Jun 1, 2014

Sticker Shock/ Sticker Joy: Caillou du Perche


I go to the local dry-cleaner/tailor and am quoted 78€ (about $100) to replace the zipper on a kid's denim jacket. It's as if I suddenly don't speak French, because I have to ask, re-ask, and repeat the number half a dozen times. Finally, needing to confirm that I'm not just misunderstanding something, I ask, "Soixante-dix-huit? The digits 7 then 8?" The jacket itself probably didn't cost me more than $3, because I'm pretty sure I bought it at Goodwill in the first place.

So what else causes Sticker Shock in Paris, even after a couple years here?:

Children's shoes: boots, for example -- the kind a girl might wear with leggings and a dress, leather-style (though probably not real leather) and not super-well made -- start around 80€, over $110, in the stores, and many hover at 100€ or about $135. In the U.S., for $80, I could get the girls a much better-made pair. But this isn't the sort of thing that can easily be bought over the internet and brought in somebody's luggage. They need to try it on and like it.

Granted, I live in an expensive area, but still, does 6€, or about $8 for a cup of tea seem reasonable? We are talking, after all, about a cup of hot water, with a tea bag that costs less than 10¢ at full retail price (so, what, 5¢ wholesale?). I don't like coffee, so I'm always stuck when we stop at the café ordering an $8 cup of tea, hot milk, or hot chocolate.

Housing: This is Paris, after all. At the moment, places in good neighborhoods rent for around 36€ per square meter, which works out to about $5/sq. ft per month. This is less shocking when moving to Paris from San Francisco, frankly, where places rent for about $3.70 (measured against averages at one point during 2013). But even we are a little stunned by the prices to buy something. About $800,000 for a 400 sq. ft. studio? But I want three bedrooms. Uh, maybe in the next life.

And let's not even get into fish pills (seen at over $100 for a small bottle), dental floss (about $7 at the admittedly overpriced pharmacy below us), or chocolate chips (about $5 for 100g, which is about 1/2 cup, or only half as much as I need to bake a batch of cookies). Seen below is the approximately $205 worth of Costco-sized chocolate chip bags that people have brought to us from the US. Actual Costco total for both: $23. And now you know why we've asked you to bring these in your luggage.

On the other hand:

There's private school. When I sign Gigi up for her new school next year, they tell me that in addition to the $1800 private school annual tuition, there is an extra $1800 fee for the special program they offer for native English speakers (extra hours, at native Anglophone level, paid entirely by parents of the children in the program). Apparently, my face registers no shock, horror, or concern over the additional annual fee, so they assume I don't understand and keep repeating the amount to me: total $3600 -- annually. The same $3600 would be approximately the monthly charge for private school in San Francisco, per child. This is Sticker Shock in reverse. It's Sticker Joy.

The girls' gymnastics program also gives me Sticker Joy. For 730€, or just under $1000, both girls will do three days per week, plus competitions, for the whole school year. Pippa will be doing 7-9 hours per week, and Gigi will be at 6, and there are 35 weeks, with a few days off thrown in, so roughly 475 gym hours total. For just $1000. What will $2 per hour buy for child care and children's activities (especially good quality ones) in the U.S.? I don't know: I think you'd have to go back to 1964 to find out.

Other things that cost shockingly, joyfully little:

Babysitters -- roughly $10/hour, vs. $15-20 in San Francisco, which is, officially, the most expensive city in the U.S. for babysitting.

Trains/travel within France -- we can get out of the city to someplace interesting, and far -- much of the way across the country even, for as little as $30-40 sometimes, if we buy early enough and are going someplace with a super convenient train station. We love it.

Kids' clothing -- lovely French fashion, and while prices can, of course, be astronomical for high-fashion, the basic play-clothes kind of stores are no more expensive than the U.S. And with sales, prices get quite low indeed (3-7€ for regular play/school clothes, for example, by the end of the sales).


Medical care -- Pippa hurts her foot badly enough at one point that we decide to get it X-rayed for stress fractures (none, it turns out). Before any insurance reimbursements, the full cost we pay for it is 75€, around $100. Quite affordable. And then we get nearly all of it back from the insurance company, anyway. And a month of prescription levothyroxine which costs $10 in the U.S. after insurance costs only $3 here at full price.

Coffee -- if only I liked it. Quick coffee (espresso) nearly anywhere is 1.5 - 2€. A slow, lingering espresso at a lovely French café? About 2 - 2.5€.

Bread -- roughly 1.5€ ($2) for an incredibly great loaf of bread, and less than that for a fabulous pain au chocolat or croissant. Bread products here are subsidized by the government in the way that milk is in the U.S., to keep prices reasonable (and regulated). Better and cheaper than in America. Sigh.

And let's not forget the cheese -- sure, the good stuff is still expensive, but that's all relative. It's much cheaper than buying less delicious cheese in the US (or nearly anywhere else). Many cheeses are 6-12€ per piece (roughly $8-15), and others tend to run around 25-40€ per kilo (roughly $14-24/lb). And even these seem like a great deal when I taste them. And then, when I come across a gem for even less, I feel like dancing a little jig in the cheese aisle.

THE CHEESE: Caillou du Perche

Caillou du Perche, which literally means Pebble from Perche, hails from the department of l'Orne in the region of Basse-Normandie, in the little town of St-Julien-Sur-Sarthe with just 669 inhabitants. There, sixty-something farmer André Lerat and his 25-year old son Vincent have been raising goats on their farm La Mouchardière for thirty years. Needless to say, Vincent hasn't been working with the goats for the full 30 years.

As a pebble, it's well named. On the outside, it's a bumpy, gray, rock-hard ball of cheese. But cut it open, and it's amazing that something this tiny can have so many different textural layers inside of it. Besides the crust (firm and moldy and thoroughly delicious), there's also a toothsome semi-hard layer just inside that I can best describe as al dente, and finally a dry, creamy, soft inside that melts in the mouth. The size belies the flavor, which is medium-strength goaty and simply wonderful.


Not only is the Caillou du Perche not too much bigger than the 1.5€ coins I put next to it in the photo above, it also costs just 1.5€. Sure, it's not too big, but we do manage to cut eight little taste-slices out of it as part of a larger cheese platter. And it's a super high-quality, absolutely delicious cheese. That's a lot of enjoyment for just a couple bucks.



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