on top? (and I think I found a mystery shellfish, maybe a singular mussel? He described the whole thing to me but there was so much going on I forgot to write it down.)

Anyway, by this point I had at least 3 tasting glasses of wine in front of me because the perks of sitting at the bar of a restaurant with a world-class sommelier means you get a sample of everything that goes out to the rest of the restaurant. This was me by the end of the night:

I got a regular Pino, with a classic taste. I tried an Argentinian red that was kind of meaty (don't ask me to actually describe wine, it's really not a gift of mine), and a Chardonnay that Marco said had the most "energy" in the restaurant. I also tried a red from Bordeaux that had been aged 30 months with lots of grapes grown in virgin soil- that had a more classic taste to me- and then to balance out the one I started with, (the red with all the characteristics of a white), I got a white "with all the characteristics of a red from the south of France near Montpellier. A small glass of mystery red appeared in front of me when I wasn't looking, no idea what that was. I got a taste of the "rarest" rum from Martinique, where Marco had recently visited, and my favorite of the night (close tie with the first red I started with) was a taste of something super light from the Loire valley. A rosé? A dark white? The table who heard me tell the server I liked it so much, they sent me a glass of my own! Turns out they're also friends of the owner and one of them was American. Thank you!

I also got a personal little cheese plate for dessert, and somebody gave me an extra slice of bread to feed to the dog "not all at once".

I had the most interesting view of the kitchen through the reflection of the wine fridge. One of the servers told me that for a restaurant this size, there should've been 4 chefs + a dishwasher, but they're short one chef recently so it was only one head chef, a sous, and a pastry chef. More interesting to me was the idea that they were all between the ages of 23-27! Just before I headed out at the end of the night, I poked my head into the kitchen to find them sitting on the stainless steel counters with nothing left to do, so I thanked them for dinner and we chatted for a couple minutes.

After quite the late night, I slept in on Thursday. Another day off from school and having already done my homework in the library the previous day, I took myself on a walk. Destination: shopping for new shirts. Apparently I didn’t pack enough because I couldn’t do laundry fast enough to keep up with the demand (I’m allowed to use the machine in the apartment once a week, which is plenty, I just dont have "plenty" of shirts). An excuse to go shopping? I don’t see the issue here.

Once the goods were acquired, I bought a chocolate croissant and ate it in the park while I contemplated my next move. I woke up Mom with a FaceTime call (7:30am EST) and took her with me while I poked into a few more shops on my way home. I got two colored glass candlesticks and two beautiful dresses, which you will have to wait until it gets warmer out to see. Thoroughly spent (no pun intended), I went home and took a nap.

I'd like to take a side note to talk about the tragic experience I had buying raspberries. Look at how gorgeous they are! I know the third photo is tomatoes, but that's the raw untouched photo. This produce actually looked like this. No wonder 29 raspberries cost me 6€. That's almost 20 cents a raspberry. Don't buy raspberries in January.

Back to school on Friday morning to make poulet rôti with jus and pommes de terre confit. Sounds fancy, it’s just chicken, jus and potatoes. I will say though, I had a terrible dream that I showed up to class with no notes, no knives, no idea what we were making, the chicken was half cooked already, and my kitchen partner was wearing sweatpants. When I actually showed up for class (on time, with my materials, and properly dressed thank you) my classmates thought it was hilarious and a few of them told me they’d also had stress dreams. But why are we stressed? How hard can it be? 

Ok, the truth is, it wasn’t actually that hard. We’d already learned how to behead chickens and scoop out their guts on Monday. This time we just stuck them in the oven with a ton of butter (“butter is life” -Chef, everyday). The hard part was cutting our potatoes. Not only did they have to be cut a fancy way, they needed to be cut a fancy way in the shape of a banana. Why do our potatoes need to resemble bananas. Technically we’re supposed to use our paring knives to shave down the potatoes, but when Chef wasn’t looking I whipped out my potato peeler. Incorrect use of equipment? Absolutely. Did it save me time and a few fingers? You bet. He said my potatoes were perfect- I didn’t explain why. 

On the downside, I burned my hand. Now, you must think “oh it happens,” which it does. However, I told my classmate when we made quiches at her apartment that I seem to have a bad habit of grabbing hot things, so before we even went into the kitchen today she looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Lillian. Do not grab the chicken pan when it comes out of the oven,” and I nodded vigorously and said “Yes. You got it. We use our torchons.” You all know where this is going. What did I do? I fully wrapped my hand around the handle of a giant sauté pan that had just come out of the oven (in my defense it was positioned right next to the potato pan, which was safe to touch), and the entire line of people on my side of the kitchen stopped to watch me hit the floor. Happy to provide today’s entertainment. Chef was kind enough to poke at my potatoes while he made me stand with my hand in the sink for “pas moins de 5 minutes.” 

Anyway, I (with my chicken in a giant tupperware) went out with some of my classmates for a drink after class, and a trip to the pharmacie for a bandage and some magical French cream called Biafine which made the burn disappear practically overnight. I showed up at the pharmacie and asked the girl behind the counter for something for my burn and her first response was “did you run it under cold water.” Lady, please just help me. I’m not asking for drugs.

My chicken and I then went for a ride on the metro halfway across the city to eat said chicken for dinner. On the way I ran into some guys on the metro with golden retriever energy and the worst French accents I’ve ever heard. I was minding my own business with headphones in, but nothing could’ve drowned out the sound of poorly pronounced “poulet and…vino?” as they tried to guess what was in my giant tupperware (I was carrying a bottle of wine too). Turns out they were Scottish, and major points to me because they thought I was French. Ha. Nothing more to say about that except that it was a positive international interaction and it made me smile.

