Nov 15, 2015

The Irony and the Tragedy: Pétafine


Paris, peaceful. What is should look like. What it should feel like.

On Friday, the day of the attacks, I pass by this sign which reads, in translation, "We, French Muslims, against the terrorism of the UOIF" (which stands for Union des Organisations Islamiques de France). In the background is the Institute du Monde Arabe, the Institute of the Arab World, a very open and welcoming museum and center for learning in the 5th arrondissement, not too far from the Great Mosque, which saved hundreds of Jews in World War II.

And in case you didn't get that message:

It's ironic -- or coincidental -- that I se these posters on Friday morning after a walk with my friend along the Seine, where we pass a man reading his Quran, and a monk reading the Bible. We debate for a while whether this a good thing (at least they're just reading) or a bad thing (is it part of the religious extremism of our times?).

It's strange timing -- both this conversation and the attack. I feel like our walks along the Seine have been particularly peaceful lately.

Maybe it's just the weather, or this particular fall in Paris, but it has seemed very tranquil all over the city recently. These pictures, including the display of 15 flags, are all taken before the attacks. Nothing special about them. Just life in Paris.

Until Friday night, of course. The girls were already in bed, ready to wake up early and cab out to the American School of Paris in the morning for their SSAT exam, an entrance exam they have to take in order for us to apply to private schools in the US (since we plan to leave Paris at some point in the foreseeable future...more on this another time).
Anthony and I are not on electronics Friday evening, but when I go to turn off my computer for the night, I notice a few "We're thinking of you and praying" messages to me -- the kind of messages that, these days, let you know some unspeakable tragedy must be unfolding around you. I wish I hadn't known anything till morning, frankly, because I couldn't sleep all night. I wasn't worried about our own immediate safety as much as I just kept flipping back and forth between the agony over the news and the stress over deciding whether the girls would be able to do their test in the morning, and how we would know if it was even still going to happen.
As it turns out, we couldn't figure out if the test was cancelled or not. But all schools were ordered shut in Paris, and even though the American School of Paris is, confusingly, not actually in Paris, but rather just outside in a suburb, we were getting more and more unsure. Finally, what decided it for us was that we looked to see if we could call an Uber car and were given the notice that there were very few in service, all of those were occupied, and that you weren't supposed to go around the city unless absolutely necessary anyway. It's not easy to get to the school by metro, and we weren't about to get in a metro anyway. So instead, we will reschedule. It's annoying, but obviously just a minor inconvenience in the midst of a tragedy, and I tell you this not to make a big deal of it, but just to give you a picture of what this weekend is like in our house, in our lives.
I am so thankful we don't have anything more tragic to report, personally, than this annoyance. One of Anthony's co-workers happens to be a hard-metal fan and had several friends at the concert attacked, including one good friend killed and several injured. Anthony and I were just at a U2 concert on Tuesday (the remaining U2 concerts, in a stadium that seats 20,000, were cancelled for this weekend along with so much else). Even Gigi immediately comments how lucky we are, and how different everything could be for us, if the attack had been at a different concert just a few days earlier.
Paris is known as the City of Light. Many people think of the beautiful night-lights, the gorgeous lamps. In fact, the original nickname was given because it was seen as the seat of enlightenment. Ironic then, that we should then have two senseless terrorist attacks -- this last one the greatest loss of life in France in since World War II -- in the space of one year. Not so enlightened.


Another irony: My mother comments how surreal it is that she needs to be more worried about her relatives in Paris than about the relative she has stationed in Iraq for the year. And yet, other than the chance of being hurt in these terrorist attacks, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time (and, of course, some unlucky people are), I still feel Paris is safer -- not just than Iraq but even than the US. Other than these attacks, we almost never hear stories of guns or violent crimes, especially not in central Paris, where we walk around safely and comfortably day and night, even children and women alone.

Except now, we all feel on edge, and understandably so. There aren't as many people out and about on a gorgeous fall weekend as you would normally expect. The Eiffel Tower is closed, indefinitely. Less famously, but no less significantly, so is the Great Mosque of Paris, which is a lovely building.


