Dec 6, 2014

Regular Rules are Suspended: Hirel Vieux


One of the great things about being an ex-pat is that the regular rules of life seem suspended. If you've ever lived overseas, you know what I mean. It's especially true in a country where a language foreign to your own is spoken, and even more true if you become part of an obvious, ethnic minority. Having lived in Japan and Asia for so long, I know what that's like, but I'm surprised to find that despite blending in more than I could in Tokyo, regular rules of life are a little suspended for me here, too.

It's how I meet my friends Judith and Barry, who are locked out of the apartment in my building where they are supposed to be staying. I find them on the doorstep, and as they have just flown in from the States, we immediately start talking; once I hear their predicament, I immediately invite them in for a drink and help them call around to fix the key situation. Again, I find that in my non-ex-pat life (would that then be my "pat" life?), I don't normally invite total strangers into my home. But here, they are not total strangers; they're just new friends. And they, in turn, invite me with them to the home of a nonagenarian, Edith (pictured above with Barry & Judith), none of us have ever met (their friend's mother), who tells us moving stories of her personal experiences, losses, and surprising triumphs in the Holocaust.

One day I find myself having to skip out on having photos taken with my hula troupe inside the gardens of Versailles in order to get back to the city in time to take the girls up to a Cambodian-American music video shoot (with Cambodian-American singer Amara) in the Marais in which we will appear as extras. This is not a choice I generally find myself making in my "regular" life.

Come to think of it, that's how we got our apartment in the first place. At school drop off, in my first week in Paris, I hear another Mom with a broad American accent. I introduce myself (and it turns out she's Canadian, but close enough), and she immediately invites back with her to her apartment for a cup of tea. It's two floors up from where I live, and I casually comment, "What a great apartment! We're having such a hard time finding anyplace. I wish we could find something half this nice!"

Her response, as an ex-pat, is "You know, my downstairs neighbor just moved to Spain for a couple years, and her apartment is sitting there, furnished and unused. I bet she'd like to earn some money off it." She whips out her cell phone, calls her former neighbor, and hands me the phone. By the time I'm done, she's standing there jingling some keys: "I have her spare emergency keys. She told me to show you around." Five minutes later, I've seen our apartment, fallen in love, and a few weeks later we move in.

Amazing, unusual things just seem to happen more as an ex-pat: Gigi's role in the King & I and at the Palais de Tokyo (both in part because she can speak English), invitations to various houses in the French countryside (they all know we don't have our own country house here, after all), a few Wall Street Journal articles, and friends that are made in an instant -- on a train, in passing, and sometimes just because you hear a familiar accent. It turns out, of course, that it's a self-selecting group and that many of these people have similar interests, values, and lifestyles, so they become real friends. On one walk with a new friend I have known, literally, for about 5 minutes so far, we delve into family deaths and disease, childhood traumas. Maybe we're both just really outgoing people, but it sure feels like we've been friends forever. Funny, this ex-pat thing.

This summer with friends visiting, the kids all make a sand castle at Paris Plage. There's a photo contest, and Anthony promises the kids he'll send in the photo, even though we expect that there will be many more amazing castles and photos and that they don't have a snowball's chance. But perhaps the new ex-pat rules are applying, because they are chosen as one of the winners. Their photo gets put up, larger than life, on the side of the Hotel de Ville.

Some friends accuse me of "escaping reality" by being an ex-pat, and I say, living in a dream is just fine with me.

THE CHEESE: Hirel Vieux

Hirel Vieux is a raw, farmhouse cows' milk cheese made at the very high-end farm and fromagerie Darley, on the Côte d'Emeraude of Bretagne, the makers of Darley Frotté à la Bière Brune. It's made with Sel de Guérande (salt), using lactic fermentation and pressure.

It's got a lovely, bumpy, hard crust that results from the minimum 10 months it is cave-aged. Yes, it is edible, but no, even most French people would choose not to eat it, because it's thick and tough. Its most striking feature, however, is the layer of large, even holes running through the center. This does nothing to affect the taste; it just looks cool. The flavor is a beautifully balanced sweet and salty, herbaceous cheese that does not share the same stinkiness of some of its sister cheese, the Darley Frotté à la Bière Brune.


I quickly jot the idea for this little essay on a tiny scrap of paper not knowing what cheese I will pair it with. When I try to decipher my shorthand, abbreviated notes (my handwriting is atrocious and obviously not learned in France!), I discover "H.V." written there for both Hotel de Ville and again for Hula at Versailles. Coincidentally, Hirel Vieux was my original choice of cheese when writing about hula in France simply for the silent H when the French say the words: 'irel and 'ula. So obviously, this is the cheese for this story. If only Judith & Barry were named Hilda & Vernon.


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