Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Importance of Cell Phones

Without a cell phone, you can’t play the game. Its mobility gives people the illusion of privacy, discretion and a certain anonymity, hence its indispensability in the rituals of mating. “What’s your cell phone number?” is the all-important first line. Would you like to pursue this, whatever this may be, or not?

It took me years to identify this discussional turning point and recognize its true significance. The first time it happened, I already had a few decades and relationships behind me. It occurred on New Year’s Eve of 2000 in Paris. It was three o’clock in the morning and my friend Christina and I had just eaten a six-course dinner and quaffed two bottles of cheap champagne at La Fermette Marbeuf, a restaurant just off the Champs-Elysées. The Art Nouveau décor, candlelight and waiters in 19th century costume who tended to our every need—and perhaps the champagne—had transported us to a place and time outside our usual good girl, Southern reality. We had just taught the entire wait staff the proper way to dance to the Village People’s song YMCA, showing them how to form each letter correctly with their arms. Now, we were dancing in couples to a series of 1970’s and early 80’s disco songs and hoping that nobody we knew was there watching.

I kept glancing over my spinning shoulders at Christina, my big-sister radar detector for conduct not besuiting a proper lady at full alert. Her dance partner had propositioned me during the previous dance, using direct language that even I could understand, and I was concerned. I feared that the French language factor might lead to confusion and Christina would find herself in a predicament. Head tossed back as she laughed, she didn’t appear in any danger—at least not yet. Her innocence and inability to speak French would protect her I supposed.

I turned my attention back to my partner, a slight man with a fine nose, doe eyes set in a face that saw little sunshine. He seemed kind and very French. I liked his smile and quiet manner. The song ended and we returned to my table. He refilled my glass with champagne and served himself one.

“So, you were telling me about a place that has really good, traditional bistro food,” I said, taking a sip of champagne.

“Yes, it’s in the 10th arrondisement. I often go there with friends. I could show you where it is. What’s your cell phone number?”

“I don’t have a cell phone,” I said, the words traveling out of my mouth before I realized what I’d done. I’d told the truth, but I had also said “No. I’m not interested” in the unofficial language of mating.

“Ah, bon,” he said, sitting back.

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t take the words back. A part of me knew that it was just as well. I took another sip of champagne and looked for Christina. She and Monsieur Lecherous still danced among the tables.

“Excuse me,” I said getting up from the table. “I need to speak to my friend.”

My would-be suitor pushed back his chair and stood up to make room for me to pass.

Eight years later, I find myself in Paris once again. I’ve been here for a month and still haven’t bought a SIM card and units for my cell phone. I tell myself that I don’t need one despite the fact there are few pay phones, and those that exist require phone cards. Every day I vow to go to the phone store. Every day something else comes up.

Today I receive an e-mail from a man who took me out dancing some 20 years ago. He wants to meet me around seven tonight. I’m supposed to call him on his cell phone to confirm, using my cell phone so he has my number in case he’s running late. It’s nearly noon, the deadline to make the call. I stare at the clock on my laptop and grumble “why can’t I just send an e-mail?” Then, I remember how we danced until dawn, ate croissants out of a country baker’s oven, laughed over how I had an hour to finish packing before heading back to the States. I close my laptop and pick up my bag. I run down the stairs, out the door and across the street to the nearest cell phone store.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Guidelines for Staying Healthy and Fit in Paris

Brows furrowed, mouths pulled down in dismay, some of you may have become quite concerned over my recent obsession with food. Never fear, the aerobics instructor / personal trainer in me remains alive and well, and has devised a set of health and fitness guidelines to which she strictly adheres while in Paris. They are:

1) Rent an apartment on the seventh floor and always take the stairs, particularly when going out for fresh bread in the morning. Make it a point to take the stairs at least two or three times a day. This provides a short cardio workout and tones the gluts, hamstrings and quads.

2) If it takes less than 30 minutes by foot to get to a destination, forgo public transportation and walk—unless it’s raining (as it so often does). Then, take the subway. Eschew all escalators and skip up and down the stairs, weaving in and out the strollers, adolescents on scooters, students and businessmen using briefcases to block their way through the crowds. The more transfers between lines, the better, thus insuring proper agility training.

