Wednesday, February 24, 2010

(My) Metropolis Has Nothing on This

As we hurtled toward our destination, you could hear the thick, icy rain pelting the TGV. This didn't bode well. And although the rain had stopped by the time we hit the terminus, the weather was still bitingly cold and wet when we disembarked at the station.

"I don't understand how it can be so cold and icy here," I said to my wife.

"Paris is south of London, for crying out loud. It should be warmer."

No, really, this is Hyde Park in mid-February
We'd just gotten back from the UK, where it was dryer, sunnier, and – dare I say – the food and drink were better.

Of course, this is all a matter of perspective. Today marks two years that we've been in France, and I've already said many times that it feels like home. As such, you start taking many things for granted, start whining about the things that bother you, and start pining for things that are markedly different. I started noticing this just over a year ago, when I wrote the unimaginable – postulating that beer is cheap in London. Good beer, at that.

My previous trip to the UK was also part of a trip to France, all while still living in San Francisco. Afterward, I wrote a post trying to quantitatively compare the two rivals. It all seems so naïve now, but at the time, I didn't know I'd be living in Paris, just a hop skip and 180km/h jump away.

So I know that I say the following with no authority or consistency whatsoever, and that my perspective will likely change again in less than a year: Food and drink are now better in England.

Warning: Foodie Talk. Skip down to the following heading if you don't care.

The Countless Feasts Laid At My Feet
Now before you get out the torches and pitchforks, I don't buy into the current Michelin brouhaha fueled by Chef Alain Ducasse's statements that London is now the world's fine dining capital. Ducasse is no longer a chef but a businessman, and he likely makes far better margins promoting his UK joints. And Michelin sells more books whenever it stirs the pot. Besides, I can't afford to eat at places like that, so these gastronomic titles are moot.

I furthermore don't believe Michael Steinberger's doomsaying in Au Revoir to All That, a book claiming that French gastronomy is all but dead. There are plenty of innovators on this side of the Channel. It's just that, again, their stuff falls in the budget of Sarkozy-voting suits who don't even live in Paris proper: The suburban nouveau-riche whose kids, ironically, eat at McDonald's and make American-style consumerism appear chic.

So I'll repeat, from the perspective of someone who loves to eat, travel, go out and fully enjoy life, yet also has to deal with a severely limited household income: Eating and drinking is better in London.

Part of this has to do with the near-parity of the Euro and the Pound Sterling. When Alannah and I first came to France on vacation (and wound up really liking it, so much that it was a no-brainer to move here) it was because we knew we could stretch our dollar farther than in the UK. But beyond exchange rates, my newfound appreciation for London has to do with the quality of what's accessible to the common traveler. Or resident.

Two towers of afternoon tea
For less than the price of a barely passable, likely-made-of-frozen-ingredients two-course "meal" at a typical Parisian shithole of a brasserie (a misnomer if ever there was one, as I don't see any beer being brewed locally), we were able to have a fairly regal afternoon tea at the swanky St. Pancras Grand.

Even if we'd thrown in a couple of flutes of champagne, it would've cost less than what passes for a decent lunch at a typical Parisian resto. And St. Pancras Grand is on the high end.

In Paris, if I want to have lunch for less than 8€ ($11), my choices are fast food, pathetic "wok" fare, cockroach-infested Chinese take-out that's been sitting under a sneezeguard for three days, hygenically questionable kebabs, or some inauthentic crêpe made with industrial ham and cheese. Granted, there are some tastier options like boulangerie sandwiches or falafels, but I'm talking about a hot meal that fills you up.

For £7 in London, while you won't eat like a king, you can pick up a best-in-class Fish & Chips or enormously satisfying Pie & Mash, all made freshly with proper ingredients. Maybe even a drink or two. (For a full run-down of what we ate in London, see our food blog Hungry Amateurs: Eating London Out.)

While you can't beat Paris' multitude of outdoor markets – many featuring excellent products – the supermarket is starting to rule the roost, filled with industrial, processed garbage from across the world. London, on the other hand, seems to be having a food renaissance not only in its gastronomic scenes, but even its supermarkets are now replete with a dazzling variety of organic fruit and veg, locally sourced convenience foods (!) and information on responsible consumption. My local Picard, on the other hand, recently patted itself on the back for carrying frozen sushi.

Chugging ale at St. John. The hulking
figure in blue partially behind me is chef
Fergus Henderson.
The real coup de grace, though, was having lunch at St. John. While the maitre d' apologetically informed us that there were no tables available in the dining room for lunch, we were more than happy to order a few pints from the cavernous bar, where the menu overlaps that of the restaurant and comes from the same cooks in the same kitchen. For the same price as mediocre tapas in Paris, Alannah and I shared a few plates of fantastic, beautifully interpreted, and – yes – Michelin-starred renditions of classic British food. (Again, I don't hang out in that strata, but why not grab it when you can?)

I oohed and ahhed and licked my fingers and sucked the marrow out of bones and savored slices of ox heart and enjoyed the housemade whole wheat bread, vowing that we'd come back each time we're back in London.

