How to be French

Quite a few books out there offer to teach you how to do X, Y or Z like the French, since imitating them, according to a certain line of thought, is the surest way to secure success for yourself in this life. But today’s post isn’t about how this nation can inspire us to dress more fashionably, eat gourmet food without getting fat or raise better behaved children. It’s about how to actually become French, in the most literal way possible. Like Josephine Baker did, in 1937, when she became a citizen.

One of the most successful entertainers of the Jazz Age, Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri but fell in love with France when she first visited in 1925 at the age of 19. It wasn’t long before she made it her permanent home.

This past year, it was my turn! After 10 years of living and working in France, becoming (reasonably) integrated into French society and my identity fusing into a combination of American and French/European, I became a naturalized French citizen.

dual citizen.jpgIt happened in May but became more and more official in various stages and still feels rather surreal to me. Especially when I think about how I’d always been a descendant of immigrants – on one side of the family, my ancestors came to the US from Germany four generations ago and on the other side a bit earlier – but am now the immigrant myself, a first-generation one. In hyphenated speak, I was a European-American but now am (also) an American-European.

Because both the US and France allow multiple nationalities, I’ve kept my original one too (in fact, ditching it is complex and difficult), so I’m a dual citizen and can vote in both countries. For people from places like Japan, Djibouti, India and China that officially allow only one nationality, applying for a new one is a much bigger decision. I probably wouldn’t have done it if it meant giving up my US citizenship.

But why go to the trouble, some may wonder. What difference does it make? Well, in addition to the ability to vote in French and EU elections, having the French nationality means I no longer have to renew a residence permit every few years, and wonder each time if I’ll be successful. In fact, as you’ll read in more detail below, if I hadn’t applied for citizenship when I did, I would have found myself with no way to stay in France by the end of 2018. And it also allows me to work in whatever sector I feel like (even in the government), whereas my residence permits were tied to my work as a translator and obliged me to stick with something related to translation. And finally, as an EU citizen, I can live wherever I choose within the EU and also the European Free Trade Association countries (Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein).

If you too want to apply for French citizenship, or are just curious about the process, read on! A word of caution: definitely do not rely solely on the information below because rules and requirements can and do change constantly – some of what applied in my case is already obsolete. And if you’re not in Paris, things happen a lot faster.

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First, here’s a timeline of my process:

April 2009: moved to France with the three-year Carte compétences et talents residence permit (renewed in 2012 and 2015), continued working as a freelance translator through my US-based sole proprietorship
Early 2012: switched to a French small business (for the same work) and therefore began paying taxes in France instead of the US
Early 2017: after paying taxes in France for five years, was eligible to apply for citizenship and began putting an application dossier together
May 2017: submitted my application for the first time
September 2017: application was returned to me as incomplete, with a request to provide additional documents that had not originally been requested
November 2017: submitted my application for the second time (getting the missing documents and having them translated took a while)
August 2018: received appointment for my naturalization interview, two months ahead of time (this is unusually long)
October 2018: had my naturalization interview, answered 99% of the questions correctly
Four weeks later: did not receive a rejection letter (this meant I’d been approved)
May 2019: received the letter from the Ministry of the Interior informing me I was henceforth a French citizen
June 2019: applied for and received my new passport and national ID card
October 2019: attended my citizenship ceremony (invitation received two weeks ahead)
December 2019: attended a special event at the Hôtel de Ville given by Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, for people naturalized in 2019
January 2020: will attend a similar event at the town hall of my arrondissement

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Things to know for a successful outcome

Knowledge is power

In spite of my best efforts, some necessary documents (not on the list the naturalization office gave me) were missing from my dossier the first time I submitted it. It took them four months to tell me this and two more months for me to obtain the requested items, so that made the whole process take six months longer. This could have been avoided if I’d only been communicating with others who were also applying for naturalization or simply been aware of the dedicated Facebook groups – Naturalisation (retour d’expérience) is a very good source of information. Even if you think you’re on top of everything, spend some time reading the archives – you might just learn something that saves you a year of waiting, or even makes or breaks your case.

Application

photo_2020-01-03_02-50-38.jpgIn Paris, you can get an application by stopping by the naturalization office on Ile de la Cité. I recommend doing this rather than simply downloading it because you can also ask the counter person which documents you – with your particular circumstances – need to provide. Asking in person is really the only way to get an answer, as phone calls tend to not get through.

However, since the answers you get aren’t always fully accurate, be sure to also read about other people’s experiences and ask for info as needed (see previous section). The application needs to be filled out in duplicate.

 

ID photos

With your application, you need to include a few copies of an ID photo. Note that this isn’t the same photo that will be used for your French national ID card and passport, if you’re successful. For that, at the end of the whole 18+ month process, you’re supposed to provide a current one (taken within the past six months, but no proof of the date is required). So if you really like the photo you submit with your application, be sure to hold on to one copy of it to use again later.

Active involvement in French society

france coat of arm and flagAnyone considering applying for the nationality would do well to become a member of a local association, nonprofit or club of some kind years ahead of time. Note that for the naturalization office, simply donating money to a cause does not count as involvement; you need to be an official member of something and have proof of your active involvement in it. You want to show that you’re not just hanging out exclusively with people from your own country, speaking your native language, but are part of the larger society.

In my case, years before naturalization was even really on my radar, I got involved in some local animal-protection nonprofits as a volunteer translator and in other capacities. In particular, I wrote several articles in French for the magazine published by the Association végétarienne de France (a local vegan society). I did this out of genuine interest and dedication to the cause, but later discovered that it was also an asset for my naturalization application since it was evidence of my integration and ability to use the French language.

French language exam

simone de beauvoirThis is a part of the process I was actually looking forward to, as I’d never had my French-language skills formally evaluated (outside of classes that is), not having ever needed to take the DELF or DALF exam. I mean, I knew I could more or less hold my own in French but wasn’t sure if official test-giving people would agree.

The Test de connaissance du français pour l’accès à la nationalité française (TCF ANF) is specifically designed for people who are applying to become French citizens and as such, focuses on listening and speaking abilities [NOTE: going on their site just now, I learned that people taking the test in April 2020 or later will also have to do some writing components]. It’s offered at various language schools and you take it at some point prior to submitting your naturalization application, since the official test results transcript is one of the documents you must include. There’s no real way to prepare for it – you either have the skills already or you don’t. Since I knew my level was decent, I wasn’t nervous about taking this test.

The first part was a multiple-choice listening test, which did make me panic a bit once it started as it was harder than I’d expected. There were 25 short recordings, each played only once without much time between questions and the room was echoey. One was of a person calling in to a radio show, so you can imagine the sound quality of that.

For the second part, each person in our small group of test-takers went into another room with a facilitator, one by one, to prove their speaking skills. This involved a role-play conversation about a hypothetical daily-life situation (advising a friend who has noisy neighbors) and then choosing and arguing for a position on some assigned topic (“should we or shouldn’t we teach children about the dangers of the Internet?”). Each person was given different prompts. This part of the test was no problem for me, and I even got a bit carried away in my response to the last prompt, wanting to continue making my points even when the woman told me I could stop.

I’m happy to report that my results were good. I got 100% on the speaking part and one question wrong on the listening part (I’ll never know which one). The scores range from A1 at the lowest and C2 at the highest, and to be eligible to apply for citizenship you need at least a B1 level.

Since the results of this test actually have an expiration date, I recommend taking it only at the end of your application-preparation process, just before applying.

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Parents’ documents, apostilles and translations

marie antoinetteThe application asks for information not just about you but about your parents, siblings, children and even past spouse(s) if you’re divorced or widowed. You’re also supposed to list every single address you’ve ever lived at in your entire life (!) along with dates, and I was amazingly able to do this accurately with the help of my dad, who for some reason had kept a record of all the places our family has lived. The same goes for all the jobs you’ve ever had, though I suppose they don’t place too much importance on the fast-food places you worked at when you were in high school, so there’s no reason to get too stressed. Just use your best judgment as far as what to include, and focus on post university positions.

You must furthermore provide your parents’ birth certificates in addition to your own, or just their marriage certificate if (and only if) said certificate states their places and dates of birth. I learned the hard way that this last detail was what mattered! It’s because when you become naturalized, you’re actually issued a French birth certificate (!) listing the places and dates of birth of your parents in addition to your own. As I didn’t realize this at first, I submitted only their marriage certificate and then had to later urgently procure their birth certificates and have them translated since those details were missing and nobody was about to take my word for them. And yes, don’t forget about the translations. Everything you submit with your dossier has to be translated into French by a traducteur assermenté (translator with “sworn” status in France). You will probably also have to get what’s called an apostille for each of these documents, and then have the apostilles translated (it just keeps getting better). Learn from my mistakes, save yourself time and trouble and request the apostille at the same time as the certificate.

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Police record

If you’ve lived in France less than 10 years at the time of your application, you will also need to provide a casier judiciaire (police record) from all the countries you lived in within that same period of time. If you’re from the US, this takes the form of an FBI report, which involves having your fingerprints taken, mailing them in and then waiting forever for the result. The result, and an apostille of same, then needs to be translated.

New French name?

prénomsWhen you gain the French nationality, you have the option of changing your name (first and/or last) to something French. Most people opt not to, but you could for example just change a spelling (Mary to Marie) or insert an accent mark (Josephine to Joséphine). Or give yourself the gift of an extra middle name. In France, it’s common to have two or more middle names, so if you have only one, this is your chance to add some extra flair to your life (sadly, I didn’t think of doing this until it was too late). Reflect upon this well ahead of time because you’re supposed to put the new name on your application form. Once the naturalization is complete it becomes much harder to change.

