France

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Monsieur S-K Misses His Flight

Here’s what happens when you go off the grid for even 1 news day. Even if it’s the slowest news day of the week.

I was talking to a European friend in the UK who never misses a news hour. Who mentioned…casually, just in passing…what an unbelievable thing had happened to Dominique Strauss-Kahn the day before.

What unbelievable thing?

Other than he’s head of the IMF, a former French finance minister, and a front-runner in the upcoming French presidential elections? Who, according to the latest polls, is the Socialist Party Candidate With The Right Stuff: a fighting chance of ousting Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012?

Other than that and that and that, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Where have you been, under a rock? (Under a rock, writing.)

OK, let me give you the news…lowlights: Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York on Saturday for sexual assault and false imprisonment of a member of the Sofitel housekeeping staff.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

When Strauss-Kahn attempted to leave the country on an Air France flight just a few hours after the alleged crimes occurred, the Port Authority police removed him from the plane within minutes of takeoff.

How stupid he must feel (and how lucky for everyone else involved), to be so tantalizingly close to departure to a country with no extradition treaty with the USA, only to realize that he himself tipped off the hotel staff ‒ and thus the police ‒ that he was calling from JFK.

Because I’m the big man on campus, I absolutely demand that you drop everything and bring to me my cell phone (because when I’m freaked out, I lapse into French grammar), which I left in my hotel room after running out on 5-minutes’ notice for…oh, no particular reason.

And you’d better get here before my flight leaves at 4:40pm, or I’ll take my business elsewhere.

The NYPD probably couldn’t believe it: a felony suspect who volunteers his schedule and current whereabouts! This is just too easy.

French voters, better to find out now: this isn’t a member of the A-Team you were thinking about electing Président de la République française.

For Strauss-Kahn to say “What is this about?” to the cops who unceremoniously removed him from first class shows just how sure he was that he’d gotten away with something.

Because who does that?

Strauss-Kahn’s many fans, who claim the injured party here is France, are correct: there are probably numerous people who’d greatly benefit from unseating him at the IMF a little early.

But having worked in the hospitality industry, I ask you: what luxury hotel would risk its reputation by being an unwitting party to such a payback-turned-felony? Especially a 5-star property catering to the rich and famous?

None. This is a nightmare for Sofitel, and its parent company Accor, and the worst possible reason to be the lead story on every major news network everywhere the IMF does business.

Which is everywhere.

While hotel housekeeping staff who interact with VIPs are trained accordingly, “meet the guest’s every need” NEVER includes sexual harassment or assault. Sofitel New York did the right thing by calling 911, and quickly.

Otherwise, we’d be looking at a Roman Polanski sequel.

Also, any politician on high alert for a career-ending setup, which Strauss-Kahn claimed was imminent, calls the front desk in outrage and demands the woman, the “opposition spy,” leave immediately. Then he calls the New York Times to say, “Nice try, Sarkozy.”

He doesn’t lock the door to prevent the woman from leaving.

Because he allegedly committed these crimes in the USA, Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Imagine if he’d done such a thing in Saudi Arabia or China. He’d be facing the death penalty.

Or in any number of other countries, where he’d be considered guilty until proven innocent, had a 1-day trial in a language he didn’t understand, and be “lost” in prison for decades.

Members of his own political party are telling France TV5 that Strauss-Kahn is in the safe hands of the venerated American justice system. French politician Ségolène Royal, who lost to Sarkozy in 2007, added, simply: only Monsieur Strauss-Kahn can say whether or not he did it.

He’ll have a chance to do just that before a jury of his peers in New York. Meanwhile, he’s cooling his heels at Rikers, regretting that he never watched even 1 episode of Law & Order.

Can you say, “Remand, Your Honor”?

(Let’s see: international finance guru and potential future president of France, with virtually unlimited financial resources and residences in multiple countries, who tried to flee the jurisdiction once already and is facing at least 25 years in prison on 7 different criminal counts. No bail is high enough for this guy.)

The thing about sexual predators, if he’s convicted of being one: they don’t stop unless they’re stopped. Period.

And every time they get away with something, it just makes them more confident, more brazen, more sure they’ll get away with it again.

Or get away with something more serious next time…to a stranger who unknowingly walks into a dangerous situation.

(Michel Debres of the opposition party now says Strauss-Kahn previously attempted to assault other maids on previous stays at the same hotel. “Everyone knew it in the hotel.” If you were one of those “everyones,” Monsieur Debres, did you not think it was your moral responsibility to speak up?)

We’ve seen this over and over and over again.

So, shame on people who pressure, coerce, and “strongly encourage” sexual assault victims not to file charges, especially members of the victim’s own family, like Anne Mansouret, the Socialist politician mother of French novelist Tristane Banon.

Banon claims Strauss-Kahn assaulted her in 2002 and says she’s now filing charges against him because she’ll “be taken seriously.” Her mother should be arrested alongside Strauss-Kahn for witness intimidation.

In New York, that’s a Class E felony and carries a 4-year prison sentence.

If you’ve been a victim of sexual violence, or know someone who needs help, contact RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Thierry Plays Cricket

“How could you possibly miss, with a bat that wide?”

This is me in a smack-down with an arrogant, check-me-out English cricket player who just dissed America’s national pastime (baseball, one third of the Trinity, along with Mom and apple pie), a flame-throwing rebuttal that, while true, will probably get me denied future entry into the UK for reasons of the national interest.

Even though I agree that the World Series is a silly name for a tournament with teams from only 1 country (well, nominally 2), and a baseball game really can go on for what seems like forever ‒ which is why “The Wave” was invented ‒ without getting any points on the scoreboard, nobody but NOBODY gets to tell me the San Francisco Giants aren’t rulers of the batting sports universe until next October!

I guess what I disliked most about these particular cricket players was their insufferable superiority. This is a gentlemen’s game, Miss, implying that men who don’t play it by definition cannot be gentlemen and that while we admit some women can play cricket, they shouldn’t.

Thus, you’re not particularly invited, except to watch, in high heels and posh hats.

Pardon me, but aren’t you forgetting about the UK women’s cricket EBC National Club Championship (won by South Northumberland in 2010)?

I also think the USA women’s 3-time Olympic gold medal-winning softball team could learn to play cricket in about 10 seconds and take on the best of you. I’m so confident, in fact, that I’ll see your 100£, and raise you 200£.

Actually, I had some issues with cricket before ever meeting you…gentlemen. Starting with your uniforms. What’s with the all-white? At the end of the match, does the cleanest guy win, or are you advertising Clorox?