All that and we were able to wash down our lunch with multiple pints of hand-pumped real ale, with no silly fancypants markup or that-doesn't-pair-with-your-meal scowling from the waitstaff.

And as much as I love a good wine (I'm polishing off a bottle of Gaillac as I write this), it's refreshing to go somewhere it's not frowned upon to have beer with your sit-down meal.

This is More Than a Party
While the English may be known for binge-drinking, it's also obvious that the wide availability of good drink makes for a more convivial atmosphere in general. Even if you're not a drinker, there's a happy vibe to a warm pub, a cozy booth, or a concert where they're not gouging you at the door or jostling you on the floor.

Happy just to be here!
When it was announced that Depeche Mode would be headlining this year's Teenage Cancer Trust charity show at the Royal Albert Hall, I told Alannah I'd sacrifice going to their Paris shows to come to this one – if I could score tickets. I did, it coincided with our wedding anniversary, and we agreed that a smaller, more historical venue like the RAH would be more romantic than a giant box like the Palais Omnisports de Bercy anyway. Score another for London.

Needless to say, the show was Depeche Mode's best in decades, notably due to the brief but triumphant return of Alan Wilder. (HD video of the best moment of the show here.) Throw in a string section, an intimate venue, and all of it being done for a very good cause, and it made for a special night indeed.

There's no point to comparing this to any night out in our homebase, but overall, I haven't been incredibly happy with the live music scene in Paris. Poor ticketing services/alerts, overpriced tickets, overpriced drinks, overcrowded venues, and an over-coked-up crowd (probably because drinks cost so much) make for lousy nights out, which is painful for a music junkie. While London concerts aren't immune to these problems, I simply find it easier to have a big night out over there.

Another Hole to Feed
Besides eating and drinking, one of the things I've learned to love in London is shopping. Despite my anti-consumerist leanings, I still like... stuff. And thanks to France's boutique culture of highly curated items, shopping can be a bit frustrating here.

Alannah made the Martin Gore style hat.
I made the giant scarf. All in my fave color.
For example, I recently got into knitting. This is actually good for my anti-consumerism, because it means I've started on the path to creating my own clothes. To some extent. It's bad, though, in that I now obsess over finding the right yarn for a project. (I can thank Alannah for turning me on to this neurosis... Thanks, honey.) Unfortunately, yarn stores in Paris – even the highly-touted Droguerie right in our neighborhood – carry a limited selection of what they find appealing or is trendy enough to sell. And because no one likes taking risks in this culture, every damn mercerie carries the same limited yarns. What's the fucking point? Who's dick do I have to suck to get a skein of Debbie Bliss "Como" cashmere-merino yarn?

So yeah, thanks to being turned on to knitting, I'm now one of those assholes who goes to London to shop. I couldn't believe I was telling the lady at the fantastic and charming Loop (Islington) that we were going to come back from Paris more often to shop there. She even gave me a loyalty card.

Again, I'm not loaded. But when I do choose to shop, I'm going to go where there's good pricing and variety and quality of product. (And before you get on my case about buying locally, most of the textiles at the grands magasins are Made in China synthetic blends.)

We even did a huge duffel bag's worth of grocery shopping in London, since not even the hippy organic stores here carry certain vegetables like kale. (Which grows like a weed in continental Europe... WTF, man?)

Feels Like Home – I Should Have Known From the First Breath
With that cold blast of the icy Paris air filling my nostrils on the Eurostar platform at Gare du Nord, I smelled that I was home. Paris has a particular scent to it – a moistness mingling with the faint scent of baking bread and stale cigarette smoke. It's "the Paris scent" as far as I'm concerned, and I find I long for it whenever I've been away for too long.

As much as I complain and always see the grass being greener on the other side, it's magnificent living somewhere that not only everyone wants to visit (for very good reason), but that I actually do love on a daily basis. Whose smells I love. Whose sounds I love. Whose irritating idiosyncracies I love, much like the quirks of any loved one.

Even being away for only four days, I missed baguettes. I missed being able to blindly pick a wine and pretty much never go wrong. I missed our local market people (even if they don't have kale). I even missed, believe it or not, the Métro. (Though not the craptacular Ligne 13. Nique la motherfucking Ligne 13!)

We've become so Parisian, in fact, that everywhere we went in London, we were surrounded by French speakers. At our B&B, at nearly every pub, at half the restaurants. Then Alannah had an epiphany: "We now are French tourists!"

Now that both of us have our residency cards, root for the French rugby team, and feign indifference with the best of them, we've become pretty integrated. But as I went to yet another mediocre lunch during work today, walking past the skinny undersized cans of fizzy yellow Kronenbourg in the beverage section, I really missed the chippie and the pub. And the gigantic serving of Welsh rarebit at St. John. *sigh*

Side note: Yes, all the headings in this post are Depeche Mode lyrics, as I still can't get over how awesome that show was. And yes, I did take my wife to see my favorite band during our anniversary holiday. And she sang along to every song. Except for the kinda boring ones where we went and chugged Old Speckled Hen. For less than the price of a soda in Paris, naturally.

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