Quotes

Mar 16, 2014

The Scarlet Letter (A is For American): Aiglon

THE STORY:

It used to be that the French could identify who was American by the sneakers (generally white) and blue jeans (generally scruffy).


Now, of course, this uniform is de rigeur for hipsters worldwide, including here in France.
Not just hipsters, but basically anybody under a certain age -- and even a large chunk of the population over a certain age -- can be seen toodling around Paris in jeans and sneakers. Admittedly, they are not usually stark white ones, though they can be; as in the US, Converse sneakers rule.
 
 


So what marks us as American now? I don't mean American society as a whole -- the obesity, the multi-racial melting pot, the high percentage of shirts that scream "GAP"?

I mean as individuals. How do the Europeans identify us walking through their streets? Even a jacket tied around the waist won't suffice, as French people sometimes do this, too. And you almost never actually see that stereotype of a Frenchman with his sweater jauntily tied over his shoulders.


Well, there are some small telltale signs. Baggy clothing certainly hints at it. A baseball cap says it loudly. Chewing gum says it -- or smacks it -- even louder. And a person exclaiming, "Oh my God!" says it the loudest. Literally. French people mock us for this, and with good reason: We are a very loud, nasal, enthusiastic people.

But the two things that I have heard repeatedly from many French people that really mark us as Americans -- the scarlet letter A if you will -- is walking around holding a to-go cup of coffee, and having North American movie star teeth.

Here they are, the typical Americans with their coffee to-go.

 

I met somebody who had worked on a movie production shooting in a small village in Italy; he was told to go down to the café and get a cup of coffee for the star who, I am 99% sure I'm remembering correctly, was Tom Hanks. The owner said no, the coffee needed to be consumed in the café. When the assistant said Mr. Hanks was too busy, the owner looked baffled, "Who doesn't have time for a cup of coffee? How much time does it take?!" It's true that you almost never see people walking the streets of Paris with the telltale white to-go cup and, on the super-rare occasion that you do, you can bet they're American. And you can bet it's Starbucks -- almost the only take-out coffee you can buy.

I see these women on the subway platform and think, "A-ha! I've been proved wrong! The French are drinking their coffee to go!" But then I hear them speak. The two with the white Starbucks cups in their hands are, indeed, American. Their non-coffee-toting friend on the bench is the French one.

 
Another give-away, I am told, is our movie star teeth. Our North American movie star teeth (yes, Canadians share our teeth, but not literally, because that would be both logistically difficult and quite gross). On a visit last year to the Musée Quai Branley, an older woman comments to Pippa, "You must be 7!" When Pippa asks how she knows, the woman points to all those missing teeth. She basically looks like a Jack-o-Lantern.


Then she turns to Gigi and says, "You must be older! Just look at all your teeth!" And Gigi and Pippa respond, in perfect French. So when she turns to me, and I jokingly smile big to show her my teeth, she cannot know we're American, or even foreigners, yet still she comments, "And look at how perfectly aligned your Mommy's teeth are! Where are you from?!"


She makes sure to point out that in the last 20 years, plenty of French people also have worn braces, but since I wore my first braces over 30 years ago (and the second round about 10 years ago), that still puts me at an age where my teeth are so American, they might as well be colored in stars and stripes.

THE CHEESE: Aiglon

Aiglon, which is the French word for a baby eagle, is a hard cheese from the Vosges region made from an unusual mix of raw goat and sheep milk. It's aged around 6-8 months and coated with a combination of peppercorns, peppers, and aromatic herbs. I'd bet my left eyeball that one of those herbs is tarragon, because I taste it quite strongly.


It's a rare cheese to find here in Paris. I find mine at the Quatrehomme store and am glad I go for the slice when I do, because it's lovely. The taste is as unusual as the cheese between the herbs, the mountain notes of the cheese itself, and the unusual tang created by the combination of sheep and goat milk. Though it's a hard, aged cheese, the inside is distinctly creamy and just melts in the mouth.

THE CONNECTION:

A is also for Aiglon. And what could possibly be more American than a baby eagle? Unless it's a baby eagle with straight teeth and a to-go coffee cup.

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