Report on the dinner: They provided the chips for apéro (some ham and cheese flavor which was sorta like bbq, and a white-cheddar-cheeto kind of option), a red wine with dinner, french fries, and I obviously provided the chicken. For dessert they busted out the mini crepe maker again and brought out the maple syrup for me.

On Saturday I woke up early and took myself for a walk. I found a giant pop-up flea market in the 3rd arrondissement and had a great time wandering through the stalls. The Garde Republicane was playing nearby at the invitation of the mayor, so I got to listen to them for a while. Nothing better on a Saturday morning than standing in the streets in 33º air and winter sunshine, listening to crispy brass music.

Feeling mildly refreshed, I got a croissant and did another lap around the market, and then headed home (stopping to buy an extra sweater). In the afternoon I FaceTimed my friend Grace in LA and then talked to Mom for a bit.

It’s important to mention at this point that my FaceTime with Grace felt like the first full English conversation I’d had in days. I really love going to hang out with my French friends for dinner but as fast as I’m absorbing this new language, my brain can only do so much. I can have a one-on-one conversation really well, even if it’s crowded. If you have four people talking over one another, I can barely keep up at best, and that doesn’t include participation. I can’t actually contribute at the same speed, nor am I expected to, but too much of that gets incredibly frustrating and discouraging. Don’t get me wrong- I have yet to meet someone who isn’t patient and happy to repeat something or, in the case of my dinner friends, they’ll even backtrack and summarize things for me in a set of vocabulary they know I can break down, but the social part of me is dying to just dive in.

So I told Mom I was finally hitting full capacity and a little overwhelmed, and (since it was the weekend) she suggested I go find an English mass. I found a teeny tiny parish- possibly the only English speaking one in the city? Don’t quote me on that- and spent an hour with my brain turned off listening to the priest and his Irish accent, and a whole repertoire of hymns that I grew up singing. It was refreshing and comforting.

Conveniently, I was also scheduled to be in that neighborhood just 30 minutes after mass let out so I walked myself over to yet another church but this time for an orchestra concert! Some of my bandmates participate in a community orchestra that focuses on playing film scores, so they invited me to come listen to their free concert inside a beautiful old church. It was small but absolutely packed. One of my bandmates came over to say hi before the concert and was telling me how he’d come from playing rugby this morning, so his whole team came to fill the first two rows and let me just tell you, grown men being silly is a culturally universal thing. All of them were perfectly polite, but they made sure everybody knew exactly who they were cheering and applauding for. They had the older couple behind me clutching each other in silent laughter. The concert was fantastic, they played suites from King Kong, The Mummy, The Little Mermaid, and the Dark Crystal.

I took this super blurry screenshot from the video of someone who was actually part of the concert, but it gives a bit of a visual aid to what I was describing.

Feeling musically recharged, but socially lacking, I was supposed to meet up with a friend after we both got out of our respective obligations but by the time we connected it was 11pm. I told him I was feeling a little down and wanted to go to bed and he told me to come over, I could sleep on his couch. So that is how I found myself back on the metro and subsequently in his kitchen at midnight with a mug of tea. He listened to me tell him how frustrated I was with my French, and then grabbed a pillow and a blanket and let me go to bed and honestly, it’s exactly what I needed. I’ve known him for many years now and his couch is where I stayed last time I was in Paris for a brief visit in Fall 2022, so it felt like a familiar environment.

We both slept in on Sunday, he made scrambled eggs (very American) with baguette (very French) and juice (France has this brand called Innocent which makes a mango flavored juice that I love) and then he got some work done while I flattened myself back out on the couch listening to his Spotify for a bit.

At noon I left to meet my flatmate at home and then we went to the Hippodrome de Vincennes to see the Prix d’Amerique! I think “hippodrome” is my new favorite French word. It means racetrack, but specifically for horse racing.

We caught the tail end of a regular race, and then witnessed a handful of races involving chariot-like buggies called “sulkies”.

There was also a performance by the Garde Republican- fitting, since they work a lot with horses.

We also waited in line for hot dogs and the result was "hot dog on baguette with ketchup and mustard" but I saw someone else with a hot dog on a regular bun with pickles so clearly we were in the French line and not the American one. Americans do hot dogs better.

We didn’t stay until the very end of the night, but left when they took a break to bestow some awards, and walked to a different metro than the one we had arrived by which took us through the center of the Bois de Vincennes, past the Chateau de Vincennes, and along the edge of town during sunset.

As if one mass wasn’t enough for one weekend, I had just enough time when we got home to drop off a water bottle and mini Prix d’Amerique flag (free souvenir!)  before I turned right back around and went to my usual 7pm mass at the local church. The point of this was yes, mass, but also this mass in particular is run by young adults who hang out and eat dinner together every Sunday night. So in the vein of establishing connection and community, that’s right back where I found myself this Sunday. It was great! More pasta and snickers ice cream bars, nothing fancy but super effective in bringing people together. I asked if they’d let me join the choir, so I’ve since been added to that WhatsApp group, and I succeeded in having several conversations with new people throughout the course of the night. Big win and very encouraging contrast to the prior two evenings. 

Monday morning was rough: 7:30 am demo where someone fell asleep and got called out by Chef. I was planning on going home right afterwards, but instead trailed some classmates down the street for a criminally overcharged tea + croissant (8€ is highway robbery, especially when they offer croissant + coffee for only 3.50€ but if I want to substitute tea “c’est pas possible”). We then went on a quick adventure to a fancy kitchen store, where we learned our school store is actually selling micro blade zesters for a euro cheaper, but my classmate bought a fish scaler anyway.

It was at that point that I left them to go home and do a truckload of chores and laundry. Simple day, but easily the most productive.

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