I’ll Have It Whole

Like a scene from an inverted Proust novel, the memory of breakfasts with my grandparents conjures the taste of cantaloupe milk. In fact, it is the only thing I can truly remember eating during those early mornings. My grandfather bought the milk from a vendor down the street. It came in amorphous plastic sacks labeled in green with a line drawing of a melon. I picked these packages up by their corners and used a pair of scissors to carefully cut a slit for a short plastic straw.

Here in the US, the milk comes in structured cartons, the flavorings in three: plain, chocolate, and strawberry. Cantaloupe is a seemingly counterintuitive flavor option, but no more so than strawberry, a fruit more acidic and thus more likely to curdle milk than complement it. Most chocolate milk also fails to live up to the promise of its name, offering little in the way of actual chocolate taste and leaving a grainy trail of sediment from chocolate powder too stubborn to dissolve. On the other hand, we describe the taste of ripe melons using adjectives derived from dairy products: creamy and buttery. The pH of a cantaloupe clocks in at an almost neutral 6.5. But more importantly, the cantaloupe flavored milk of my memory was not sweet in the hollow, sticky way that made the back of your teeth ache. Its sweetness was full-bodied, drawing out the wholesome richness that could only be attributed to milk. Each sip felt well-rounded.

***

I could have been the poster child for the now-defunct “Got Milk?” campaign. Each week, my mother brought home a gallon of milk from the supermarket. By the end of seven days, we would open the fridge to find that the shelf on the door was empty, the plastic container already sent to the recycling bins next to the driveway. I drank at least two glasses of milk every day. It seemed to match everything I ate: cereal, slices of Betty Crocker cake, tacos, baked ziti, fried rice, soup, the frozen pizza and chicken nuggets served at the school cafeteria.

For the most part, the milk of my childhood came in plastic jugs. It was pasteurized, homogenized, and fortified with vitamins A and D. The label was red, which meant it was whole. From the ages of six to eleven, my brother and I drank it out of matching plastic mugs featuring the Disney characters inexplicably dressed in Mexican costume. My mug had a scratch over Donald Duck’s head. His did not.

Not only had my parents made milk the kid-approved beverage of our household, they also had left me believing that the best milk had exactly four percent fat. I had my first glass of skim milk at a sleepover, and I left the next morning, sleepy from too many movies and confused why anyone would buy something so diluted. 2% came later, also at a friend’s house, but we ate from plastic utensils that had absorbed the synthetic scent of dishwashing detergent. Water, milk, orange juice—everything tasted like fake lemons.

But as quick as they were to support the reign of whole milk in our house, they were also just as quick to end it. Their cholesterol levels were too high. Their hearts beat under the sudden specter of clogged arteries. Whole milk, while not the main culprit, was now an unnecessary risk. Besides, my mother explained, my brother and I didn’t need it anymore. When we were small, she had fretted whether our bony wrists and thin limbs were the products of genetics or undiagnosed malnutrition. Ignoring her own delicate wrists, she bought whole milk and hoped its lipids and proteins would smooth out our angles.

Whole switched to 2%. The gallons turned into quarts. My father developed lactose intolerance, and my brother began to complain that milk unaccompanied by food also upset his stomach. Yet when I tried to leave the house without eating breakfast, my mother would shout after me to take a granola bar, and when I refused, to please at least drink a glass of milk.

***

I am not a picky eater, but I am particular. I will frown if the cupcakes I have baked are too dense, when the giant apples from Costco have none of the honeyed fragrance that fruit is supposed to have, and when broccoli is cooked past the point of crunchiness. I can also tell you when the milk has past its peak of freshness. I can even quantify it on a scale where a score of zero is an unattainable Platonic ideal and a one means that your milk is too solid to pour down a kitchen sink.

Milk spoils gradually in our refrigerator. Five days after purchase or at the approach of its sell-by date, milk scores a 0.5 on my sliding scale of freshness. When it begins to turn, it still tastes fine, but only if you don’t think too much about it. Two days later though, the milk, at a score of between 0.6 and 0.65, is only passably drinkable, more suited for baking and cooking. Anything beyond that is questionable. My mother, who both drinks milk regularly and lives at our house on a permanent basis, is the only one brave enough to stir dregs of this product into her occasional cup of coffee.

“What’s the difference?” I watch black turn into sepia as she stirs her spoon.

It is times like these when I wonder whether this is a matter of mind over matter, but I cannot be the only one who can tell that the old milk from the fridge is more viscous than it should be. That even the smallest amount of whole milk will make a richer cup of hot cocoa than a river of skim. That the UHC milk sold in rectangular cartons, unrefrigerated on the shelves of French grocery stores, tastes caramelized. I swear the grass-fed, organic whole milk that I accidentally bought one spring afternoon from Hyde Park Produce tasted sweeter and creamier. My roommate shrugged when I said this. She thanked me for buying groceries and took the glass she poured back into her room while I stood at the kitchen counter, still trying to make my case. It was different. It really was different.

***

If you try to find cantaloupe milk today, you might return home empty-handed. The closest substitute that you can find are paper cartons of papaya milk, its official-looking label explaining how many kilojoules contained in this product. In fact, my milk-drinking days largely exist only in my memory. In keeping with most of my family members, I now only have milk when it comes with a bowl of cereal and spend my grocery money on Greek yogurt instead. Between spoonfuls of yogurt and granola, I worry that I will eventually lose my tolerance for dairy altogether. My dad, who still eats ice cream out of the carton with me when I am home for school breaks, tells me that it wouldn’t be the end of the world, which is all I need to hear before I add milk back to my mental grocery list for next week.