3) Look regularly out the window, and if the sun happens to appear, rush immediately outside. Walk quickly to the nearest park with benches and handrails. Work the upper body by doing two or three sets of push-ups, triceps dips, step-ups, and if the grass isn’t too damp, doesn’t have a sign saying not to walk on it or isn’t covered in dog poop, do three sets of crunches. Warning: it’s advisable for women not to remain in one place in the park for too long. They risk having to endure the latest pick-up lines of the ever-present lonely hearts that lurk in Paris parks.

4) Go to the prepackaged food sections of a grocery store, such as Monoprix. Examine the serving sizes, particularly for meats, dairy products and snack foods, such as pretzels and crackers, to rediscover what an appropriate serving size really is. Eat according to this new-found knowledge. Order a glass of wine or a cocktail in a café or restaurant to discover the same for alcoholic beverages. Soon, the super-sized remnants of the past will melt away from the hips and tummy.

5) Only eat the best quality products, no matter its fat or carbohydrate content. This means shopping in the street markets and specialty shops. Sure, it costs a bit more, but appropriate nutrition and satisfaction will guarantee less consumption and a trimmer figure. Moreover, one can always count on the ever-responsible digestive tract to announce its displeasure if overindulgence occurs.

6) Beware of dehydration. Although bottles of mineral water and Wallace fountains providing free drinking water are ubiquitous in Paris, toilets are not. Consequently, it is tempting (and sometimes wise) to go long intervals without fluids. To stay properly hydrated, it is advisable, then, to plan one’s drinking around trips to a department store or museum. Otherwise, be prepared to shell out a few euros for a cup of coffee in a café in order to use its toilet. If said cup of coffee is not purchased, and one heads straight for the stairs leading down or up to the less than pristine toilets, a tongue-lashing will ensue. A third option, of course, is to reserve drinking as a nighttime activity when access to a toilet is assured. Caveat: If you’re a man, none of the above toilet restrictions seem to apply. The smells of the city would indicate that almost any place where two walls come together will adequately meet your needs.

I, Mayanne Wright, do hereby attest that the above guidelines have kept me slim, trim and healthy in Paris.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Truffle Magic

Mainstay of haute cuisine, revered by gastronomes everywhere, truffles have steadily climbed the pretentiousness index joining the ranks of beluga caviar and Cristal champagne. For years I’ve wondered what all the fuss was about. What magical powers could these knobby clods of fungi possibly possess? What about them causes people to swoon and readily empty their pocketbooks? Thanks to my friend Karine, I was about to find out. She had made reservations at chef Clément Bruno’s eponymous restaurant, and chef Bruno was the King of Truffles.

We had driven a little over an hour to get to Restaurant Bruno, nestled among the vineyards and olive trees just outside the village of Lorgues in Provence. Now we sat under an arbor of mulberry and olive trees on an outdoor terrace. I was famished and couldn’t wait to take my first bite of truffle. There it sat, on a plate in front of me, slivered and piled high on a golden round of toast drizzled with olive oil. I looked at my friends and grinned. Only Karine knew what to expect. My other two companions, Marc and Christine, were virgin truffle eaters like me.

“Bon appetit!” Karine smiles behind glasses reflecting the candle light.

“Bon appetit,” we giggle.

I take a gentle bite. I mince the amuse-bouche with my front teeth, then use my tongue to disperse the specks of flavor around my mouth. I close my eyes and swallow, drawn deeply into the earth after a summer rain.

“Alors, c’est bon?” Karine asks.

“Ahhh, oui,” I whisper and place the other half of the toast in my mouth. My insides swim. I take a sip of champagne and settle back into my chair. I’m ready.