Museums are closed. Most public spaces that are closable are closed. Others, like the big Places (de la Bastille, de la République) are heavily patrolled. The markets are all closed for the week -- another minor inconvenience, as I was planning to stock up today at our wonderful local Sunday market so that Anthony and the girls would have food while I'm in the hospital, where I'll be having my second mastectomy and reconstructive surgery (more on this another time, too). Even most parks are closed. This gate to the Jardin des Plantes, normally open and welcoming on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, is shut tight.
Anthony has a really lovely dinner out planned for me on Saturday night, and after much hemming and hawing, we decide to go anyway. We are not the only ones in the restaurant, where life feels normal (if your idea of normal is 11 courses of Michelin-starred crazy delicious gourmet food. And yes: more on this later). We actually manage to smile and laugh and talk about things that aren't the stress of a terrorist attacks, breast cancer, surgery, and missed exams. But of course those subjects come up, too.
I find I suddenly cry pretty easily, about everything, about nothing. The girls, for the first time ever, express fear about going outside in Paris, and Gigi asks Anthony what she should do if she ever sees a person with a gun. I can't even believe we are even having these conversations. So what does it feel like to be in Paris right now? Disbelief, numbness, sadness, shock, mixed with normal -- normal stress, normal worries, normal joys, normal laughter, and then mixed again with some guilt over the moments of normalcy. Throughout the weekend, we see more and more people out and about enjoying the lovely weekend weather. We're among them, enjoying the company of friends and the architecture of the city, but not really sure how we're supposed to feel.
Some places are quieter than usual -- certainly even more stores and restaurants are closed than on a normal Sunday (my friend Pete observes, "It's like August around here.").
Other places are lively, indeed, and, surprisingly, that includes the 11th arrondissement, by the Bataclan concert hall, where one of the attacks took place.
It's not just the news crews and people who've come near the sites to pay their respects. There are people out enjoying the lovely day. So many parks are closed, the lone open playground in this 3rd arrondissement neighborhood is packed. 

Here's an angel on a building overlooking a public square in the 3rd arrondissement. Paris could use a guardian angel right about now.
It's all extremely confusing, frankly, and probably very well understood by people who've lived in places with tragedies -- which is just about everywhere it seems.
Yes, I still love Paris. But I really hate terrorism.
THE CHEESE: Pétafine 
Related to the even-more-disgusting cheese product Foujou, Pétafine is a mixed cheese-and-herb combination from various parts of southeastern France. It's not the worst processed cheese product I've ever tried (for that, see Foujou), but it's down there.

The verb pétafiner means "to mix" in some local dialect, and the reason is obvious, when you see the mixture that goes into making it. You know how you sometimes have old cheeses lying around in your fridge, getting too old, too stinky, too strong, and too gross? The recipes call for taking all your old cheeses, especially cow and goat, and mixing them with garlic, white wine, and some Fromage Blanc (yogurty-style soft cheese) for moisture. This cheese comes to us from Anthony's co-worker, Caroline, who very cleverly gives it to us in glass jars, wrapped in five layers of plastic bags.
The name of this cheese is slightly ironic, of course, as Pétafine is neither a finely-made cheese nor a fine-tasting one. In light of the actually tragedy that just unfolded in Paris, I don't want to be disrespectful by being speaking in hyperbole and saying that both the story and the cheese stink, tragically. So let's just say that the terrorist attack was tragic, the cheese is awful, and that we deeply appreciate how many friends, family members, and readers of the blog have reached out to us to make sure we're OK. The cheese may not be so fine, and Paris may not be perfectly fine at the moment, but our family is healthy, safe, and just fine, indeed. I wish you all good health and peace (and more delicious cheese than this).


  1. Glad to hear you're all OK, and thankful for your fine essay.

  2. Honestly ?
    Your best post ever .
    Thank you, and especially for your choice of pictures.
    You really are a good person.
    Fr. from BXL

  3. All my best wishes for your incoming surgery. I will think of you daily .

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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