At the store, I hover in the dairy section. 2% or whole? Other shoppers whisper “excuse me” and bump into my elbows. Their choices are automatic and easy. Nine times out of ten, I will walk out of the store with 2%, but sometimes, I pick up a plastic container with a red label. It always tastes exactly as I remember.

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A Library, Chris Colfer, and a Japanese Grocery Store

Although I’m only scheduled to stay in Washington DC for a summer, I am still eligible for a library card. With an electronic copy of my signed sublease stored on my phone, I made my way to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library downtown to sign up. I had a simple afternoon itinerary planned for myself. After work, I would pick up some books at the library and head towards U Street to Hana, a Japanese grocery store that promised to have soy sauce and fresh produce.

As luck would have it, the sky split open. In the same moment that I stepped off the bus, it began to downpour. To say that it merely rained does not capture how the water fell in a thick sheet that rippled in the wind. I stood under the awning of the bus stop along with half a dozen others as the storm continued outside. A fork of lightening struck nearby. Everyone stopped talking when the thunder tore through the sky. A few buses passed by, their windshield wipers flinging water onto the slick streets. Small waves of liquid lapped the curb of the sidewalk as the cars paused at the traffic light.

Because I still haven’t quite figured out how to navigate this city, I had gotten off at the wrong stop. I only had an extra block to walk, but even with an umbrella, I would have been drenched. So I waited. The crowd thinned when an X9 pulled up to the corner. I watched the people across the street. Some tried to sprint and outrun the rain while others walked stoically as if the heavy raindrops were simply a light morning mist. Twenty minutes later, the rainstorm eventually thinned into something manageable. I tiptoed around puddles and finally stepped into the library.

The lobby was large, the carpet in the adjacent reading rooms brown, the lights fluorescent. I had to fill out the registration form twice because I did not list my DC address. The woman at the front desk was amiable and did not mind that I wasted a sheet of paper. She handed me my card. As I made my way to the Popular Media room, I walked past rows of plastic chairs and a makeshift stage. Large crowds of preteens and their parents lounged in the seats or stood in line to pick up their copy of the latest book written by Chris Colfer.

Chris Colfer? That guy who plays Kurt on Glee? He writes books? Yes, apparently he writes very popular books. And he was hosting a Q&A at the library. I had arrived at about 5:00, and by the time I finished browsing, it was 6:00, leaving only a half hour before this famous preteen idol would emerge onstage. I decided to stick around.

At this point, all the seats had been taken. I stood in the back, next to a middle schooler peering at the thick layer of foundation on her face with her iPhone and a boy and a girl who complained about their mothers posting their picture on Instagram. At about 6:20, another gaggle of children pushed past. About fifteen minutes later, Chris Colfer appeared, flank by security guards and waving to his adoring fans. “It’s raining Republicans and Democrats out there!” he said. I’m pretty sure that he could have said anything, and everyone would be happy to laugh along.

The Q&A only took about twenty minutes, but during that time, I learned that Chris Colfer’s literary crush is Bellatrix Lestrange; his preferred sandwich involves turkey, avocado, and provolone on white bread; and that he thinks Snow White needs to reevaluate some of her life choices. I have a feeling that he rehearsed his answers beforehand, but to his credit, he sounded at ease and earnest in front of his fans.

***

I didn’t stick around. As soon as Chris Colfer finished answering his last question, I slipped past the middle schoolers and walked three blocks to catch a bus that would take me north to Columbia Heights.

My mission to find soy sauce was complicated by a number of factors. The first problem is that I’m picky, which is nothing surprising, but I’ll be the first to tell you that the offerings at your normal grocery store just won’t do. The second problem is that Chinatown only exists in name only. The Friendship Archway is the only emblem of something that is even remotely from the eastern hemisphere of the world. Otherwise, you’ll find some cafes, a Chipotle, a Verizon store, and other retail establishments whose only claim to China is their translated signs. The third problem is that although the buses are supposed to arrive every ten minutes during rush hour, they actually materialize once every half an hour.

Hana is a small corner store, and they did have some interesting offerings. But as a small corner store, they charged higher prices than what I expected at an Asian grocery store. And their soy sauce selection was mediocre at best (although still cheaper than your average grocery store–I suppose all was not lost). I remembered my parents being disappointed by the Chinatown in Chicago and wondered what they would say about the offerings here in DC.

I returned home at 9:00. In my bag, I had Remainder by Tom McCarthy, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, a travel book on Japan, a Chinese grammar book, a small bottle of soy sauce, a bag of green onions, some mushrooms, and a package of wheat noodles. I also returned with a battered umbrella, seven mosquito bites that I acquired as I waited for the bus, and two pictures of Chris Colfer on my camera. As I was putting away my groceries, someone asked me how my day was. “It was good,” I replied. “I got a library card today.”

Chopped Salads and Doughnuts

For my last day at my internship, I was too lazy to make lunch for myself, so being the resourceful person that I am, I took this opportunity to sample a chopped salad. Apparently, it’s all the craze in the city, at least according to an article I read. Luckily for me, there was a Chop’t near the southwest corner of Madison Square Park.