Dressing like that, people are going to think you’re chefs. Not a compliment…to us.

Living overseas for quite a few years, I’m a soccer fan. I watch the World Cup. I know FIFA, EUFA, FWA, PFA, and all kinds of other acronyms in European football (or “il calcio,” as it’s called in Italy).

I’m also an Arsenal fan, having first followed Thierry Henri there from Juventus, back when nobody thought his career was going much of anywhere, and even after he left for Barça.

As a holder of a French carte de séjour, I was obliged to be a fan of the French national team, Les Bleus, which, let me tell you, was not a hardship during the 2000s, with Thierry at striker. I was proud to be French…er, American.

Thierry: Golden Boot, Time cover, Hall of Fame.

Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.

However, if any loyal Manchester United fans work in Immigration at Heathrow, they aren’t very forgiving and I’m in serious trouble.

Aside: there’s pretty much nothing more exciting since time began than being in Africa when Cameroon is in the World Cup quarter-finals against Who Cares. The entire continent is on fire, watching the game en masse, with giant TVs in every town, running on giant generators.

We’ll happily trade off the chilled cherry Coke, since for the most part we’re not supposed to be drinking beer. Although, let me direct your attention to the top-secret, bright-red cooler out back.

Back to cricket, England’s #3 export, behind the Beatles and digestive biscuits.

Let me introduce you to the laws, not rules, of cricket play. The Cricket Constitution, if you will, circa London 1744, which contains a Preface, a Preamble, 42 Laws, and 4 Appendices.

If you don’t believe me, go to the Cambridge Law Library and look it up.

These provisions include a guaranteed 10-minute interval between innings, plus additional intervals for lunch, tea, and drinks, basically guaranteeing that very little play happens at all, which is why when you finally do get out onto the pitch, you have to rack up 100s of points to make up for it.

To the cricket players’ chagrin, wanting so badly to bore me with all the history and philosophy behind the game, I care about only one thing: how do you get points? Most commonly: “Runs are scored when the two batsmen run to each other’s end of the pitch.”

(You mean players run toward each other, not into each other ‒ aggressively and on purpose, as in soccer ‒ although I suppose that happens occasionally in cricket, too.)

What fascinated me the most were the “The Mechanics of Dismissal.” Shockingly civilized. “If the fielders believe a batsman is out,” the laws stipulate, “they may ask the umpire “How’s that?”, commonly shouted emphatically with arms raised, before the next ball is bowled.”

We’re more used to the shouting emphatically with arms raised, “You *&&$$)&%! Go to ()$#*!@#! ” before running out onto the field and getting ejected from the game. And that’s just the coach we’re talking about.

(If you’re a baseball fan who happens to be buying a hot dog at the concession stand and misses a blatantly bad call, never fear ‒ there will be rumble in the parking lot afterwards.)

Another way to get out in cricket is Law 36: “Leg Before Wicket” (LBW). Ouch.

Although I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud, I’d rather see Thierry playing cricket for the Marylebone Cricket Club in London than ‒ sob! ‒ soccer for the New York Red Bulls.

Thierry, s’il vous plaît, ne me quitte pas!

You Complete Me

Something’s missing, but I can’t put my finger on it.

In the food life, it’s called taste training. Sometimes you can taste what’s missing for yourself; other times you need feedback that you’re not necessarily thrilled about.

But, like most categories of bad news, it’s best to hear it from a friend.

At Le Cordon Bleu, my downfall was salt. The French have a higher salt tolerance than Americans in general, so even low salt to them tasted much too salty to me. I just could not get this right at first. Every day when I thought I’d finally achieved salty perfection, I was still just a little bit off the mark…and heard all about it.

The make-do-until-I-graduate strategy: as salty as I can stand it, plus the palm-of-the-hand equivalent of another tablespoon per 4-serving portion.

Americans are so willing to sacrifice taste for health that we self-righteously hide the salt shaker and dive forthwith into the chips and salsa, followed by peanut brittle and French vanilla ice cream.

But it’s also that restaurant food is more salty than anybody makes at home and people who eat in restaurants a lot notice this and expect it. So, if you want to keep your job, you best work on your salty delivery, with some salty back-kitchen language to go along with it.

Being a garlic fiend, that’s the first missing ingredient I notice. One clove of garlic is just barely enough to roast and spread on 1 slice of bread. Some American recipes call for this little garlic in an entire pasta dish, or in a half-gallon of soup!

Anybody from the Mediterranean will insist that you amend your menu to read HGD (Hopelessly Garlic Deficient).

It’s easy to fall into this trap when you work with ingredients you’re unfamiliar with. At Le Cordon Bleu, we sought out people from those regions to give us a reality check. Luckily, there was hardly a region on earth from which we didn’t have at least someone, if not a whole assortment of tasters to choose from.

If what you made didn’t pass muster with at least 1 local, you’d better come up some sincere apologies before going back to the drawing board.

The Japanese students, for example, had no trouble with salt. Japanese cuisine is high in sodium, largely due to everything soy. But the Japanese chefs-to-be never quite got the whole bouquet garni thing (so indispensible in French cuisine that many recipes don’t even bother to mention it), having not grown up with laurier (Bay leaf) et poireau (leek) and not sensing what French food, particularly French sauces, tasted like without them.

The more colorful the spice in the cupboard, the less likely the Japanese students had ever seen it, let alone tasted it. They also didn’t have much of a clue what to do with pork loin, or boiled potatoes, or caramelized onions, let alone caramelized carrots.

(I was born in Japan and love it there, so note that these are friendly examples.)

Once people got over the beauty of their presentation, which was really hard to get over because it was so amazing and effortless, the Japanese students took a lot of heat for this. Nothing like blah, off-topic food, whether it’s French or Japanese or something else, to acquire all kinds of unhappy former customers.

You get into Argentinean, Turkish, North African, or Southeast Asian cuisine with that attitude and you already know that undesirable acronym: NRSE (Not Remotely Spicy Enough).

…and it’s a crying shame to get all the way to the dinner table before you find this out, when the only available fixes are Tabasco and red pepper flakes.

Sooner or later, you − the flavor imposter − are found out. If you’re the proprietor, a few lukewarm reviews on yelp.com and your business is toast.

That’s why restaurants are very often partnerships. It’s not just about seed money. It’s about complimentary skill sets, to have somebody around to save you from yourself and that list of business-killing acronyms.

It’s not just about menus, either. It’s about sharing, negotiating, and learning how to leverage each other’s strong points to get the work done. If you didn’t learn this by washing dishes with your siblings when you were growing up, you get to learn it the hard way at Le Cordon Bleu.