When in doubt, go overboard

Not totally sure if you need to add that document? Add it anyway! It’s best to err on the side of too much rather than too little, since missing documents will mean more delays and hassle (I had a six-month delay because of this). I included a cover letter and apostilles for everything, even though apostilles had been explicitly requested for only certain documents, because someone else further down along the line could have randomly decided that they were needed after all. And if you’ve lived in France for any time, you’ll know what I mean about those random spontaneous rule changes.

Actually applying

When you finally have everything together, put it in a very secure envelope and mail it en recommandée avec accusé de réception (via registered mail with proof of receipt). You’ll get this proof of receipt back in a few days.

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While you wait

You now have eight or nine months of waiting until the next step in the process – the naturalization interview, in which you’re quizzed on your knowledge of French history and facts and asked why you want to be a French citizen.

I recommend using this time to read and start memorizing the Livret du citoyen (French citizens’ handbook), which can be found online in PDF form. It covers all the key dates, people and facts of French history, as well as some things about the legislative system. You’ll need to know the information in it (and more) like the back of your hand for your interview. Don’t forget to also study up on the European Union, because you’re trying to become not just a citizen of France but of the EU too, and there will be questions on both.

The Facebook group I linked to above is a great place to learn the questions that are often asked. Also search online for other message forums or blog posts with the keywords entretien de naturalisation. I personally relied heavily on the list in this very useful blog post, and some English-language blogs (like this one) were helpful too. If you speak another language, check for information in that one too.

I began by making paper flash cards based on the information in the Livret plus the questions other people have had. But I soon switched to the flash-card app Anki and that turned out to be a really good way to study – you can create your own set of cards and have the app take you through them randomly, showing you one side and then letting you flip to the other side to check the answer. I created mine in French, the language of the interview, and spent a LOT of time going through them, rehearsing my answer before flipping to the back of each card, and then repeating, repeating, repeating until I could have answered them in my sleep or given a 30-minute lecture on the history of France at a moment’s notice. Since they were on my phone, I could study them in the metro, in line at the supermarket – basically, anywhere and anytime, including in the waiting room just before my interview.

Also check out the very cute video series Les Clés de la République for a fun way to learn all about France’s government, laws, values, symbols etc. (just about all the things you need to know for the interview).

But your answer to “Why do you want to be French?” is probably most important of all, so make sure you think this through and have something to say. In my preparations, I happened upon a horror story from someone who wasn’t ready for this question – don’t let that happen to you!

In any case, start preparing for the interview early because when the letter summoning you to it comes, you may not have much advance notice (it could be just a week or two ahead of time). Furthermore, the letter will contain a list of additional documents to bring, and tracking them down will take a while too, leaving you with precious little time to study. This is why it’s key to do what you can while you still have time. For example, begin creating your flashcards even if you won’t be studying them right away.

Among other things, you should also be able to identify and explain the significance of all the people, place and things in the images of this post, so maybe start with that! 😉

Keep your residence permit current

If, during this waiting period, your residence permit will expire, make sure to apply for a new one well ahead of time (I believe six to four months ahead is the recommendation). If you haven’t applied, this can become an obstacle to getting the citizenship even if all your other ducks are in a row. As luck would have it, mine was expiring one month after my naturalization interview, and with everything that had been going on I hadn’t yet begun applying for a new permit. This is mainly because the type of permit I’d had (the Carte compétences et talents) had been done away with and “replaced” by the Passeport talent, a permit with new specific criteria I didn’t quite meet, and I was at a loss as to what else I could apply for. The residence permit office refused to advise me on my options.

But given the urgency of the situation (my application could not be forwarded to the next step until I supplied proof of having an appointment with the residence permit people), I applied for the Passeport talent anyway. And I was rejected! So if I hadn’t already applied for the nationality I might have had to leave France. In a dramatic turn of events worthy of a Hollywood film, I received the Passeport talent rejection letter just one day before learning I had been naturalized.

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The interview

rooster symbol of france.jpgFor many, the naturalization interview is the most dreaded part of the whole process, but if you’re properly prepared it’s not bad at all.

The lady who interviewed me was friendly and kind, and this is the case with most interviewers, from what I’ve heard. We spent the first half of the hour going through my paperwork and figuring out if I had all the documents I was supposed to. As it turned out, I didn’t, thanks in part to the vagueness of the list of things to bring in the summons letter and the impossibility of contacting anyone for clarification (the email I sent to the address provided bounced – it turned out they gave me the wrong address). Fortunately, she was very forgiving about this and allowed me to send the missing documents later that day.

Then it was time for the questions. One thing that put me at ease was that she wasn’t staring at me while I answered, like they do in job interviews to see how quickly you become unnerved, but settled herself in front of her computer, though still facing me, and types my responses as we went along.

She started with some questions about me, such as how often I go back to my home country, whether my friends are mostly French or from my country (note: there’s only one correct way to answer this) and who in my family still lives in the US. She asked if I belonged to an association, at which point I pulled out some Association végétarienne de France magazines with my articles in them and explained about that. I’d been kind of worried the vegetarian thing would work against me, France still being mostly hostile to such things, but the lady just made a joke about dieting (“Tous au régime, hein ?”) and that seemed to be the extent of her reaction. She took a magazine to look at later.

Next, she checked my knowledge of France, prompting me to explain what I knew about the national holiday (what day of the year, what for, and everything else related to the French Revolution) and France’s symbols and values (liberté, égalité, fraternité and laïcité for good measure). Bastille DayShe then asked me to explain what I knew about the last one, including the related laws and regulations and their dates. As I answered, I noticed her nodding each time I correctly explained one of the key facts. I could almost hear a pinball machine dinging as we went along, pushing my score higher and higher.

From that we moved on to the European Union, and there were only two questions: how many member states there are and what year the treaty on the euro was signed. I knew the first one but began to sweat over the second one, since I’d studied only the Treaty of Rome and the history of the EU’s formation. I answered something about how France got the physical currency in 2002 but had begun using it in virtual transactions a bit earlier, in 2000 (wrong – it was 1999), but what she really wanted was for me to name the Maastricht Treaty and give its date (1992). This was the only question I couldn’t fully answer though, so I guess it didn’t count against me too much.

And finally… why did I want to become French?

I started by saying that France, French culture and the French language had been part of my life since middle school and that I’d never stopped learning about them. And that I’d been here for nearly 10 years and really felt that I’d integrated France into my identity – for example, when France has a victory of some kind (like the World Cup win), I feel proud. She nodded enthusiastically as I said all of this.

I then went on to say that I believed in France’s values. I named them all again and said I particularly appreciated the fraternity/solidarity that exists here in France, the fact that people generally want to help each other (in particular by contributing to social security for the benefit of all), and that I felt better having my tax money go to France and help fund French social security than to the US where there is no such spirit (again, all very true). “As you may know,” I continued, the passion rising in my voice, “there are lots of people in my country who are against universal healthcare, and I simply cannot understand that.” By this point in my rant the lady was nodding her head even more vigorously in agreement and deploring the situation in the US, so I went ahead and added that as I saw it, many things happening in the US were a shame and a disaster, etc. (which they are) and she completely agreed. I drove the point home by saying I was proud to contribute to French social security and to be part of this system of solidarity (which I am).

At this point I felt I had been approved. The lady politely cut my speech short, quizzed me briefly on the rights and duties of a French citizen (pay taxes, help defend the country at times of war, vote) and then hurriedly ended our chat as she was running behind and had more foreigners to interview. I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get a chance to amaze her with my knowledge of presidents, kings, world wars, rivers and mountain ranges, overseas territories, authors, artists, novels, films and the short-lived but fascinating revolutionary calendar (1793-1805), but when walking out of a naturalization interview that seems to have gone well, one can hardly complain about such things.

No news is good news

Once your interview has happened, they actually make their decision really quickly, in the next three to four weeks. If your application is turned down, you receive a letter by registered mail within four weeks. If after four weeks you’ve received nothing, you know you’ve probably been accepted and citizenship is on its way! But for some reason (in Paris at least) it takes another six months for it to become official.

Journal officiel and letter

When you do finally become a citizen, your name is published in the Journal officiel (JO), a sort of online governmental bulletin where new laws and rulings are announced and that nobody reads. Accessing it is a bit complex, but this link will take you to the naturalization decrees. The JO listing is how I first learned I’d become French, and then I received the official letter from the Ministry of the Interior a week or so later – an exciting moment even when you know it’s coming. In some cases people don’t get the letter for a long while, so it can be handy to keep an eye on the JO.

National ID card and new passport

After you’ve received this golden-ticket letter, you can make an appointment at a police station to request the French national ID card and passport. I used my new passport for the first time upon returning this past September after a visit home (or should I now say “original home”?). And let me tell you, getting to stand in the much shorter “EU passports only” line at the airport border control was a triumphant moment indeed!

Naturalization ceremony

I was naturalized at the end of May, but the ceremony didn’t happen until mid-October (I assume none are held in the summer, when the whole country shuts down for vacation). It was fairly anti-climactic. Prior to applying for the citizenship, I’d heard a rumor that the ceremony was held at the Panthéon, which would have made it a very grand affair, but mine (like those of my friends) was held at the same nondescript office on Ile de la Cité where I’d picked up the application and had my interview. It’s possible that a few select ceremonies are actually held at the Panthéon but I can’t imagine under what circumstances – if someone famous is getting naturalized? If the foreign media is around?