I took a late lunch at around 2:30, and there were a couple of people in front of me: a middle-aged man with white hair around his temples and a suit and skinny women dressed in athletic clothing (probably Chop’t’s main demographic). The menu lets you tailor your own salad (or salad wrap). Everything is organic, of course, and there’s a seasonal menu, from which I ordered the Puebla Cobb. I think I spent about five minutes staring at the dressing choices. I haven’t done the math to see how many salad combinations are possible, but the number is certainly astronomically high.

There’s something to be said about watching the staff shred leaves of spinach and whole avocados into tiny little pieces. My salad had tortilla chips, which gave each bite a pleasant crunch. Plus, you do get every flavor in each bite. But here’s the thing: I don’t like salads for lunch very much. Although I’m sure it was very healthy and that I ate enough spinach to impress Popeye, this’ll be my first and last time eating the chopped kind.

On the flip side, in celebration of my last day, we had Dunkin’ Donuts at the office. For all I say about not eating processed, unhealthy food, those doughnuts taste like childhood, and I think I may be addicted to their artificially-colored frosting. (After elementary school slumber parties, our parents would always buy us these doughnuts for breakfast.) Ugh. I sound like a Mad Men episode.

I really have nothing else to say regarding this, but I was genuinely surprised how ingrained Dunkin’ Donuts is in my brain. It seemed significant at the time.

Today, I Ate an Apple Pear

During one of our buying-produce-in-bulk expeditions, my dad and I discovered the apple pear at Costco. Last week’s Costco run produced some particularly interesting fruit, including to but not limited to purple apricots and mini grapes (a.k.a. champagne grapes). Apple pears immediately made the list because they reminded me of fun Skittles flavors and sounded like a marvel of science. With all that talk about the dangers of GMO’s, why apple pears were even on display at Costco added another layer of mystique to this mysterious fruit.

As of five minutes ago, I discovered that apple pears are not some fun hybrid of an apple and pear, but an actual species of pear. Also known as sand pears or Asian pears, this species is taking North America by storm, according to Google result number two.

I had my first apple pear while I was hopping around on the internet on some research expedition. I had high hopes, envisioning the thing to have all the orchard-tasting sweetness of the apple with the porous, watery crunch of pears. However, after a few bites, I decided that it didn’t taste much like anything. It was sweet, and the taste reminded you of something fruit-like (in a natural way [skip the artificial flavor, of course, and I just used double brackets, what is this?]). In the battle between apple and pear, the pear-like qualities dominated, and I don’t like pears. All in all, I was very underwhelmed.

Now, it all makes sense. I was eating a fancy pear when what I really wanted was a honeycrisp apple.

Things That Happened to Me Today

Because it was one of the more terrifying moments of my life in recent memory, I’d like to start with the spider. It was an unusually mild day, and by the time I was waiting for the train, the clouds outside were a storm-like gray and the platform felt like a wind tunnel. I was determined to finish The Interestings before I arrived home (one of those I-had-fun-reading-it-but-some-plot-points-annoyed-me books) when I felt a tickle on my arm. I looked down and saw a gigantic furry mini-tarantula, cursed loudly, and flung it onto my book where it then dangled with malice and disappeared somewhere into the distance (hopefully). I understand that “gigantic furry mini-tarantula” is an oxymoron, but it was definitely one of those species of spiders that live in the wild and feast on small beetles.

Speaking of animals, I remain perplexed about the appeal of Shark Week. Sharks are pretty cool creatures, but I’ve finally finished the first season of Game of Thrones and have become extremely invested in all of the characters. So sharks be damned.

On the flip side of exciting, my accomplishment at work today was hunting down author names and emails for at least 80 blogs. I think it’s the most tedious thing I’ve done so far, but along the way, I’ve learned a few things:

  • There are some terribly designed websites out in the universe. (That being said, I realize that this theme on WordPress makes bulleted lists look like true word vomit.)
  • Oh the places you discover contact information.
  • On a similar note, Google is miraculous.
  • Looking through all the WordPress sites made me seriously reconsider the theme I chose for my upcoming food blog.

Falling in between the spectrum of tedious and exciting, I made a rhubarb and raspberry crumble two days ago with plans to use leftover rhubarb for a second rendition of the dessert. Rhubarb lives in no grocery stores besides Fairway (and probably Hyde Park Produce because what isn’t at Hyde Park Produce?).  It smells kind of funny when you boil it on the stove, but it does make a pretty crumble, which is best eaten fresh.

My Favorite European Food Experiences

1. The “Falafel Special” at L’As du Fallafel. This falafel sandwich, wrapped in pita, smothered with delicious white sauce and topped with eggplant and cabbage, is easily the best €5.50 I’ve ever spent. The green storefront is tucked away in the Marais, and after every final, I took line 1 to St. Paul and ate my food under the awning of a Jewish deli across the street from the restaurant, which always seemed to have delicious matzah ball soup. The falafel, fried and seasoned to crisp perfection and piping warm, was worth a trek, even if it meant eating under the pouring rain.

2. A giant pomegranate that I bought at a Carrefour in Istanbul. Back at the apartment, I used a butter knife to open the fruit, which made a big mess. Pro tip: first pick out all the little red kernels into a bowl and scoop them up with a spoon for neat and efficient consumption.