More often than not we shared stoves and ovens with another person. If you’re familiar with French cuisine, you already know how many burners you need at once: 3 going full blast, a 4th turned off to use as a transition area. Then there’s your 1 oven trying to be 2 temperatures at once. So, if you have only half a stove and half an oven to call your own, you need to figure out a workable plan with your “blind date.”

But, for example, if you’re blanching and peeling 5 kilos of tomatoes total, you really need only 1 pot of boiling water, 1 bowl of cold water, 1 platter, and 1 skimming spoon to share. That’s 4 pieces of extra equipment not taking up your precious prep area.

At culinary school, this is all legal and encouraged. It’s the reality in the food business: working in close quarters, doing more with less, learning how to work clean and organized (which counted for 10% of our grade)…and tasting each others’ food as a hedge against disaster.

You wouldn’t want your worst enemy to hear the kind of abuse you’ll get for presenting bad food for money for real. So, be honest. Brutal if necessary. I’ll do you the same favor when it’s your turn.

I know some progressive American gourmet restaurants in which the 5pm tasting − before the dinner service − involves the entire staff. Not just culinary staff. Waiters, hostesses, porters, dishwashers, everybody.

The logic: if you work here, you need to know what we’re serving and what our business is about, because you never know when you might encounter a customer and knowing what we’re about will make you better at your job and in the long run make us more successful. (And maybe you more successful, if you’d like to learn how to cook and be promoted.)

And if we’re smart we’ll listen to all your opinions. One might save us a lot of grief someday.

I know a guy who owns a fusion restaurant that travel guides rate $$$$. Somewhere you’d go on your anniversary. He added this new item to his menu because it had a cool name, he’d eaten it before, and thought he could easily figure out how to make it and make it profitable. He was really proud of his new recipe and couldn’t wait to showcase for the upcoming season.

Until he served it to his staff as a test run.

About 1/3 of his BOH (back-of-house) staff was from the same country, the country from which this dish originated. They tasted politely, then started laughing…and couldn’t stop.

Why? Not only was this chef’s dish made completely wrong in all the wrong ways, but also the result looked and tasted a lot like another local dish a restaurant like that would never serve…and there was even a crude JOKE about it that any person who spoke the native language would know.

Good catch.

So, sometimes it’s not a missing ingredient, it’s a missing piece of information that nukes your quarterly profits.

Or, sometimes it’s the passion that’s missing.

Early days at Le Cordon Bleu, there was this Scandinavian student whose stove was one down, one over from mine.

(I should say our stove, because that term I shared mine with an Asian ex-runway model, who was finally having the career and family she’d always wanted, after 10 years of boring fashion shows.)

For Miss Scandinavia, food was VVSB: Very Very Serious Business. She never chatted, never smiled, never even complained, which is an absolute culinary school requirement (see syllabus). Her parents had sent her to Le Cordon Bleu, we’d heard, with specific instructions to be valedictorian of her class, or don’t bother coming home.

She was determined to have NFW (No Fun Whatsoever)…and that’s how her food tasted, every day.

Then she met this Latin American student who was hell on wheels.

He’d been a line cook in a busy holiday destination resort for a few seasons, so he had very good knife skills and worked very fast. But he had no discipline whatsoever. Despite coming to class after partying until 4am, he always plated first, but half hung over with half his uniform missing, hair on fire the entire morning, his workspace in utter shambles.

What saved him was that he had this incredible palate. He could taste the absence of celery. Our chefs couldn’t get over it. This guy had never worked in a French restaurant, or even a gourmet restaurant. He’d never been to Europe before, either.

So, in addition to being the class flirt, he became the class taster.

Anyway, imagine these 2 people sharing a stove. You can’t pay enough tuition to witness that quality of culinary entertainment every day. Then they fell in love and it got even better.

The relationship didn’t last, according to our chefs, who in France comment freely on their students’ love lives without threat of lawsuits. After graduation, both did stages (internships) in prestigious Paris establishments, but when his visa ran out 6 months later, he went back to Latin America. She stayed on in Europe. Somewhere.

They were both better cooks having met, our chefs editorialized further. He’d learned to appreciate the beauty of the understated French classics. She’d learned that sometimes in a kitchen situation you just have to take a breath and let it rip.

Sometimes, too, I look around the kitchen and picture him at the stove next door − one down, one over − impatiently waiting to tell me, with that white-hot, ever-infectious culinary enthusiasm: dame un beso, mi amor! (give me a kiss, my darling!) because today you got it exactly right.

Cambodia’s Most Wanted Soup #2

Picking up where we left off yesterday in Cambodia’s Most Wanted Soup #1, the weary Le Cordon Bleu wanderers had wandered one night into some of the best food we’d had the whole semester, maybe even our whole French education, prepared by mysterious Asian restaurateurs – in Chinatown, but not Chinese…

Turns out, they were ethnic Thai-Lao, originally from the far NE of Cambodia.

That region has long been a no-man’s land, along a disputed border where bad dudes like to hang out. Traffickers. Terrorists. Other unsavory people you probably don’t want to get into arguments with during a carjacking.

(All too typically, this fighting is mainly about a place of worship, a temple ‒ and UNESCO Heritage site ‒ the Cambodians call Prasat Preah Vihear and the Thais call Khaoi Pra Viharn.)

For experienced travelers, it’s a bit safer nowadays, if you choose carefully both your border crossings ‒ there are 6 ‒ and the subjects of your photos. Unwashed bums (men or women) with backpacks, who speak 50 words of Thai and are brazen enough to pretend they live there ‒ so don’t even think about ripping us off with tourist prices ‒ have one of the best covers, if you’re ethnically out of place.

Two of the most serious travel risks in Cambodia? Drug-resistant malaria and untold thousands of land mines.

(While I was doing post-tsunami disaster relief in Thailand, I worked at this one village with 3 gentlemen from the British Special Forces. They were the village MVPs because they could do absolutely ANYTHING: electrify a whole street with salvaged wire, sewing needles, and duct tape; repair a bridge over the creek with neither a backhoe nor proper cement. We didn’t ask how they knew how to do all those things. They mentioned, ever so vaguely, that they’d been on that border doing “exercises with the Cambodian military” when the tsunami hit. We didn’t ask what all that entailed, either.)

Cambodian nationals who were ethnically Thai and/or Lao, even back many generations, were almost immediately targeted by Cambodian dictator Pol Pot for extermination. Ironically, this is exactly the part of the country in which former Khmer Rouge leaders hid out after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979.

