Bread at the Chocolate: Round 2

Last year, I wrote about going to a café in my hometown and not knowing what you call a pain au chocolat in English.

This time, thankfully, I remembered.

To review: a pain au chocolat is (most often) composed of two sticks of chocolate inside a flaky croissant-style wrapping. In France, they’re sold everywhere there’s a boulangerie/pâtisserie, which is pretty much everywhere. They usually cost between 1€ and 1,10€ (sometimes slightly more).

There’s a bookstore/Champagne bar in a historic arcade downtown. On Thursday afternoons, a discussion group meets there to chat in French for an hour. My grandmother, a native French speaker herself, was until recently a regular attendee of the group; the others include people who have lived/worked in France and in French-speaking countries (one lady was a lectrice at a university in the Auvergne region, but just how long ago she wouldn’t say, being herself une dame d’un certain âge).

This Thursday, I decided to go. Not having any cash, I looked through the menu before ordering, trying to find something that would fall above the card minimum. I considered buying a slice of cake, a couple of cookies, or one of several other pastries, all of which would have done the trick. But when I saw it, I knew I had to have it.

“You know what?” I told the barista. “I’ll have the chocolate croissant.”

It cost $4.25.

The barista was nice enough to heat it up for me.

The following day, I asked my Facebook friends to guess how much it had cost. Everyone guessed too high, except for a friend of mine from Limoges, who guessed too low. But despite having had some fun on the Internet, I still feel disappointed. The croissant part seemed too heavy—too thick and rich, almost—ironic, considering the amount of butter that usually goes into those things. Definitely not worth paying four times the usual price. As one of my conversation partners joked, were it any more expensive, if you flew to France, bought and ate a real pain au chocolat, and flew back, you’d probably save money.

I’m starting to approach New-World pains au chocolat like a Frenchman or woman would American wine, unable to hide my disdain for a well-meaning but ultimately inferior imitation. C’est bon. . . . pour les américains. Ouais, ouais. . . .

Strangely, though, the pain au chocolat is not merely a symbol of French snobbery (and one former language assistant’s nostalgia). It is also a vehicle for embarrassment—a catalyst of public ridicule aimed at France’s elected officials, candidates, and their advisors. During the most recent presidential campaign, I remember hearing of one candidate who underestimated the price of a pain au chocolat and was rightfully mocked for it.

The specific incident in question involved Jean-François Copé, who, when asked by a radio host last October what the price was of a pain au chocolat, replied, “It depends on the size. . . . I think it’s probably in the range of 10 or 15 cents, maybe.”¹

But there’s yet another case in which a pain au chocolat resulted in widespread criticism of a French public official: after receiving death threats, an advisor to former president François Hollande was put under the protection of a security detail. In July of 2013, the advisor scolded his escort for not doing what he’d asked, saying, “Nobody told you that you’re supposed to buy me a pain au chocolat in the morning?”

It was no less than Charlie Hebdo that broke the story, quoting a police union representative, who said that “the agents of the SPHP [Service de protection des hautes personnalités, apparently France’s version of the Secret Service] are disciplined officers whose duties do not involve running errands to the bakery.”²

It may be an innocent little pastry, but if you’re thinking about running for public office in France, beware—this innocent little pastry may very well become a flaky, chocolatey pain in your neck.

¹ “10 centimes le pain au chocolat: Copé déconnecté de son totem politique,” Le Nouvel Observateur, October 24, 2016.
² “TROP GOURMAND: Le pain au chocolat du conseiller de Hollande qui ne passe pas,” Big Browser, Le Monde, November 1, 2013.


The Hot Chocolates of Limoges, Ranked

The standard price for a hot chocolate in Limoges is 2,50€. This has a few notable exceptions (which I’ll get to in a moment), but one can easily use it as a benchmark with which to compare other things—something akin to the Big Mac Index, except with hot chocolate.

I’ve had hot chocolates at a variety of places around town. Depending on the weather, of course. Some days I would have loved to drink a hot chocolate, but it was simply too hot outside. (This only happened once or twice). But I figure that for any foreigner in Limoges, there will come a time when one must leave the stuffy confines of one’s threadbare apartment or risk madness—never mind the clammy drizzle outside. And what better way to combat the Limousin winter grays than by having a hot chocolate?

For the benefit of those whom this information may interest, what follows is a near-comprehensive list of all the establishments in Limoges at which I’ve had a hot chocolate, and my reviews thereof, presented roughly in ascending order, and with the knowledge that my memory may have caused me to omit one or two places worthy of consideration in this list.Read More »

How to Talk English Good: Self-Evaluation as a Foreign Language Assistant

“You speak way too fast to be an English teacher.”

Most people to whom I told my post-graduation plans reacted as if I was going to Disneyland. “That’s so awesome! I wish I could go. You’re going to love it.”