The letter doesn’t say this, but you can bring a guest with you. I didn’t (most people didn’t), but if you have some family around I imagine it’s nice to have them there.

The ceremony is however rather… “automated”? You wait in line outside, show your papers, shuffle up the stairs with the rest of the herd and then get corralled into a long, narrow room called the Salle Marianne. An apt name, I suppose, as you come out of it more French than ever. The event lasts just 30 minutes. First, they hand you a personalized folder containing a welcome letter, the lyrics to the French national anthem La Marseillaise, your new French birth certificate and all birth certificates (yours, your parents’) that you supplied with your application. I didn’t get that magazine back, but that’s just as well as my bookshelves were already bursting.

Next, they show a short film reminding you of your rights and responsibilities as a citizen. A civil servant of some kind then gives a short speech along the same lines, and finally everyone sings a few verses of La Marseillaise together. And that’s it! We were given a few minutes to have our picture taken next to the Marianne statue, if we wanted, and to write something in a sort of guest book.

There were about 70 of us, and we weren’t allowed to linger very long in the Mariannizing room because there was another throng of people waiting outside for the next ceremony. I don’t know if there were still other groups that day, but the ceremony is held every Thursday so it seems a whole lot of people are becoming French citizens.

Reception at the Hôtel de Ville with the mayor

I’d thought the ceremony in October was the end of it, but in early December, to my surprise, Mayor Anne Hidalgo herself invited me (well, her name was on the envelope) to a special event at the Hôtel de Ville, the main city hall of Paris. It seemed to be for all the people who’d been naturalized in 2019, but not for those who’d gained the citizenship through marriage (acquisition de la nationalité par déclaration, technically not naturalization) because a friend who became French through marriage this year was not invited.

It was cool to finally see the inside of the Hôtel de Ville. The reception was held in a Versailles-like mirrored hall with an ornate cherub-encrusted ceiling and crystal chandeliers. I was touched by the mayor’s speech, as she herself is a naturalized citizen. Born in Spain, she and her family immigrated to France when she was a child and she was naturalized in 1973 at the age of 14. After her short talk, servers came out bearing platters of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of juice while people mingled, took selfies from various angles and tried to get close to the mayor for a photo with her.

Again, the invitation did not say we could bring people, and I didn’t want to run the risk of any friends being turned away since the reception took place during the (still ongoing) citywide transport strike and walking all the way there is a big commitment. So I went on my own (boo!). But now that you’ve read this far you’ll know you can (probably) safely bring someone when your time comes.

One more party!

After that splendiferous reception, I really thought that was the end but I have just been invited to an event in my neighborhood for later this month. It seems each arrondissement honors its own new citizens separately, though at different times of the year. It’s a daytime event, and I already know there are no golden carvings on the ceilings of my arrondissement’s town hall, but it’s still fun to have something else to look forward to! If there’s anything interesting to photograph, I’ll post some shots on my Instagram.

In the meantime, that, my friends, is how to really be French!

Norwegian Christmas rice porridge

A few years ago, I happened to spend Christmas in the company of a Norwegian friend and got to experience a traditional dish commonly served the morning of December 24th in homes across his northerly homeland. The memory of its subtle sweetness and warming heartiness has stayed with me and this year, I decided to make it here in Paris. And to share it with you! Get ready to experience risengrynsgrøt (rice porridge).

Norway sunrise
The rising sun announces a cold new day in Stavanger.

This vegan version of the grøt (porridge) is very easy to make, composed of a just a few ingredients. And if you use rice milk, which is naturally sweet, there’s no need to add any sugar.

In preparing my own recipe, I drew inspiration from basic rice pudding recipes and also this Norwegian vegan risengrynsgrøt recipe. Some versions call for other milks, including full-fat canned coconut milk, but I found that rice milk thickened up nicely enough.

Risengrynsgrøt is traditionally served with husholdningssaft, a juice made from apples, grapes and cherries. Personally though, I dislike pairing sweet dishes with sweet beverages. And since I’m not Norwegian myself, I decided to flout tradition and have it with coffee.

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Some Julenisser (Nordic Christmas elves), disappointed in me for not drinking husholdningssaft.

husholdningssaftMy Norwegian friend later assured me that it was okay to have coffee too (emphasis his). I promised to have some berry juice later in the day to make up for it, but he only sighed and shook his head in dismay.

A word of caution about cinnamon:

There are two types, Cassia and Ceylon. Cassia, the most common kind due to its lower cost, can cause stomach pains and more serious problems if consumed in higher doses (1 teaspoon or more per person, per day) due to the coumarin it contains. So although cinnamon is yummy, be careful not to overdo it if you suspect yours is the Cassia variety.

Norwegian Christmas rice porridge

Makes about 3 cups (2 to 3 hearty servings)

  • 1 cup (200 g) short-grain rice
  • 3½ cups (830 ml) rice milk or rice milk blend
  • pinch salt
  • 1 cinnamon stick (optional, preferably the Ceylon variety)
  • 1 teaspoon margarine or vegan butter
  • ground cinnamon (preferably the Ceylon variety)

The rice you want for this recipe is the short-grain type, the kind used to make risotto. For the liquid, I recommend rice milk because it is naturally sweet (I used a rice and coconut milk blend). But you can substitute another plant-based milk and add a bit of sugar if needed.

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Combine the rice, milk, pinch of salt and cinnamon stick in a saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Once it is boiling, turn the heat down to low and simmer (still covered) for 15-20 minutes until the rice is soft. During this time, stay close, stirring occasionally and ensuring that the mixture doesn’t boil over.

When the rice is done, taste it to see if you want to add some sugar. Remove the cinnamon stick (tip: save it to make pot-pourri with later).

Serve the rice porridge in cereal bowls. Place a pat of margarine or vegan butter in the center of each bowl and sprinkle the top with a small amount of ground cinnamon (see my word of caution about cinnamon above). When the margarine has melted, stir it into the porridge to combine.

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Enjoy!

If reheating leftover rice porridge, mix in some extra milk while stirring to achieve a creamy texture again.

Variations: add diced raw apple, raisins or dried cranberries to the rice near the end of the cooking process. Dust some sugar and/or gomasio over the top if you like.

Sunrise and Julenisser photos courtesy of Jon Helge Hesby

Where to find ingredients…

Short-grain rice: most general grocery stores offer this type of rice, labeled variously as risotto rice, arborio rice or sushi rice. In France, riz rond is what you want.

Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum or true cinnamon): check at high-end or specialty shops, or look online. Note that Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon (Cinnamomum loureiroi) is closely related to the Cassia variety (Cinnamomum cassia) and therefore should probably also be consumed only in small quantities.

Vegan butter: make it yourself with this recipe, or, in North America, look for Miyoko’s amazing European-style cultured vegan butter.


Don’t miss my other Christmas posts!

Easy upcycled paper garland

The other day I was feeling a bit creative and decided to make some homemade decorations. I documented the process to share it with you!

I realize you already know how to make a paper chain from your kindergarten days, but have you made one lately? And have you thought of making one from old calendar pages? It’s a great way to recycle nice images printed on somewhat sturdy paper. Magazine covers would also work well, although the inside pages would probably be too fragile. You can alternatively buy construction paper in your preferred colors – red and green for Christmas, orange and black for Halloween, or just whatever colors would coordinate nicely in the room you have in mind.

This project is easy to adapt for different purposes. If you want a garland to wrap around a small tabletop Christmas tree, just make your paper strips fairly narrow and short so the links are smaller. If you want it to be more prominent, make larger links (as I have done). You can also tailor the length of your chain as you like, but if you’re using different colors, plan the placement of each link ahead of time so you don’t run out of any particular color.

Materials and supplies required:

  • Used calendar pages, magazine covers or other sturdy paper (make sure all the paper you will use is of the same thickness/weight)
  • Scissors
  • Pencil if strips need to be measured
  • Ruler (for drawing straight lines)
  • Glue, tape (washi tape works well) or stapler

paper chain garland 13
I used the pages of my calendar from this year (except December, which is still on my wall).

paper chain garland 05Look for pages with large expanses or gradations of a single color.

paper chain garland 03Cut the paper into strips of the same width and length. Another benefit of calendar pages is that straight lines are already drawn on them.

paper chain garland 06Here, I’ve opted to use four main colors: beige, pink, green and blue.

paper-chain-garland-09.jpgCreate links out of these by gluing, taping or stapling the ends together. Make sure that the overlap is the same in each one so they’re all the same size.

paper chain garland 07Also cut some narrower and shorter strips to use as the connecting links. These links should be long enough to allow for flexibility in the paper chain – so it can bend around a corner, for example (see my kitchen window photo below).

Alternatively, you can omit the smaller connecting links and just connect links of the same size. The disadvantage of this is that only half of the links will be visible at a time from each side. But if you’re hanging your garland from the ceiling or under a doorway, this won’t matter as much since people will see it from different sides and angles.

paper chain garland 14To see how long your finished garland will be, so you know whether you should add another color to the rotation to make it long enough for the spot you have in mind, place them end to end on a long table or the floor.

Best IMG_6114Now connect the links in the chain by gluing or taping the shorter, narrower strips into loops between them. Your garland is done!

paper-chain-garland-10-1.jpgI hung mine up in the kitchen to liven up an otherwise fairly plain window frame.

If you’ve written on your calendar, your garland will also contain little vestiges of past events. Mine has the final day of my year-two Japanese class this past June and reminders of my relatives’ birthdays.

Another good use for old calendar pages, magazine pages, newspaper or any old paper is to wrap gifts in them (see my tutorial here). I also like to use them to make custom envelopes and gift tags.