(A quick history recap: the Khmer Rouge was the communist party of “Kampuchea” and whose policy of “social engineering” resulted in genocide.)

Pol Pot himself, after hearing on Voice of America in 1998 while under house arrest that he was about to go before the war crimes tribunal, “died in his sleep” that very night. Right.

This week, 30 years too late, 4 former Khmer Rouge leaders were indicted by the UN War Crimes Tribunal, each facing charges of crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes, murder, torture, and religious persecution. Whether these now-elderly criminals will even still be alive when they go to trial the middle of next year is doubtful, having lived to a ripe old age after being responsible for millions of young lives full of potential cut short in unspeakably brutal ways.

Pol Pot’s crazed methodology was to empty out all the cities, kill everyone who didn’t agree with his philosophy of agrarian collectivization, and put the remaining “peasants” ‒ including our new acquaintances, both academics (he in medicine, she in music) at prestigious private universities in Phnom Penh ‒ to work in the fields…while he installed his friends and relatives, who hadn’t even finished the 8th grade, in positions like Minister of Such-and-Such and plied them with Western amenities.

In 5 short years, 1974-1979, Pol Pot killed 1.2 million people, about 20% of the Cambodian population.

He kicked off his genocide with amazing speed, exceeded in recent times perhaps only by the genocide in Rwanda 20 years later. Imagine the capital city of Phnom Penh being home to businesses, universities, and millions of people one day and a ghost town the next. That’s how fast Pol Pot’s transition happened, which distinguishes him in stupidity from other equally fanatical dictators of his generation, who at least had the sense to realize that you need to gradually kill off your highly skilled enemies in order to maintain enough of the infrastructure to survive yourself.

Thailand had flirted with French culture, but was never colonized. Cambodia had fallen madly in love with all things French: food, architecture, schooling, language, lifestyle. Some of that remains, but to the very young Cambodian population, most is a distant memory, as is ‒ thankfully ‒ the brutality of the killing fields, about which some of the more gruesome details have only recently been allowed to be taught in Cambodian public school.

These restaurateurs spoke little about their personal war experiences, which no doubt are too horrific and painful to ponder. I do know they were forced to leave behind many family members, who urged them to go while they had a chance and were never heard from again. The husband couldn’t wait tables because one of his arms hung off his shoulder like a rag.

Phnom Penh today is a picture of poverty within a Francophone frame…as if the French had departed just as abruptly, leaving Camembert and fresh baguettes on the kitchen table, uneaten.

During the political sea change at home, Cambodia has witnessed one next door, too, as former enemy Vietnam fell headlong in love with capitalism and is making an actual go of it.

The devastation of brutal principle leads logically to the promise of brutal practicality and Cambodia has made impressive strides in the past decade. Make no mistake, it’s still a desperately poor country, but during Cambodia’s first peaceful year in 30 years, its economy grew at 4%. Many developed countries today would jump at that number.

I’d gotten human rights internships in Cambodia ‒ through a contact, sight unseen ‒ for a couple of Ivy League grad students, so I’d decided to pop over to Phnom Penh to see how they were doing. From the former glory of that capital city, I looked in my mind’s eye a long way in miles ‒ but not so long in years, actually ‒ and tried to imagine those days that our restaurateur friends had experienced, and miraculously survived.

Besides the trafficking and corruption sadly typical of SE Asia, there’s one pressing human rights issue in Cambodia. When whole generations of educated people are dead, even if you now have supposed freedom of speech under what some people describe as a pluralistic democracy, you need speakers who are willing to face government intimidation to exercise that freedom. Journalists and publishers, professors and students, activists and advocates…the very job descriptions highest on Pol Pot’s list to eliminate. That means cultivating fearless generations coming up behind you to articulate those issues in the local language with a local perspective, long after the grad students and humanitarian workers have gone home.

Back in Paris, we asked these restaurateurs how long they’d been in business. 10 years. Today, they’re welcoming weary chefs-to-be from Le Cordon Bleu Class of 2011, but they’d come to France during the war with nothing but their lives (for which they were ever grateful), worked for another immigrant family while they saved their money, then bought a little place of their own.

In the unlucky 13th arrondissement, where they found the best luck of their lives.

Cambodia’s Most Wanted Soup #1

Sometimes when you’re down to your last sauce ‒ and your last nerve ‒ it’s time for some lacquered duck soup.

This was our code word at Le Cordon Bleu for: I can’t take it anymore. I need to get out of here before I use my cleaver on something other than the rack of lamb.

The solution, obvious in hindsight: Paris Métro line 5 to Place d’Italie, le Chinatown de Paris.

People who read this blog know I like spicy food. The spicier the better. To the point that the proprietor usually asks, worriedly, “Are you sure?”

Oh yeah. Bring it on.

Place d’Italie is in the 13th arrondissement, where tourists rarely go. (They get to the south end of rue Mouffetard, lose their nerve, and head back toward le Panthéon.) If you’re an expatriate, that makes it the perfect neighborhood for you. Real estate is cheaper and you and your school-age kids might actually score a house with that rarity inside the Paris périphérique: a back yard, what my colleagues from Seattle call their “secret garden.”

So, that’s how Place d’Italie became a refuge − a culinary spa treatment, so to speak − from which we could return to Le Cordon Bleu, and its inevitable crème anglaise, with a renewed spirit.

And spas mean sweat and sweat ‒ in this case, from eating spicy food ‒ is healthy.

(Ever notice how the hottest countries in the world temperature-wise have by far the spiciest food? There are 1000s of years of logic behind that. On the hottest day you can imagine, order the hottest and spiciest soup you can imagine and ‒ trust me on this ‒ you’ll acclimate more quickly. Deep tissue massage helps, too.)

“You like spicy?” I like. “Sure?” Sure. Then I have just the fix for you.

When I was in Thailand, I learned a couple of really useful English phrases from Thai friends. One is “same same.” It means “yeah, like that.” Or, in a restaurant, when the menu is in Thai with no photos and you see a plate go by that looks really good, “same same” means “I’ll have that, too.”

Another is “same same but different.” Meaning: it might seem similar enough to be the same, but it’s just enough different to be different…and sometimes that makes all the difference.

Back to the soup course… Boiling hot, peppers galore. 5 different kinds that I can see, but I’m sure there are more I can’t see because even the steam is so spicy it makes my face tingle.

We’ll add your meat(s) right at the table and give you bowls and bowls and platters and platters of additional ingredients, including some vegetables with no French names that I recognized from past SE Asian travel, to doctor your soup “comme vous voulez” (however you want).