But one man, a friend of one of my professors, was the first one to blatantly question my ability to successfully instruct young French students in the English language in all of its richness and glory. I don’t think that he actually doubted my enthusiasm or ability; in all fairness, though, he had a very good point.

I work a service-industry job in my hometown that involves a high rate of guest turnover; in order to avoid falling behind during the afternoon rush, I move as quickly as I can, and my speech has followed suit. It’s the subject of repeated comments from the people I serve. Some are matter-of-fact: “You speak wicked fast!” Others enjoy poking fun at me. “On the weekends, he’s an auctioneer!” a fellow quipped last month. Only days later, someone else asked, “Do you sell cattle in your spare time?”

In response to the many ribbings tossed my way, I decided to toss in a few apologetic jokes. Something along the lines of drinking too much coffee or whatever. This failed to satisfy one woman, who, to the scandalized gasp of her neighbor, remarked:Read More »

The French Legislative Elections: Quick Observations

The Valley of Fear

The Centre de la Mémoire sits just beyond the eastern edge of the new town, the nouveau bourg. Its architecture is deliberately discreet: a low sign, a staircase, and an elevator are the only indications that the museum and historical center lies beneath the hillside. Located a 20-minute bus ride from Limoges, the Centre exists to preserve the memory of a singular event in the history of the region, and indeed, in the history of France: the massacre of Oradour-sur-Glane.

Present-day Oradour lives in the shadow of its former self. The town center is small with gray buildings accented by white shutters. Travel down the Avenue du 10 Juin, and you’ll pass by the box-shaped town hall, a pharmacy, the post office, a coiffeur, the restaurant—Le Milord—and the new Eglise Saint-Martin, structures all completed around 1953. From the war monument just behind the church, a path descends to the Centre de la Mémoire; on a hilltop to the east lies the village martyr, preserved as it was found: its homes and businesses destroyed, its valuables ransacked, its inhabitants murdered, their bodies burned.

Saturday, June 10th, 1944: shortly before two in the afternoon, a company belonging to the 2nd armored division of the Waffen-SS surrounded the town and worked its way inwards, emptying houses at gunpoint and forcing the inhabitants into the main square. Many country-dwellers had come into town to fill their tobacco rations, distributed on that day, along with others visiting friends and family, swelling the number of people to well over the town’s usual population of 500. The Nazis rounded up everyone, including children in school, and announced they would conduct a search for illegal weapons and other contraband.

This was a ruse designed to ensure their victims’ cooperation. Read More »

Here’s to Down Home

Last summer, I attended a retirement celebration for a public university official who directed the school’s scholarships and financial aid for many years. The event was held in the ballroom of a fancy historic inn located just off campus and featured piles of food, drinks, and a round of speeches. I did the rounds, talking with various people, and listening to the speeches, but my appetite quickly got the better of me. I mean not to disparage the speakers, for their words were inspiring and thought-provoking, but I had just driven for several hours and wasn’t about to pass up a golden-brown and crispy opportunity. As the person on the podium delved into a lengthy anecdote, I did the same—into the pile of potato chips on my plate.

I quickly realized that the man standing no more than ten feet away was the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost—he would have been the university’s #2 bigwig were it not for the fact that he was bald—and the noise I produced while enjoying my potato chips was certainly loud enough to reach well beyond where he was standing. Worse, though he’s probably forgotten now, he knew who I was, as we’d introduced ourselves a few moments before.

But in retrospect, the part of the afternoon that lodged itself the most firmly in my memory was entirely unrelated to annoying a top administrator with my chewing noises.Read More »

Vive la République, vive la France!

Imagine if Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner formed a political party in 2015, got a ton of support, beat out both Clinton and Trump for the top spot in 2016 and then became President of the United States.

That’s sorta what’s happened with Emmanuel Macron.

During a Facebook group chat a few days ago, a couple of my friends suggested I give them my thoughts on the French election that occurred last Sunday. I’ll keep this short.

(EDIT: define “Short”.)

To recap: France’s president is elected for five-year terms, and may serve a maximum of two. The current president (until Sunday), François Hollande, was fantastically unpopular—an October poll by Le Monde put his approval rating at 4%, though there was a neutral option in the questionnaire that some say made his score lower than normal. This led to Hollande making a decision previously unheard-of in the 5th Republic: he refused to run for re-election, making this the final three days (as of this writing) of his first and only term in office. (One other guy ran again and lost; Hollande is the first to not run at all).

Early in the school year, during a brief discussion, I mentioned the French election in passing and my students took the opportunity to inform their classmates who they thought was going to win. “Je pense que ça va être Fillon, hein?” one girl said to her deskmate. “Ouais,” replied the other, in a very French tone of voice that means “Pretty much,” as if the election of conservative then-candidate François Fillon was all but assured. But it wasn’t. Read More »

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