Amish shoo-fly cake

During my visit back home in the Midwest this summer, I decided to try baking a molasses cake with a crumb topping that my mom used to make when I was little. It was one of my very favorites back in the day, but I hadn’t had it for ages and wondered if my result would be true to my memories. Turned out, it was every bit as yummy as I remembered and the traditional recipe was even accidentally vegan (although some versions use butter instead of oil). I thought it would be a fun recipe to share with you all, especially since it’s somewhat uncommon.

Its name comes from the large amount of thick, gooey molasses that goes into it… so sweet that it attracts sugar-loving insects which must then be “shooed” away.

Amish people

In researching it, I discovered that it’s actually an Amish recipe.  I’ve always been fascinated by this unique culture, which you’ve probably heard of even if you’re not from North America. This group, most famous for rejecting modern technology, is made up of several distinct but related traditionalist Christian church fellowships with German and Swiss Anabaptist origins. Several hundred thousand of them live in rural parts of the US and Canada, and their best known settlements are in Pennsylvania. There are some in my home state of Wisconsin, but I’ve never encountered them anywhere but on the Amtrak – since they don’t drive or fly, trains are their main form of transportation when going long distances. I find it quite remarkable that they’ve managed to preserve their way of life and language (Pennsylvania German) all this time.

This British reality TV show provides an interesting glimpse into an Amish community that hosted a group of decidedly non-Amish teenagers from the UK. Other more traditional documentaries can also be found on YouTube.

Molasses is the star of this scrumptious moist dessert, which in my view can compete with the most decadent chocolate cake any day in terms of richness of flavor. It’s made by refining sugarcane and tastes something like a stronger and darker maple syrup with notes of gingerbread and honey. Molasses isn’t used so often today, but it was a very common sweetener in the Americas before the 1900s.

beatrix potter butterfly
Butterflies love sweet things too. Beatrix Potter made the above illustration for her book The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse (1910).

Unlike white sugar, molasses contains nutrients. It’s an excellent source of vitamin B6 and key minerals including calcium, magnesium, iron and manganese (one tablespoon provides 20% the recommended daily amount of each).

Traditional versions of this cake call for a lot of sugar – one recipe I found actually calls for 3 cups of it (!) for 4 cups of flour. I read that the Amish view high-calorie food as a plus, since they do a lot of manual labor and need the energy. Fair enough, but being a sedentary city-dweller myself, I dialed the sugar back to just 1¼ cup, which was quite enough in combination with regular molasses. If you’re using the more bitter blackstrap molasses, you may want to add more sugar.

Finally, this recipe yields quite a lot of cake (enough for a large Amish family!) so feel free to cut the amounts in half and use a smaller baking dish. Alternatively, make the recipe as is but put half in the freezer for later.

Let’s make a cake!

Amish shoo-fly cake

Makes one 9 x 13 in. (22 x 33 cm) rectangular sheet cake

  • 4 cups (150 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1¼ cups, packed (300 g) brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (236 ml) neutral-flavored oil such as canola (in France, try huile de colza désodorisée)
  • 1 cup (236 ml) molasses
  • 2 cups (473 ml) boiling water
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda

Preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C). Start with the flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the brown sugar and salt and stir to combine.

Add the oil and stir to incorporate. You may need to knead it with your hands at some point to achieve a fully homogeneous result. The texture will be similar to moist sand.

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Reserve 1 cup of the crumb mixture to top the cake with just before baking. Set the large mixing bowl of dry mixture aside.

Take another large bowl for the wet mixture. Add the molasses, scraping the measuring cup thoroughly to get all of it out. Add the boiling water and stir to combine, then add the baking soda (the mixture will foam up, which is why it’s good to use a larger bowl).

Now incorporate the wet mixture into the bowl with the dry mixture. Stir to combine, being careful not to stir too much as this can make the cake texture tough (it’s okay if a few lumps remain). Pour into a greased baking dish.

Sprinkle the reserved crumb topping over the the batter, taking care to ensure the coverage is even. Place in your pre-heated oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

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Remove from oven and let cool completely before attempting to cut into it, otherwise the squares may not keep their shape.

Cover the baking dish with plastic wrap or transfer leftover slices to a Tupperware container so the cake doesn’t dry out.

I hope you enjoy this one-of-a-kind cake! Who knows, it may just become one of your favorites, too.


Where to find ingredients…

In North America: Molasses and brown sugar can be found at most grocery stores with a wide range of products.

In France: Molasses (mélasse) and brown sugar (sucre semoule) can be found at organic food shops but not always at mainstream grocery stores. Note that sucre semoule is a very specific moist sugar that’s different from sucre roux and sucre complet (also known as rapadura), which are dry sugars. Then moistness comes from the presence of molasses, so if you’re in a bind, you can actually make brown sugar yourself. Still, it’s better/safer to get prepared brown sugar if you can. Baking soda (bicarbonate de soude alimentaire) is not as common a baking ingredient in France as in the US, but you should be able to find it at most grocery stores if you look around enough. This is something I stock up on whenever I make a trip back home. Be sure the label says alimentaire or that it’s otherwise safe to use in baking, as you might find it in a cleaning-product form with non-edible chemicals added.

sucre semoule mélasse

I heart New York

When you last heard from me, I was explaining why it took me so long to make my first visit to New York City and showing you my nostalgia-fueled journey there on the Amtrak. But did I like it there? As the title of this post suggests, yes, yes and yes! Let’s take a look at the highlights.

invader-ny_157.jpgFirst, I had the good fortune to be hosted on the Lower East Side of Manhattan by an old friend and former roommate from my undergrad days. Being roommates again was a high point of my stay, reminiscing about the good old days and learning about this new-to-me city from someone who’d already explored it a fair amount.

Right from the start, on my first day walking around, I discovered that one of the ideas I’d had about the city was wrong. In the US, New York City has a reputation for being unfriendly. People there, I’d always heard, were constantly in a hurry, invariably gruff and surly and probably planning to rob you. Even Sesame Street made sure we knew what a tough city it was.

So although I knew stereotypes don’t always reflect reality, thank heavens, on some level I’d mentally braced myself. “Do your worst,” I told the city. “I live in Paris!” Nothing could faze me after 10 years in the French capital.

Doughnut PlantBut it turned out that while the reputation Paris has is (generally) well deserved, New York City’s isn’t. Throughout my entire stay, I consistently heard Excuse me, Sorry and Thank you, and on several occasions people spontaneously offered me help when I looked like I needed it. On my way into the city, loaded down with a heavy suitcase, I was looking at a flight of subway stairs in dismay when a passing woman volunteered that there was an escalator a bit further down the hall. Another time, I was sitting on a bench applying band-aids to my blistered heels when another passerby offered to supply me with more band-aids should I need them. And on the train to the airport on my last day, my fellow travelers (who could see from my luggage where I was going) helped me figure out what to do when the train service was temporarily halted, without my even having to ask.

So perhaps most New Yorkers are only “rude” in comparison with, for example, invasively friendly Midwesterners. In small-town Wisconsin, strangers actually get a bit too much into your business sometimes, so I can imagine rural folk who haven’t traveled much being disappointed by city-dwellers who don’t always have time to chat with you.

IMG_1133But on several occasions, locals actually did strike up a conversation. One afternoon, taking a break from a street art expedition in Brooklyn, I sat down in a café with a matcha latte and pulled Orlando out of my bag. The middle-aged gentleman working on a laptop at the table next to mine took his headphones off to remark on a coincidence: he was in the middle of writing an opera based on another of Virginia Woolf’s books! We spoke for a few minutes about the smallness of the world and the difficulties of adapting stream-of-consciousness literature to a musical form. When I asked when he expected to finish the piece, he chuckled and said sometime in the next decade. We each went back to our respective occupation and, making a mental note to pay more attention to operas, I wondered if he were somebody famous.

Little encounters such as these add a nice human touch to one’s existence, I find. This dimension of city life is something I’ve talked about on this blog before, and my stay in New York City only reinforced the fact that I truly miss it.

As for the city itself, one of the things I was most interested in was its background. I’d already learned about its Dutch roots at museums in Amsterdam and was curious to know more about other ethnic groups, like Jews and Italians, that don’t have so much of a presence in the region I’m from.

The Lower East Side, as it happens, is an ideal starting point to learn about the city’s history of immigration. Just a few blocks from my friend’s apartment, I discovered and fell in love with the Tenement Museum, a learning center that explores the uniquely American story of immigration and the rich, diverse landscape it continues to create. For me, an immigrant myself, this topic has special resonance. Founded in 1988, the museum is made up of two former Orchard Street tenement buildings, each featuring several apartments restored to the way they would have looked at different points in history. The museum offers different guided tours designed to focus on particular themes telling the stories of actual families who lived in the buildings. I opted for the Sweatshop Workers tour, which takes you through the cramped living spaces of two Jewish families, the Levines (c. 1892), who operated a small garment factory in their sitting room and kitchen, and the Rogarshevskys (c. 1908), who worked at apparel factories outside the home and therefore had different living circumstances.

Orchard Street late 1800s.jpeg
Orchard Street in 1898. This area was once the most densely populated place on Earth.

On this tour, and also a separate Tenement Museum walking tour that I joined, I learned that Orchard Street and surrounding areas were once the beating heart of the nation’s garment industry, with most families doing piecework in their homes for long hours six or seven days of the week. Walking down the street, you could have looked up and seen someone bent over their sewing at just about each window and heard the whirring of sewing machines from all sides. It was also a street clogged with pushcarts since itinerant vendors were a convenient source of groceries in the day.