…and we’ll keep refilling and refilling and refilling your soup bowl, despite your protests. This becomes a cereal and milk type problem and at some point you’ll raise your white flag in defeat…which just signals us to bring you the dessert menu. Maybe call you a taxi and gently help you into it.

Here’s how we didn’t end up with lacquered duck soup, but met some fascinating people, who to this day remember our names and soup condiments, no matter how many months or years it’s been since any of us last ate there.

Our first culinary pilgrimage to Place d’Italie, out of pure desperation after some particularly brutal exams, nearly ended in defeat. We, the restaurant people, had forgotten the cardinal restaurant rule: we’re closed on Mondays. We walked along Boulevard d’Italie, seeing only darkness, including at the place we planned to go.

We were crushed, but for some reason kept walking a few more deserted blocks.

There we encountered a bright restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows. Packed with Asian diners at communal tables. Every door and window open to the street, on a chilly fall night.

Unimaginable scents wafting out into the street.

Here we’d followed our noses where well-trained noses go and ended up at this no-name, culturally unidentifiable Asian restaurant to which we went back time and time and time again, even after we graduated and swore off sauces entirely.

The more we tasted, the more we ordered and the more we had to learn these people’s story…

Continued tomorrow with Cambodia’s Most Wanted Soup #2.

Romance Standard Time

The squirrels and I are a package deal, says Yves.

Now, how is it that you’re still single? I say, sardonically.

Yves, a French colleague and friend, was complaining aloud, and I in turn was commenting aloud about his complaints, which were beyond ridiculous, even for the most overly dramatic of overly dramatic French guys, and I had quite a few to choose from.

Some stories are hilarious enough to risk serious payback and this was one of them.

See, Yves was telling me about this woman who he’d taken on a day trip from Paris to his country house − not a château, but not a cottage, either − in Centre, a rural province in (naturally) the center of France, in the Loire Valley. Drop-dead gorgeous part of the country that no tourist with a car should miss. Down in the direction of Limoges, where you buy those porcelain dishes.

Minimally, the trip was a tragic fiasco…and Yves was bitterly disappointed when I took HER side, not even knowing her, but imaging the following squirrel scenario with long-distance anxiety.

I don’t like squirrels. I don’t like furry little animals in general. And, as you might expect, they don’t like me much, either. So, the idea of spending any time whatsoever in a house whose upstairs is entirely overrun with squirrels − hundreds of them, by his description − sounded like the perfect way to PREVENT a woman from falling in love with you, if not running away screaming in the direction of the train station.

The generations of squirrels came to live there because the house had been vacant and in disrepair (and partially open to the elements) for many years, due to an estate dispute. Possession is 9/10ths of the law, as they say, and the squirrels were rapidly closing in on that last remaining 1/10th.

It won Yves no points with the woman in question that the ground floor of the house was inexplicably squirrel-free…so much so that he’d confidently brought along a picnic lunch?

Back story: his house was that little valley’s most famous − or infamous − property, depending on your point of view. A wealthy expatriate Englishman, a certain Mr. Barry, Esq., had bought the place back in the 1870s and his extended family had provided a seemingly endless supply of exciting scandals that lit up this − let’s face it, boring − township with some much-needed excitement for the next 100 years or so.

This house was also haunted (not just by squirrels). Apparently, it had been on the market for ages − really? − until my friend snatched it up at a fire sale price, so said the seller, laughing all the way to the bank. Yves had this dream of renovating it and living there full-time one day, having a portable career and a strong dislike of city life.

I like a good ghost story as much as the next person and suggested that maybe the ghost(s) could scare the squirrels away and thus salvage any remaining credibility he might have with his lady love.

So, if the squirrels are making so much racket, how do you know you have ghosts? Oh, in this house, the squirrels are noisy, but the ghosts are quiet. Interesting. Maybe the ghosts feel like they can’t compete?

So, the ghost apparently was this Monsieur Barry and even my colleague, a maybe-even-overly-sane-about-every-other-subject scientist, had seen it, having spent the night many times at his house…actually the squirrels’ house that you’re just visiting, I said, forgetting the old adage that if you’re already in a hole, stop digging.

I wanted to know every detail. When did the ghost arrive? Where did it go? What did it do? Were you scared?

Did you get any photos?

I believe in the occult. I don’t believe in it as a faith, but I do believe that spirits, good and bad, exist on the earth today. Thus, I don’t doubt Yves for a second that he saw the ghost of Monsieur Barry, or at least the ghost of somebody.

The curious thing to me was that the ghost always arrived around dinnertime.

Now this I could understand because any dish worth coming back from the dead for probably exists in classical French cuisine.

There was this place in the kitchen wall − I know this because Yves had shown me his architectural plans − where a door used to be, but in a previous renovation had been filled in and the door moved elsewhere. The ghost of Monsieur Barry, who had lived there when the kitchen door was in its original place, continued to use it, walking through the kitchen and into the dining room, where he hovered around the end of the table, where the host would normally sit.

Monsieur Barry wasn’t a hostile ghost, trying to take back the house from its new owner − and why in the world would he want to, with all those squirrels he’d have to deal with now? − or even sitting down at the head of the table, where presumably his old chair would’ve been. I guess he was just revisiting a place where he had good family memories from back in the day, of family meals around the family table at around 21:00 (9:00pm) every evening.

Now, “à chacun son goût” (to each his own, you can’t account for taste), so on the off chance her favorite holiday is Halloween, could it hurt to suggest that she make a return visit at the dinner hour and see this ghost you’re referring to? Maybe the novelty of ghost-hunting could partially cancel out the hostile squirrel takeover…while you get the exterminators in there, Yves. Come on.

My second-hand suggestion, I heard later, was flatly refused.

Later, I got a Christmas card from him, with a Centre return address. Signed by him and a woman named Lisabetta. At last, Yves had the good fortune of meeting a kindred spirit, of the living variety.

Assuming the squirrels have long been evicted, I wonder how many ever-so-quiet candlelight dinners they’ve shared with their mysterious guest, feasting perhaps on La Géline de Touraine à la Lochoise, at 21:00 Romance Standard Time.

La Géline de Touraine à la Lochoise is a specialty of the Centre region. It’s made with a small free-range black chicken called the “Black Lady,” vouvray (a special white wine de Touraine), champignons de Paris (mushrooms grown in the Loire Valley and one of the staples of classical French cuisine), onion, and crème fraîche. Deceptively simple and absolutely divine. Some people make La Géline with a salt crust, which is the version that immigrated to New Orleans, USA.