3. The “Autumn Special” poffertjes at a pancake place in Amsterdam. I thought I would have had to wait until I returned home to have pancake like foods. Crêpes are plenty delicious, but they don’t have the same soft, fluffiness. Luckily, poffertjes certainly held me over. The small, mini-pancakes that I ordered came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with cranberry and cherry sauce and chocolate shavings. Whipped cream held everything together, and I dipped the cakes in a caramel maple syrup from a bottle on a table. One of the best brinners I’ve ever had and a perfect respite from the cold rainy weather outside.

4. Macarons from Pierre Hermé. Laudurée, established in 1862, may have a two hundred fifty year pedigree, and indeed, their salted caramel macarons are heavenly, especially since they’re  filled with smooth, sea salt caramel. But in terms of overall yumminess, Pierre Hermé has got it beat. Each macaron has the perfect balance of filling and cookie and an immaculate presentation – bright colors, smooth gilded surfaces, soft creamy insides. The rose flavor was astonishing and tasted like a sunny English tea garden, and I had a “Mogador,” a seasonal creation that blended chocolate and passionfruit.

5. Pain au noix from Eric Kayser. One of our school guides pointed out that the Eric Kayser bakery near the UChicago Center in Paris was “very good.” It was only later that I found out that Eric Kayser is internationally renowned for his baked goods. I had been munching on mainly pastries and baguettes when I decided to try something different. After some hand gesturing to indicate that I meant a small loaf of bread and not a small dinner roll when I said “petit pain,” my bread was sliced and wrapped neatly in breakfast, still warm and smelling heavenly. I usually dislike nuts and things in my bread, but the recipe integrated everything perfectly. I ate a slice with blueberry jam everyday for breakfast, and it had a mild sweetness that made it perfect for a light meal or afternoon snack.

6. Lentils in Madrid. Lentils are another food for which I do not have strong feelings, but these lentils were hearty and nourishing. Cooked with Spanish sausage, they were a simple appetizer and recommended by our waiter to general acclaim.

7. Cool dessert thing in Loire Valley. And that whole meal in general. Apologies for the unintelligible description. Plus, it’s one of the only meals that I did not document on film.

8. Confit de canard at Chartier. Chartier has the distinction of serving French food at great prices and in a historic looking, hotel-esque setting. When we arrived at 6:30, the line had already spiraled to the end of the block. Although quality wise, there were probably finer restaurants in the city, it was just what my friends and I wanted, a place of minor distinction and affordable. We started our meal with escargot, which is actually quite good, a big hit if you are a fan of shellfish and buttery sauce. Confit de carnard is a leg of duck, my favorite type of poultry, often accompanied with potatoes. The potatoes in question were adorable: cute, little, round things still wearing their skins and soft enough to pierce easily with a fork. It’s a French dish that appears everywhere in Paris, one of my absolute favorites.

9. A full English breakfast in London. Picture a runny egg, a side of bacon and ham, plus buttered toast. It sounds like pretty ordinary. Now add a tureen of baked beans, a sliced tomato, and some black pudding, and there you have it! English breakfast! At least five sources of protein and something to fill our stomach for the entire morning and then some. Everything was good, even the black pudding, which in theory sounds gross but in practice is not half-bad. After weeks of pastries and yogurt, it was a much-appreciated departure for the most important meal of the day.

10. On the same note, a meat pie in London. The beef was so tender that it fell off the bone when I tried to scoop a piece with my fork.

11. White wine at our wine-tasting. Despite our wine-tasting session, the task of detecting fruity florals or wood-like flavors in wine still perplexes me. However, the first wine that they served was a half-dry white and soothingly sweet. It was a bright, golden color, a little viscous, and reminded me of honey. I wish I’d written down the name.

12. Christmas market currywurst in Berlin. There were Christmas markets everywhere, and you can’t leave Berlin without trying its staple street food dish. At one market, they made it with potatoes instead of typical dinner roll, and it was a great, hearty snack for a clod, blustery night.

13. Home-cooked Turkish grocery store meal. We wound up just cooking dinner for ourselves each night that we were in Istanbul. At the store around the corner, we picked up a package of köfta, spiced lamb patties that were fried on the stove, a package of frozen mantı, which are star-shaped pasta noodles filled with meat, a loaf of fresh bread, spicy tomato pepper sauce, and beyaz peynir, which is known simply as white cheese. Picking up random food from the store was half the fun.

14. Sangria in Barcelona. I had a Spanish tortilla with a small pitcher that I shared with a friend. It was sweet, and there were pieces of pears, apples, and grapes floating as happy as they could be, bumping into cylinder-shaped ice cubes.

15. French fries at Albert Cuyp Market. I had just eaten an ossenworst sandwich, but there was a fry stand at the corner, and I couldn’t resist. I paid an extra thirty cents for mayonaise, the best pocket change that I’d ever spent.

Nuclear Orange Soda

If you want to be technical about it, I’m already back in the U.S. My European adventures have ended, but I’m going to talk about them anyway because now I’m home and I truly have no more obligations anymore for the next couple of weeks of my break. I don’t even have to leave the house and that’s partly true because my driver’s license and the other contents of my wallet are lying in a random street in Istanbul.