IMG_1717The district has been home to various ethnic groups that arrived and dominated, population-wise, in waves. In the 1840s, so many settlers from the German states had come that the area became known as Klein Deutschland. Next were Italians and Eastern European Jews, and by around 1920 the Lower East Side had the largest community of Jews in the entire world. After World War II, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans began to appear in greater numbers. Today there’s a prominent Chinese presence, but a mix of other ethnic groups live there too.

To learn more about New York City’s immigrant history, check out the Tenement Museum’s podcast, How To Be American.

To take a peek inside 97 Orchard Street, watch the video below. If you look around YouTube a bit, you may also find a funny Saturday Night Live tribute to the museum.

And for a deeper dive into the immigrant experience, I highly recommend Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn focusing on an Irish-Austrian family living in the Williamsburg slums in the early 20th century. Titles of other fiction and non-fiction works about immigrants in NYC are listed in the museum’s shop.

A vestige of the Lower East Side’s Jewish days can be seen in the beautiful and painstakingly restored 1887 synagogue now known as The Museum at Eldridge Street. Below are a few glimpses into its interior.

The two other museums I saw on this trip were the Guggenheim – the building was the main attraction for me since Frank Lloyd Wright (a Wisconsin native!) is my favorite architect – and a museum devoted to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

Other art can be seen on the city’s walls for free. There are quite a few impressive murals by Brazilian street artist Kobra, and Invader has quite a few pieces there too. I also saw some pieces by Stik and Frank Ape.

And what about the vegan food scene? It was, of course, amazing! Much like in London, you can find decent vegan items on the menu of just about any mainstream restaurant, and there are many fantastic all-vegan places. Within a three-block radius of my friend’s apartment, I counted three places to get vegan ice cream. Just down the street from the Tenement Museum is Orchard Grocer, a little food shop and delicatessen with a range of delicious made-to-order vegan sandwiches. I was very impressed by their Bowery breakfast sandwich and their Edith bagel with cashew cream cheese and carrot lox that could easily be mistaken for smoked salmon. Adjoining this shop is Moo Shoes, which has a nice selection of vegan footwear, bags and T-shirts.

Other places I loved included Riverdel inside Essex Market, which offers a wide range of gourmet vegan cheeses plus hot and cold sandwiches (their hot breakfast sandwich was divine!), Beyond SushiDun-Well Doughnuts and Van Leeuwen ice cream. There were some spots I didn’t manage to get to, like Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Modern Love in Brooklyn, so those will just have to wait for my next visit!

So there, in a rather long-winded nutshell, you have my first visit to New York City, a place I strangely felt at home in right away. Maybe because it combines the things I like about Paris (a major international city filled with people from all over the world and lots of art and culture) with the things I like about the US (friendliness, the ability to chat with strangers, greater acceptance of veganism and a wide availability of vegan food) and of course the fact that I blend in and don’t have to be an ambassador for my country.

10/10 would visit again! I have to, anyway, since I still have so many more things to see there.

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Have you been to New York City, and how did you like it?

 

Milwaukee to New York by train

Would you believe that I, a travel enthusiast who has lived in various cities around the world and been to places like Morocco and Iceland, had until very recently never been to New York City? Me neither, and I can only ascribe this oversight to my younger self’s burning desire to always head for more remote and exotic places. Every time I would travel, back when I lived in my native USA, it was over the state of New York to farther destinations, very often France.

It wasn’t that I didn’t ever want to see it. I just figured NYC wasn’t going anywhere and I would get there eventually. But this glaring omission became more and more embarrassing after I moved to France and casually admitted to several French people that I hadn’t been to NYC yet. This city is – understandably enough – any French traveler’s first and main destination in the US, and for an American to not go there is incomprehensible. It would be like someone from Avignon in southern France never bothering to visit Paris.

And they have a point – never visiting a world capital like this one is something to lament. But the difference between these contexts lies in the distance separating one’s place of residence from the destination city. In Wisconsin, where I grew up, our country’s cultural capital is far enough away (880 miles/1,416 km) that planning a trip there entails a certain amount of planning and hassle. And you also have to fly there, emitting unmentionable quantities of greenhouse gas into the air.

Or do you?

milwaukee-to-nyc-train.jpg

Well, most people opt to fly such a distance (roughly equivalent to Paris-Warsaw), because the alternatives are 14 miserable hours in a car or 23 even more miserable hours in a bus. But wait, isn’t there another option? What did people do before cars and buses? Okay, yes they took stagecoaches, but they also took the TRAIN.

Amtrak Viewliner

So this summer, wishing to rectify my offense and shrug off the growing shame of it all, I wondered if I could fit in a visit on my way back to France from Wisconsin, but without flying. First, I already felt bad about the carbon cost of my trip to the States and wanted to avoid another flight’s worth (trains have a carbon footprint too, but a much smaller one). Second, I hate flying anyway (too much space between me and the ground!). And third, as a fan of train travel and old movies, I wanted to try the sleeper-car experience. This was my chance!

North by Northwest compartment.jpg
North by Northwest (1959). My compartment was slightly smaller.

Making this trip by train takes just as long as by bus, but the experience is so much nicer, even if you opt just for a seat and not a sleeper car. You can get up and walk around, move to the observation car and admire the landscapes, eat in the dining car or snack bar car and engage in conversation with different fellow travelers (and not just your one seatmate on the bus). And if you get motion-sick in buses like I do, the choice is especially clear.

Amtrak observation car
The Amtrak observation car is a nice place to soak up some sunlight and admire the views.

But I was determined to have my own sleeping compartment, just like Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest but probably without the stowaway. With some luck, admittedly too close to my travel date for comfort, I found both a decent price and an itinerary (the Lake Shore Limited) that wouldn’t have me changing trains early in the morning. After an hour-and-a-half ride from Milwaukee to Chicago in a normal coach car, I transferred at Union Station to the train that would take me all the rest of the way, leaving at 9:30 pm and arriving at 6:30 pm the next day.

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Amtrak’s smallest private room, the Viewliner roomette, is a compact space – measuring just 3’6″ x 6’6″ (110 x 201 cm), it’s no wider than what you see in the photo above. It makes up for this in height, however, with a very high ceiling to accommodate the adjustable upper bunk, so it didn’t feel too confining. It’s designed to sleep two, but I think with two people this tiny space would quickly feel MUCH smaller.

The compartment contains a small sink that folds down from the wall, and… wait for it… a toilet! Yes, and it’s out in the open with no wall separating it from the rest of the room. This is where things could get weird if you’re traveling with someone. It’s just as well that I never bumped into Cary Grant and had to hide him from the police! Rest assured, though, that if you book the roomette alone, the entire compartment is yours and nobody else will be traveling in it.

When I boarded, my room was in its default configuration with two facing seats, but in the hour after our departure the car attendant came through to convert everyone’s roomette for sleeping. You have the option of sleeping in the upper bunk or having the seats below converted to a bottom bunk (my choice).

Don’t miss this comprehensive video tour of the same roomette I had:

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My fears of being unable to sleep in a rocking, creaking, groaning metal box proved groundless – the bed was very cozy and I actually got a great night’s rest. When I awoke, the morning sunlight was gently filtering in through the curtains and we were chugging along the eastern coast of Lake Erie somewhere in Pennsylvania or New York state.

Starting at an early hour (I think 6 am), complimentary coffee and orange juice are made available in the hallway of each sleeping car. For reasons I’ll get into later, I’d brought some food along and had these coconut-cashew bites for breakfast in my room.

Another very cool thing about traveling in a sleeping car is you can take a shower! And even though I could have just waited until I got to my destination to take one, I wasn’t about to pass up this rare (not available to coach travelers) and kind of amusing opportunity. Plus it’s always nicer to be clean. Each sleeper car has one shower room at the end of the hall with a little cubicle and a tiny space outside it to stand in and get dressed. Towels, soap and these strange put-them-together-yourself shower slippers are provided. The water flow was minimal (or maybe not much was left?), so it took me a long time, punching the button every few minutes to get more water to come out, like with a campground or locker-room shower. And it’s a rather precarious business, what with the train rocking and jolting and you being all soapy and slippery. There’s a large metal bar you can grab onto, but I could also see how with the wrong timing you could end up lurching into it headfirst and getting knocked out cold. That must not happen too often I suppose, or there would be no more showers on trains. I, at least, escaped injury.

Next it was time for lunch, and this is where my story takes a kind of Twilight Zone turn. Before my trip I’d checked the avid Amtrak travelers’ forums to see if any vegan options were to be had, and everything seemed to indicate I needed to call and reserve a vegan meal at least three days ahead of time. So I did that, only to have the Amtrak lady on the other end of the line tell me that actually my train was not going to have a dining car and that no vegan options were possible. Other people would have a standard meal delivered to their rooms, but no special meals like vegan or kosher could be had. Disappointed but not surprised, I thanked the lady anyway and grumbled about this for a while to my family members. And I duly brought a bunch of food with me on the train, although it wasn’t quite enough and I wasn’t able to find anything decent at Union Station in Chicago.

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So I was not only shocked but also relieved to learn that actually there was a dining car on my train and that a completely vegan meal was part of their permanent menu (!?), no need to reserve anything. Who knows how such contrary information was provided… my phone call may have gotten routed through a wormhole to the 1990s. But now you know: if you’re traveling on the Lake Shore Limited, you can have this very nice Asian noodle bowl. It seems there’s also at least fruit as a vegan option for breakfast. Still, it’s always a good idea to have some extra food on you, since life is unpredictable.