On Karine’s advice, we all choose the set menu featuring the summer truffle, tuber aestivum, for 65 euros. Although more common and less expensive than its upper class relatives, she assures us that tuber aestivum will more than adequately initiate us to the truffle. Our menu is no different than the more expensive ones, except for the type of truffle. At Bruno’s, diners eat the same dishes, but pay more or less according to the truffle they choose. Tonight the more expensive menus feature tuber melanosporum, the famous black truffle that gourmands so covet, and tuber brumale, a winter truffle, less expensive and not as flavorful as its well-known cousin. According to Karine, one thing all diners can count on is getting their fill of truffles. Chef Bruno believes that truffles should not be a luxury item and uses them liberally in most dishes.

The first course arrives—truffle caviar served in a tin accompanied by a dish of fresh cream whipped into cumulus clouds and homemade blinis. Following Karine’s lead, I tear off a piece of blini and spread it thick with cream. I scoop out a dollop of caviar, press it into the middle of my creation and pop the blini into my mouth. I soar up from the earth and into the stratosphere. I repeat the process and fly higher. What did they put in those mushrooms?

I reach for my glass and sip the local red wine. Velvet dances across my taste buds. I sink to the earth again. Beads of sweat form across my lip. I sneak a peak at the other truffle newbies, gage their reactions. I watch emotions play tag across Christine’s face. She says nothing and takes another bite. She licks each of her fingers. Marc focuses on the task at hand: tearing, spreading, scooping.

“Oh, this cream. It’s so light,” Karine moans.

Cream, I think. Forget the cream. Give me more of that caviar.

Within minutes, it’s over. Marc grabs the tin, looks at each of us, and scrapes out the last few morsels of truffle with his index finger.

“Marc!” scolds Christine.

Marc grins and continues scraping. Christine and I look around. Nobody noticed. If Chef Bruno had been there, he probably would have laughed his approval.

“What’s next?” Marc asks, setting the tin back down on the table.

Plates with the butteriest potato ever known, smothered in truffle cream sauce with piles of truffle shavings, appear under our noses. This is Bruno’s signature dish— pommes de terre aux truffes— a recipe harkening back to a time when truffles were plentiful, a standard ingredient in country fare. I dig in. This time, I travel back in memory to my grandmother’s kitchen. Pies bake in the oven and I’m helping her mash fresh butter into boiled potatoes for Sunday dinner.

“That’s it!” I say to myself.

The thought slips away. I become aware of my empty plate. I focus on the conversation. We’re still talking about the food. Good. I haven’t missed anything. Now, what was that thought? Truffles. Time travel. Mommy Dee’s kitchen. Oh yes, remembers my rational brain. Truffles have the same effect as “comfort food”. They reach down into the psyche, striking a primal cord. People respond to them with their limbic brain.

“Ah, oui,” groans Marc, dispersing my thoughts. “Alors, ça c’était bon.”

“Monsieur, mesdames, le pigeon désosé dans sa croûte,” says the waiter, replacing our empty plates with the main course.

I attack the deboned pigeon wrapped around foie gras and truffles, baked in puff pasty and drizzled with satin sauce. I forget I’ve just eaten two previous courses. I lose track of time and place. I look up, eyes unfocused, knife and fork in hand, juice seeping from the corner of my mouth. I hear nothing, then the simmering voices of other diners. I blink and wipe my lips. It’s hot. Karine says something. My thoughts crowd each other. Christine’s fork and knife no longer move. Marc leans back beyond the candle light.

“We must save room for dessert,” Marc commands.

Surely, this is it. I can’t eat anymore, I think. But there is more. The waiter makes a mistake, and instead of one dessert, serves three—homemade ice-cream that tastes like my grandmother’s lemon meringue pie, peach ice-cream in a meringue basket topped with strawberries and champagne granita with truffles.

“Truffles for dessert,” I cry.

“Yes, truffles from start to finish!” exclaims Karine.

I recall my initial doubts about truffles. How could anyone eat fungus for dessert. Surely, Bruno’s had gone too far. I scrunch my nose, prepared for the worst, and spoon a bite. The champagne crystals melt on my tongue, snowflakes with vestiges of autumn, a perfect ending to the evening’s bounty. I stop questioning. I surrender. Some things should remain a mystery.

Campagne Mariette 83510 LORGUES
Tél. (+33) (0) | Fax. (+33) (0)
Email :