On my flight back to JFK, I was particularly excited to receive my complimentary cup of soda because I had caught a glimpse of a bottle of Fanta standing happily next to the typical offerrings of Coke, Sprite, and juice. European Fanta is delicious. With 12% orange juice and real sugar, it’s refreshing and sweet enough to let you know that yes, you are still drinking soda, but not sweet enough to make you slightly nauseous. From afar, I could see the sunny orange liquid being poured into plastic cups. One last sip of fantastic soda before I landed in the States. That sounded good to me.

When the flight attendant asked for my order, I asked for no ice. Perhaps I should have because in the guise of doing me a favor, she gave me a refrigerated can and went merrily on her way. I opened the can and poured the contents out into the cup she handed me and the liquid that poured out was the bright, unnatural neon orange that could only mean one thing: American Fanta, which has no juice whatsoever, high-fructose corn syrup as its second ingredient, and scary ingredients like “brominated vegetable oil.” My spell-check has underlined “brominated” in red, so it shouldn’t even be a word! It’s banned in the EU, probably for good reason. And think about it: why would you want vegetable oil in your fruity soft drink?

I drank the soda because I was thirsty, but it was one of the more disappointing soda consumption experiences in my life. In general, I felt a little sad to be leaving grocery stores and supermarkets in Europe, which are smaller in scale and sells excellent produce. Perhaps I need to pick better stores at home, but the produce sections of Franxprix or Monorprix were always my favorite places to browse. They were small, only two displays of produce organized in baskets and boxes, but all the vegetables and fruits were bright greens and reds. The carrots had bright orange skins, and the top green parts had been kept to make them look extra idyllic. My benchmark for determining great produce sections were tomatoes. Tomatoes spoil quickly once they’re ripe. The tomatoes in Paris always look as if they’ve been picked at the peak of perfection. Sometimes, there are squishy ones in the pile. Of course, you don’t buy squishy vegetables to take home, but their existence seemed to reassure me that the tomatoes had been picked when they were more or less ripe and transported quickly to the store and then to my kitchen. It’s probably an idealistic view, seeing as I know nothing about agricultural distribution in France, but in comparison to how tomatoes are sold at my local Shoprite, it was a marked improvement. At home, tomatoes are kept in a giant bin that a small toddler could use as a bathtub. The tomatoes are larger but they’re a pale, anemic red that comes from being ripened after being picked rather than ripened and then picked. Tomatoes in Paris looked like jewels in comparison. And best of all, they tasted like tomatoes! Even in the autumn when they weren’t in season, they were still red with a distinctive tomato taste. Shoprite tomatoes in the winter kind of taste like nothing. You just get the tomato texture with none of the tomato taste, which is vaguely unpleasant if you want to eat it raw.

Because so many artificial ingredients and preservatives are banned in the EU, especially in comparison to the United States, and the only corn product that is popularly available in a European store is corn, everything seems to taste better, even your cheap, store-brand packaged snacks. I’m going to miss food shopping in Paris, not only because they package their eggs in six instead of twelve and sell UHT milk in convenient cartons that do not need to be refrigerated for months if unopened, but also because the stuff you’re eating is not as processed.

Case in point: Fanta. If you tried to sell American Fanta, people in Europe would revolt. In Germany, birthplace of Fanta, the bottle proudly displayed that there was real orange juice. The American product proudly proclaims that it contains only “natural flavors” and no caffeine, as if that’s all you need to have a great product. While on the plane, I stared at the softly glowing orange liquid in my cup that claimed to be Fanta and then took a perfunctory sip to be polite. If only that were true.

Couscous and Montaigne

Going back to the basics, the reason why I even have this fantastic opportunity to live in Paris for three months is because I’m taking Civ classes. I have class for about three a day: a French class that runs throughout the quarter and three compressed classes about European history with an emphasis on France. Forgive me, I’m a little biased when it comes to UChicago’s Core. I absolutely love the classes that I’ve taken to fulfill the requirements, and Civ has been no exception. One of the best things about the Civ and the Core in general is that you read everything first-hand. Core classes revolve around primary documents; there is no barrier between you and the original content (except perhaps a translator or two). Best of all, taking Civ abroad means that you’re guaranteed to be in a small discussion class as opposed to a larger lecture and an emphasis on facts and figures that I might have found if I had taken Civ back on campus.

During our first three weeks, we started off with the Renaissance and main theme was the rise of the individual. It seems like such a simple concept – to be an individual. But back in the Middle Ages when the likelihood of death was just around the corner and you were a serf who had to work in the fields, there wasn’t much time to spend on being your own person. The idea of individuality is a concept that is easy to take for granted. It seems that it might be something that comes naturally, but once you get down to it, it’s actually a product of a culture and history.

Our professor was Philipe Desan. He’s a Montaigne scholar with his own Wikipedia page and quite a vivacious personality. In between lectures on Martin Luther or Machiavelli, he would regale us with the mischievous adventures of his Catholic school days or reminisce about his time as a Trotskyist during his college years. One day, he casually mentioned how he used to have philosophical discussion with Jean-Paul Sartre, who was “kind of a jerk.” Our entire class did a double take. Apparently, to be worthy of Sartre’s time, he had to read a philosophical text every day, which he did for several years. Somewhere along the way, Professor Desan also attended the lectures of a young Michel Foucault. Playing the degrees of separation game became infinitely more interesting after our first weeks of class.