La Rentrée Scolaire

If you live in France, today is “la rentrée scolaire des élèves” (Back to School Day) − whether you’re in school or not, whether you like it or not. (Not.)

La Rentrée (“the return”) in general – back to school, back to work, back to your regular schedule − is observed by every French person ages 4 to 94. It’s this instantaneous, nationwide transition to regular life from carefree summer at the same beach – maybe even the same beach house − where you spend a month every year, as did your parents and parents and parents parents parents, as far back as your recorded family history.

Perhaps one of those generations is retired by now, lives near the ocean or sea full-time, and plays host to everyone. I’ve been a lucky guest at family gatherings like these, including picnics that I greatly hesitate to call picnics, given the elaborate food and presentation thereof, and amateur sports that I greatly hesitate to call amateur.

(I leave my competitive spirit in the city and am perfectly happy to let everybody else win absolutely everything, as long as you keep me plied with cold beverages. Ice is nice, but I’ve learned to deal.)

If you’re not staying beachfront, you’ve rented beach chairs, which you’ve also rented in exactly the same place on the same beach as your parents parents parents. Same concept as church pews and even more religiously observed. Bonjour, Monsieur-dame. Bienvenue. I see your reservation written down right here in the sand: row 14, for posterity.

But in late August, you start to wind things down, even though it’s hard to concentrate on anything during those long, hot summer days when your daily agenda looks something like sleep late, long breakfast, swimming, even longer lunch, reading, sunbathing, napping…banking some energy for the longest dinner on record, a record just waiting to be broken.

“La Rentrée – NOT!” would involve driving into Paris the night before the first day of school, in the worst traffic you’ve seen outside of Los Angeles. Instead, people tend to depart leisurely several days prior to the deadline and “pass by” that cute little guesthouse famous for its wine list, which you not-so-secretly wanted to do anyway.

So, you’ve been goofing off since July 15th. You spent Bastille Day packing everything you bought at “les soldes d’été” (the summer sales), then drove off – or flew off − the next morning to parts unknown, leaving, bien sûr, no contact number at the office.

As if anyone would call you anyway, seeing they’re all sunning, eating, and napping, too.

(For tourists, here are 2 things to know about Paris in summer: it’s cheap, and it’s empty. Cheap because it’s hot and humid and all the smart people are on the shore for the next few weeks, where it’s probably the same temperature, but at least you can dress for it. Empty for the same reason.)

Now it’s the 1st week of September and the fun’s over.

There’s an oddly beautiful symmetry in a country in which everybody’s on exactly the same schedule. Time to get the winter clothes out of storage. Time to hit Gibert Jeune, the college bookstore, for last-minute supplies. Time, too, to catch up with friends who spent the summer on other beaches with their families. “On va prendre un verre en ville, si vous voulez venir.” (We’re going to have drinks in town, if you want to come.)

As much as I love summer, with its gazpacho-making ingredients and long hours of biking daylight, fall is my favorite season. I especially can’t wait for the “cold snap” in late September or early October, the first frosty morning that turns on all the fall colors…bright yellow, rusty orange, deep red and purple…”comme par magie” (like magic).

Walking to the Metro in scarf and gloves. Stepping carefully on the glistening streets. Seeing my breath freeze, then disappear into the bright morning.

Prosecco Paradiso, Capitolo Uno

Wine = Red

Anybody who doesn’t know this about me already finds out when they ask me for a white wine recommendation and my eyes glaze over. “It’s for fish,” they say, hopefully.

There are red wines that go just fine with fish – even better, in my opinion. In a pinch, there’s always “dell’acqua con limone, per piacere.” Champagne at weddings is OK, a sip for the toast to be polite.

Otherwise, pass.

Yes, I did all the wine training at Le Cordon Bleu and have the piece of paper to prove it, but it didn’t change my opinion that white wine is for making white wine syrups for minted fruit desserts with fresh vanilla (recipe upon request).

My Cuban “lab partner” at Le Cordon Bleu led to me make one important exception: vinho verde. It’s a Portuguese wine from the Minho region and is called “green wine” more for its youth than for its color.

There was a café a block from school run by a charming Portuguese couple. Often our day started at 7:30 or 8:00 and didn’t end until 21:30 or 22:00, so we had a habit of stopping by there on the way home with a few culinary partners in crime, mostly to decompress in 3 languages at once, with people who weren’t either yelling at us or giving us bad grades (hey, speak for yourself).

Vinho verde is definitely pleasant and refreshing, but that wasn’t the real reason we drank it and sometimes we just had espresso instead. (If you have to get up at 5:30 again anyway, why bother going to sleep at all?)

That was all before my first summer in Italy…in Italian WHITE wine country.

On the Adriatic coast in summer, siesta (in northern Italy, “il pisolino,” a little nap like little kids take) is between 13:00 and 17:00. This is me at 14:00 daily: “Una giovane donna stanca di prendere un pisolino.” (“A tired young woman taking a nap.”)

It makes total sense to hide out from that punishing heat. However, if you either forget or have other obligations right up ’til the witching hour (and don’t have a kitchen in your lodgings), you’re stuck, either hungry or raiding your stash of stale biscotti, until everything − including the grocery store − reopens.

(To understand how sacrosanct il pisolino is in Italy, here’s what happened when 6-time Italian Premier Amintore Fanfani once dared to suggest that the Cabinet open for business at 8:30 every morning, with “only” a 2.5-hour (13:00-15:30) break mid-day. CHE COSA (“WHAT”)???!!!)

Anyway, that means there are an awful lot of hungry people at 17:00 who definitely won’t be waiting until dinner at 21:00 at the earliest. Or, if not working, might have a night class in Italian opera we wouldn’t miss for the world.

Thus, in tourist destinations in coastal Italy, “lungo al mare,” the 17:00 stampede.

I drink very, very little. Never hard alcohol and maybe a half a glass of red wine every few months, at dinner for a special occasion. Partly this is for health reasons, but mostly it’s just my preference. Therefore, when I do have a sip on occasion, it needs to count.

Same philosophy for dessert, which I like a whole lot less. If I feel obliged to eat one, it’s definitely not going to be one of those egg-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, sinks-to-the-bottom-of-your-stomach-and-stays-there-for-a-week vegan…uh, delights. That’s not a dessert; that’s a punishment. My dessert is going to have ALL the sugar, ALL the butter, and LOTS of all that other hurts-so-good stuff, as much as you can fit into that tiny, tiny piece.