I spent the rest of my time relaxing in my little room, reading Orlando and watching the various stations of upstate New York file by. Finally, as the sun dropped lower over the horizon, New York City loomed into view.

All in all, I was quite satisfied with this train adventure. Of course, it was a somewhat expensive option ($375 for the roomette, all included vs. about $175 for just a coach seat) and definitely more than air travel (maybe $120 one way). You also need the luxury of time to be able to travel this way. But with our environment in the state it’s in, I’m in favor of a shift back to slower transport and a more relaxed attitude to work schedules, for example, to make such travel more realistic. Efforts should also be made to lower train fares and make trains more efficient. If this had been a high-speed train such as the TGV in Europe or the Shinkansen in Japan, the trip would have taken much less time. In the meantime, if I were to make this trip often, for cost reasons I would probably sacrifice my comfort some of the time and go for the coach seat.

I would also like to see Amtrak make a bigger effort to reduce single-use plastic. Two plastic water bottles were provided in my roomette, but there also seemed to be a drinking water tap in the sink. And although the lunch came in a balsa-wood box (along with a card explaining that it was to help save the environment), everything inside the box was wrapped in or composed of single-use plastic. Perhaps some of it was biodegradable, but it still seemed like a lot of unnecessary packaging. BUT, three cheers for Amtrak for (after all) having a vegan choice on their normal menu.

Have you ever traveled long-distance with Amtrak? How was your experience?

If this post has intrigued you and you want to prolong the train-riding mood, make yourself some popcorn and check out one of the many films set on or around trains. In addition to North by Northwest (1959), I especially recommend The Ghost Train (1941), Mystery Train (1989) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017 or earlier versions). An honorable mention goes to The Darjeeling Limited (2007; not my favorite Anderson film, but you can’t beat his aesthetic). If you have others to recommend, leave them in the comments!

Be sure to also take a look at the English royal family’s own private train.

Click here to see what happened next!

French tomato-mustard tart

Summer is almost over, which means tomato season is drawing to a close. But it’s not over yet! And I have just the recipe you need to enjoy this year’s last fragrant, juicy tomatoes – a French one that will take you straight to the beautiful city of Dijon. Enter the tarte à la tomate, or tomato tart. This warm, pizza-like savory tart offers a crunchy, flaky crust with a spicy kick from everyone’s favorite Dijon mustard and the earthy, green notes of herbes de Provence. It’s super easy to make too, especially if you use a ready-made crust.

Dijon Invader art
The city of Dijon takes its mustard very seriously. In 2019, French street artist Invader paid homage to both city and condiment with a series of mustard-themed space invader mosaics (photo credit: @chesterlight75).

But you can also make your own crust, or use a pizza crust. Feel free to make your tart larger than the one I describe in this recipe – just add more mustard, tomato and herbs accordingly.

If you don’t happen to have herbes de Provence, you can make your own blend using equal amounts of the herbs often used in it: savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme and oregano. Herbes de Provence blends vary though, so you’ll sometimes see other herbs such as basil and lavender included – just use the ones you like. Another option would be an Italian herb blend.

French tomato-mustard tart

  • 1 premade vegan flaky pastry crust, 11 in. (28 cm.) in diameter
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 or 3 medium vine-ripened tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon herbes de Provence or equivalent herb blend
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • pinch or two salt
  • freshly ground black pepper

Preheat your oven to 425°F (218°C). Unroll the pastry dough and place it on a baking sheet. Poke it with a fork. When your oven has reached the target heat, bake the pastry for 4 minutes.

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Spread the Dijon mustard on the pre-baked pastry. What you see in the photo above is a fairly light layer of mustard, about 2½ tablespoons on a pastry measuring 11 in. (28 cm) in diameter. If you love mustard, feel free to use more.

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Slice your tomatoes – aim for ¼ inch (3 mm) thick slices. Start by slicing up just two tomatoes as you might not need more than that, depending on the thickness of your slices. Cut out and discard the tough white core.

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Arrange the tomato slices on top of your pastry, overlapping slightly.

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Sprinkle the top evenly with your herbes de Provence or equivalent herb blend.

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Then sprinkle a small pinch or two of salt over the top.

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Finally, drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil evenly over the tart.

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Place the tart in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Check on it midway – if the edges seem to get too brown too quickly, you can cover them with foil partway through the baking.

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Slice up your tart pizza-style and grind some black pepper over the top if you like.

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And enjoy! This tart is excellent paired with a nice green salad.

Ghost town

One of the things I admire about France is that every employee, regardless of the company they work for and their own seniority, gets a mandatory five weeks of paid vacation time per year. Even though this doesn’t include me as a freelancer, I’m happy to see others getting the time they deserve to relax and enjoy their families. I already knew that my native US was far behind other countries in this respect, but this color-coded map on Wikipedia makes the contrast even more embarrassingly clear.

Anyway, as you might expect, the most popular time to take one’s time off is the summer, and the month of August has long been a time of exodus for Parisians. Everyone seems to leave all at the same time for various destinations, be they in France or farther afield. One side effect of this is that lots of small businesses all close simultaneously. A stroll around a non-touristy neighborhood will take you past a series of shuttered storefronts and notice signs such as the ones below (click any photo to switch to slide show mode) informing customers of their re-opening dates.

I always get a bit of an eerie feeling, walking around the empty streets of my mainly residential neighborhood in August. I also often forget that things are closed and make a detour to get a coffee from Dose, for example, only to find the place deserted and to curse my poor memory.

So while it’s a good thing for people working in France, this annual departure can be a bummer for tourists who come to Paris in part to try our vegan restaurants (usually small businesses that close all of August).

If your chosen destination restaurant (or clothes shop, etc.) has a sign in their window, you can try looking for the following key phrases to decipher it and see how long it will be closed:

  • fermé – closed
  • ouvert – open
  • fermeture estivale – summer closing
  • congés d’été – summer vacation
  • vacances annuelles – annual vacation
  • horaires d’été – (shorter) summer hours
  • réouverture – reopening (date)
  • en vacances – on vacation
  • bel été – have a good summer (= without us) 😉

But to help make planning easier, I’ve prepared a short list of some places where you can still find vegan food the rest of this August. Note that this list is not exhaustive and that it’s a good idea to double-check their current hours on their social media pages or call ahead. Don’t rely on what Google or even their own websites say, because those won’t necessarily be updated to reflect any special summer conditions.

Vegan places that are open

Every year, a handful of vegan restaurants in Paris do stay open all summer. Here are some that I personally recommend (plus one brand-new one I’ve heard good things about). Note however that Thursday, August 15th is a national holiday and some of these places might be closed that day.

Aujourd’hui Demain
42 rue du Chemin Vert, 75011 Paris (metro Richard Lenoir)
Restaurant/café and grocery store. A good place to hang out with a coffee and catch up on your email or work. If you’re in the mood for a sweet indulgence, don’t miss their Freak Shake.

Cantine Le Myrha
70 rue Myrha, 75018 Paris (metro Château Rouge)
Spacious and well-lit, excellent place for a buffet brunch with friends on a Sunday. You may make the acquaintance of Rainette, the restaurant’s sweet tabby cat, who sometimes wanders among the customers to be petted.

Cloud Cakes
6 rue Mandar, 75002 Paris (metro Sentier)
As their name suggests, they have some heavenly cakes! Savory lunch items available too until the mid-afternoon. Limited seating at busy times, but well worth a visit.

Le Faitout
23 avenue Simon Bolivar, 75019 Paris (metro Pyrénées)
All the ambiance of a traditional French brasserie, none of the usual animal products. Live music on Thursday nights. Don’t miss their platter of housemade vegan cheeses!

Hank Burger
55 rue des Archives, 75003 Paris (metro Rambuteau)
8 rue de Rochechouart, 75009 Paris (metro Cadet)
Really nice burgers, with a choice between their standard patty and a Beyond Beef one. I also love their potato wedges with a cheese topping and their chocolate chip cookies!

Hank Pizza
18 rue des Gravilliers, 75003 Paris (metro Arts et Métiers)
Vegan pizza with a range of preset toppings, including a couple of gluten-free ones each day. They have a particularly spacious upstairs dining room. If you come here, be sure to stop by the vegan grocery store Mon Epicerie Paris on the same street (see below for a description).

Les Petites Pâtisseries Raw & Vegan
44 rue du Chemin Vert, 75011 Paris (metro Richard Lenoir)
So many creative and delightful raw desserts! I especially like their little fruit tarts and matcha opéra cakes. Rumor has it you can now also find blue mermaid nice cream bowls there! On the same block as Aujourd’hui Demain (see above).

Le Potager du Marais
24 rue Rambuteau, 75003 Paris (metro Rambuteau)
Traditional French dishes in vegan versions. I often recommend this place to visitors since it’s a way to try classic dishes without the animal products. I love their seitan bourgignon, onion soup and crème brûlée.

Sunday’s Coffee Paris
171 boulevard Voltaire, 75011 Paris (metro Charonne)
This place is so new, I haven’t had a chance to go there yet. People on Instagram seem to like it though, so take a look if you’re nearby!

Wild & the Moon
Various locations throughout Paris
Another chain place with generous hours. Try one of their superfood elixir drinks or one of their dishes of the day (often a rice and curry bowl). I love their raw desserts, especially the lemon tart. Their location near Opéra is especially nice as it gets less traffic.

Other options

Certain other places are fairly reliably sources of vegan eats.

Restaurants

L’As du Fallafel
32-34 rue des Rosiers, 75004 Paris (metro Saint Paul)
Home of the best falafel sandwich in Paris! Prepare yourself for a line at the door. Closed Friday evenings and Saturdays all year round.