Despite (or in addition to) all the famous thinkers he has met, Michel de Montaigne is Professor Desan’s academic soulmate. He had quite a lot to say on all the texts we read, but when we reached Montaigne on our syllabus, he radiated enthusiasm – the mere mention of his name seemed to make our professor beam from ear to ear. Montaigne wrote in the 16th century and was one of the leading lights of the French Renaissance. His most important invention was the essay. The essay? It seems that there were essays and treatises from the very beginning of time! But Montaigne developed the essay as a literary form of personal expression. Before, you had to a relatively important person, a serious academic, or a theologian to have anything published, but Montaigne did this ingenious thing where he picked a topic. With a random topic as his premise, such as coaches, he meandered and interwove his thoughts and opinions to make a point about more substantial subjects. In the example of “Of Coaches,” he moves from modes of transportations to a criticism of excess to a criticism of the violent and harsh treatment that the Europeans directed towards the native inhabitants of the Americas. Voilà! After Montaigne, anyone can now share their views as long as you reference your original choice of topic every now and then.

How much does Professor Desan love Montaigne? Not only is he one of his most famous scholars, he is also one out of five (maybe six) people who has ever handled one of the original published manuscripts that is now kept air-sealed in a vault somewhere in France, specifically Bordeaux I think. While passing a thick volume of the scanned images from these archives, Professor Desan told us about a hair in the pages of the book while he was working with the manuscript. Knowing that he was one of the few people to be in such close proximity to the pages and using some intuition that I have yet to understand, he promptly concluded that it must be a beard hair from Montaigne himself! Montaigne, in all his pictures, sported facial hair, and according to our professor, all the other librarians that have handled the manuscript were definitely clean-shaven. Besides, the book was lost for a hundred years or so, which means no one even saw it for a century or so. Thus, he collected the hair and keeps it in a test tube. He plans to find a brilliant scientist in the biology department at UChicago to run a DNA sequence test to confirm that he indeed has in his possession, Montaigne’s hair.

My class had the honor of dining with our professor, and we discovered his life was even more interesting, if that were possible. He knows French, English, and Japanese. His wife is from Japan, and he rotates between Chicago, Paris, and Japan. His favorite part of Paris is, of course, the Left Bank. His university was closed in the 1970s after accidentally conferring degrees to a pair of horses, and he started his academic career in sociology before studying French Literature and eventually reaching Renaissance literature and other cool things like that. Professor Desan has also been to South America (I want to say Brazil) for a Montaigne dedication ceremony of some sort and spent time with an indigenous people. He passed around his iPhone in class to show us the pictures.

Dinner was at Chez Bebert, a North African restaurant in Montparnasse known for its couscous. It was a novel experience. The only instances when I’ve ever had couscous were in the dining hall where it was always included in a cold salad that had an unpleasant acidic tinge from the dressing. We started with complimentary appetizers, which included pickled carrots, samosas, and other vegetables. For your actual meal, you ordered a serving of meat while the couscous, accompanying broth, stewed veggies, and beans came in infinite quantities. I tried merguez, which is a type of lamb sausage, while others chose lamb, chicken kebabs, beef, or some combo of the above. The meat arrived sizzling on a bed of lettuce and the meat fell off the bone. Professor Desan taught us how to assemble our meal, first taking a plateful of the fluffy grains, heaping the couscous with vegetables and beans, and adding spoonfuls of salty broth, the most important step or otherwise the couscous will expand in your stomach and eventually kill you if you misjudge the quantity you eat. (This last part might not be true, but he said it with a half-seriousness that I couldn’t figure out.) It was hearty, delicious meal that was a nice break from the usual meat, creamy sauce, and bread that is found in French cuisine. It was a novel experience too. I think when I return home, I’ll see if I can recreate my couscous meal to some degree, after I finally eat some turkey, of course.

Montaigne writes a lot about his experiences. In fact, he has an essay called “Of Experience,” and it meanders through a whole slew of thoughts – books, knowledge, the ridiculousness of the legal system, and kidney stones. “Que sais -je?” is his motto. “What do I know?” The point is not to attain knowledge, but learn from your day-to-day experience. Read books, not to learn about the ancient Greeks, but to understand yourself, the most important goal you can undertake. Despite his kidney stones, I like to think that Montaigne was a jolly fellow who found ultimate contentment in writing his essays and building all this self-knowledge. I also think that he would have liked couscous.

During our dinner, we didn’t mention Montaigne at all and mainly pestered Professor Desan about his impressions of Jean-Paul Sartre. Still, if you say couscous, I will think of Montaigne  Even though I didn’t like reading his essays at all (he was too all-over the place for my taste), but it’s hard not to respect someone who takes the task of living so seriously. Montaigne’s personable, kind-of stream-of-consciousness writing is at times entertaining but mostly confusing because he jumps from thought to thought. However, if you’re patient, it eventually congeals into extraordinary insight.

Have you been able to think out and manage your own life? You have done the greatest task of all.

Montaigne writes this at the end of “Of Experience.”  Isn’t it something to have someone who died over four hundred years ago say something that can still resonante so profoundly right now? I’m no Montaigne scholar, but I can see why he can be someone to which you devote part of your life. Even if I forget everything else that I’ve read in those first three weeks, I’ll always remember seeing these two lines at 2 in the morning and thinking, “Thanks, Montaigne. That was really good.”