(Like-minded Kiwis reading this, check out Vaniyé, my friends Sonia − another Le Cordon Bleu alum − and Laurent’s fabulous and award-winning French pâtisserie in Auckland. Oh la la. Now that’s what I’m talking about.)

Back to happy hour on the Adriatic.

The nice thing about Italian people in the food business is that they’re no different from Italians in any other line of work: they’ll talk about anything, anytime, with anyone, forever. (If you’re trying to learn the language, this is a gift.) No matter how busy they are, if you show an interest in their products, they’ll take time to explain them to you.

This is how I learned about Prosecco (or, next door in Croatia, Prošek), proving at the same time that not all guys named Luigi are enforcers for mafia bosses and shoot people in the knees. Some of them are nice guys with nice families who run enotecas that serve appetizers to die for.

Luigi’s enoteca, appealing for its walls of native stone (superior to any AC), serves, in addition to the usual Prosecco Spumante − wrongly called Champagne, which can originate only in the French region of the same name, so say the French – a stellar local brand of Prosecco Frizzante.

News to me, she says, looking up from White Wine for Dummies.

The only thing I knew about Prosecco was that “spumante” meant “sparkles a lot” and “frizzante” (or “gentile”) meant “sparkles a little.”

That’s not exactly true. I also knew a couple of nice cocktails you can make with Prosecco. The most popular – and my least favorite − is the Bellini, made with peach juice. This drink only really works if peaches are in high season and the juice is freshly made. Otherwise, it’s just alcoholic mush, with weird tinges of green. Yum.

On the other hand, the Poinsettia − Prosecco + vodka + cranberry juice (or, for non-imbibing guests, the visually similar cranberry juice + sparkling water) − is not only a tangy and crisp holiday beverage, but is also beautiful on a summertime brunch table, “sull’ombrellone” (under the umbrella), on your balcony overlooking the sea…

Tomorrow, Capitolo Due (Chapter 2) of Prosecco Paradiso!

Cucina del Sole, Sonetti d’Amore

“Prego.”

You need only 1 word in Italian, plus a mandatory gesture, to offer to share your table at a café in Italy.

I don’t understand people at Starbucks, who drink like they drive: by themselves. There’s only 1 person at every table. When I see somebody looking around, I offer them the chair opposite mine. Usually it’s…oh, that’s all right. Thanks, though. (Must be a trick.)

Hey, just being nice. No tricks. Except in Italy, where I really AM working an angle: I want you to speak Italian with me! Even now that I’ve mastered Shakespeare’s Sonneti d’Amore (one of which I’ll be reading at an upcoming wedding and thus have become inseparable from my highlighted text, praying for pronunciation tips), literature isn’t nearly as interesting as…you already know what’s coming…FOOD! And what better way to learn about talking about food than while eating food? You tell me.

In summer, on the Adriatic, I put my table-sharing plan in motion almost every day. German and Austrian tourists look at me funny and always decline. First of all, you look German, but you don’t speak German. That’s just wrong. Second of all, you speak French. Even worse. Don’t even get us started on French food!

French food is divine. I love cooking it. I savor every morsel. It’s perfection…but it’s moody perfection. (Poorly executed, it’s just bland synchronicity.)

My first term at Le Cordon Bleu, I felt like I was in a straightjacket every single day, trying to resist channeling my inner curry. Please tell me I didn’t spend all this money to go to the wrong school, as she heads to the principal’s office – detention, again, for excessive seasoning.

Intermédiaire, post-Italy, I was irreverent; Supérieur, post-Thailand, I was insufferable.

All seemed lost until I met Chef Thiry. He’s French, but worked the majority of his career on the French Riviera, right next to the Italian Riviera, which makes him an honorary Italian chef at the very least.

So, I’d been looking to rock the house and finally I’d found a French chef who understood me. Yes!

Chef Thiry never spared me criticism on technique or presentation. When I deserved it, he was brutal. But when it came to flavor, he gave me a lot of leeway.

Chefs are like parents. If you show us we can trust you with the small stuff, you get more and more freedom. If you disappoint us, we take away all your privileges and ground you for a month.

Once, during our “tour” of international cuisines (my best subject, naturally), I made this Moroccan dish. I can’t remember what it’s called and haven’t made it since. But − somehow, some way − it was out of this world.

We had some amazing chefs in our class, with years of professional experience, so almost never did I make a splash. Most days, I was lucky just to tread water and stay alive.

But this was my day. My food was amazing. Chef Thiry thought so, too. He made everyone else in class taste my dish.

“This is perfect. This is exactly how it should be. JUST LIKE THIS,” he said emphatically, pointing.

I was ridiculously thrilled.

During that term, he gave me the highest compliment I received as a student at Le Cordon Bleu: I trust you with spiciness. There’s a very fine line between flavorful and ridiculous and you know exactly where that line is. You can go right up to it and not cross it. Not everybody can do that. It’s not how I would make it, nor expect any of your fellow students to. But it’s well-executed, delicious, and I’m going to send it down to the faculty lounge so the chefs can eat it for dinner and you have nothing to take home. Again.

Thanks for nothing.

Just as there’s a fine line between flavorful and ridiculous, there’s just as fine a line between free-spirited and reckless. The way you know you’re grown up is when knowing where that line is comes second nature, too.

Infine (“at the end of the day”), I did learn Sunny Cuisine, with a side of Discipline, at the most famous culinary school in the world.

Back to our Italian café, seaside… Prego. Please sit down. I’d love to talk to you. About anything.

Well, as it so happens…

I hear about all kinds of stuff from my fellow diners. Soccer: favorite teams and players, upcoming matches, epic stats and epic arguments about them. Grandma’s recipes (“aveva fatto la nonna” – Grandma made it, so you don’t have a choice about trying some). Who’s in love with whom and how and what for…and in Italy it doesn’t matter whether you actually know the people.

But one adjective I never expected to learn: autistica.

My first summer, one family sat with me: a young couple with a son (8) and daughter (5). Although they were staying a ways down the beach from me, I’d seen them on the boardwalk a time or two.

The little girl seemed very bright, but wasn’t verbal. She wouldn’t look at anybody, either. The first time I offered my table to the family, she refused to sit there, so they let her drag her chair away from the table and sit by herself across the patio. Eventually she figured out I wasn’t a threat. She wouldn’t go to any other café after that and her parents said she would always look around for me.

Conditions like autism must be complex in Italian society because, while children are revered and loved to the point of bad behavior sometimes, there’s still this fundamental emphasis on appearance, on presentation, on social refinement that autistic kids just can’t fathom.