Ethiopian restaurants
Various locations throughout Paris
Due to a cultural tradition of abstaining from all animal products on certain days of the week and at certain times of year, Ethiopian restaurants generally always have a vegan option (sometimes labeled “vegetarian” on the menu). Be sure to specify that you don’t want fish. Google “restaurant Ethiopien Paris” plus the number of your arrondissement to find one. My personal favorite is Le Ménélik in the 17th.

Lebanese restaurants
Various locations throughout Paris
The chances of finding falafel (an accidentally vegan food) are high at just about every Lebanese restaurant. Look for places with the country’s very cute cedar tree flag.

Maison Landemaine
Various locations throughout Paris
Try their croissant ordinaire (regular croissant), which is always vegan, but be sure to specify ordinaire so they don’t give you a non-vegan butter croissant. They also have a vegan chausson aux pommes (apple turnover) and usually at least one vegan fancy dessert/pastry. Check the labels in the display case for the “VEGAN” in very small green text, or ask if unsure. They also sometimes have a vegan tofu, avocado and sun-dried tomato sandwich. Their baguettes, like all baguettes in France, are vegan by default.

Prêt à Manger
Various locations throughout Paris
This chain store is from the UK, which means it’s quite vegan-friendly. In France, they offer one vegan sandwich (avocado, sun-dried tomato and black olive spread on baguette type bread) as well as some vegan soups, chia pudding and sometimes a muesli bowl. They make coffee and matcha drinks with plant milk at no extra charge!

Vegan grocery stores

Vegan items can increasingly be found at mainstream grocery stores (check the bio (organic) aisle in particular), but with the stores below there’s no need to scrutinize labels since everything at them is fully vegan. This can be a good source for groceries for your AirBnB, or for things to pick up and put in a baguette for a DIY sandwich-on-the-go.

Aujourd’hui Demain
42 rue du Chemin Vert, 75011 Paris (metro Richard Lenoir)
Combination grocery store and restaurant/café. Also sells clothing, shoes, purses and personal care products. They offer an extensive range of vegan cheeses and certain hard-to-find items such as vegan honey and liquid smoke. Beyond Meat products are available here.

Naturalia Vegan
4 locations in Paris and the near suburbs
Part of the Naturalia organic grocery chain, these stores have a much wider selection of vegan cheeses, yogurts and plant-based imitation meats than other Naturalias. Unlike the other vegan grocery stores listed here, Naturalia Vegan locations also offer fresh produce.

Mon Epicerie Paris
31 rue des Gravilliers, 75003 Paris (metro Arts et Métiers)
This little grocery has a surprisingly wide selection of products, including Beyond Meat and some others that are found nowhere else in Paris as far as I know (for example Linda McCartney frozen items). Carries more Asian products than the other ones.

Un Monde Vegan
64 rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth, 75003 Paris (metro Strasbourg-Saint Denis)
The first all-vegan food shop to open in Paris, Un Monde Vegan is still a popular source of interesting grocery products and books.

With that, I wish you a pleasant stay (or staycation) in Paris. Bon appétit!

Lemon cheesecake nice cream

Today I’m sharing one of my very favorite summertime recipes. With just two ingredients, it’s also one of the simplest I know. Meet nice cream, the banana-based alternative to ice cream.

Not only is it yummy, but since it’s nothing but fruit you can eat it anytime, any day, all day everyday if you want to. Well, within reason! My point is that it’s a lot better for you than most ice creams out there (even vegan ones), since it has no added sugar, oil or saturated fat and of course is dairy-free and gluten-free. It’s actually everything-free except banana and lemon. Because the banana is so sweet, you don’t need to add sweetener of any kind.

Why “nice” cream? I’m not the inventor of the term, but I would imagine it’s because compared to cows’ milk ice cream, it’s nicer to animals and also the planet. No cows get involved and the carbon footprint of bananas is lower than that of milk even when transportation is factored in. For each kg of cow’s milk produced, 2.4 kg of CO2 equivalent are generated, while for 1 kg of bananas it’s just 480 g (one-fifth the amount for milk). But nice cream also just tastes nice, so maybe that’s why?

I find it makes a great breakfast on a really hot day. In fact, it’s better as a breakfast or an afternoon treat than as a dessert because it’s much more filling than traditional ice cream or sorbet.

The possibilities for variations are vast – you can add just about anything to the banana base to flavor it. Try mixing in frozen berries, cocoa powder or even a touch of your favorite liqueur (Bailey’s Almande would be great!). See other suggestions at the end of this post.

The flavor I’m presenting today is one that I call “lemon cheesecake” because although it contains nothing but banana and lemon, something about these two things together reminds me of cheesecake. Try it for yourself and see if you agree.

Lemon cheesecake nice cream

Makes 2 servings (the equivalent of around 3 scoops each)

  • 3 medium to large ripe bananas (not overly ripe)
  • 1 medium to large lemon

Equipment needed: freezer, food processor with an “S” blade (a regular blender will probably not be enough), lemon juicer, freezer-safe tupperware container.

Slice 3 bananas into rounds and put them in a plastic tupperware container with a lid. Place in your freezer for several hours or, ideally, overnight.

When ready to make your nice cream (the same day it will be served), remove the bananas from the freezer, take off the tupperware lid and let the bananas thaw for at least 10 minutes (less time on a really hot day, more time on a cooler day). Do not skip this step – rock-solid frozen banana pieces can damage your food processor.

Once the bananas have thawed a bit, transfer them to your food processor. Juice your lemon until you have about 1/3 cup (79 ml) juice. You can also use a bit less or a bit more, depending how much you like lemon.

Pour the juice into the food processor and begin processing. At first it may seem like nothing is happening but the bananas will eventually all blend into a wonderfully smooth texture. If you’re using a small food processor like mine, you may need to stop once or twice and scrape down the sides to move the remaining whole pieces toward the blade.

You’ll end up with a perfect “soft serve” nice cream and can enjoy it as is. Simply transfer to a bowl and, if desired, garnish with (non-frozen) fruit. This is how I eat it most of the time, when not taking photos for a blog post that is. 😉

nice cream 17

But if you want to impress a guest and present the nice cream in scoop form like in the photos below, transfer the blended nice cream back into your same tupperware container and freeze it again for an hour or so. It’s best to still serve the prepared nice cream the same day, without leaving it in the freezer for too long since it can become too solid and impossible to scoop.

When plating up the nice cream, either in soft serve or scooped form, keep in mind that it melts pretty fast! You may want to refrigerate the serving bowls ahead of time to slow down the melting process.

With any number of sweltering days ahead of us still this summer, this nice cream just might become your new best friend. Enjoy!

nice cream 20

nice cream 19

photo_2019-07-11_11-12-47

Variations:

  1. Freeze some berries along with the bananas for a “fruit cocktail” nice cream (you’ll still need bananas for a base).
  2. Process the bananas with lime juice, mint leaves and a touch of rum for a “tropical island drink” nice cream.
  3. Add peanut butter to the bananas while blending, and incorporate some chocolate chunks at the end. Serve with salted pecans.Lots of other flavors are possible! Let me know in the comments what you try and how it goes.

Learning Japanese in France

In the fall of 2017, this introvert did something bold and adventurous.

I’d been living in France for eight years and things were somewhat stagnant. Everything felt like the same old same old… I’d been in the same city longer than any other since childhood, living in the same apartment for years, and my work was fairly routine and predictable too. I’d been speaking French for decades and had apparently already reached my personal ceiling in it. A new challenge seemed called for, so I took a long-held albeit vague ambition down from the shelf and registered for a year-long Japanese class in the continuing education program offered by the City of Paris.

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Our textbook, whose title means something like “You can learn Japanese!” or, more realistically, “Japanese is possible.”

Vague, because I wasn’t at all certain I would actually be able to learn the language. It seemed so very complex and bewildering, and I’d already heard that it’s considered the most difficult language for English native speakers to learn, meriting a category of its own (one level up from the “super-hard languages”) in the Foreign Service Institute’s ranking of commonly taught languages. So rather than setting out confidently to conquer this new language, I planned to just dip a toe into Japanese for a closer look at how it worked. I figured I’d learn at least a few words and maybe some basic grammar if I made it through the year. I didn’t expect much more than that, but also didn’t dismiss the possibility (wild hope?) that I would turn out to have some natural knack for the language.

So while I wasn’t stressed about Japanese itself, I was a bit nervous about jumping into a class full of French people. I felt I would somehow be at a disadvantage and worried that I might not make friends. I would be a double gaijin (foreigner) of sorts. But I plunged ahead nonetheless – this is where the “bold and adventurous” part came in!

Fast-forward to the present. Last week, I finished my second year of Japanese in the program and got decent grades. I’ll probably register for the third year this fall. So how did it go? Just how tough was it, and how did I manage to get this far? How did the other students react to the strange American in their midst?

I’ll get to that in a bit. But first…

Why Japanese?

kana chartsMaybe it’s the look of the language that attracted me – the beautiful loopy hiragana, the slanty futuristic katakana and the forbidding kanji, which look like little houses and dense thornbushes. It seemed like an enigma waiting to be unraveled. But my interest in the country and culture was probably piqued in childhood.

My earliest brush with Japan was at age six when my dad’s company sent him on a business trip to Tokyo. The situation was explained to me, but I could barely wrap my head around the idea of him flying such a long distance away. When I looked at Japan on a globe, it seemed just as remote as the moon.