There Are No Turkeys in Paris

Actually, this is not true. But right now, it sure feels that way. Not having Halloween in Paris was just a minor inconvenience; I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. On the other hand, not having Thanksgiving hurts my heart a little. It is on my Top 5 Favorite Holidays list, and imagining carved slices of turkey smothered with rich gravy and brilliant red cranberry sauce makes me a little sad. Most of all, I’m bummed that I’ll be missing out on stuffing. Stuffing! The best food. Who knew that stale bread could be magically transformed into a culinary masterpiece?

I did try and see if I could recreate Thanksgiving in some shape and form. The grocery stores here contain all kinds of interesting things in its meat section, like rabbit (which is pretty good). Alas, no luck in finding my favorite type of poultry. I bought some vegetables and a 16-pack of yogurt instead.

Hope did come in the form of Thanksgiving, which in this context is the name of an American grocery store located in the Marais. It’s a small, one-room shop with shelves of American imports – things like Froot Loops, Aunt Jemima maple syrup, Bisquick, and Jif peanut butter. For the holiday, they were selling bags of fresh cranberries, cans of gravy, Kraft stuffing mix, and turkey basters. Essentially, there was everything but the turkey, which I could have pre-ordered if I had the funds or the means to properly cook an entire bird. I left with a box of Jiffy Cornbread mix instead and grumbled to myself about the idea of paying €10 for a jar of peanut butter. I know it’s an import, but in a month, I can buy a super sized jar for half the price at my local Shoprite.

After class, the UChicago Center was hosting a Thanksgiving reception for us students to celebrate the holiday. They promised sandwiches and “gallons of wine,” which appeared on a lovely spread in our library. The sandwiches were quite tasty and came in a dazzling variety. There was plenty of wine and tempting desserts. I picked up a chocolate-hazelnut mousse bar that was topped with actual hazelnuts. Everything was yummy, but it still didn’t really compare to my favorite Thanksgiving spread or to a whole day roasting things in ovens and boiling broths on stovetops.

Although turkeys are hard to come by in Paris, one thing isn’t. I finally did my book shopping that I’ve been putting off for a while, a surprising thing because books are my life blood and my guiding light. (And that’s only a slight exaggeration.) I first visited a Gibert Joseph to pick up a copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus for my brother, who is learning French in school. Everyone needs to read an existentialist novel now and then to get some life perspective. The Stranger fits the bill for those moments when you want to read something bleak, detached, and moving all at the same time. The prices of books are fixed here in Paris, so even though Gibert Joseph is a chain, it doesn’t dominate the market in the same way that Barnes and Nobles does in the U.S. Plus, even though it was two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, there were so many people browsing around the store, and most surprising of all, actually buying titles. There were at least ten people in front of me at the register, each of them carrying at least two or three books that they’d found.

My second bookstore stop at the day was at the famous Shakespeare and Co, located next to Notre Dame. I’ve taken a quick look inside whenever I’ve been in the St. Michel area, and it’s usually packed with toursits on the weekends. However, since I visited today during the afternoon, it was actually possible to maneuver through the labyrinth of bookshelves. The books are relatively expensive, but it was wonderful just sitting in the store’s upstairs reading room and being surrounded by old volumes and people who are so excited about reading. There was a man playing the piano in the next room, which added to the cozy atmosphere. I sat down on a bench and read my Civ reading (today’s topic: Baudelaire and modernism/modernization!). I bought a store tote bag. And best of all, I finally bought a copy of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his time in Paris hanging out with members of the Lost Generation.

I’m so excited to start reading. Already, the first chapter is titled “A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel.” It’s unbelievable to imagine that Hemingway found a favorite café near the plaza that I just walked past on my way to the bookstore where I bought his book. There’s a circular feel to it all that makes my head spin a little. I might be walking on the same sidewalk as one of my favorite authors of all-time. Crazy! Even more exciting, I get a glimpse of how Paris was like in the 1920s, when people had money to spend, walked around slightly drunk, changed the face of art and literature, and was deeply scarred by World War I. It was one of those times where everything seemed to be okay and everything seemed to be figured out, but in reality, nothing was really truly all right and there was trouble brewing just around the corner, e.g. economic collapse, another world war, etc. Of course, Hemingway only had one perspective, but one is better than none. If I can’t have turkey, at least I have a feast of a different sort in this gorgeous city where a simple walk down a boulevard leaves me looking dazed and wonderstruck.

Super Sightseeing Saturday (with a hint of Nuit Blanche)

For a bit of context: I lovelovelovelove art museums. Unsurprisingly, I waltzed off to the Louvre at my first available moment at the relatively bright and early time of 11 o’clock. The courtyard is absolutely stunning. Like all famous structures in France, the Louvre was once a palace for a number of French kings. The glass pyramid is a little incongruous to the rest of the classical decor, but it made the thirty minute wait all the more exciting.