But non-verbal didn’t mean unaware. Didn’t mean unresponsive. Not at all.

Like many autistic kids, she was very ritualistic about food. Some either demand or refuse foods of a particular color. Some will eat only fruit and desserts − anything with sugar, basically. Some refuse to eat at all, worrying their parents to death.

But this little girl was different. She LOVED food! She loved SPICY food! A sunny cuisine girl after my own heart.

Spicy food in Italy is nothing like spicy food in Thailand, which can blow the top of your head off. But there are some sausages and peppers that are right up there. Amazingly, her parents ordered for her exactly what I was having, and we enjoyed it equally.

I’d brought from the USA a tiny bottle of Tabasco for an expatriate friend who I planned to see at the end of the summer…and who survived without Tabasco until my next trip home because I gave it to this little girl’s parents. First, I put a couple of drops on my pasta, and then on hers, to show her how it worked.

She tasted it. Head down, still not looking at me, she smiled.

Le Dernier Métro

There’s the last metro. Then there’s the last metro.

There’s almost a “last metro” genre − certainly some impressive urban myths − in Paris. There’s of course the famous film of the same name (1980) by François Truffaut, starring Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, who we’d watch in the last, first, and middle of just about anything.

Then there are the everyday, but ever so much more real, last metros with real people and real consequences.

I’ve been on the last metro a time or two and missing it is one of those no-win situations if you don’t have a car, you’ve gone somewhere and arrived back home in Paris on a Friday or Saturday night/morning (when it’s nigh unto impossible to get a taxi) a lot lot lot later than you expected. You won’t be able to reach any of your friends on their mobiles because they’re either still out enjoying Friday or Saturday night/morning, or are finally asleep, in which case if you wake up the baby, you’re in the deepest kind of trouble.

If you could walk home, time-wise or safety-wise, you’d have done it already.

Sometimes you look around and maybe you WISH you’d walked. At 01:30, the percentage of savory to non-savory characters is sometimes weighted heavily toward the latter.

There are great lengths you’ll go to catch the last metro…and an equal number of lengths you’ll go to avoid catching it.

There are people who thrive on taking the last metro, people who like adventure and risk and don’t have anything to do the next day, or are tourists who haven’t quite mastered 24-hour time. Then there are the rest of us.

Foreigners from car-centric societies don’t understand this. Obviously, you walk to the parking garage and click your automatic door opener. The worst-case scenarios are a) you’re alone and there’s nobody to walk you to your car in the creepy moonlight, or b) you have a dead battery and have to call AAA.

If you’re in New York on any night of the week, you’ve planned ahead for this situation and organized a car service out to Long Island, or wherever.

On those thankfully rare occasions, I’ve always pondered: who’s on the last metro and why, where are they going, are they on the last metro by choice or by chance? Might it be the last of all chances?

I was on that last metro once with a man who was over-the-top drunk. He stumbled down the 2 flights of stairs to the ticket stile. He didn’t have a ticket, so he climbed over, almost falling on his head onto the cement floor as he did it. Then he stumbled again along the platform and leaned against the wall, panting.

He heard the metro coming from the opposite direction and mistakenly thought it was ours. He stumbled – his M.O. this particular night – forward into the yellow danger zone, although in Paris it’s not yellow.

He was so anxious to board a train, any train, that he stepped forward…into nothing.

Other people waiting for the last metro, including me, saw it happen in slow motion.

Luckily, something down there had broken his fall and he was relatively uninjured and easier to reach. Some sober – less inebriated, at least − men immediately grabbed various limbs, but they were pulling probably 68-70 kg of dead weight.

They didn’t dare risk getting down on the tracks with him and none of us watching, helplessly − except to yell for the metro police, who’d put in their 35-hour work week already and were nowhere to be found, and waving sweaters in the direction of the black tunnel − would’ve blamed them. I’m sure the man, had he been in his right mind, wouldn’t have blamed them either.

Unlike the typical dramatic plot, in which good Samaritans pull the fallen person to safety mere milliseconds before the train arrives, these impromptu rescuers had at least a minute to spare. However, those of us not-too-helpful onlookers were still holding our breaths when we saw the metro lights and heard the horn as our train pulled into the station.

Of all the times I’m sure every one of us had complained about the metro being late (again, as usual, sigh), in this particular case the late train – the last metro – saved a life.

For that man, it could’ve been the last metro of all time. Luckily for him, others made it not so. Unfortunately, his unfortunate habits might cause him, on some other night with less attentive or able fellow riders, to cause things – on a different metro, at a different station, on a different night − to end, as one would expect, differently.

The film Le Dernier Métro is set in occupied Paris, 1943. Let’s see: a boring man meets a boring woman and they ride to into town together without saying another word, then go their separate ways none the wiser. Are you kidding? Remember, this is a FRENCH film.

To confuse you even further, this film is not about riding the metro at all.

Meet Bernard (Depardieu) and Arlette (Andréa Ferréol). She’s hot. He’s pretending to be hot, in a leather vest with a fur collar that he’s probably trying to pass off as mink, but is most likely rabbit. This is wartime and everybody’s pretending to be rich when they’re not, happy when they’re not.

After Bernard utterly fails to make a good first impression and they meet later at work, at the first rehearsal for the same play (now that’s awkward), they pretend not to know each other.

Meet Marion (Deneuve), who’s pretending her Jewish husband escaped the Nazis, when actually he’s hiding in the basement of the theater they own. Since she’s so deep in the pretending business already, Marion won’t admit she’s in love with Bernard, until her own husband points it out to her.

I’m no film critic, but I think this story is really about fear. First there’s “la panique” – how everyone’s feeling in wartime, in occupied France. The chaos you live with day in and day out, just trying to manage. (The title refers to the reality that missing the last metro in Paris during the war left you out in the elements after the 23:00 curfew and meant certain danger, even death.) There’s also the very real fear you have of strangers, neighbors, friends, colleagues – maybe even of family − in these perilous times when you don’t know who you can trust anymore.

Then there’s “une peur” – your own personal fear, which might not be the same thing at all, and of which all this pretending upon pretending is really just a symptom.

The first time they meet, Bernard says, after Arlette walks away, uninterested in talking to him, having a drink with him, whatever this is all about, you impolite boor: Wait, wait! I saw you in the café earlier…oh, your eyes, your expression…and I said to myself…”Today’s my lucky day.”

Not so much. Even in Paris, women you randomly accost on the street normally hate your guts. But Bernard, serial ladies man with rose-colored glasses, sees in everything a second chance.

On the second chance metro. Lucky indeed.