I believe I was somewhat in awe of him when he returned, bearing all manner of strange and wonderful gifts for my mom, my little brother and me. Among them, I clearly remember a large spiral-bound booklet of flexible chalkboard pages made of rough green material and printed with mysterious roundish characters that you were supposed to trace and copy in chalk. It came with a thick yellow foam eraser of a kind I’d never seen before. My dad explained that the booklet was designed for Japanese children to practice writing their letters in. I can still recall the character あ (hiragana for the sound “a”) being one of them.

photo_2019-07-04_08-54-05He also brought my mom some women’s fashion magazines that I would page through time and again, captivated by the inscrutable writing and above all the fact that they were read from “back” to “front”. And there was a Japanese baby doll for me – she had very white skin, was dressed in a red kimono and there was a pink satin cushion for her to sit on.

My dad had his photos developed into slides and we sat in the living room watching them on the projector screen, listening to his stories as we saw him standing in various squares in front of temples or near Mt. Fuji, surrounded by Japanese business partners and pigeons (see some of his photos below). He told us about eating octopus tentacles and being served a luxurious dish of strawberries with cream. He’d brought home some miniature tubes of toothpaste from his hotel room and these delighted me because the caps were really tiny too, unlike the mini toothpaste tubes in the US. They soon became accessories for my dolls.

These early experiences must have planted a seed of some kind. Later, at university, I had a series of Korean and Japanese roommates and friends. I absorbed a few expressions in those languages without really trying to and began reading some Japanese literature in translation (Banana Yoshimoto was a favorite). In those days, I was interested in foreign languages of all kinds and took a few semesters of Arabic (that’s a story for another day) while continuing on with French, eventually earning my Bachelor’s in linguistics.

In the years after that, I continued to meet Japanese people and be exposed to more and more Japanese literature and culture. I followed the misadventures of An Englishman in Osaka. I acquired Elizabeth Andoh’s excellent cookbook Kansha and tried my hand at many of her shōjin ryōri (Buddhist “temple cooking” or vegan) recipes. Every dorayaki I made, every Haruki Murakami novel I read and every Ozu film I saw was like another knock at the door, another invitation to try learning the language.

Rachel and Jun
Rachel and Jun

A surprising shift in my attitude to learning the language happened in 2016 when I discovered Rachel and Jun on YouTube. Somehow, seeing Rachel – also American, also female – speaking Japanese made me feel that if she could do it, I surely could too. Or that I at least had a reasonable hope. It may seem strange, but prior to that, most of the people I’d known who had learned Japanese were men, and I realized that on some subconscious although illogical level I’d felt that it wasn’t open to me. I would have to look at statistics on this, if they exist, but I have a sense that in the US it is indeed a language more men try to learn than women. In my classes in France, there have been equal numbers of women and men.

So although Japanese was daunting on many levels, and I had a hard time imagining myself understanding and speaking it, I just had to try!

Learning Japanese in French

Since these courses take place in Paris, they are of course taught in French. Trying to learn Japanese in another foreign language may seem like asking for trouble – I myself wondered if that would complicate things – but now after two years I can say that it hasn’t really made much difference.

photo_2019-07-01_14-45-49
Some notes I took early in my first year.

My French is solid enough that the instructors’ explanations have always been clear to me. The main effect of my being a foreigner is probably that I’m more reluctant to ask a question in class… but then I’m an introvert already.

Something kind of interesting does happen when I take notes in class. As the instructor speaks (in French), my page becomes a mishmash of French and English. In some cases, I write exactly what’s being said in French while at other moments, sometimes in the same sentence, my brain sends the signal down to my hand directly in English without any special intention on my part. This reflex may also be due to my being a professional translator, but I wasn’t the only one doing it – another foreign student who sat near me (and was not a translator) confessed that she also wrote her notes partly in French and partly in her language. The jumble of languages doesn’t pose any particular problem except when I realize I’m doing it and hesitate for a moment.

Occasionally, when I speak Japanese in class and then revert “back” to add something I can’t yet say in that language, I accidentally jump into English and have to start over again in French. This never happens when I’m speaking just French, so I assume the switch out of Japanese triggers a “reset” function of some kind and my system automatically reboots in English.

Apart from these small details, when it came to my potential compared to that of the French students, the playing field was leveled by the fact that this was a new and difficult language for all of us. I may even have had an advantage in a few respects: 1. the most common rōmaji (Romanized Japanese) transliteration system is based on English sound/spelling correspondences and is incorrect if pronounced according to French rules, 2. a good number of “Japanese” words are English borrowings which, while sometimes hard to recognize, can be traced back to their origin more easily by English native speakers than others (sutoraiki/strike, aisu/ice cream) and 3. I could already pronounce the “h” sound, which is usually troublesome for French native speakers. But this hasn’t put me at the head of the class or anything. Some of my classmates have worked at it harder than me and/or have lived in Japan or have a Japanese partner and get to practice all the time.

Is Japanese really that hard?

It sure is – the Foreign Service Institute was right. Or rather, let’s say it has many complex features. The grammar is quite different than what we’re used to, so that takes time become familiar with, and then there are unusual things such as special “counter” words that come after numbers when expressing a number of people or objects depending on their shape, size and other details. One counter word is used for pieces of paper (“flat thing” category), another for umbrellas (“long and thin thing” category) and still another for housecats (“small animal” category).

The writing system of course presents a host of additional challenges. You need to learn two syllabaries, the aforementioned hiragana and katakana, each of which has 46 base characters and 20+ variations. Those aren’t so bad once you’ve had enough practice with them, but they still act as a barrier, significantly slowing down the reading process for beginners compared to a language with a familiar writing system. Then there are the 2,000 kanji or Chinese characters you must eventually learn to be decently literate in Japanese (more than that exist for the ambitious). At this stage, having done two years, I’ve become familiar with a handful of the kanji just by being passively exposed to them in the textbook although I focus more on the small kana that are written above them as training wheels for foreign learners.

On the plus side, the pronunciation is a breeze and you have no gender or articles to worry about. It’s a very concise language, so a lot can often be conveyed with a just a single short expression. Sōdesuka!

But the complexities mean you do need to invest a significant amount of time between classes to studying. This, more than anything else, has been my particular challenge. I was accustomed to language-learning being easier (because I was learning easier languages, apart from Arabic that is), and sometimes didn’t put in the time I needed to, especially at times when work occupied most of my waking time. My solution was to keep going to all the classes, bumble through them (not ideal) and then catch up later. It worked, but please avoid going down this path!

Did I turn out to have a natural knack for Japanese? Definitely not! Luckily hard work is a good replacement.

Learning how to learn

It had been a while since I’d attempted a foreign language and I’d forgotten some of the tips and tricks for learning, practicing and memorizing things. And because Japanese is different in many ways from the other languages I had experience with, I had to figure out how to go about learning it.

Our textbook, Dekiru Nihongo, is full of what we need to know but at the same time maddeningly user unfriendly. It’s written only in Japanese so it can be used anywhere in the world, but this means it can’t provide any grammatical explanations for beginners. We therefore depend on what the instructor tells us to make sense of the example sentences and exercises in the book. As a result, you cannot afford to ever miss a class and supplementary materials can be very useful. I bought Everett F. Bleiler’s Basic Japanese Grammar as well as some French-language vocabulary books to help me figure things out a bit faster.

Japanese keyboard iphoneI’m also thankful that this is now the Internet age. When I began learning French back in middle school, there was no such thing, and no way to even hear French spoken by a native speaker except by going to see good ol’ Gérard Depardieu at the movies (he was in ALL the French movies in those days). Now, learning Japanese, I have a multitude of resources available to me at all times on both my computer and my phone. I quickly found the very useful online dictionary jisho.org as well as conjugation sites and YouTubers specialized in helping Japanese learners. An unexpected resource is Instagram… I activated the Japanese keyboard to be able to add hashtags like #ヴィーガン (vegan) and #猫 (cat) to my photos and discovered that when you type words in romaji or kana, the autocorrect feature suggests kanji. But then you have to make sure you’re picking the right kanji as so many words have the same sound. And to check your pronunciation, you can open up “notes” on your phone and activate the dictation feature (the little microphone next to the space bar). Say a few words and see if the right characters appear. This is also a major confidence-booster!

Double gaijin

I’m happy to report that in spite of my foreignness (which didn’t bother anyone, it turned out), I did make friends in my classes. What’s more, I wasn’t the only non-French student. There were three or four of us in each of my classes (from South Korea, Madagascar, Venezuela and Spain, plus another American), so I didn’t even stand out as much as I expected. Occasionally when something related to the US or the English language would come up in the class conversation, everyone would turn to me for my pronouncement on the topic (“What’s the English for sac à dos?” when we were trying to determine the origin of the loanword meaning “backpack”). But the people in my classes were generally friendly and kind. We still sometimes meet up to attend Japanese-related events.

And I’d say this community of fellow learners has been one of the biggest things keeping me going at times when the classes got tough. There have been many points when I was afraid I would have to give up due to falling behind, but the desire to go on to the next year along with everyone else motivated me to keep attending the classes and make time to catch up.

This is a language that would probably be hard to make consistent progress in without an exterior motivation such as a formal class. It gets painful at times, so I know if I were just trying to do it on my own I would have given up long ago.

Meeting the challenge

So the answer to my question of the beginning (Can I really learn this language?) is at this point a somewhat confident maybe! I’m only two years in and don’t know what the future may hold. But for the time being, I’m very happy to have made it as far as I have. We’ll see this fall how the next chapter in my story goes.

Cover image from Yasujirō Ozu’s Ohayō (1959).