The Louvre is ridiculously enormous, so I decided that I wanted to relive the first half of my 19th Century art history class that I took spring quarter and then hit up some Renaissance artists. My first stop was the Denon Wing where I navigated a small mob to catch a glimpse of the venerable Mona Lisa, passing by Winged Victory and interrupting many people trying to snap portraits of loved ones in front of famous sculptures. There are two main rooms for famous French art. One is full of history paintings – giant canvases of allegorical ancient Greek and Roman scenes meant to demonstrate some civic message to the genreral public. I was super excited to see some David paintings face to face. Seeing art in person is always so much better than seeing it on a slide. Everything has so much more impact. In the case of the history paintings, you’re engulfed by the scene, caught by the streamlined and tense figures frozen in motion. The other room held the best of the Romanticism movement, which was characterized by more contemporary topics, rich and vivid colors, and a greater appeal to emotion. This was my favorite by far. Seeing The Raft of Medusa was a transcendent experience. Gericault painted his rendition of a particularly nasty incident where the survivors of a shipwreck had to resort cannibalism while they were adrift. You can really see why it was popular in its heyday.

I managed to walk around all the wings and saw the interiors of Napoleon’s apartments, some creepy Dutch and Flemish works, and Venus de Milo. However, I could not for the life of me find the Italian Renaissance paintings. There’s an entire wing of the stuff, but every single entrance was blocked for renovations and installations. Literally every elevator, escalator, fire escape door, and hallway. Plus, the Louvre, despite its impressive collection, does not make sense organizationally. There are two second floors! You’re just asking for trouble with that. In any case, I’ll have to make a second trip to see Titian and Raphael. Plus, I didn’t see any of the historical artifacts either, so that alone will merit another excursion.

When the group of us reconvened at the lobby of the Louvre, we were drained. We wandered into a shopping mall that was connected to the museum (you can appreciate art and indulge in some retail therapy in one convenient location!) and sat at the food court to rest our legs. There was a McDonalds and on their menu was a McBaguette. I don’t eat McDonald’s in the U.S., but Iwas a little intrigued by its French adaptations.

An hour and a half later (our legs required lots of rest), we decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower where a member of our group was meeting a friend. On the way, we strolled through the Tuileries Gardens.

This is Manet’s Music in the Tuileries (1862).
This is what it looks like in the rain. (Yes, that’s the Eiffel Tower in the background!)

We also passed by the Egyptian Obelisk that stands guard at the Place de la Concorde before reaching Paris’s most famous landmark. Rumor has it, most of the French thought (and still think) that it’s hideous; it was turned into a radio tower (possibly) to prevent the city from tearing it down after the World’s Fair. Aesthetic value aside, it is still pretty impressive looking, especially when you’re standing under it.

I don’t believe in paying money to go up tall structures, but I imagine that the view would be beautiful, even in the rain. At night, the entire tower is lit up and from certain places, you can see it sparkle.

After picking up a couple of more members into the group, we decided to head to Montparnasse, where literary giants like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald used to hang out. Montparnasse is also known for its crêperies. Originally, we wanted to go to a Crépe Josselin, which was one of the places frequented by the aforementioned personalities, but it was packed. The crepes we found across the street were still delicious though. I ordered a galette, a savory buckwheat crepe, filled with sausage, potatoes, and an egg. Following tradition, my meal was accompanied by a mug of cider. It was nice to have a warm, nourishing meal after walking for several blocks in the dreary weather.

After we were done, unsure of what to do with ourselves, we hopped on the Metro again to Monmarte, the site of the Lapin Agile and Moulin Rouge. It was raining harder at this point, and Monmarte is the hilliest part of the city. We carefully hiked the steep and narrow lanes, sometimes slipping over the wet cobblestones. Going downhill gave me a bit of an adrenaline rush, but I made it without injury. Besides, the climb was worth it because at the top was Sacre Couer, a gorgeous basilica with pristine white walls. We weren’t allowed to use our cameras inside, but there’s a stunning painting (or maybe mosaic?) of Christ. We also caught the beginning of mass and had the chance to listen to some impressive organ music. As if that weren’t enough, you have a giant panorama of Paris right outside on the church’s steps (who needs the Eiffel Tower?)! The city sprawled below us. It looked like we could just scoop it up with our palms and put it in our pockets.

It was nearly midnight at this point. We’d been out for more than twelve hours already, but my first Saturday in Paris also coincided with Nuit Blanche. The term literally means “white night,” but it is acutally the English equivalent of “all-nighter.” For that Saturday, art museums and galleries were open until the wee hours of the morning, 7 a.m. at some places. The Metro lines, restaurants, and bars stayed open later as well, and art installations appeared in public areas and spaces all throughout the city. You had the option to follow a guided tour of sorts to make your way through everything, but the Internet told me that the Châtalet area was a good bet, so we hopped on to the train yet again. Our plan was to find the Centre Pompidou, but Châtalet is unfortunately the busiest and most confusing stop since so many lines intersect at this point. It took us nearly 20 minutes to finally find it. When we arrived, we were greeted by a long line to enter the museum, known for modern and contemporary art. At the square outside, broken liquor bottles littered the ground and groups of excited Parisians huddled together talking excitedly. The streets were filled with people, and a stage was being set up. There were many signs that something exciting was about to happen, but we just stood with our umbrellas, too tired from all our walking to take it all in. After ten minutes of deliberation, we decided to call it a night, which was a little disappointing given that half the city seemed to be beginning it. But still, I was very excited to go back to my room, take a warm shower, and fall asleep, which was more or less what I wound up doing.

It was a slightly anti-climatic ending for a day that I called Super Sightseeing Saturday. But I did get to see that famous Mona Lisa smile.