Jan 27, 2015

Def-Con Charlie: Vieurals


Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we here in Paris are living in a state of heightened anxiety, alertness, and security measures. There's an official name for it: status Vigipirate. I could tell you it means the equivalent of code orange, but really I just think of it as Vigilant Pirate. We all must be vigilant pirates. Like these guys on a boat in the Seine.

Har matey, this vigilant pirate will protect us all.

Under the Vigipirate measures, access to certain public building and monument is cut off, or at least restricted. And usually with the added precaution of bag searches. And loads of security personnel.
More à-propos to my life are the security measures mandated for elementary schools: for the first week, children are not allowed to walk home alone. They must be picked up by a recognized adult. All bags may be searched. No parents may congregate in the common areas of the school but rather must leave the premises immediately after drop off. Students may not leave campus for any field trips or sports activities.
The second week, restrictions are loosened: children may walk home alone, and off-site activities are allowed. But there are still the Vigipirate signs, indicating that the rest of the security measures are in place. The director and secretary take turns standing by the door for hours each day of staggered drop-offs and pick-ups.
Vigipirate means that there are special conditions at the post office for packages over 250g, requiring an official ID. At the gym, we aren't allowed to watch the competition from downstairs, but instead must go sit up in the stands. I have no idea how this protects us against the threat of terrorism, but at least we get a bird's eye view of the gymnastics.
Meanwhile, you can still go up the Eiffel Tower. So, if you're keeping score: watching gymnastics from the low seats -- no. Entering the most iconic monument in the nation, and possibly the world -- just fine. Just how vigilant is this pirate?
However, it's true that I see far, far more than the normal number of soldiers walking around and emergency vehicle convoys: Perhaps the pirates are very vigilant indeed.
These vigilant pirates risk freezing polluted waters (in point of fact, they do train even when the status is not Vigipirate, but I've certainly seen more of them in the past couple weeks).

I lived in Tokyo during the first Gulf War, in 1990-1991. At that time, the United States had elevated its alertness status world-wide to Def-Con Charlie (Defense-Condition Charlie). I went to visit my friends on Yokota Air Force base, subject to American conditions. I got onto the base with my expired Embassy ID card, no problem. War or no war, this was pre 9/11. I accompanied my friend to her squadron office, and wandered around lost popping into various other squadrons after trying to find a snack in a vending machine. Def-Con Charlie seemed to mean nothing ... until I tried to get into the Mrs. Field's Cookies on base. There they stopped me very seriously and would not let me in to buy a cookie unless I had a valid military ID. National security depended on me not eating chocolate chip cookies in Japan: I see that now. Vigilance, Cookie Pirates!

It's coincidence, of course, that the security status when I was in Japan was Def-Con Charlie -- nothing to do with the Charlie Hebdo attacks this month. But I can't help drawing parallels.

I do know of one American family that, literally and spontaneously, packed up their belongings and moved out of France the day after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Not coincidentally, it was a family whose child attended the International School of Paris, which remains -- even today -- much more vigilantly guarded (by pirates, of course), simply because there are so many Embassy children there. Still, it seems like a drastic overreaction. Also, if you were afraid and wanted to go someplace impossibly safe, where would you possibly go? Remote New Zealand? In the 1950s? (For the record, the family went back to the US, which seems like a strange choice if your main concern is security.)

As for us, there are small moments of the world feeling weird -- oddball streets or areas closed off and heavily guarded (especially near Notre Dame, government offices, Jewish monuments in the Marais). But for the most part, I don't feel in any more danger than before. I'm not sure if it's because the terrorist event appears to be fairly isolated, or if it's the positive effect of all this pirate vigilance.

THE CHEESE: Vieurals

Vieurals is a hard cheese made from raw cows' milk in the Aubrac, in the tradition of a Laguiole. It's a hard cheese to find in Paris, and I score my taste at an outdoor market just outside the Cimitière Montparnasse. That's mostly because it's a farmhouse cheese, made only at one farm, the Cartayrou. However, if you can find it, it's worth buying a slice. Vieurals is a prize-winning cheese, having earned a gold medal in 2012 and a silver in 2013.
The cheese is aged for a couple weeks on wooden planks, and months in the cellar. The farmhouse makes five other cheese, as well: La Tomette, le Cartayrou, le Rioudis, l'Entre-deux, and La Vieille Fourme.

Like a Laguiole, and as you would expect from a prize-winning, raw-milk, mountain cow hard cheese, Vieurals packs a punch. It's herbaceous, complex, and so tangy that it almost makes the back of my jaw ache. You can taste the farm here. The texture is dry and crumbly with lovely little aerated dry spots that taste like cheese-candy to me.



Not only does the name Vieurals start off like the word Vigipirate, the Vigipirate symbol is a triangle. By coincidence, on my camera, the photo I take of the Vigipirate sign at Pippa's school and the photo I take of the Vieurals are one right after the other, so that they come up on my screen right next to each other. It jumps out at me that I need to use this cheese to talk about this issue for reasons that are purely geometrical.


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